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White Sox pitchers and tunneling

In our continuing series of digesting Jeff Long, Jonathan Judge and Harry Pavlidis’ landmark research into new frontiers of pitching analysis and lazily parroting it from a White Sox perspective, comes now a look into tunneling. To their credit, tunneling might be an even more difficult concept to quickly synopsize than the information involved in the control and command metrics.

Essentially, it’s a question of deception. The central data points identified are where hitters assess what is being thrown to them. These are the release point of a pitch, and the point where the ball is close enough that they must make the decision on whether to swing. This second point is labeled the ‘tunnel point’ and on average, is roughly 23.8 feet away from the plate. The archetypal great tunnel pitcher has a consistent release point, and their pitches look the same and cluster close to each other up to the tunnel point, ideally while still retaining a significant amount of movement after the tunnel point.

A running theory for me, is that the more granular we get, the more we will find specific revelations for some pitchers who previously seemed mysteriously greater than the sum of their parts, and in plenty of instances we will find that some factors are mostly irrelevant to the success of great pitchers.

While the bizarre and inscrutable nature of Chris Sale‘s delivery has frequently been cited as a reason for his success, it does not seem to fit the mold of tunneling. In 2016 he rated well below the median (among 162 pitchers with over 1000 pitch pairings), in the consistency of his release point, the closeness of his pitches up to the tunnel point, and the movement of his pitches after the tunnel point. This is just not the reason he is great, it seems, and it’s clearly not a one-size-fits-all measurement of pitching acumen, as arm slot changers like Rich Hill and old friend Zach Duke are going to get weird results with this too.

Someone who does shine in these measurements is human metronome Jose Quintana. Among 162 pitchers with 1000 pitch pairings (essentially the same size group of starters we had for command and control metrics), he was 10th in 2016 for the smallest divergence in his release point (Derek Holland was 11th). He’s less remarkable (4oth) in terms of break-to-tunnel ratio, which would score him highly for either having his pitches tightly clustered at the tunnel point or having a lot of post-tunnel break, but he has the 14th-smallest release-to-tunnel ratio, which theoretically means it’s harder to distinguish his pitches from one another from the release point to the tunnel point. Promisingly, Holland was 12th.

While Don Cooper is known for cleaning up deliveries, extremely consistent release point doesn’t seem like the big byproduct. Sale was routinely below median at release-to-tunnel ratio throughout his career, Carlos Rodon is the same way, Mark Buehrle was often slightly above-median but unexceptional. Cooper’s big 2016 success story, Miguel Gonzalez, was among the worst in the league (152nd out of 162) in 2016, a noticeable dip even from his last few seasons.

Even if we reduce the minimum to 500 pitch pairings to rope in relievers, only David Robertson emerges as solid late-movement guy, ranking 106 out of 385 in break-to-tunnel ratio. Nate Jones, tilting his arm way behind his head like a great terror, somehow nearly cracks the top-50 in release point stability. Addison Reed, notably, topped all of baseball in 2016 for the smallest space differential of his pitches at the tunnel point, which is a consistent trend through his career.

I don’t know, guys. There aren’t big trends here, other than the absence of big trends, suggesting that tunneling is a unique, person-to-person skill rather than the product of a system approach. Clayton Kershaw is pretty much great at all of this stuff, though, which is the great constant in all pitching analysis.


Lead Image Credit: Joe Nicholson // USA Today Sports Images

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