College Tennis Alumni at the 2021 Australian Open – Part 3: Men’s Doubles

In the third part of this mini-series, I will highlight college tennis alumni, who competed in the men’s doubles draw at the 2021 Australian Open. There were 21 total players with college tennis experience in the doubles draw, including 6 who also competed in the singles main draw. This is compared to 10 total college alumni in the singles draw. I don’t think the higher prevalence of ex-college players in the doubles draw is a coincidence.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, in NCAA Division 1 dual matches, the doubles point is contested before singles play starts. There are a few exceptions – such as if there is a chance of rain later on in the day – but for the most part, singles follows doubles. Having a 1:0 lead after doubles, and needing to win 3 instead of 4 singles matches to secure the team victory feels different, especially in dual matches between two evenly matched teams.

Furthermore, there may be limited court availability for practice at some schools, especially during the winter months. If a men’s team needs to share, say, four indoor courts with the women’s team, there will be a lot of doubles drills going on during practice. Finally, individual accolades are recognized in both singles and doubles at the college level, and are not judged through a different lens. At every school I’ve been to, being an All-American gets one’s name put up in a prominent location highlighting the history of the program, regardless if one is an All-American in singles or doubles.

Combine all those factors, and doubles is practiced more, contested with more intensity and, frankly, seriousness at the college level than at a lot of the junior and smaller professional tournaments. As a result, college players simply get more productive doubles reps during their stay in school, and are well prepared for the world of professional doubles upon graduation.

The players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Marcelo Arevalo, University of Tulsa

  • College: 2011 Conference USA Player of the Year, 2011 NCAA Team Round of 16
  • Professional: Career high #45 ATP doubles, 2020 & 2021 Australian Open doubles quarterfinalist

Arevalo spent three semesters at the University of Tulsa, and helped lead the team to its first ever appearance in the NCAA Round of 16 in 2011.

Andre Begemann, College of Santa Fe (NAIA)/Pepperdine

  • College: 2006 NCAA Team Champions (with Pepperdine), 2006 NCAA Doubles Finalist (with Pepperdine)
  • Professional: Career high #36 ATP doubles, #166 ATP singles

Begemann was part of the 2006 Pepperdine national championship team, and his singles victory clinched the title for Pepperdine in the finals against the Georgia Bulldogs. A week later, Begemann and his partner Scott Doerner made it all the way to the NCAA doubles final. He has won four doubles titles on the ATP tour as of this writing.

Robert Farah, University of Southern California

  • College: 2009 & 2010 NCAA Team Champions, 2008 NCAA Doubles Champion
  • Professional: Career high #1 ATP doubles, 2019 Wimbledon & US Open Doubles Champion

Before becoming a multiple Grand Slam champion and ranked #1 in the world in doubles, Farah was an outstanding college competitor at USC. He has been part of two national championship winning teams, won an NCAA doubles title, and finished his senior season ranked #1 in the NCAA individual singles rankings.

Marcos Giron, UCLA

Yannick Hanfmann, University of Southern California

Andrew Harris, University of Oklahoma

  • College: 2014 & 2015 & 2016 NCAA Team Finalists, 2017 NCAA Doubles Champion
  • Professional: Career high #159 ATP singles, #245 ATP doubles

At the University of Oklahoma, Harris was part of Sooners teams that made the trip to the NCAA team final in three consecutive years. He finished his collegiate career by winning the 2017 NCAA doubles championship with teammate Spencer Papa. Harris is by no means a doubles specialist; as of this writing, he is ranked #225 in the ATP singles rankings while still being only 26 years old.

Dominic Inglot, University of Virginia

  • College: 2007 & 2008 NCAA Team Quarterfinalists, 2009 NCAA Doubles Champion
  • Professional: Career high #18 ATP doubles, 2015 US Open Doubles Semifinalist, 2018 Wimbledon Doubles Semifinalist

The Virginia Cavaliers have won the NCAA team national championship in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Inglot was at Virginia in the early stages of what was going to become a powerhouse program under head coach Brian Boland. His 2009 NCAA Doubles title with teammate Michael Shabaz was the first NCAA national championship of any kind for the Virginia men’s tennis team, and laid the foundation for the Cavaliers’ future accomplishments.

