Cleveland Indians

The Indians and Side-Arm Relievers as the Market Inefficiency

The mound is 60’6″, the bases are still 90 feet apart, and Fenway remains a cornerstone of American Life, and yet, what happens inside the distinctive lines is an Ivy League experiment. A manifestation of quantification in which four outfielders, no third baseman, and pitchers switching positions increasingly occurs. This is post-modern baseball.

Walks, shifts, launch angles, exit velocity, and pitch tunneling are buzzwords representing different waves of sabermetrics. In 2017 and 2018, a word cloud would reveal that launch angle and exit velocity had consumed the analytic nomenclature. What is perhaps most fascinating about new frontiers and waves of analytic thought is not only their implementation but also how teams push back, that is finding the analytic counter move.

Two important measures which have arisen from this most recent period are launch angle and exit velocity. Launch angle being optimized as line drives and fly balls for most hitters. However, launch angle is moot without authority as fly balls hit with an exit velocity between 80-88 MPH did not leave the park a single time in 2018. Contact authority is sapped when the spherical object is immediately in contact with the ground. Hard hit ground balls simply are not a dynamic run creator.

Therefore, a pitcher who has the ability to induce either sub-optimal launch angles or below-average exit velocities becomes an increasingly valuable commodity as hitters adapt to create those components.

In order to limit the above components; altering contact point and swing plane is very important. In this sense, submarine and side arm pitchers would seem to be a particularly obvious solution. It turns out, release point is a dynamic potential input for sapping exit velocity.

The average exit velocity for Major League Baseball in 2018 was 87.4 MPH. As you will see above with horizontal axis for right-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers; those who release the baseball five feet or less above the ground in terms of vertical release point posted substantively lower exit velocities against same handed hitters. Essentially, righties who released the ball lower were able to mitigate contact more effectively against hitters from the right side.

Of course, due to scarcity of sidearmers this sample (pitchers with 25 or more outcomes) is more trend than certainty. However, the 2017 graphic below tends to mirror that of 2018.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

As it relates to the Indians; it is important to consider the following three data points. Over the past three years, the Indians have made significant investments in right-handed side-armers. Two of the five lowest release points in the past three years belong to Joe Smith and Adam Cimber; who happen to be two of the major trade acquisitions of the past three years. Cimber specifically has five years of control left.

The Indians gave up lefty option Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor two solid prospects for two months of Joe Smith; while Cimber was acquired along with Brad Hand for once well regarded catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Both involved fairly significant asset expenditures.

Then the Indians were even more aggressive about the side-arm slot in 2018; drafting Nick Sandlin with the 67th overall pick. This is very early for a college starter with average velocity but the Indians may have seen a long term pen anchor. Sandlin cruised to AA Akron in 2018 with a K% above 30% at every level, often clearing 40%. Watch the video to see Sandlin’s hard sidearming delivery:

However, the Indians front office was not done with deceptive deliveries and awkward nightlines; drafting Robert Broom out of Mercer in the 10th round. His submarine style may be even more pronounced than that of Sandlin.

Intentional or not, the Indians appear to have spent significant capital in acquiring wonky arm angles. Be it prospect allocation for Smith and Cimber or a 2nd and 10th round pick on difficult sidewinders the Indians are collecting low vertical release points.

In the era of launch angles and exit velocity; disruptive arm angles and release points simply makes sense as a mechanism to disrupt optimal contact points. The early returns suggest that right-handed pitchers with low vertical release points can sap right-handed hitters of contact authority. Perhaps the Indians have cornered the market on this advantage.

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