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Why is Matt Bowman difficult to hit?

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In which I do my best to explain with words and GIFs as to why Bowman was effective last season.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After retaining a 25-man roster spot for the entirety of the 2016 season, rule-five draftee Matt Bowman enters 2017 with the confidence of a fortified bullpen role for the St. Louis Cardinals. No, Bowman won’t be serving as the team’s set-up man (Brett Cecil, Kevin Siegrist) or closer (Seung Hwan Oh), but if last season is any indication — especially now that Seth Maness is no longer with the Cardinals — he will still be used in plenty of high-leverage situations. And if Bowman is able to replicate his 2016 statistics, he should easily outpace what Maness was able to do while wearing the Birds on the Bat (1.2 fWAR over 237.1 IP):

Matt Bowman, 2016 statistics

G IP K% BB% AVG BABIP ERA FIP fWAR
G IP K% BB% AVG BABIP ERA FIP fWAR
59 67.2 18.5% 7.1% .227 .270 3.46 3.31 0.7

Admittedly, the title of this article is slightly deceiving because a “difficult to hit” pitcher should probably be one that posts a strikeout rate higher than 18.5% (the 2016 league average strikeout rate for relievers was 22.7%). However, considering a relatively normal BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .270, the .227 batting average against shows that Bowman was indeed tough on hitters last season. In other words, his batting average against wasn’t necessarily propped up by an unsustainable amount of good batted ball luck.

While digging around for interesting tidbits to include in this article, I came across the following StatCast gem that provides some backing for Bowman’s 2016 success. Of MLB pitchers with at least 100 batted ball events last season, Bowman’s average exit velocity against was fifth lowest at 85.3 MPH (on 175 batted ball events). Unfortunately for the Cardinals, due to season-ending injuries sidelining both, they’ll be without Alex Reyes, who topped the chart at 84.9 MPH (on 100 batted ball events), and Zach Duke, who placed second at 85.0 MPH (on 131 batted ball events), just barely behind Reyes.

Now, do we know when exit velocity stabilizes (to see if this number is even repeatable or not)? Currently, we do not (as we are definitely learning as we go when it comes to the nuances of StatCast), and it seems more batted ball events leads to less reliability for whatever reason. Either way, I certainly won’t complain about finding Bowman’s name among the league leaders in a desirable category. Let’s now begin the fun part: PitchF/x dissection, followed by trailed GIFs.

Remember, regarding horizontal movement in right-handed pitchers, a negative value means arm-side movement, whereas a positive value means glove-side movement.

Matt Bowman, 2016 PitchF/x basics

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.) Whiffs/Swing GB/BIP
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity (MPH) Dragless Horizontal Mov. (in.) Whiffs/Swing GB/BIP
Fourseamer 5.71% 93.09 -8.27 16.67% 16.67%
Sinker 57.14% 92.20 -13.38 20.88% 71.93%
Slider 22.38% 87.09 5.1 25.23% 52.83%
Splitter 14.48% 81.64 -5.71 29.55% 59.38%

Bowman won’t blow many hitters away with his ~92-93 MPH fastballs. However, as you can see in the headline photograph (and in the GIFs below), mechanically, the 25-year-old reliever does a superb job hiding the ball throughout his delivery to the plate. His hiding of the ball allows for his fastballs to “jump” on hitters — despite being average in velocity — leading to higher whiff rates than you’d expect on both pitches. For perspective, his sinker’s whiffs per swing rate of 20.88% blows away Carlos Martinez’s 10.85%. And his fourseamer’s 16.67% isn’t too far behind Martinez’s 17.79%, despite its average velocity being four MPH slower. Even more impressive is the fact that his sinker’s ground balls on balls in play rate (71.93%) narrowly edges out Martinez’s notoriously worm-killing sinker (68.65%).

So, beyond Bowman’s ability to hide the ball throughout his delivery, where does Bowman find his success, both at inducing swings and misses as well as weak, on-the-ground contact? Movement, location, and varied looks, all of which are visualized in the GIFs below. But before we get to those — yes, I’ve been teasing @cardinalsgifs’ work quite a bit already — let’s talk about Bowman’s horizontal movement for a second.

Since I’ve already begun the comparison between Bowman and Martinez, why not continue it? Well, the average dragless horizontal movement on Bowman’s sinker last season was 13.38 inches (to his arm-side, naturally). Seems like a lot, right? You better believe it as Bowman’s sinker very nearly matched Martinez’s sinker which averaged 13.98 inches of dragless horizontal movement.

Frankly, when you combine a ~92 MPH sinker with an ~87 MPH slider breaking in the other direction (with an average magnitude of difference being 18.48 inches), the end result is a difficult-to-hit repertoire. This doesn’t even take into account a sometimes unhittable ~82 MPH splitter with significant horizontal and vertical movement. Remember, lower spin means more drop, and as Zach Gifford wrote a month ago at Redbird Rants, Bowman experiences well below league average spin on his pitches. As you’ll see below, Bowman’s splitter possesses the ability to drop off the table entirely.

Two-pitch sequence to Carlos Correa (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

Movement, location, and varied looks. This defines Matt Bowman. A quick look at Bowman’s player card on BrooksBaseball.net shows that his horizontal release point varies greatly between each one of his pitches, and this is visualized above as the blue trail is an 86.6 MPH slider and the red trail is a 91.2 MPH sinker. Despite noticeably different horizontal release points, and very different movement, the two pitches still cross paths twice before reaching home plate. When you combine the location, movement difference, and velocity difference, it’s not surprising to learn Bowman was able to strike Correa out on three pitches.

Two-pitch sequence to Domingo Santana (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

But, Joe, isn’t it best to utilize the same release point when trying to deceive an opposing hitter? Don’t worry, Bowman possesses this weapon in his arsenal as well. The red trail is a 92 MPH sinker (for called strike one), and the blue trail is an 81.7 MPH splitter (for swinging strike two). As you can see by the great deal of overlap, the two pitches followed nearly identical paths to home plate, and yet, the velocity drop-off led to a predictable swing and miss by Santana.

Three-pitch sequence to Salvador Perez (BrooksBaseball At Bat)

The red trail is a 93.1 MPH sinker (for called strike one), the blue trail is an 88.7 MPH slider (for called strike two), and the yellow trail is an 82 MPH splitter (for swinging strike three). Honestly, you don’t need my commentary to understand just how difficult this at bat must have been for Kansas City Royals four-time All Star Salvador Perez.

I hope you enjoyed this piece — particularly the GIFs — as it really is only cracking the surface of what I envision of doing some time soon.

As usual, credit to the great @cardinalsgifs for the trailblazing GIFs used in this article.