Dominik Koepfer, Tulane

Mackenzie McDonald, UCLA

Ben McLachlan, University of California-Berkeley

  • College: 2011 & 2012 & 2013 & 2014 NCAA Team Round of 16
  • Professional: Career high #18 ATP doubles, 2018 Australian Open Doubles Semifinalist

Nicholas Monroe, University of North Carolina

  • College: 2004 All-American, ranks 2nd in all time singles wins at North Carolina
  • Professional: Career high #30 ATP Doubles, 2017 US Open & 2020 French Open Doubles Quarterfinalist

Nick Monroe played for the North Carolina Tar Heels from 2000 – 2004. As an interesting tidbit – Monroe’s first professional main draw doubles match came at a Futures event in 2001, where his partner was the current associate head coach of the Tar Heels, Tripp Phillips.

Cameron Norrie, TCU

John Peers, Middle Tennessee State/Baylor University

  • College: 2011 NCAA Team Quarterfinalists (with Baylor), 2011 Doubles All-American (at Baylor)
  • Professional: Career high #2 ATP Doubles, 2017 Australian Open Doubles Champion, 2015 Wimbledon & US Open Doubles Finalist

John transferred to Baylor University for his senior season, and played mostly #1 singles and #1 doubles in his lone season of action for the Bears. I’m happy to call John a friend, and he is a very competitive, driven individual, as well as an outstanding athlete. An observation I had at Baylor was that John spent time practicing volleys from a variety of positions on the court during every individual practice. The majority of players spend a lot of practice time grooving their groundstrokes, and volleys can be an afterthought. As a result, John’s comfort level at the net was as high as anyone’s, already during his college days.

Rajeev Ram, University of Illinois

  • College: 2003 NCAA Team Champions, 2003 NCAA Doubles Champion
  • Professional: Career high #5 ATP doubles, 2020 Australian Open Doubles Champion, 2021 Australian Open Doubles Finalist

Rajeev Ram only spent one semester at the University of Illinois – the spring of 2003 – but that semester could not have gone much better. The 2003 Illini went a perfect 32-0, winning the ITA Indoor National Championship, the NCAA Team National Championship, and their players won the NCAA Singles individual title, as well as the NCAA doubles title (Ram won the doubles championship with his teammate Brian Wilson).

Joe Salisbury, University of Memphis

  • College: Career high #3 ITA doubles; University of Memphis all-time doubles wins leader
  • Professional: Career high #3 ATP doubles; 2020 Australian Open Doubles Champion, 2021 Australian Open Doubles Finalist

Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram have been doubles partners in the last two Australian Opens, winning the title in 2020, and losing in the final in 2021. Salisbury is one of a number of good British players, who have competed for the Memphis Tigers in the past few years. He still holds the record for the most career doubles matches won at Memphis with 97.

Tennys Sandgren, University of Tennessee

Ken Skupski, Louisiana State University

  • College: 2-time Singles All-American, 1-time Doubles All-American, 2005 NCAA Doubles Finalist
  • Professional: Career high #44 ATP doubles, 2017 Wimbledon & 2020 Australian Open doubles quarterfinalist

Neal Skupski, Louisiana State University

  • College: 1-time Singles All-American, 3-time Doubles All-American, 2012 NCAA Singles Quarterfinalist
  • Professional: Career high #26 ATP doubles, 2019 US Open doubles semifinalist, 2017 Wimbledon & 2020 French Open doubles quarterfinalist

Neal followed in his brother’s footsteps, attending LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana before embarking on his professional career. He was the first player in LSU men’s tennis history to earn the All-American doubles status as a freshman, and finished his LSU career with 75 singles and 87 doubles wins. The Skupski brothers often play doubles together on the ATP tour; they were the #16 seeds at the 2021 Australian Open.

John-Patrick Smith, University of Tennessee

  • College: 2010 NCAA Team Finalists, 8-time(!!) All-American
  • Professional: Career high #52 ATP doubles, 2017 US Open & 2021 Australian Open doubles quarterfinalist

JP Smith is simply one of the most decorated athletes in the University of Tennessee’s storied history. He is one of only three players to achieve a singles AND doubles All-American status in four consecutive years, the others being Rick Leach at the University of Southern California, and current North Carolina Tar Heel William Blumberg. Besides leading his team to the NCAA team final in 2010, while playing line #1 singles and doubles, Smith was also named the 2011 SEC Athlete of the Year. In a football-crazed conference such as the SEC, that qualifies as the rarest of feats.

