Back in 2006, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander hired Daryl Morey to be Houston’s new general manager (GM). Morey was 33 at the time. He had no playing background. He had earned an MBA from Harvard, as well as an undergraduate degree in computer science from Northwestern University. His only NBA front office experience was the past four years he spent as senior vice president for the Boston Celtics. He initially came on as a consultant for new management hiring and ticket pricing. His role quickly evolved. By the time Morey left, he had built, tested, and implemented his own analytics-based model designed to assist with scouting, evaluation, trades, and free agency.
Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, described the new Rockets GM best: “(Morey) was the first of his kind: the basketball nerd king.”
Morey, like Alexander, had grown sick of how teams were currently making decisions about players. As a sixteen year-old, he had gone through The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. James’ book inspired Morey to envision a similar approach within an NBA organization. The problem was as he started ask questions, he realized how quickly the information for his answers ran dry. As a result, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Morey collected over 20 years of amateur and professional data, analyzed it, and tested to see what objective measurements best correlated to NBA success.
What he found changed everything.
Statistics like college points per game, rebounds per game, and steals per game were commonly thought of as predictors of professional success. When Morey tested these, however, he found the exact opposite: They had no correlation. As a result, he looked at new statistics. Instead of looking at rebounds per game, he looked at rebounds per minute played. Two players could both have 10 rebounds in one game, but 10 rebounds over 15 minutes is a lot more valuable than 10 rebounds over 35 minutes. One of those players was much more productive, but you can’t tell if you just compare rebounds.
The same thing goes for scoring. Two players could have both scored 30 points, but one of those players could have had significantly more scoring opportunities because the offense plays up tempo. These kinds of problems were ones Morey set out to solve with his new model. He never thought of it as “the right answer,” but instead “a better answer.”
The 2008 NBA Draft was a great reminder of this.
In Morey’s first year as GM of the Rockets, he used his new model to select two players in the 2007 NBA Draft with the 26th and 31st picks: Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry, respectively. The odds of getting an NBA starter with either pick was 1/100. Both became starters. If you look at rookie contract production (four years) for draft picks over the past decade, Landry and Brooks rank in the top 9 percent of over 600 players. To say Houston got a rich haul would be an understatement.
Then came 2008.
The next season, Houston worked out a deal to acquire Joey Dorsey, forward from Memphis University, with the 33rd overall pick in the 2008 draft. They signed him to a 3 year deal worth about $2.5 million. It took two summer league games for Morey to realize he had drafted a huge bust. As a rookie, Dorsey played in three games, scored two points and grabbed one rebound. He was traded in 2010 to Sacramento.
Dorsey’s time in Houston was disappointing, but Morey had no one to blame but himself. His model told him Dorsey was the best player to take. Three picks later, the Los Angeles Clippers selected a player who tested very low on Dorsey’s model: DeAndre Jordan. If it didn’t hurt enough to miss on Dorsey, it stung way more to miss on Jordan. Over the past decade, the ex-Clipper established himself as one of the best forwards in the game. His career 10.6 rebounds per game ranks 36th all time in NBA history. He’s been ranked as the second best player in the ’08 draft class, only behind nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook.
For as sweet as ’07 was, ’08 brought Morey’s model back down to earth pretty quickly. When he went back and analyzed what went wrong, he started with what he knew. Jordan only played one season of college basketball at Texas A&M. In that year, Jordan played just 20.1 minutes/game, scored 7.9 points/game, and grabbed just 6.0 total rebounds/game. Nothing about these numbers jumped off the page to Morey – as they shouldn’t have. You wouldn’t expect a potential first round prospect to only play half the game. What he missed, however, was something his model never would have uncovered: Jordan hated his college coach. He was a sensational high school basketball prospect, but he had no interest in being at school – let along playing for his college coach. This was the problem Morey’s model. It placed a ton of value in performance metrics, but it didn’t account things you couldn’t see in the box score.
There was one person, however, who did not miss this. Jordan had grown up in the Houston area. One of Morey’s local scouts had watched Jordan play in high school on multiple occasions. Sure enough, that scout wanted to draft Jordan. He thought the Houston native possessed “undeniable physical talent” that would translate well to the NBA. What many teams couldn’t get past, however, was the lack of production at Texas A&M. Morey wasn’t the only GM who missed on him, but he had the information he needed to take a chance on him. He just didn’t uncover all of it until after the draft.
