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Mike Maddux Wanted Elevation. Did He Get It?

During Spring Training, Mike Maddux advocated for elevation of fastballs. Analysis suggest hitters already adjusted to this trend. Where does that leave the Cardinals new pitching coach?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Maddux was featured in a column by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in February. The resounding point made by Maddux contrasted with the premise of a column written by Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs: pitching in the upper third of the strike zone is a trend to embrace.

Maddux’s point, in typical managerial fashion, was presented with a 50,000-foot perspective, making it easily to qualify when contrasting points surfaced. The idea that pitching “up in the zone” was the modern iteration of sinkers low, which the Cardinals perennially succeeded with, was supported in Goold’s column by General Manager John Mozeliak. This idea, in theory, makes sense. Talk of adjusting swing planes and altering a hitter’s “launch angle” to produce more fly balls (hard-hit ones, hopefully) were meant to capitalize on balls low in the zone. Intuitively, most pitchers began to elevate in an effort to counteract the home run surge; the perpetual game of cat and mouse.

But hitters, in an unprecedented manner, adjust instantaneously - this is the counter Sawchik’s research presents. In 2017, the ISO on pitches in the upper third of the zone increased roughly 30 points compared to 2016, while wOBA increased 27 points in the same time frame (per Sawchik’s column linked above). Pitchers adjustment to the upper third didn’t work as planned.

If the timeline of these two columns makes sense, you’ll understand where I began to raise an eyebrow after digesting both. Sawchik’s research was a retrospective of the 2017 season and hitter evolution. Maddux came into 2018 Cardinals’ camp with this point in mind, the same one Sawchik essentially nixes.

My visceral reaction to these competing points, I became nervous that the Cardinals were slightly behind the curve with developments in the game. But the rational part of my brain kicked in and thought, “Talk is cheap, wait two months.”

Turns out the rational part of my brain was right (shocker).

The difficult aspect of Maddux’s preseason want to pitch up more is judging the effect, and discerning exactly how often he wanted the Cardinals to go about elevation. Was this a Ray Searage-esque theme, spreading enough to create a tangible difference? Or was this a suggestion that on occasion, having a pitcher change the eye level more than they have in the past should be entertained.

I’ve been told continually by individuals in the industry, after prodding them with questions about wider themes in pitching, that answers come on a case-by-case basis. I anticipate Goold would have received from Maddux something that mimics what I just stated: it depends on the pitcher.

Carlos Martinez, for instance, seems to have embraced a version of elevation. But he’s done so along with a drop in overall usage of his four-seamer (27 percent in 2016; 16 percent in 2017 - per Fangraphs).

Carlos Martinez’s four-seam fastball usage, 2017 compared to 2018 - via Baseball Savant.

Martinez’s introduction of a cutter (detailed well by A.E Schafer of VEB) and heavier reliance on his biting two-seamer reconciles the decrease in Martinez’s lowered four-seam usage. While we sometimes see increase in effectiveness of offspeed when elevation of a four-seamer happens (think Luis Castillo of the Reds), for Martinez, the effectiveness of his offspeed has remained stable and this lesser-used, elevated four-seamer has stood out as effective, with his novel cutter a close second in his repertoire.

The remaining starters in the Cardinals rotation have foggier changes than Martinez’s heatmap shows. Comparing Miles Mikolas to his 2014 production seems unfair, but he does locate his fastball slightly north of middle-middle relative to the league. Adam Wainwright doesn’t have a large enough sample to prod further into the depths of his decline.

Michael Wacha’s slow start is tough to interpret, with simple evaluation suggesting he might be elevating his fastball, but he’s been ineffective in the pursuit given Fangraphs’ pitch value on his fastball sitting well below average in four starts (-1.75, compared to average of 0.00).

Then we have young Luke Weaver, who actually preempted Maddux’s suggestion of elevation from this spring, making his own change late last season, which led to success (mentioned in Goold’s article linked earlier).

But even with Weaver, too much elevation might be hurting him. Weaver’s start in Chicago, his worst of the season, saw nearly exclusive location of his fastball in the upper third of the zone.

Via Baseball Savant

Whether by design or a mechanical fluke, the result wasn’t pretty. Applying the eye test to Tuesday night’s start at home against the Mets, Weaver repeated a heavier elevation that mimics what we see above as opposed to what we’ve observed in the past from Weaver. (Baseball Savant will have to confirm this for me in the coming days.)

If there is one effect across the board in the Cardinals rotation that stands out, it may not even be related to location. How about a decrease in fastball usage among the team’s three starters with a 2016 to compare to?

Via Fangraphs, pitch info pitch type.

We could term this the “Mike Maddux effect,” but it’s more a change in philosophy among pitchers than anything. Everybody not named Gerrit Cole is driving the trend of breaking-ball usage.

Discerning noise from trend is a science few have perfected, especially when working with easily-qualifiable thoughts from Maddux and a smattering of data from the unique arms of the Cardinals rotation. Siphoning points of interest from this concept of elevation leaves me curious for how each arm adapts as their season progresses.

I’d like to say Martinez’s elevation makes him a sub-3 ERA pitcher. I’d like to think it can make Weaver even better or solves Wacha’s early-season struggles, but as you already know by now, it depends on the pitcher.

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