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What does PITCHF/x say about new St. Louis Cardinals reliever Matt Belisle?

Matt Belisle was pretty good from 2011 through 2013. For $3.5 million, can Derek Lilliquist rework his stuff and approach to be the 2015 version of Edward Mujica or Pat Neshek? Let's take a look.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As initially discussed by Ben yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals inked right-handed relief pitcher Matt Belisle to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, with bonuses attached to the number of games he appears in while wearing the Birds on the Bat. Ben already conveniently provided comprehensive tables of his 11-year MLB career statistics, so I will not waste your time by repeating them here. Of note, though, as Mekonsrock astutely pointed out in the comments of Ben's post, Belisle is eighth in baseball in terms of reliever fWAR since 2010 (at 7.3), and this includes a poor 2014 season in which he was worth only 0.5 fWAR over 66 appearances.

Instead of reviewing Belisle's results-based statistics, let's see what PITCHF/x says about the Cardinals new reliever, courtesy of one of my very favorite baseball sites, As a very quick aside, if you have not already read my Q&A with Harry Pavlidis, the founder of Pitch Info and the director of technology for Baseball Prospectus, I strongly suggest you do so as he graciously provided us with some very valuable information.

Pitch usage

2014 2013 2012 Career
Fourseam 59.75% 64.16% 48.12% 55.54%
Twoseam/Sinker 5.14% 0.27% 11.85% 8.99%
Changeup 1.62% 1.52% 1.11% 2.44%
Slider 24.65% 26.36% 27.45% 22.47%
Curveball 7.99% 7.69% 11.38% 10.42%
fWAR 0.5 1.4 2.0 9.9

As you can see, Belisle has been predominantly a fastball/slider reliever (87% of his career pitch usage), with a changeup and curveball available "when necessary." The fact that Belisle played his home games at Coors Field over the last six seasons likely played at least a small factor in this as fastballs and sliders tend to work better in the "thin" Rocky Mountain air than the classic offspeed stuff (i.e. changeups, curveballs).

In terms of splits (L vs. R) usage, he has almost exclusively gone with his slider against righties (34% versus 5% curveballs), while against lefties, it's a more even split of 14% and 12% for his slider and curve, respectively. For hitters from either side of the plate, it's reasonable to expect fastball early in counts, and then if he is ahead in the count, it's pretty much a coin flip between his fourseamer and his slider, with the slight edge remaining with his fourseamer.

Vertical release points

(measured in feet) 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Fourseam 6.12 6.37 6.50 6.48 6.47
Twoseam/Sinker 6.05 6.17 6.42 6.37 6.30
Changeup 6.44 6.44 6.60 6.59 6.74
Slider 6.29 6.47 6.63 6.59 6.75
Curveball 6.25 6.44 6.60 6.58 6.70

Depending on the type of person you are, the information from the table above can be viewed in one of two ways: 1) alarming or 2) promising. For the sake of being thorough, I will address both, with the first being my view on the subject: 2) promising. Belisle's fourseam fastball is clearly his most-used pitch (55.54% overall), and it has been a big part of the considerable amount of success he has enjoyed during his career, especially from 2010 through 2013. Upon further review, during the seasons mentioned, hitters have consistently recorded BAs at or above .300 and SLGs at or above .400 against the pitch. The thing to make a special note of, though, is the .155 ISO hitters put up in 2014 (highest ISO against since 2011), Belisle's worst season since a 24-appearance 2009. The considerable amount of success he has had with his breaking balls over the course of his career makes me believe that much of his fastball value comes from setting up these breaking balls (something I would really like to delve into further at a later date).

The power surge (.155 ISO) against his fourseamer by opposing hitters could either be attributed to the volatility of a professional relief pitcher or a hopefully-not-injury-related mechanical flaw he suffered from for the majority of last season. The vertical release point on his fourseam fastball averaged 6.12 feet in 2014, roughly 4.5 inches lower than his 2010-2013 averages, his statistically best seasons as a reliever. As a mere hypothesis, the lower release point could have had a negative impact on the downward planing of his fourseamer, leading to more pitches in the upper/middle zones in 2014 (56.68%) than in 2013 (52.5%).