Michael Venus, University of Texas/Louisiana State University

  • College: 2009 Singles & Doubles All-American (at LSU)
  • Professional: Career high #8 ATP doubles, 2017 French Open doubles champion

Joran Vliegen, East Carolina University

  • College: 2014 Conference USA Player of the Year, first player in East Carolina history to earn an individual singles ranking
  • Professional: Career high #35 ATP doubles, 2019 French Open & 2020 US Open doubles quarterfinalist

Vliegen went to a smaller school outside of the traditional “Power 5” conferences, yet he still used his time in college as a preparation for the professional tour and was a trailblazer at his school. At East Carolina, Vliegen was the first player to earn an individual singles ranking, the first player to appear in the NCAA singles tournament, as well as being one half of the first pair to appear in the NCAA doubles tournament.

Cavan Biggio: In The Zone

The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays should be an exciting team. Besides “winning the offseason” in the American League, what will make the Blue Jays games a must-watch for me is seeing whether their young players keep taking steps forward in their development, and toward becoming household names. Tools? Man, do the Jays have some tools. Do you like overpowering fastballs? Nate Pearson’s averaged over 96 mph last season, albeit in a limited sample size. Loud contact? Vladimir Guerrero Jr. recorded the third hardest hit ball in the majors last year at 116.1 mph. Or perhaps you are a plate discipline afficionado? In that case, let me introduce you to Cavan Biggio.

Cavan Biggio made his debut with the Blue Jays in 2019, and one thing he has done better than anyone in baseball since then, is not chase pitches out of the strike zone. His outside zone swing rate has been the same 13.6% in both 2019 and 2020 seasons.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

That level of plate discipline has been the main factor in his 16.1% walk rate and .368 career OBP. For Biggio, the improvements going forward will be related to what he does with pitches in the strike zone: he is yet to crack the 50th percentile in either his exit velocities or xSLG.

I’m certainly not a swing expert, and “get stronger” is no fun to write an article about. Instead, I wanted to explore Biggio’s swing decisions in the strike zone, and if there could be some opportunities with those. Disclaimer: in the interest of sample size, I will try to use Biggio’s 2019 & 2020 combined statistics whenever possible, as those add up to roughly 700 plate appearances. Let’s start with the big picture view.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

The good news is that there isn’t a lot of swing and miss in Biggio’s game: his overall whiff and zone contact rates are right in line with MLB averages. The overall swing percentage is lower than the MLB average, and some of that will be due to the low chase rate. What does stand out though, is that Biggio swings less in the zone, and less at the first pitch than the MLB average. Where in the zone could Biggio be more aggressive? And is he being too passive on first pitches?

When Biggio steps up to the plate, his plan is not too difficult to decipher. 48% of his batted balls have been to his pull side, compared to 36.6% MLB average.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

To do that, Biggio has a preference of swinging more at pitches on the inside part of the plate as opposed to pitches away. The three images below illustrate how often Biggio swung at pitches in a particular area of the strike zone, as well as what the MLB average for all left handed hitters looked like for 2019. I looked at the 2019 MLB average in the interest of sample size.

Starting with the middle of the strike zone, in 2019 Biggio swung at about 75% of the pitches in that location (the four “middlemost” squares), right in line with other left handed hitters. In 2020, he swung less at pitches over the middle of the plate and down in the zone – the 75% and 73% from 2019 became 58% and 56% in 2020 – but that could just be a sample size issue, especially since the swing percentages over the middle of the plate down at the knees didn’t show as dramatic a drop-off (60% and 65% became 56% and 59% respectively). Nevertheless, seeing how aggressive Biggio is on pitches right down the middle is something to pay attention to as the 2021 season unfolds.

The other observation from the images above is that Biggio is less likely to swing at pitches away than a typical lefty MLB batter. In particular, at pitches that are about belt high. In 2019, MLB lefties swung at those pitches at a 57% rate in both the “waist-high and away” squares, while Biggio swung at 39 and 43 percent of pitches in those zones in 2019, and 36 and 38 percent in 2020.

Knowing that Biggio is more likely to swing at pitches inside and looks to pull them, how has he been pitched so far in his young MLB career?

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Biggio has been pitched mostly away, and he has been letting those pitches go more often than not. To take the next step as a hitter, Biggio will need to show pitchers that he can cover the outside part of the plate and drive those pitches with authority. He is not that far off.