The information Morey was looking at valued things you could quantify. The information he needed, however, was impossible to quantify. It was a great reminder of Morey’s own words of caution: He never claimed to have “the answer,” but worked to build a model that would uncover “a better answer.”
The better answer he later realized is a great lesson for baseball.
With the push for advanced analytics within Major League organizations, we always have to remember the Joey Dorsey mistake: We can only measure so much with numbers. While we cannot measure a lot of the things humans can see and feel, they are still an integral part of the evaluation process. The future of this game does not fall solely on the shoulders of the “new school” data and technology crowd, nor does it the “old school” feel generation. It exists in the middle ground between the two.
We need advanced analytics so we can continue to ask better questions, uncover more useful information, and ultimately make better decisions. We also need eyes. We need people who can watch games, read body language, relate to players, and explain information in ways that makes sense. We need scouts who dig beyond stat lines and uncover context behind red flags we see at the surface level. The decisions we make are only as good as the information at our disposal. If you’re putting all your eggs in the basket of data, you’re going to make the same mistake that caused Daryl Morey to miss out on a future NBA All-Star.
You won’t make the right decision all the time, but you’ll make a better one more often than you don’t.
If you’re currently having issues at the plate with getting jammed, squaring up baseballs, catching up to velo, or keeping your best hits fair, there’s a chance you might be fighting for space.
“Hitters are always fighting for two things: time and space.” – Darin Everson, hitting coordinator Colorado Rockies
Space is one of the three main buckets we assess at 108 Performance when evaluating hitters. Having room to get our best swings off is critical for making solid and consistent contact. Hitters have to navigate a small window of time and space to have success. The more room they have, the more time they have to make decisions. This has a big influence on contact quality. Our barrel doesn’t have the time to navigate numerous obstacles. It needs a clear and consistent path to the ball. The more space we have, the easier this becomes.
Space exists in a number of different dimensions. As a result, hitters can create – or remove – space using a number of different strategies. Below are some tips on how you can spot good moves from bad, understand the slippery slope behind a couple of popular thoughts, and different adjustments you can try with players who are fighting for room to get their best swings off.
Hitting is tough. It becomes exponentially more difficult when you minimize your window for hard contact. Don’t make hitting harder than it needs to be. Give yourself space and let your best swings show when it counts.
The first spacing strategy we’ll discuss deals with stride angle. While all hitters are slightly different, a lot end up in a position at foot strike where the front leg is slightly closed off in relationship to the back. This position is no accident: It’s a really effective way to get the pelvis out of the way. When the front leg lands closed in relationship to the back, the pelvis is able to stay closed (in relationship to the pitcher). This position is critical. When we look at the best hitters in the game, we don’t see the pelvis opening prematurely into foot strike. It stays closed until it’s time to rotate.
The pelvis is the foundation for the swing in a lot of different ways. If we fail to get this part right, everything we do up top becomes far more difficult. Before we can start to turn, we need to create room for the pelvis to work. This happens by spreading the legs, hinging, and keeping the middle closed. If we can give the pelvis a big window to work, we make it much easier to rotate up top with good direction. If this window becomes compromised, we lose the ability to hold on to angles and ultimately make good decisions. There’s less room for error.
To give you a feel for this, below is an example of good spacing vs. poor spacing with the pelvis:
Notice in the left how the pelvis has started to open and the back knee is starting to dive underneath? This kills spacing. The pattern is unstable, the window to work has been compromised, and there’s not a lot left resisting rotation at this point. The picture on the right is a different story. Instead of leaking open early, the pelvis is able to stay closed instead of rotating prematurely. The stride angle is slightly more closed. The trunk is centered on the pelvis. The middle, as a result, is much more connected – and there’s way more space to operate.
If you’re working with a hitter who looks more like the one on the left, and/or:
Leaks open with the pelvis and/or trunk
Feels stuck on their backside
Can’t hold posture over the plate
Can’t keep hard hit balls in fair territory
try having them stride slightly closed. Some guys might need more, other guys might need a little less. Just find the angle that helps them feel the best.