If you look into it further, though, Belisle actually had even higher percentages in upper/middle zones in both 2012 and 2011 (two very good seasons for him), so this hypothesis may already be debunked. Either way, such a drop in vertical release point from his career average is something I'm assuming Lilliquist will address in Jupiter this spring. In regards to option number one, the "alarming" viewpoint applies to those who believe the drop in Belisle's 2014 production, and release point for that matter, can be attributed to declining arm health, something not uncommon in pitchers entering their age-35 season.

Velocity in MPH

Pitch Type 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Fourseam 92.06 91.76 91.60 92.78 92.81
Twoseam/Sinker 91.65 89.29 91.54 92.60 91.87
Changeup 87.17 87.92 86.62 86.73 85.78
Slider 86.63 86.45 86.03 86.85 86.06
Curveball 74.96 74.61 74.19 73.46 75.05

As with any fastball/slider relief pitcher, especially an aging one, velocity is one of the most important measures to look at, considering the continued success of both pitches can, at times, be largely dependent on maintained velocity. Thankfully, this doesn't appear to be an issue for Belisle just yet as he has maintained a pretty consistent average velocity on all five of the pitches in his repertoire.

Belisle maxed out over 96 MPH with his fourseamer and nearly touched 95 with his twoseamer last season, but I wouldn't expect much of this type of heat in 2015, except in appearances after extended periods of rest, which, if things go as planned, won't be often.. Rather, the video embedded below is probably the best representation of what we can expect: his fourseamer in the 92-93 MPH range with a hard 86-88 MPH slider.

Dragless horizontal movement (in inches)

Pitch Type 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Fourseam -3.98 -4.27 -4.1 -4.3 -4.64
Twoseam/Sinker -9.01 -10.3 -9.22 -8.86 -8.24
Changeup -7.4 -6.67 -7.05 -6.2 -8.28
Slider +3.9 +3.73 +4.38 +4.37 +3.61
Curveball +11.91 +11.26 +11.87 +13.05 +10.97

As a pitcher ages, there is a good chance we see a drop in velocity, though this reasonably takes slightly longer to occur in relievers due to their workload. Thus, there tends to be an increase in horizontal movement to "make up for" the drop in velocity. Well, as shown in the previous chart on velocity, Belisle has not really suffered a drop in velocity yet and as seen in this chart, there hasn't been much of a difference associated with his pitches' horizontal movements, either. This is a very good thing for the Cardinals because it means that though we saw a decline in production/results in 2014, we have not necessarily seen a decline in the process (aka his repertoire).

The difference in horizontal movement between his breaking balls and his fastballs is desirable and helps generate a decent amount of swings and misses. I say "decent" because the Cardinals already have premium swing and miss relievers in Trevor Rosenthal and Jordan Walden, both of which have higher whiffs-per-swing rates than Belisle. On pitches swung at in 2014, hitters whiffed 20.3% and 34.15% of the time against his slider and curveball, respectively. A large factor behind this is the 8 to 16 inch difference seen in horizontal movement between the pitches.

Bottom line

For a $3.5 million base salary with a maximum of $4 million based on appearances, I have become a fan of this signing. Belisle adds a dependable right-handed arm to the bullpen, ultimately making it easier to move Carlos Martinez to the rotation should he win the job in Spring Training. It's a low-risk, medium-to-high reward type move made by Mozeliak that is common place for general managers in late November, early December after making big splashes earlier in the offseason.


Supplementary reading

I found this BlitzKrieg article titled "How to pitch at Coors Field" especially intriguing as it included numerous quotes from the newest Cardinal reliever. Belisle sounds extremely intelligent with a good grasp on his repertoire. If his arm is fully healthy, which one could reasonably assume it is given he should have undergone a physical prior to signing, one would think he could provide value to the right side of the Cardinals bullpen in 2015.


Cardinals fill void created by Kantrovitz's departure

The internal promotion of Chris Correa to director of scouting (to replace the void created by Dan Kantrovitz's leaving) should come at no surprise. Mozeliak understandably wanted this position filled quickly with winter meetings rapidly approaching, and Correa seemed like one of the few names best fit for the job. The 34-year-old Correa has been with the organization since 2009, with his latest position being the director of baseball development.

With experience in both scouting/player evaluation and statistical analysis, Correa should be able to pick up right where Kantrovitz left off, with help from the support staff already put in place. I would imagine that Correa will be discussed more leading up to the MLB Draft as well as afterward to see if we can get a grasp on his specific draft strategy (hopefully, this guy will still be available when it is time for the Cardinals to pick).

As always, credit to Brooks Baseball for the PITCHF/x data used in this post.