Below are the exit velocities and launch angles when Biggio puts the ball in play in a particular area of the zone.

Being more aggressive on the waist-high pitches away in the zone could be a good starting point. On those pitches, his average exit velocity is right around 89 mph, with a launch angle of 19 degrees. Balls with those characteristics tend for fall for hits about 45% of the time.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Once again, remember that Biggio is looking to pull the ball to right field. Yet he has a career .327 wOBA on pitches waist high and away. If those pitches were driven the other way into left center field, Biggio, with his speed, could even see an increase in the number of doubles he hits.

Let’s finish up by looking at Biggio’s first pitch swinging propensity, or lack thereof. Based on the analysis above, one would expect Biggio to be more aggressive on pitches on the inside and middle of the plate. Once again, I compared his first pitch swing tendencies with all the other left handed batters in the 2019 season.

Overall, left handed batters swung at first pitches right down the middle (again the four “middlemost” squares) at about a 50% clip. In 2019, Biggio was just about the same, while in 2020 we see a similar pattern as with the overall swing rates – a slight decrease in swings in the lower part of the zone down the middle of the plate: from 58% and 55%, he went down to 36% and 17% respectively. This could again be a sample size issue, but something to monitor in 2021. Ideally, Biggio would be close to the 50% MLB average, as that is the area of the zone he does the most damage in, with exit velocities in the 90+ mph range.

Other than that, just like in the overall swing pattern, Biggio is less likely to swing at first pitches away in the strike zone. That, to me, is actually a positive. He knows his favorite location, has a plan, and the confidence to stick to it. By the same token, when pitchers came inside to Biggio with the first pitch in 2020, he was more likely to swing at those pitches than in 2019. He swung at the belt high inside first pitches at 0% and 30% in 2019, and those figures jumped to 33% and 63% in 2020. Small sample size could surely be in play here, but we can clearly identify Biggio’s knowledge of “his” strike zone, and the willingness to wait for pitches inside that zone early on in an at-bat.

To summarize, I would watch how aggressive Biggio is on pitches in the middle of the strike zone in 2021 – specifically, how close he is to the MLB averages of swinging at 50% of first pitches, and 75% of all pitches right down the middle. Obviously those two percentages are not set in stone. But Biggio, just like all the other MLB batters, is at his most dangerous when he connects with pitches in the middle of the zone, and being too passive with that location leaves slugging percentage on the table.

Furthermore, I am curious to see if he becomes a little more aggressive on pitches belt high on the outside part of the plate, and starts driving some of those pitches the other way. Right now, Biggio is mostly being pitched away, and showing pitchers that he can cover that part of the zone will go a long way towards getting more pitches in “his” zone, on the inside part of the plate.

College Tennis Alumni at the 2021 Australian Open – Part 2: Women’s Singles

In part 1 of this miniseries, I looked at college tennis alumni, who competed in the men’s singles main draw bracket in the recently completed Australian Open. In this part, I will do the same for women’s singles. As a disclaimer, I am more familiar with the men’s game, both on the collegiate, as well as the professional level. I apologize in advance for any factual errors or inaccuracies.

Just like with the men, I will highlight the junior/pre-college accomplishments of the players, the highest finish of their team in the NCAA tournament, and a few of their individual accolades at the college level before turning pro. The players are once again listed in alphabetical order by their last name.

Aliona Bolsova, Oklahoma State University/Florida Atlantic University

  • Ranked #4 in the ITF World Junior Rankings, #459 WTA before college
  • Team: 2017 NCAA Quarterfinalists (with Oklahoma State)
  • 2018 Singles All-American

Having already been ranked inside the Top 500 WTA before college, Aliona originally enrolled at Oklahoma State in the fall of 2016. In the spring of 2017, she went 20-4 in dual match play, playing mostly line #3 singles on a team that made the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. After her freshman year, she transferred to Florida Atlantic, where she went 26-1(!) in singles for the year – including 19-0 in the spring dual match season – while playing the vast majority of her matches at line #1 singles. She turned pro after her sophomore year, and as of this writing is ranked #104 WTA.

