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A Love Letter to the Bendiest Pitch in Baseball

chaz roe pitching

The Tampa Bay Rays just seem to spontaneously generate great pitchers, like how people in the Middle Ages thought mice came from piles of straw and sweaty clothes. Does your team have a pitcher who’s got some kind of anomaly or who isn’t really performing up to standards? Ship him down to Tampa Bay for a PTNBL or some cash, or maybe an underperforming starting pitcher. Don’t worry, he’ll probably wash out of their system soon. He won’t stick around to haunt you with visions of What Could Have Been if you’d been a little more patient.

Some of Tampa’s relievers might be a little tough to appreciate without some Statcast printouts to hand. Here’s a lefty reliever who throws his 89-92 mph four-seam fastball 88.4% of the time (and gets his very own FanGraphs writeup titled “The Most Unhittable Arm in the Minors“). That’s Colin Poche, whose four-seamer in 2019 had the most rise of any pitch in the league. Here’s a right-handed pitcher whose release point is so over-the-top that everything he throws looks like it’s coming from a left-handed pitcher. That’s Oliver Drake, who threw one of the very filthiest pitches MLB has ever seen just last year.

And then there’s Chaz Roe, the godhead, who’s probably easier to appreciate without any Baseball Reference pages in sight. Roe is 32, and he’s a reliever for the Tampa Bay Rays. His teams are a who’s-who of some of the most paralyzingly mediocre squads the 2010s have to offer; the 2013 Diamondbacks, the 2014 Yankees, the 2016 Orioles, and the 2017 Rays all featured Chaz Roe. Guys like David Eckstein and the double-barreled Scottgun of Podsednik and Brosius will tell you that any random baseball dude can achieve immortality when the spotlight finds them. Roe hasn’t gotten that chance.

Roe posted a 4.06 ERA in 2019, albeit with a more palatable 3.31 FIP over his 51.0 innings pitched. All those numbers distill into a surprising 0.0 rWAR (by FanGraphs’s estimate, Roe was worth 0.9 WAR in 2019. You can attribute the difference to that shiny 3.31 FIP).

Roe is the definition of anonymous. He pitches mostly middling innings for mostly middling teams. Roe should not be anonymous.

Chaz Roe’s Awful Fastballs

Now for some other numbers. According to Baseball Savant, Roe threw three different kinds of fastballs in 2019, of which his sinker was the most common variant. Opposing batters murderized Roe’s sinker to the tune of a .473 wOBA (for reference, 2019 AL MVP Mike Trout put up a .436 wOBA last season). Very basically, wOBA is a version of on-base percentage that properly weights extra-base hits. It’s like a cooler (read: geekier) version of OPS. This information comes with a caveat, since the leaguewide xwOBA against Roe’s sinker in 2019 was a much prettier .376 last season (xwOBA factors exit velocity into wOBA calculations to create an expected level of offensive output). A .376 wOBA against is still bad (Josh Donaldson hit for a .377 wOBA in 2019), but it’s definitely much more preferable than a .473.

In 2001, Barry Bonds’s wOBA was .573. That’s unrelated, but man— Barry Bonds was unreal.

Diagnosing the problems with Roe’s sinker isn’t that hard. 99 percent of them are visible in this image:

chaz roe tampa k%
*vomit emoji* Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Oh man. That’s not where any pitcher should be throwing anything, especially a 90-ish-mph sinker. No wonder Chaz Roe turned everyone into Josh Donaldson in 2019.

Roe also threw 48 four-seam fastballs and 57 cutters last season. His four-seamer is bad; it’s not that hard for a reliever (89-92 mph) and Roe can’t spot it at all– only 18.7 percent of those 48 four-seamers touched the strike zone. It really doesn’t matter how nasty a pitch is- if it finds the zone less than 20 percent of the time, it’s just not a good pitch. Opposing batters notched a .349 wOBA on the pitch even though they never recorded any hits off of it. It’s as close as anyone’s come to replicating this video in real life. Roe’s cutter isn’t great either, results-wise, but its high ground ball rate gives it a place in his arsenal.