You don’t need to stride closed to have success, but you’re going to find a lot more guys who do rather than don’t. The pelvis is the foundation of the swing. It shouldn’t become an obstacle to the swing. If it is, you need to find a way to buy some space.
Another way hitters create space is in their set up. To give you a feel for this, check out an overhead view of Ohtani on a homer he hit this season.
There’s a lot to love about this swing, but there is one thing that really stands out: Notice how far his hands, forearms, and elbows start and stay away from his body?
Before Ohtani makes a move to the ball, he’s giving himself a ton of space. His hands and elbows aren’t pinned against his body. They’re set up much further away. This kind of a set up is quite contrary to what you’d expect from most instruction. Kids are typically taught to “stay inside the ball” and “keep their hands inside.” As a result, most kids keep their hands tucked close to their shoulders and never let them get much further. While the barrel does need to stay “inside” the ball, the hands need to actually deliver the barrel. You can’t do this if they’re pinned up against your body.
We’ve spent so much time berating kids for not staying inside the ball that we’ve under appreciated how far the hands actually need to get away from the body during the swing.
To get a feel for this, below is a gif of a home run Freddie Freeman hit to dead center field off of a middle inside pitch.
Let’s zoom in and look at the relationship between his hands and his body as his barrel starts to slot and turn:
See how far away his hands are?
Freeman’s barrel is still “inside” the ball, but his hands are not pinned against his chest. They have a ton of room to work. This distinction is critical. The closer the hands get to the body, the less room they have to deliver the barrel. A great way to prevent this, as seen with Ohtani, is to make sure they have room before the swing even starts.
If you’re currently working with a hitter who:
Slices/snap hooks baseballs
Gets blown up by velo
Gets berated for not “staying inside the ball”
try a couple of quick adjustments. For one, have them try starting with their hands further away from their body – like Ohtani. They’ll eventually work back in, but now they have room for error so they don’t work back too close. Also try playing around with their perception of how the hands deliver the barrel. See what it looks like when they try to turn their hands away from their body. Give them permission to not be so “inside” the ball. Have them almost feel like they’re extending their arms into contact. Small adjustments can feel really big when you first try them out.
Contrast is key to learning. If all players know is to stay inside the ball, you’re going to create some pretty different sensations when you give them permission to turn their hands “away” from what is currently comfortable. The difference in contact quality will be significant.
Another trick to clearing space involves the lead arm. When the barrel starts to work back and slot, the rear elbow is going to work down. The lead arm, as a result, needs to work up. If the lead arm gets pinned down and can’t clear space for the rear arm to work, it becomes a lot more difficult to deliver the barrel. There’s less room to work up top.
Below is a great visual for a strategy Nolan Arenado uses with his lead arm to clear space for his barrel. Notice how the arms interact to deliver the barrel on this pitch.
See how the lead elbow works up to clear space?
If the hands are making moves to the ball but the barrel isn’t, don’t blame the hands. Look at the arms. If the lead arm isn’t clearing space for the rear arm to work, try getting it out of the way using Arenado’s strategy. It isn’t the only way to do it, but it can be a really effective way for hitters who don’t have great feel for how the arms interact to deliver the barrel.
The last thing we’ll discuss in this article is the influence of point of contact. This is often the lowest hanging fruit for hitters fighting for space. A great way to think of it is to imagine how middle infielders approach ground balls. Great infielders don’t hang back and let the ball travel to them. They cut down distance and go get the ball. Elite hitters are no different. They don’t let the ball travel really deep (thoughts aside) and catch it closer to the catcher. They go get the ball closer to the pitcher.
If you’re working with a hitter who:
Doesn’t square up the baseball consistently
Gets beat and jammed often
Struggles to get to their front side
Spins and yanks off pitches they try to pull
try adjusting their point of contact. More times than not, hitters need to learn how to go get the ball instead of constantly getting blown up. The window we have into contact is one of the most important areas of space we need. The further we let the ball travel, the smaller this window becomes.