Jennifer Brady, UCLA

  • Ranked #36 in the ITF World Junior Rankings, Top 600 WTA before college
  • Team: 2014 NCAA Champions, 2015 NCAA Finalists
  • 2-time Singles All-American, 1-time Doubles All-American

Jennifer Brady is the reigning Australian Open finalist, and currently ranked #13 WTA. As a side note, Brady is the first women’s college tennis alum to reach a Grand Slam final since Kathy Jordan did it in 1983. Prior to turning pro, she spent two seasons at UCLA, where she was a part of the 2014 national championship team, and the 2015 team that lost to Vanderbilt in the NCAA final. Jennifer also made the quarterfinals of the 2015 NCAA singles tournament, her last collegiate event.

Danielle Collins, University of Florida/University of Virginia

  • #2 recruit nationally in her class, Top 600 WTA before college
  • Team: 2013 NCAA Semifinalists (with Florida), 2014 & 2016 NCAA Quarterfinalists (with Virginia)
  • 2014 & 2016 NCAA Singles Champion

Danielle is the first player on the list, who spent all four years in college. After transferring from the University of Florida to the University of Virginia following her freshman year, she won the NCAA singles crown as a sophomore. As an American NCAA Champion, she received a wild card into the 2014 US Open singles main draw, where she played the #2 seed Simona Halep in the first round, and took a set off of Simona. Impressively, Danielle returned to school after a taste of the highest level of professional tennis, and won her second NCAA singles championship two years later. As of this writing, Danielle is ranked #37 WTA.

Astra Sharma, Vanderbilt

  • Debuted on the WTA ranking at #969 in October 2012, prior to college
  • Team: 2015 NCAA Champions
  • 2-time Singles All-American, 3-time Doubles All-American

As best as I can tell, Sharma wasn’t a highly ranked ITF junior, nor was she ranked inside the Top 600 WTA prior to college like the other players on this list. As a matter of fact, during Astra’s freshman campaign in the 2013/14 academic year, she didn’t crack Vanderbilt’s singles lineup. Yet by the time her collegiate career was over, she was an NCAA team champion, 5-time All-American, ranked as high as #2 in the NCAA singles rankings, and #1 in the NCAA doubles rankings. A fantastic example of player development at the collegiate level, Astra received a wild card into the 2021 Australian Open and is currently ranked #114 WTA.

Mayar Sherif, Fresno State University/Pepperdine University

  • Ranked #47 in the ITF World Junior Rankings, Top 550 WTA before college
  • Team: 2017 NCAA Quarterfinalists (with Pepperdine)
  • 2-time Singles All-American, 2-time Doubles All-American, 2018 NCAA Singles Semifinalist (with Pepperdine)

Mayar first enrolled at Fresno State with her sister Rana in the fall of 2014. During her sophomore season, the sisters became doubles All-Americans, and Mayar transferred to Pepperdine for her final two years of collegiate eligibility. During her senior season, Mayar went 19-1 in dual match play, and finished the season ranked #11 in the NCAA individual rankings.

It’s hard to establish any firm conclusions based on just five players. However, I would like to highlight a couple of similarities and one difference that I see when comparing the men’s and women’s lists.

In terms of similarities, every single player on the women’s list was an All-American at least once, with four out of the five earning that distinction multiple times. Furthermore, every player on the list has made at least the NCAA team quarterfinals; Astra Sharma and Jennifer Brady were part of NCAA championship squads. A competitive practice environment matters, and individual accolades can be used as a guide to inform college players as to whether they should try to turn pro or not.

In terms of a difference, a few of the players on the women’s list transferred between schools, while we didn’t see a single transfer on the men’s side. Every transfer situation is different, and there are a lot of factors in play. What might make it a little easier to transfer for women as opposed to men, is that NCAA Division 1 men’s tennis is an “equivalency” sport, while women’s tennis is a “headcount” sport. In “headcount” sports, you can either be on a 100% athletic scholarship, or none at all. Those are the only two options. In “equivalency” sports, the scholarship can be split up. A player can be on 100%, 70%, 43%, 27% athletic aid, what have you. Furthermore, women’s tennis teams have 8 athletic scholarships available to them, while men’s teams only operate with 4.5 scholarships.

On the women’s side, if a player is looking to transfer, and their potential new school has a scholarship available, they know it will be a full 100% just per “headcount” sport rules. In men’s tennis, the scholarship situation tends to be a bit tighter, since there are only 4.5 scholarships to go around. As a result, if a player on the men’s side – say for financial reasons – needs to be on a 100% scholarship, the number of schools that can make that offer to him is usually more restricted than on the women’s side.