This isn’t productive analysis. Roe threw 925 pitches in 2019. Roughly 35 percent of those were some type of fastball. That hideous four-seamer only showed up 5.2 percent of the time. There must be something else to this guy.

 

release point finish reaction lol

 

Aha. There it is.

Here is Baseball Savant’s slider movement leaderboard, sorted by average horizontal movement from greatest to least (minimum 250 pitches). Hey, there’s Roe at the top of the list! He beats out all the other infamous slider gods- scan through the chart and find guys like Trevor Bauer, Adam Ottavino, Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Brad Hand, and Sonny Gray. None of them can hold a candle to Chaz Roe’s alchemy. He bestrides the slider world.

Let’s get rid of the 250-pitch parameter and set it to the minimum fifty pitches. Out of every single Major League pitcher who threw just fifty sliders in 2019, Chaz Roe’s slider was the bendiest. Let’s throw everything to the winds and get rid of every parameter in the search. We are now looking at the average horizontal movement of every single pitch thrown in 2019. Chaz Roe’s slider still leads by 2.3 inches over Tyler Olson’s curveball. Chaz Roe bestrides the world of pitch movement itself, at least on the x-axis.

Arm Action and Mechanics

Information about how Roe gets his slider to do *that* is scarce. He doesn’t have an Andrew Miller/Chris Sale-type release point, and he’s not a Sergio Romo-/Joe Smith-type sidewinder. In this interview with David Laurila over at FanGraphs, Roe claims that his slider is basically a modded version of the curveball he brought into affiliated ball after the Rockies drafted him 32nd overall in 2005.

chaz roe tampa bay
Image courtesy of Dirk Shadd and the Tampa Bay Times.

Roe says that his slider “has a mind of its own a lot of the time,” and that statement is certainly borne out by his walk rates. He’s walked 4.3 batters per nine innings over his Major League career, and that figure spiked to 5.5 BB/9 in 2019. His control is definitely the primary factor holding him back from becoming a Josh Hader-esque relief ace, but that’s not necessarily Roe’s fault. If Roe’s descriptions of the pitch in his occasional interviews can tell us anything, they tell us that his slider is an independent entity, and Roe himself is simply the carnal vessel through which the slider manifests its chaos. He can’t control it because nobody can. The slider is a force of nature that’ll be around long after its current vessel is dead, after MLB folds (which in all honesty might not be long), after the sun absorbs the earth, after the universe finally achieves its perfect entropy, batting quarks around the howling cosmic emptiness. The slider is not Roe’s; Roe is the slider’s.

There’s some real Exorcist-type stuff going on in that Rays bullpen.

Assuming that theory is somehow incorrect, an informal analysis of Roe’s delivery and arm action yields a few clues about how he’s able to do what he does. After Roe separates his hands, he cocks his right (throwing) arm behind his head. This is extremely unremarkable- what is remarkable is Roe’s arm angle. His forearm is parallel to the pitching rubber before he releases the ball. That starting point, plus Roe’s low three-quarter delivery and lightning-quick arm action, allows him to put some absolutely stupid spin and snap on his slider. All those factors combine to produce the bendiest pitch in MLB.

 

chaz roe slider pre

chaz roe slider release

To conclude, Roe is a special, special pitcher. He’s only really got one pitch, but he makes that one pitch count. If he’s able to figure out how to more effectively spot his fastballs (or, hell, if he can just strip them out of his repertoire altogether), he’s got a real shot at becoming the next relief ace off the Tampa pitcher development assembly line.

To read an artlcle about Chaz Roe’s impossible slider from the talented folks at Baseball Prospectus, click this link.

To read about and contribute to the Josh Gibson Foundation, click this link.

To read about and contribute to the DREAM Charter School, click this link.

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