David Robertson has long been a favorite of mine. Maybe it’s the Houdini-like escape against the Twins in the 2009 ALDS. Or the old-school high socks. Or the otherworldly curveball that just falls off the table as it approaches home plate. Whatever it is, I have always found myself rooting for David to succeed and become an integral part of the Yankees’ bullpen. One thing that has always intrigued me about him is his incredibly high K-rate despite having only 2 pitches in his repertoire, with one of them being a fastball that sits at 92-93. He does not seem to have the power stuff expected of someone who strikes out 11.2 batters per 9 innings, yet we have over 280 professional innings that tell us that his K-rate is legit. Early in 2010, I tried to explain the Robertson phenomenon thusly:
Some would watch him and wonder how a guy with just two pitches, including a fastball that averages just under 92MPH, could be so successful and strike out so many batters. However, his curveball is excellent and he hides the ball very well in his delivery on the fastball, such that it has “sneaky speed” and plays more like 94-95 than 91-93.
Earlier today, Tom Verducci checked in with a bit of exciting new technology that might explain what is behind Robertson’s high strikeout totals:
Trackman measures not just the speed of the pitch, but also the key variable: the distance between the pitcher’s release point and the plate. With those measurements, Trackman defines not only the time component of a fastball — “flight time,” if you will — but also defines in irrefutable data why scouts might describe a pitcher as “sneaky fast” or throwing a ball with “hop.”
Verducci presents the following numbers that suggest greater “extension” (being closer to the plate upon release) leads to more strikeouts and a higher rate of swinging strikes.
|Fastball Extension||ERA v. Fastballs||SO/9 v. Fastballs||Swinging Strike % v. Fastballs, 86-89 MPH||Swinging Strike % v. Fastballs, 89-92 MPH||Swinging Strike % v. Fastballs, 92-95MPH|
|Less than 5'10 Extension||4.18||6.6||5.2||6.4||7.2|
|More than 5'10 Extension||3.95||7.3||6.7||7.5||8.1|
Now, let’s return to Robertson:
Take, for instance, Robertson, the 5-foot-11 set-up reliever for the Yankees with that “lively” fastball. Robertson does not have exceptional size or velocity, but he ranks fourth among all active pitchers with at least 100 innings in strikeout rate (11.7 per nine innings, better than every pitcher except Carlos Marmol, Jonathan Broxton and Francisco Rodriguez, all of whom are well-paid closers.)
Why is Robertson so difficult to hit? According to Trackman’s measurements taken in one American League park last season, Robertson, with his exceptionally long stride and reach, released his fastball seven feet from in front of the pitching rubber — the largest average extension Trackman measured in that park. The average MLB fastball extension was five feet, 10 inches.
Imagine if Robertson moves the pitching rubber 14 inches closer to home plate every time he pitches. That’s the kind of advantage he gains over the average pitcher by releasing his fastball with so much extension. The radar gun (and Trackman) clocks Robertson’s fastball at an average of 93 mph. But because Robertson shortens the distance between his release point and home plate, his “effective velocity” is 95 mph. It looks like 93 but gets on a hitter like 95 — thus the illusion of “hop.”
Suddenly, Robertson’s ability to strikeout an inordinate number of batters with his two-pitch repertoire makes a lot more sense. We have always surmised that his fastball “played up” a bit, giving him the ability to throw a 93MPH fastball past people on a regular basis, and now we have some evidence to support that assertion. Robertson throwing an “effective” 95 rather than 93 turns the scouting report on him on its head, as he goes from a guy with a good fastball to a power arm (for comparison, only 16 pitchers are averaging at least 95 on their fastballs in 2011). This goes a long way towards unraveling the mystery of how a guy with seemingly solid stuff can have a K-rate that ranks among the best in the league.
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