This thought not only has a big impact on the arms, hands, and barrel, but it can have a big impact downstream on the lower half. If the focus is on catching the ball out front, we’re more likely to get into better positions of leverage where the front foot is stable and in the ground. This is critical for spacing. If we never get to the front, we’re going to get stuck and spin from the back. The more we spin, the smaller our window becomes for making hard contact out front.
If you can’t square up baseballs off front toss, you probably don’t need to let the ball travel more. You need to go get it further out in front.
This past trade deadline, the New York Yankees made a much anticipated – yet surprising – splash in the market acquiring Chicago Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo and Texas Rangers OF Joey Gallo. The two bats hope to bolster an injury-riddled (shocker) lineup that currently sits 6.5 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox and 2.5 games out of the second wild card spot (as of August 1).
While Rizzo and Gallo’s arrival has created a sense of excitement that hasn’t existed since April, many fans are still skeptical the Yankees didn’t address a big need: Starting pitching. As I’ve highlighted before, Gerrit Cole has been everything as advertised in his second season in pinstripes. He currently leads the MLB in strikeouts (179), owns a team-high 3.9 WAR, and in many eyes is the current frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award.
Behind him, however, has been a different story. Cole’s supporting cast so far this year has been a combination of Jordan Montgomery, Domingo German, and Jameson Taillon. While the Yankees pitching staff has collectively rallied to the tune of a 3.77 ERA (11th in MLB), 989 K (9th), and opposing batting average of .225 (T-4th), the lack of consistency behind Cole has been a problem. German missed the first 60 games this season due to a domestic violence issue. Free agent acquisition Corey Kluber hasn’t pitched since May 25 due to injury. Luis Severino is still rehabbing from a Tommy John surgery that took place back in February 2020.
Montgomery has enjoyed the best season of his career to date (109.2 IP, 3.56 FIP, 2.5 WAR), but Taillon and German currently sport a FIP over 4.0 (4.35 and 4.31, respectfully). If it weren’t for a couple of back end bullpen blunders, the narrative around this trio of misfits could look a lot differently. However, as of August 1, the Yankees have a 14.5% chance to make the playoffs. With German potentially going to the IL and no guarantee of seeing Kluber or Severino for at least another month, Yankees fans have to wonder: Is the pitching going to be enough?
Enter Andrew Heaney.
Heaney, 30 year old ex-Angel LHP, was one of Cashman’s quieter deadline deals. Most Yankee fans weren’t thrilled about the idea of adding an aging lefty with a 92 mph fastball that’s pitched to the tune of a 5.25 ERA in 94 IP (before his first NY start). It wasn’t an exciting addition by any means, but it could be a critical one for a team that’s struggled to solidify a fifth starter. If Heaney pitches to projections and makes a couple of strategic adjustments, he could end up being a 3+ WAR pitcher.
*Former RHP Masahiro Tanaka only produced 3+ WAR in two of his seven seasons in pinstripes (2016, 2019).
Let’s start with the upside. Heaney currently utilizes a three pitch mix – four seam fastball, curveball, and change up. While his fastball velocity doesn’t jump off the charts (92.0 – 30th percentile MLB), he spins it in the 89th percentile of all MLB arms (2453 RPM). His whiff rate ranks in the 73rd percentile, chase rate ranks in the 91st percentile, and his K% ranks in the 75th percentile.
His curveball is his primary secondary pitch, throwing it 22.3% of the time. While it profiles more like a slider, it’s been very effective against left handed hitters (.152 BAA). It’s currently moving the most it ever has horizontally (7.3”) and has been his best pitch so far in 2021, generating an expected run value (RV) of -2.
Heaney’s change-up has been used exclusively against right handed hitters, throwing just eight of 307 to lefties. It averages 20% more horizontal break than the average MLB change up, moving 17.3”. It generates whiffs 24.3% of the time and has produced an XBA of .227 – the lowest of his three pitches.
Below is the pitch distribution for Heaney’s arsenal. You’re going to notice three different clusters for all three pitches. This, in a lot of ways, is a positive thing. Having three pitches that utilize three different parts of the strike zone is a very effective way to keep hitters off balance.
