I am a man who desires answers. Perhaps it is my scientific nature or my youthful curiosity. When an event occurs, the what matters as an extension that it informs the why and how. Watching an event may be interesting or aesthetically pleasing in itself, but observing a pattern or potential causality to form a hypothesis is far more valuable. Alongside my favorite sabermatricians and family members, partial credit for this thirst for understanding belongs to my favorite undergraduate professor, John J. Mearsheimer.1
Mearsheimer always told a story on the first day of class about a friend and colleague—let’s call him Bob— who was a fellow structural realist and a great theorist in his own right.2 The story goes that Bob went to the clinic for a routine checkup, and after being dismissed with a clean bill of health, test results showed something serious wrong with his heart, and he was summoned back immediately. Several doctors took his history, each with their own feasible theory of what caused his malady. Each theoretical treatment was carried out, and each one failed. Bob’s illness continued to progress until one young doctor finally asked him if he had been to the dentist recently, which he had. This crucial bit of information, to that point unknownst to his doctors, made the correct theory apparent, and Bob was successfully treated for dental-borne endocarditis. Of course, Bob’s health is important for the field of international theory, but perhaps equally important was that each doctor learned to ask the same question with later patients, likely saving several more lives. Theories, be they about medicine or baseball, help us understand the world in which we live, and the formation of successful theories will likely lead to future successful events.
When we’re evaluating baseball, we all have assumptions about what characteristics make a player good or bad. Every team would prefer to draft a bunch of 6-foot-4 left-handed pitchers who throw triple-digit velocity. This is because teams have theorized, and in some cases proven, that tall pitchers are preferable to short pitchers, left-handed pitchers are more valuable than right-handed pitchers,3 and hard throwers are generally harder to hit than soft throwers. Moreover, all of these attributes are innate and cannot be taught.4 That said, it pays to have multiple theories, as none of these theories are perfect. In fact, the rest of this article is going to be about a player who decidedly contradicts the description of the perfect pitching prospect. The rest of this article is about the newly-acquired and somewhat-boring Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Nick Wittgren.
Cleveland acquired Nick Wittgren, 27 years old, on Monday from the Miami Marlins for minor league right-handed arm Jordan Gilbraith. Like most of Miami’s roster, I had never heard of him before the swap.5 But, it turns out Wittgren had a pretty strong season with a 2.94/3.13 ERA/FIP in 33⅔ innings pitched; albeit with some wacky small sample size caveats.
His home run prevention was clearly aberrational, as he allowed just 2.7% of fly balls to reach the outfield stands. This despite surrendering a fair share of hard contact and career norm HR/FB rates that have hovered around 10 percent. He also walked a career-high percentage of batters, despite above-average strike throwing. I fully expect the home runs to come back and the walks to go away.6 But, let’s not dwell on what has happened, and try to dig deeper into Wittgren’s stuff and pitch sequencing, which it turns out is fascinatingly boring.
A quick overview: with the advent of PitchF/X came the public documentation and categorization of every pitch thrown by every player in major league baseball, and this makes for easy comparisons and evaluations of a pitcher’s stuff.7 Therefore, we can compare a pitcher’s repertoire to average with z-scores, which is a high-falutin way of saying standard deviation. For instance, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball velocity has a z-score of 2.79, which indicates his fastball is 2.79 standard deviations above the mean fourseam fastball velocity. You can do the same kind of calculation with pitch movement.
Nick Wittgren’s repertoire is startlingly average. His fastball in particular is about as close to average as possible, with 2018 z-scores for velocity, horizontal and vertical movement all hovering right around zero; its well below-average spin rate hasn’t really led to above-average sink. Yet, by all accounts, the fastball is Wittgren’s best pitch, and he historically throws it 65-70% of the time. He also throws a change-up against left-handed batters with above-average drop and a slurvy breaking-ball against right-handed batters, each about 20% of the time to associated handedness, along with a two-seam fastball that he just introduced in 2018.
The reason I belabored this concept of theories is because most baseball players encompass specific theories about baseball. Pitchers that throw fastballs so frequently tend to have above-average velocity, and the ones that don’t tend to have above average movement. I’m not sure there’s a pitcher in baseball who relies on and executes such an average pitch as frequently and successfully as Nick Wittgren. Because there are lots of players that achieve success due to things like velocity or movement, and those things are relatively easy to measure, we can confidently evaluate players who rely on those things to get outs. It’s much more difficult to theorize how Nick Wittgren gets people out.
