ohlendorf fastballs vbreak vs hbreak

Ross Ohlendorf PitchFX Volume 1

After reading all about Ross Ohlendorf’s declining velocity and thinking about it a bit, I decided to put to use the massive amount of data that’s made available to the public in the form of PitchFX to use and try to answer some of the questions about Ohlendorf. If you’re just joining us, Ohlendorf was initially thought of as a power pitcher when we acquired him from New York, with a hard (95-97 mph) sinking fastball and little else. With the Pirates, his fastball has sat in the low 90s and he’s seemingly relied a lot more on breaking pitches. So what gives?

Using Brooks Baseball to compile the data, I loaded every pitch Ohlendorf threw with the Yankees in 2008 and every pitch he’s thrown with us this year into Excel to create some charts and try to figure out what’s been going on with Ohlendorf. Because Dan seems like a cool guy and because his website has been an invaluable tool to me, I’m going to pass along the link to the famous Red Sox message board Sons of Sam Horn’s auction to raise money to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) as requested on his site. And if you’re not familiar at all with Pitch FX, SOSH has a good primer that you should read here.

Because this is a fairly long post full of charts, I’m going to stick it underneath a fold. To keep reading, click the “Read More” link, which is annoyingly located below the comments.

My starting point for this little exercise was that Ohlendorf’s lost velocity off of his fastball because he’s gone almost entirely to a two-seamer/sinker. This should theoretically give him more action on his fastball at the cost of some velocity. As I said above, I’ve included the pitches that Ohlendorf threw out of the Yankees’ bullpen in 2008 and the Pirates’ rotation this year. I wasn’t sure what to do with his Pirates’ work in 2008 because he’d already gone to Indy to work on some things, he looked tired when he came back up, and he hadn’t worked with Joe Kerrigan at that point. Below is a chart with Ohlendorf’s Yankee fastballs in blue and Pirate fastballs in black/gray, charted for speed and vertical break (click for full size). The idea is that if he’s throwing more sinkers, there should be a bit more drop on the ball, as represented by a lower vertical break number (or, more simply, a dot further to the left on this slightly non-intuitive chart).

Ohlendorf fastballs spd vs vbreak

Let’s start with the obvious. His fastball this year is much slower than it was out of the pen with the Yankees in 2008. His fastball with the Yankees averaged about 93.9 mph and you can see he hit above 96 several times. His fastball with the Pirates averages 90.6 and it’s very rarely touched above 94. There’s also apparently a much more subtle variation in drop. The vertical break measured out at 7.47 in 2008 and 6.59 in 2009. Using a (very) rudimentary working knowledge of statistics that I won’t bore you with, I’m fairly certain this difference is statistically significant. That isn’t to say it’s a huge difference, just that it’s not an accident. To put it most simply, his fastball drops about an inch more this year than it did last year.

Since a sinker should also tail in a bit to a right-handed hitter (like a screwball), I figured I’d compare horizontal break with speed next. The legends are the same, this time with horizontal break on the x-axis. It’s measure from right to left in inches, so a pitch further to the right will break further away from a right-handed hitter.

ohlendorf fastballs spd vs hbreak

Again the velocity difference is obvious, but there’s also something here I didn’t expect to see at all. This chart shows that Ohlendorf’s 2008 fastball broke in on the hands of righties much more than his 2009 offerings, meaning that it’s more of a true sinker than the pitch he’s throwing this year. If you like the hard numbers, the horizontal break averages -7.2 inches this year, which is down from -10.8 inches. In layman’s terms, Ohlendorf’s fastball is breaking in on righties more than three inches less than last year. Unlike the difference in vertical break, this difference is visible with the naked eye. Check out the following charts comparing Ohlendorf’s two different sinkers graphed by vertical and horizontal break, then compare that to the SOSH guide chart, placing a sinker in the approximate area of a two-seamer.

ohlendorf fastballs vbreak vs hbreak

PitchFX guide

Both Ohlendorf’s fastballs from last year and this year seem to have more significant vertical and horizontal break than a typical four-seam fastball, but last year’s sinker definitely had more horizontal movement towards right-handed hitters.

So, we can now say that Ohlendorf didn’t ease back on his fastball to get more break on his sinker because there’s not more break on his sinker. That means that the most logical conclusion is that he’s been backing off on his fastball for more control. Of the 750 fastballs he’s thrown this year, 510 have gone for strikes, for a nice 68% rate. Last year, he threw 396 fastballs for the Yankees with 262 going for strikes. That’s 66.1%. That means he’s improved this year, but I’m not sure it’s a dramatic enough improvement to account for the loss in velocity.

So his fastball/sinker (if you haven’t noticed, I’m using those terms interchangeably here) isn’t breaking more and he isn’t throwing more of them for strikes, so I think the easiest explanation here is the difference between starting and relieving. Recall that in DK’s piece about Ohlendorf and in most of the scouting reports on him prior to the trade his fastball is cited as “routinely” hitting 97 and even higher, but the PitchFX doesn’t chart him for even one 97+ mph fastball with the Yankees in 2008. I have him measured for four pitches above 96.5, topping out at 96.7.

A 3 mph drop seems (anecdotally) about right to me for a guy moving from the bullpen to the rotation, so I suppose we can write all those reports of him touching 99 mph in his starts with Indianapolis last year to over-reactive minor league radar guns.That said, I do think it’s worth noting that he hasn’t even once this year reared back and whaled a pitch above 95 mph. It’s one thing to regularly not throw that hard to preserve your arm for another start, it’s another thing to be unable to dial that fastball up when you need it. It certainly seems that Ohlendorf has lost the ability to throw that hard and I can’t find anything to explain it.

I hadn’t initially wanted to do this in two posts, but I think this is more than enough for everyone to digest in one sitting. Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at Ohlendorf’s breaking pitch and changeup from year-to-year, as well as his overall pitch selection and see if we can draw any conclusions from that.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.