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July 18, 2008

PitchFX On Eric Hurley: Pitch Location And Results

Eric Hurley allowed homers at a 4.4% rate in 75 AAA innings, nearly double the league average. In four MLB starts, his homer rate is 3.2%, better but still sub-par. The book on Hurley is his tendency to work high in the zone (or his inability to work low, if you prefer) results in too many fly balls, hence too many homers and other hard-hit balls.

With PitchFX, we can examine the relationship between his pitch location and opponents’ success at the plate. In this case, I’m focusing solely on balls hit into play (including homers), of which there are 75. One was a bunt single, and two have no pitch data, leaving 72 balls for study.

Caveat: Hurley hasn’t pitched enough to generate respectable sample sizes. I’m doing this exercise because I think it’s interesting, but how he’s performed so far doesn’t necessarily portend his future.

The split between high and low pitches is exactly 36:36. As shown in the graph, a few hitters have hit a ball into play on a pitch higher than the top of the strike zone, while no hitter has done so on a pitch below the bottom of the zone.

1. What type of pitch is crossing the plate high or low?

As expected, most of the high pitches are fastballs, and the low pitches contain a heavier proportion of sliders.

Pitch Height
< 2.6' 50% 39% 9%
> 2.6' 69% 19% 11%

2. Are high pitches resulting in more fly balls?

Yes. The vertical midrange of the strike zone of hitters faced by Hurley is 2.52 feet. At 2.60 feet is a pretty strong delineation in fly ball tendency:

Pitch Height
Line Drive
OF Fly
IF Fly
< 2.6' 33% 31% 33% 3%
> 2.6' 11% 14% 64% 11%

The ratio for all pitches is 22% grounders, 22% line drives, 48% outfield flies, and 8% infield flies.

3. Are high pitches resulting in more hits?

More home runs, yes (two on high strikes, one low). More hits, no. Opponents are batting a meager .194 when making contact on high strikes and a robust .389 on low strikes. The corresponding slugging percentages are .389 and .667.

What’s hurting Hurley most so far is a 31% line drive rate on low pitches. Opponents are batting .727 and slugging 1.000 on those liners, which sounds absurdly high but is actually near the average for the league.

Conversely, opponents are also hitting only .130 (3-for-23) on fly balls on high pitches. He’s also generated four infield flies (nearly as surely an out as a strikeout) on high pitches, only one on a low pitch.

So, Hurley should ditch the slider and concentrate on heat up in the zone where it’s safe.

Just kidding. Hurley can’t expect to turn 87% of high-strike flies into outs in the long run. Several pitchers (for example, Scott Kazmir, Rich Harden, Scott Baker, Jered Weaver) are succeeding with very low ground ball rates, but they also have extremely high strikeout rates (Kazmir, Harden) or are no worse than above-average both in walks and Ks (Baker, Weaver).

At present, Hurley has a respectable walk rate (7.4%) but a below-average strikeout rate (12.6%), and 70% of his balls in play have been liners or outfield flies. Despite his 3.57 ERA, that’s a pretty toxic brew. He’ll need some combination of more strikeouts and more grounders to succeed in the long run.

Posted by Lucas at July 18, 2008 05:42 PM