In the next installment of the series, I will look at college alumni in the 2021 Australian Open men’s doubles bracket. Doubles is crucial in college tennis; almost every dual match starts with doubles, and getting the doubles point is a big confidence boost prior to the singles matches. As a result, teams tend to spend a significant amount of time practicing doubles, and you see quite a few college alumni competing on the doubles tour following their amateur careers.

College Tennis Alumni at the 2021 Australian Open – Part 1: Men’s Singles

With the first Grand Slam of the year winding down, I wanted to do a little introduction to the main draw players, who competed on the collegiate level before turning pro. This will be a short series of four parts: men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, and women’s doubles.

For every player, I will highlight three items:

  1. Individual ranking before enrolling in college; this will illustrate how “high profile” these players were while being recruited. The rankings can be world junior rankings, national rankings, or even ATP/WTA rankings.
  2. Their team’s best NCAA tournament finish while they were in school
  3. One or two individual accomplishments achieved while competing in college. Even though the most unique aspect of college tennis is its team format, especially the dual matches, there are still major individual accolades awarded on an annual basis.

Before we get into the list, I need to explain what being an “All-American” means in college tennis.

All-American status is awarded every year, separately for singles and doubles. To become an All-American in singles, one needs to achieve at least one of the three following:

  1. Be a top 16 seed in the NCAA individual tournament
  2. Advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA individual tournament
  3. Finish ranked inside the top 20 in the end of the year individual rankings

In doubles, the team needs to either be a top 8 seed in the NCAA doubles tournament, make it to the quarterfinals of NCAA doubles tournament, or finish ranked inside the top 10 in the end of the year doubles rankings.

With that explanation out of the way, let’s start with men’s singles. The players are listed in alphabetical order by their last name.

Kevin Anderson, University of Illinois

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #28
  • Team: 2007 NCAA Finalists
  • 2005, 2006, 2007 All-American; 2006 NCAA Doubles Champion

Tennis fans need no introduction to Kevin Anderson; ranked as high as #5 in the world, two-time Grand Slam finalist, he has had a decorated professional career up until this point. Before he turned pro, Andreson led the University of Illinois to the 2007 NCAA team final, beating yours truly and the Baylor Bears in the semifinals. Against the Georgia Bulldogs in the final, the #1 line singles matchup was Kevin Anderson vs John Isner. Not too shabby.

Max Cressy, UCLA

  • 5 Star recruit, ranked around #20 in his class in the United States
  • Team: 2018 NCAA Semifinalists
  • 2019 Singles All-American, 2019 Doubles All-American; 2019 NCAA Doubles Champion

Max Cressy is one of my favorite players on the ATP Tour right now. There’s two reasons for that. First, Max is listed at 6’7″, can serve 130mph, and plays an aggressive game style, looking to come to the net any chance he gets. And I just enjoy watching his “full court press” style of tennis. Second – I had the pleasure of sharing a few conversations with Max before matches against his Bruins – he is very approachable, has a great personality, and is laid back off-court. Max is easy to root for and a great representative of UCLA and college tennis in general.

Marcos Giron, UCLA

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #18
  • Team: 2013 NCAA Finalists
  • 2014 NCAA Singles Champion, 2014 ITA Player of the Year

Marcos Giron spent three years at UCLA, turning pro after receiving the wild card into the 2014 US Open singles main draw as an American NCAA singles champion. Ironically, he played John Isner, another collegiate standout, in his first round match at the Open. Marcos’ game is different from Cressy’s – Marcos is listed at 5’10” and plays an all-court game based on great movement. For example, in his first round loss to Alexander Zverev at this year’s Australian Open, Giron came to the net 23 times in four sets of action. Cressy played Zverev in the second round, and came to the net 100 times in just three sets.

Yannick Hanfmann, University of Southern California

  • Top 50 in German men’s rankings, #900 ATP before enrolling at USC
  • Team: 2012, 2014 NCAA Champions
  • 3 time Singles All-American , 2 time Doubles All-American

Yannick played line #1 singles in USC’s 2014 run to the NCAA team title, and was the clinching point in the 2012 championship match. He is another big server, who came up through the college ranks – he can crank his first serve up to 130+ mph. What makes his first serve play up is the quality of his second serve; during my time in college tennis, Hanfmann’s second serve was one of the best I’ve seen. Hanfmann is listed at 6’4″ and his second serve usually has lots of topspin on it, bouncing high and forcing his opponent to hit the return from uncomfortable positions.