While the ERA has been disappointing so far, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Heaney currently owns a 4.05 FIP, which is a better mark than several notable pitchers this season:
Kyle Hendricks (4.67 FIP)
Zack Greinke (4.55 FIP)
Yusei Kikuchi (4.40 FIP)
ZiPS Projections currently projects Heaney to finish the season with a 3.93 FIP – below his career average of 4.30 – to go along with a 4.15 ERA, 0.9 WAR (currently has 1.4 WAR), and 10.25 K/9. Those numbers would very comfortably solidify Heaney as not just the five guy in the Yankees rotation, but potentially the three (without Severino).
Something else to consider about Heaney is how different he is from anything else New York has. As of now, Montgomery is the only other left handed starting pitcher on staff. At 6’6 228 lbs, Montgomery has had success throwing primarily curveballs (23.9%) from a high arm slot (release height 6.77, extension 6.50). It currently ranks sixth in all of baseball in terms of wCB/C (1.82) and generates a BAA of .177. Heaney also has a curveball that’s been successful this year (.179 BAA), but he does it from a much different arm slot. His average release height is around 5’3. His average release side angle is 3’5. For reference, Josh Hader’s average release height is 5’3 and his release side angle is 3.16.
Last postseason, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen gained a lot of traction due to the wide variance of arm slots they threw at hitters. For similar reasons, I think Heaney’s unique delivery could complement New York’s starting rotation well. You’re getting a very different look every fifth day. His fastball might not be as intimidating as Hader’s, but the slot from which he throws can create a very uncomfortable at-bat – especially for lefties.
As for where Heaney can improve, I’d like to see a couple of things. For one, Heaney has always had a very easy delivery where it doesn’t look like he’s trying to throw very hard at all. This, in a lot of ways, has helped him move to and through good positions of leverage. However, I think it’s almost too easy. There are moments in the delivery where we want to stay loose and relaxed, but there needs to be a bracing moment after foot strike to create for a clean transfer of energy up the chain. Watch his lead leg as he starts to rotate. See how it’s unstable and shifts side to side as it accepts force?
This shows me that Heaney does not have enough stability in his delivery. When the front foot lands, the lead leg needs to firm up and create a stable base for the trunk to rotate around. It doesn’t need to be straight, but you shouldn’t see any added valgus (movement left to right) or flexion (continues to fold forward). A fix here could be as easy as giving him the thought of recoiling after he throws or teaching him how to brace/flex at foot strike. Proximal stability impacts distal performance. In Heaney’s case, I think some proximal stability in his delivery could have a big impact downstream. He might not add three mph, but I think it could have a significant impact on his command of his arsenal.
One of the knocks on Heaney going into the deadline was the location of his four seamers this season. After going through some data, it does seem the distribution of his fastballs has changed. Below are heat maps of his fastballs from 2020, and 2019 (reference above for 2021).
In 2019, Heaney was exclusively using a sinker. It averaged 92.5 mph, spun at 2524 RPM, hitters batted .237 against it, and it generated an expected run value of -3. The pitch distribution was predominately to the glove side. In 2020, Heaney ditched the sinker and went to a four seam fastball. While it averages 15.3” of horizontal break – well above league average – he’s spinning it less in 2021 (2,453 RPM), it’s getting hit harder (.280 BAA, .508 SLG), and he’s throwing it more than he ever has before in his career (59.6%). Instead of a glove side distribution, Heaney is now throwing the pitch more high and arm side. I’d venture to say this was not an intentional decision, but a byproduct of a pitch he does not have great feel for yet.
Remember how we mentioned the problems Heaney’s arm slot should create for lefties? The curveball has created problems, but the fastball has not. In 2020, left handers batted .298 against the four seamer. In 2021, lefties have batted .294 against them. Despite above average spin characteristics and a plus horizontal movement profile, data tells us lefties are not having a tough time with the pitch. Part of the problem could be guys are sitting on the pitch since he’s not throwing any change ups to lefties (8/448). It’s been predominately fastball curveball, with the fastball coming 63% of the time.
Considering Heaney’s lack of results in 2021, I have a couple of potential solutions.
