It doesn't take that many pitches to know something about a pitch, about the way it moves. You might need hundreds of at-bats to learn something about batting average, but you really only need a pitch or two to know if a guy can throw it hard (or not), or if a pitch has good movement (or not). It doesn't take an entire night to know that Noah Syndergaard throws hard, right?
So even though it's too early in the season for a lot of numbers to mean anything -- note that Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .444 and Charlie Morton has a 13.50 ERA -- it's not too soon to take a look at some early pitch-movement numbers. Let's be up-front about this: it's still very early, and it's also the first season of the new Hawk-Eye technology that powers Statcast. Still, the results have been good, and the stories you'll see -- and videos along with them -- certainly pass the smell test.
So, with the appropriate small-sample grain of salt deployed, here are a few of our favorite or most notable pitch movers so far this season -- consider this a sneak preview before we put the 2020 movement leaderboards online in the near future.
(Each of the movement numbers displayed are expressed as "movement against average at similar velocity" plus or minus 2 MPH. Each rank is within that pitch type, minimum five thrown.)
Garrett Richards, Padres, curveball
+13 inches more vertical drop than average (most)
This one is extremely satisfying, because way back in early 2015, the first year of Statcast, Richards was the first name that popped out at us when we saw the spin data come in. He threw 207 1/3 good innings that year in his return from a 2014 knee injury, but his health problems have followed him since. Richards missed most of 2016-'17 with an elbow injury he attempted to rehab, then much of 2018-'19 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Seemingly healthy again, Richards threw five scoreless innings for the Padres in his 2020 debut, and the curve, well ... it looks like old times. Richards threw 10 curves. He got three strikeouts, including this one against Eduardo Escobar.
Let's stick with San Diego curveballs for a minute, because this might be a big deal ...
Chris Paddack, Padres, curveball
+8.2 inches more vertical drop than average (4th-most)
Paddack had a successful rookie season in 2019, with one notable weakness: He only had two good pitches. They were really good, but still; it's difficult to get by with just a four-seamer and a changeup, and he threw those two 90% of the time. His third pitch, a curveball, was just OK, which is why he barely threw it.
Paddack and the Padres knew this, of course, which is why he spent all winter working on it. "I got a new grip, been working on a few things," he told MLB.com in February, and the Athletic recently detailed that those "few things" involved delving into technology and pitch design.
This certainly looks like a good curveball. What does the data say?
So far, so good. Last year, Paddack's curve dropped 60.7 inches, or a mere 1.2 more than average. This year, that's up to 67.5 inches, or 8.2 more than average, and at nearly the same velocity. That's an enormous jump, into the way-too-early top five.
While it's too soon to say whether or not it will be a viable third pitch, the early returns are excellent. It doesn't even need to be great, really. It just needs to give hitters something else to think about. It can only make his two other pitches even better.
Yohan Ramirez, Mariners, slider
+11.3 inches more horizontal break than average (2nd-most)
Did you know who Ramirez was before ... well, right now? You probably didn't. It's OK. He's a Rule 5 pick who was taken by the Mariners from the Astros last December, and it's not hard to see why they wanted him: Because Ramirez spent 2019 piling up the whiffs. There were 436 pitchers who threw 100 innings in the Minors, and his 33.8% strikeout rate was eighth-best. Among the seven ahead of him: Top prospects MacKenzie Gore and Tarik Skubal.
(He also spent the year piling up walks, because of those 436 pitchers, exactly zero had a higher walk rate.)
When he was selected by the Mariners, Houston exec Kevin Goldstein offered an apt scouting report.
"He throws really hard, really good slider," Goldstein said. "You guys don't need to be super advanced baseball people to look at the page on Baseball-Reference and see all the walks."
In two Major League games, it's been more of the same, with four strikeouts and three walks in three innings. But you see what the data says on the slider, and just look at this thing:
Now: The prettiest breaking ball in the world won't matter if you can't throw strikes, and there's a whole lot of evidence that suggests Ramirez cannot throw strikes. But when you see a pitch that moves like that from a Rule 5 pick, you take the risk and hope to make the rest of it work.
Cristian Javier, Astros, four-seam fastball
+4.5 inches more rise than average (most)
Javier was a teammate of Ramirez in the Houston system last year, and he was also one of the very few pitchers to have a higher strikeout rate. (His 37.3% mark was third-best in the Minors.)
But unlike his former teammate, Javier doesn't have a breaking pitch with elite movement. Nor does he have spectacular heat. He "usually pitches with unremarkable velocity on his fastball but hitters rarely barrel it," wrote MLB Pipeline earlier this year.
That was in the Minors. What about the Majors? Well, in the context of 2020 baseball, a 93.7 MPH average fastball really is "unremarkable velocity." So what is it? It's something that's difficult to see with the naked eye. See if you can spot it:
It's fastball rise. It doesn't really "rise," of course, but because of how he spins it -- both the total rate and the axis -- Javier's fastball fights the effects of gravity more than a hitter would usually expect, falling more slowly. That +4.6 inches number, if it held up over the course of a full season, would have been the best in baseball last year, just ahead of another young arm who piled up tons of whiffs without elite velocity, Tampa Bay's Colin Poche.
Javier has some control problems of his own, though not to the extent that Ramirez did. Still, a rising fastball is what every team is looking for, and he's certainly with the right organization to take the most advantage of it.
Tyler Zuber, Royals, changeup
+7.1 inches more vertical drop than average (second-most)
“I had no idea his changeup was as good as it was," Royals manager Mike Matheny said back in March. No one did. The pitch isn't even mentioned in his MLB Pipeline scouting report. As recently as 2018, as he told the Athletic, he didn't even have one, and despite working on one in the winter of 2018-'19, he didn't use it at all in the regular season. He had it, but he didn't trust it.
And, then, apparently, all of a sudden this spring: he did. Almost out of nowhere, the pitch started to work for him, and despite just a single Major League appearance, you can see what Matheny saw.
What would +7.1 inches of extra drop have meant on the changeup list last year? It would have been top five, on a list led by San Diego's Joey Lucchesi, who really throws a change/curve "churve" hybrid.
“It’s a plus-pitch, and it’s amazing he’s been able to have so much success without needing it," Matheny said back in the spring. "I think that’s going to be another weapon for him."
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.