Dominik Koepfer, Tulane

  • Runner up at the 16 & under German championships
  • Team: 2016 NCAA Second Round
  • 2 time Singles All-American, 2015 ITA National Indoor Champion

Dominik is in a lot of ways an exception on this list, and a great example of how college tennis can put a player on the professional path. Not as high profile a recruit as some of the other names, Dominik chose to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tulane is not in one of the “Power 5” conferences in NCAA Division 1, and doesn’t have the same name recognition as, for example, UCLA or USC. Yet Dominik still developed into one of the best players in college tennis, and recently made it to the fourth round in the 2019 US Open.

Mackenzie McDonald, UCLA

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #12
  • Team: 2014 NCAA Semifinalists
  • 2016 NCAA Singles Champion, 2016 NCAA Doubles Champion

Before enrolling at UCLA, Mackenzie was ranked close to top 10 in the world as a junior, and made the semifinals in the junior Australian Open. A lot of Mackenzie’s family went to UCLA, and he sure made them proud by becoming a singles All-American, and making the NCAA singles tournament quarterfinals, all in his freshman year. His career culminated in the “double” – Mackenzie became the first player since Matias Boeker in 2001 to sweep the NCAA singles and doubles individual championships in 2016.

Cameron Norrie, TCU

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #10
  • Team: 2015 NCAA Semifinalists
  • 3 time Singles All-American; finished the 2016/17 season ranked #1 in the individual singles rankings

Norrie is one of two players on this list, who was ranked inside the top 10 in the world as a junior. Obviously a high profile recruit, Cameron was a significant building block in the resurgence and current status of TCU as a perennial Top 10 threat. Still only 25 years old, he has plenty of tennis ahead of him, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in a second week of a Grand Slam in the very near future.

Tennys Sandgren, Tennessee

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #9
  • Team: 2010 NCAA Finalists
  • 2011 Singles All-American, 2011 NCAA Singles Semifinalist

Sandgren is the other player on the list, who was ranked inside the top 10 in the world as a junior. Originally from the state of Tennessee, Sandgren spent three semesters with the Volunteers. He played line #4 singles in his first semester on a team that lost in the NCAA final to the USC Trojans. After turning pro, he has already made it to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open twice, and been ranked inside the Top 50 ATP.

Mikael Torpegaard, Ohio State

  • Career high ITF World Junior ranking: #25
  • Team: 2018 NCAA Finalists
  • 2016 NCAA Singles Finalist, 2018 NCAA Doubles Finalist

Mikael Torpegaard is an intense competitor, who plays a physical style of tennis. He is listed at 6’4″ and is another one of the players on the list, who can get their first serve up to the 130mph mark. During his career at Ohio State, Torpegaard won well over 200 matches (singles and doubles combined) for the Buckeyes, and played line #1 singles on a team that made the NCAA final in 2016. Ohio State has been one of the most consistent programs of the past decade – perennially ranked inside the Top 10 or a lot higher – and Torpegaard played a big part in that. He will soon be joining some of the other players on this list inside the ATP Top 100.

Aleks Vukic – University of Illionis

  • Ranked 5th in Australia in his age group
  • Team: 2018 NCAA Quarterfinalists
  • 3 time Singles All-American

Aleks received a wild card into the main draw, and took a set off Karen Khachanov in the first round. Can Aleks hit his serve? You bet. One of his serves in the Khachanov match was clocked at 142mph. He was playing on Illinois teams that were going head to head against Torpegaard’s Buckeyes, and is now trying to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Illini, Kevin Anderson.

What would be my main takeaways? For one, we have a lot of different nationalities on the list: South Africa, United States, Germany, Great Britain, Denmark, and Australia. At its highest level, college tennis is an international sport, mirroring the professional game. Second, a lot of the players on the list had a high international junior ranking, but it is not a prerequisite. As a matter of fact, players such as John Isner or Steve Johnson, who are also former collegiate standouts, were not highly ranked world juniors either. Finally, notice how hard it is to win a team national championship – only Yannick Hanfmann was a member of a team that has won it all.

There are two similarities that I see. First, the majority of these players played on teams that were in the hunt, or had a legitimate chance to win a national championship, at least once in their careers. In tennis, just like in other sports, the quality of practice is critical. Being on a team of like-minded individuals of a comparable level makes the practice environment a lot more competitive and engaging, driving improvement.