Throw less fastballs
This one isn’t really rocket science. If the pitch you’re throwing predominately isn’t having much success, why not try throwing it less? The Yankees are no strangers to making guys rely less on their breaking balls (Masahiro Tanaka was a great example). I think we’ll probably see some regression in terms of Heaney’s breaking ball (XBA of .229 exceeds current BAA of .179), but it is a better pitch and it tunnels well off of his fastball. Dropping his fastball usage as little as 5-8% could have a big impact on the arsenal as a whole.
Bring back the sinker
Heaney’s four seamer does perform very well in terms of horizontal break, but it’s only averaging 1.2” more than what his sinker was in 2019. Considering his slot, the movement profile on his stuff (more H break than V break), and his past success with sinkers (run value of -3 in ’19), I think bringing the sinker back could make a big difference. He threw it harder, spun it better, and hitters performed worse against it. Four seamers just don’t seem like the best fit, here (not really sure why he made the change in the first place?).
Change the distribution of fastballs
As mentioned above, Heaney’s fastball plot has changed. I don’t think the added cluster of high and arm side fastballs has been particularly beneficial, especially considering his horizontal movement profile on the pitch. The gloveside fastball is a pitch Heaney has not been able to execute well as of late. This could change if he were to go back to the sinker, but I think re-establishing fastball command is going to be critical considering the lack of velocity (avg. 92 mph). Some of this could be cleaned up by creating more proximal stability in his delivery (see above). The less stable we are down low, the tougher it is to rotate well up top with good direction.
Start throwing more change ups & curveballs to lefties
I think a big reason why Heaney’s fastball has been ineffective against left handers is because he’s really a two pitch pitcher against lefties. The change up has been a non factor. As a result, most guys are probably sitting fastball (since it’s coming 63% of the time) and spitting on the curveball until two strikes. Mixing in more change ups could make these at-bats more unpredictable. His cluster of change ups is mostly low and in, so I’d make sure it was set up well (gloveside, middle-in fastballs) before he starts accidentally running it into barrels. I’d also mix in the curveball more considering the success it’s had against lefties (37.9% whiffs, wOBA against .257).
Throw less change ups to righties
Don’t be confused by my last point. Throwing the change up more to lefties doesn’t mean throwing it at a 30% clip. It just means showing it enough to keep hitters honest. It’s a different pitch with a different movement profile that gets to a different part of the zone. He should, however, probably throw the pitch less in general to right handers. His curveball, statistically, is his best pitch to righties (BAA .180, SLG .280, wOBA .225). He’s throwing it 17.7% of the time. Heaney’s change up, however, is performing significantly worse against right handers (BAA .252, SLG .437, wOBA .314). He’s throwing it 7% more frequently than his curveball (24%). This probably isn’t a great idea, especially considering Heaney’s change up has a run value this year of 4. You have to throw your most effective pitches in the right situations. This isn’t happening right now for Heaney.
Throw less fastballs in plus counts
Below is a visual that shows the distribution for Heaney’s pitches by count. The red is fastballs, blue is curveballs, and green is change ups thrown:
Let’s look at the counts 2-1, 3-1, 1-0, and 2-0. Below are MLB slash lines for those counts:
For Heaney, throwing a large percentage of fastballs in these counts is not a great idea. His fastball currently has a run value of 3, hitters slug .538 against it, and it’s getting hit hard 48.2% of the time. While Heaney isn’t the kind of guy that gets behind in counts a lot (career 2.5 BB/9), it’s not a bad idea to start pitching backwards when he does get behind. A couple of bad pitches in the wrong counts is enough to ruin a good outing.
As we’ve seen in Heaney’s first start, my final concern for the left hander is he’s predominately a fly ball pitcher (68%, 18.2 average launch angle). Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly the kindest park when it comes to pitchers managing the long ball. In 2020, it ranked 6th highest in the MLB for park adjusted run production (1.159) and 3rd in homers (1.565). I think I’ve laid out multiple strategies in here that could help manage this, but don’t be surprised if he gets burned by the long ball a few more times at home.
Andrew Heaney might not be Cashman’s most exciting deadline pick up of recent memory, but it could pay off with a couple of minor adjustments. He won’t be the reason why they miss playoffs, but he could be one of the reason why they make it.