More than anything else, uncertainty is a pitcher’s best friend, or at least, certainty is a pitcher’s worst enemy. If Aroldis Chapman promises to throw a middle-middle fastball, velocity is irrelevant, that pitch is getting smoked. If Chapman breaks that promise and throws a slider on the outside corner, it doesn’t matter if the batter is Ty Cobb, he’s swinging through it. Nick Wittgren pitches backwards and executes that game plan to perfection, and I believe his strategy is uncommon enough that it keeps hitters off-balance.
In an age with so much emphasis on velocity and spin rate, the simple mantra of throwing strikes and commanding your pitches remains as important as ever.8 In 2018, batters were 34% less productive by wRC+ after a first pitch strike, and Wittgren is exceptional when it comes to getting ahead in the count—66% of his first pitches are strikes and 58% of them are in the strike zone, each of which are about six percentage points above average. Then, once he’s ahead in the count, he can expand the strike zone for the hitter, leading to whiffs and soft contact. Indeed, in at bats than began with 0-1, according to FanGraphs, the former Marlin allowed 12 percentage points more soft contact than in counts through 1-0.
If Wittgren’s strike-throwing mantra is consistent with traditional baseball thought, his fastball usage differs pretty significantly. Baseball lore says that the fastball is the pitch you should throw for strikes, and you throw the breaking and off-speed pitches “off of it.” Wittgren does not subscribe to said lore. In 2018, just 61% of Wittgren’s at bats began with a heater, but with two strikes, that number jumped to an outrageous 73%. But, it’s like my high school pitching coach used to tell me: pitching is like real estate, the most important thing? Location, location, location.
Here is a map of all of Wittgren’s fastballs in 2018:
And here is Dallas Keuchel’s map, for comparison’s sake:
You’ll notice Keuchel, who has the luxury of throwing four other good pitches, nearly exclusively throws his fastballs on the third base side of the strike zone. Since he can mix his pitches effectively, he doesn’t have to be able to locate each pitch anywhere in the zone. Wittgren’s map, on the other hand, is the Wild West. Anything goes. This is enough unpredictability for our boy to retire Major League batters. Even when a hitter knows a fastball is coming, Nick Wittgren’s ability to command that pitch is enough of a tool that batters can’t just sit and wait for their pitch. Let’s get to the fun GIF part of the article so you can see Wittgren in action. Of the admittedly limited number of batters I’ve watched him pitch to, this is probably my favorite example of Wittgren really executing his strategy, and he does so against a premiere player in a high-leverage situation.
Catcher J.T. Realmuto calls for a low and outside fastball, and though Wittgren misses his spot a little bit, he still paints the outside corner with at 92 MPH. Rendon must have looking for a different pitch. Strike one.
I’ve already mentioned that Wittgren’s breaking ball is sometimes classified as a slider, and sometimes a curve. This is a pretty good look at the “SL” facet of his slurve. Rendon was playing the percentages and looking fastball, so even though Wittgren misses up and throws a pretty hittable pitch, the result is a foolish looking half-swing for strike two.
Two strikes, so we can bet a fastball was coming, and indeed, that’s what Wittgren decided to throw. It looks like he loses his balance a little bit on this pitch, but the most important thing is that he misses off the plate outside, and sets the table for the rest of the at bat. It would be nice if this pitch were lower, but ultimately, the goal was to throw a tempting fastball out of the strike zone. Rendon is a good hitter, and he laid off. Ball one.
Perfect pitch, swing and miss, Goodnight Irene. After working the outside part of the plate for the entire at bat, Wittgren stamps the inside edge with a fastball, and there’s nothing Rendon can do.
Nick Wittgren was a high leverage pitcher for an awful team, and barring drastic improvement or major bullpen injuries, he probably should not maintain that role for the Indians, who are obviously trying to win their division. What Wittgren does provide to Cleveland is a reliable strike-thrower and an interesting look out of the bullpen for Terry Francona to mix in.
Bigger picture, Nick Wittgren is an outlier in the age of power relief pitchers, and I wonder if he is particularly talented at executing this type of pitching, or if others could be coached to perform it even more successfully. Furthermore, I wonder if the burgeoning homogeneity of relief pitchers in the MLB will make outliers like Wittgren even more successful. Mearsheimer always says that any good theory will leave some things on the “cutting room floor,” lest that theory be so broad that it becomes useless. Pitchers like Nick Wittgren are frequently left on the cutting room floor, and maybe because of that, the Indians have found themselves an overlooked and undervalued arm for the 2019 season and beyond.