Weekend Coffee with James Krueger: Digging into the Effects of the Protective Caps

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The Padres Alex Torres is the first MLB player to wear a protective hat in a regular season game. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Alex Torres became the first pitcher to don the new protective cap that is made available for any and every pitcher who wishes to use one. This is a huge step forward towards helping reduce injuries and risks faced by pitchers on line drives right back at them. The benefits are obviously huge, but drawbacks range from ridiculous it looks to the added weight throwing pitchers deliveries off. In a collection of interviews put together by the Associated Press, the consensus was overwhelmingly against the current form of the cap.

"“I think it’d take a lot of getting used to,” Clayton Kershaw. “You don’t look very cool, I’ll be honest.”McCarthy tweeted that he had already tried out the fortified cap and that it was “headed in right direction but not game ready.”Said Arizona reliever Brad Ziegler: “I think they’re on the right track, but the hat they approved isn’t remotely close to comfortable enough to wear in games.”Craig Breslow: “I’m not certain how many players will be testing the new equipment, but I think all at least appreciate the effort. “"

At least the Yale grad Breslow can give them an A for effort.

When Torres entered the game against the Dodgers almost a week ago wearing a Mario hat, one of the points that needed focusing on was how much it affected his performance. Of course, Torres allowed a run on two walks and a hit, but less interesting are the results than how he’s actually pitching. Pitchers, current and former alike, talked about how the hats could throw off the deliveries that these players have honed their entire lives, costing them velocity, release point and consistency in their game.

We don’t quite have the largest sample size yet, only three games with the new protective hat, but it’s enough to start seeing any mechanical changes that would have happened because of the hat.

Starting with his release point, Torres seems largely unfazed by the heavier headgear. Compare these two stills of him at release point, one pre-hat and one post-hat.

You see, if you look really close, at that, yeah… Nope. The only difference between these pictures is a supersized hat and about 350 miles. Even the

PITCHf/x data doesn’t find any differences in release point

. Alex Torres has never been lauded for his mechanics, and you can see pretty below average posture out of the windup in both games, which has helped lead to high walk rates in his career. But none of this has anything to do with the hat, as mechanically, he looks the same.

The next thing we thought it could affect is his velocity. Even just the tiniest differences in mechanics or apparel can give or take away a few miles per hour, sometimes even more. Yet Torres again hasn’t seen any differences since putting on the cap.

The cap has been in use for the last three games, so everything from PIT@SDN to SDN@SEA is before the change, and LAN@SDN to SDN@SFN is after.

If anything, he’s actually increased his velocity slightly since putting protection first. He hadn’t been throwing that hard since the beginning of the month, both from his fastball and changeup. Once again, it looks like we might have been weighing the negative effects of the hat too heavily.

Even if his mechanics and velocity haven’t seen any noticeable difference, there’s still one thing that could be at risk; his pitch movement. Getting optimal movement on your pitches takes every nanometer possible of pronation, supination, exaggeration and fabrication for max results. Torres’ changeup has been lauded previously for its exceptional break, as well as the late life his fastball gets.

But 2014 has been a bad year for his pitch movement. He’s lost an inch and a half of total movement from his changeup, and over an inch from his fastball. At first this looks like it could be the hat effect, but very quickly we can tell his vertical movement has been the same all year.

So then we look at his horizontal movement, and for the first time in this process we find something interesting:

Hey look! We finally found

something

!!! But, what is it?

Torres’ changeup run had taken a severe hit, down almost three inches from last year in May. Starting with a couple appearances against the Washington Nationals he started to recover the movement, but then saw a drop right around his appearance with the hat. He dropped back to pre-spike levels, erasing the optimism that he had recovered his changeup’s lethal movement.

Yet, even though his changeup may look less effective, it’s actually gotten better. He’s improved chase rate (47.3% in 2014 compared to 43.9% in 2013), swinging strike rate (29.2% to 21.2%) and results (.183 batting average against to .171). So maybe the movement drop isn’t as bad as it looks.

So all the pitchers complaining about how much the new, protective hats are going to take away from their abilities on the mound may need to re-evaluate their positions. Or maybe Alex Torres is just phenomenally resilient to any adversity (unlikely seeing as his K-BB% is 0% in high leverage situations). But we can tell that the first adopter of MLB’s newest attempt at increasing safety hasn’t experienced any ill effects so far. Perhaps the new hats, goofy as they are, will catch on much sooner than we anticipated.

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