Promoted to the front page by duck
In 2009, our best rookie was among the least heralded. Called up when Alfredo Simon went on the DL just a pair of starts into the season, Brad Bergesen was quietly one of the best rookie pitchers of the year, until a Billy Butler line drive ended his season in late July. After such a successful debut, many of us O's fans were excited to see if Bergy could recover from his shin injury (and a ridiculous commercial mishap) and continue being effective in 2010.
Unfortunately, Bergesen disappointed for most of the first half. He had flashes of success, but was very inconsistent -- and perhaps most importantly, while his command was still decent, he seemed to have completely lost the ability to strike batters out. While he's never been and never will be a strikeout pitcher, it's essentially impossible to succeed in the big leagues when you walk more batters than you strike out, as he did from April to July. Many of us at Camden Chat and elsewhere started to resign ourselves to the idea that 2009 was a fluke, and we'd never see Bergesen be even a decent fifth starter again.
Thankfully, since July, Brad's been doing his best to prove such pessimism wrong. There's still no reason to think he's ever going to be much more than a #4 or #5 starter, but he's seemed a very different pitcher since July. Here's a comparison of his stats:
Though he's obviously getting a little BABiP help with regards to ERA, the glaringly obvious difference is the SO/BB ratio. And the common explanation for his newfound ability to strike people out (the league average SO/9 is ~7, so his ~6 is probably adequate when combined with his control and groundballs) is that he's using his four-seam fastball a lot more. Why is this, exactly? Well, the four-seamer is thrown a touch harder than the two-seamer (sinker), yes, and it's great to see Bergy pick up a little velocity if he can sustain movement and command. But the difference in elevation between the two fastballs -- making the batter change his eye level, as they say -- is a much greater factor. I've been poking around on TexasLeaguers.com a bit, and noticed just how stark the difference is.
Here's how Brad's pitches have looked this year, viewed from above:
Note how there are three distinct side-to-side movement paths: to righties, the four-seamer and splitter tail inward a little bit, the two-seamer and changeup tail inward a lot, and the slider breaks away. (I'm a little fuzzy on Brad apparently throwing a splitter... I know his changeup is sort of a split-change hybrid, so maybe he throws it two different ways and gets different movement on it?) Next, however, is the especially interesting chart; it shows Brad's pitches as viewed from the side (say, from the first-base dugout):
This, I think, illustrates exactly why throwing the four-seamer more has helped Brad so much. All of his other pitches follow very similar vertical paths; the slider sinks a bit more than the two-seamer, and the change is somewhere in between, but they're close enough that the batter hardly has to make adjustments for pitch height. The four-seamer, however, comes in significantly higher than all of the other pitches... and even though it doesn't get a ton of swings and misses, it keeps hitters honest by forcing them to change their eye level. This has made his other pitches a lot more effective - let's compare each.
If this is acccurate, Bergy is only throwing the two-seamer about one in seven pitches now. Weird, huh? Interestingly, he's throwing it for strikes less often and getting more whiffs -- perhaps he's able to throw it out of the zone more often, now that he's using the four-seamer as another pitch at a similar velocity, and hitters are expecting the straighter four-seamer but chasing the sinker.
Here's the four-seamer. It hasn't changed all that much, aside from the fact that he's throwing it a lot more often and 1.5 mph harder.
And here's the slider. Notice that it's become harder to make contact with and harder to put in play, as well as 1.4 mph harder.
Similar to the slider, the change is getting more whiffs and is harder to put in play. Notice, though, that while the fastballs and slider have each gained about 1.5 mph, the changeup has only gained about 0.5 mph. So Bergy's managed to increase his change/fastball differential, too. Good deal, and I don't think anyone's observed this before.
If this is just a variation on the change, it's a darn effective one. I would say that the whiff rate indicates that he should use it more often, but that doesn't necessarily follow. Note that, like the change, the velocity hasn't increased much -- or in this case, not at all.
That's about all I've got for now, but I hope it was interesting. To sum up, it looks like Bergesen's benefited not only from increased velocity, but from introducing a change in eye level that he never really utilized before, and from an increased fastball/changeup velocity differential. The real question is, how long will this improvement last? Will hitters be able to adjust to Brad in 2011 the way they seemed to from 2009 to 2010? Is this velocity a short-term fluke, or will he be able to keep it up? I wouldn't know where to begin to guess, but if Bergy can keep this up and continue to make adjustments as hitters do, I'm optimistic that he can be a meaningful contributer to the O's over the next several years, even if only as a fifth starter.
(Credit to TexasLeaguers for the data and graphs, and to Dan Moroz at Camden Crazies for his analysis, which I used a little as a reference. Check it out to see something of an alternate take.)