Finally, all of these players earned the status of All-American at least once in their careers. In general, their college bios were full of individual accomplishments. In other words, they were some of the best players in college tennis before turning pro. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a player, who made a successful transition to the professional tour, but wasn’t an All-American in college. For aspiring juniors, who think about playing college tennis on their way to the pros, achieving the All-American status is a great intermediate goal.

In the next post, I will look at the college alumni in the women’s singles main draw bracket. As of this writing, UCLA alumni Jennifer Brady is set to play Naomi Osaka in the final. Maybe I will be writing about a new champion by then.

Zac Gallen & Stephen Vogt: The League of Shadows Battery

The art and science of pitching is a complex endeavor in pursuit of a simple goal: see that guy, or gal, in the batter’s box? Get him, or her, out. There are myriad ways to try to achieve that goal, and analyses of spin axes, pitch sequencing, and defensive positioning, just to name a few, all come into play. But if you had to distill a good way of “getting somebody out” to two simple directives, you could do a lot worse than:

a) Stay away from the middle of the plate

b) Get the batter to swing and miss at your pitches

If you combine those two in a certain way, Zac Gallen was the third best starting pitcher in baseball in 2020. Let me explain. Looking at the Statcast data for all pitchers, who threw at least 60 innings in 2020, for the swing-and-miss part I simply took their “Whiff %”. I then decided to use a proxy for staying away from the middle of the plate by just taking the pitcher’s “Edge%”. As best as I can tell, the Edge % is the same thing as the percentage of pitches thrown in the Shadow of the strikezone, which is “roughly one ball width inside and one ball width outside of the zone (Statcast)”. I then simply added the two values together, to come up with a made up “Edge&Whiff” number. Here is the top 10 from the year 2020.

Name2020 IPEdge%Whiff%Whiff+Edge%
Jacob deGrom68.045.841.086.8
Shane Bieber77.141.940.782.6
Zac Gallen72.048.530.478.9
Gerrit Cole73.043.134.277.3
Aaron Nola71.146.031.377.3
Lucas Giolito72.140.536.677.1
Kenta Maeda66.241.434.876.2
Carlos Carrasco68.043.332.776.0
Max Scherzer67.142.832.675.4
Dylan Bundy65.245.629.575.1
Courtesy MLB Statcast

That’s a pretty good group to belong to, if you’re an MLB starter. We have Cy Young winners, All-Stars, you name it. In terms of Zac Gallen, note that his membership in this made up club is predicated upon his Edge%: his Whiff% tops only that of Dylan Bundy, while his Edge % is the highest on the list. As it turns out, out of all pitchers, who threw at least 60 innings in 2020, Gallen’s Edge % of 48.6 was the best in MLB.

With that being said, I wanted to see which edges of the strikezone Gallen attacked the most frequently in 2020. First, let’s take a look at his four-seam and cutter locations. The four-seamer is on the left, and the cutter is the right image.

With both of his fastballs, Gallen was heavily targeting them to his glove side. There is a “hot spot” for the cutter down and to the glove side on the chase, but notice how the fastballs are mostly clustered around the outer edge of the strikezone – giving visual confirmation to Gallen’s high Edge % from above – and how relatively few of them were aimed towards the upper edge of the strikezone and to Gallen’s arm side.

What about the curveball and the changeup? Below, the curveball is the image on the left, while the change is the image on the right.

Gallen’s command of the changeup was fantastic in 2020, resulting in a ridiculous 44.1% whiff rate. But my other main takeaway is that the curveball and changeup are thrown right around the bottom edge of the zone: for the most part, Gallen is not trying to fool you left or right with his changeup and curveball.

What do we have so far? In 2020, Zac Gallen was living in the Shadows. Specifically, on his fastballs, he preferred the edge away from the righties and inside to lefties, while on his changeup and curveball, he tried to get hitters to swing at pitches at, or down below the knees. I will get to Stephen Vogt, I promise.

With close to 50% of Gallen’s pitches thrown in the Shadow of the strikezone, how often did batters swing at those pitches, compared to league average?

Courtesy MLB Statcast

The swing rate against Gallen in the Shadow part of the zone was right in line with the league average: batters swung at 51% of the pitches Gallen threw in the Shadow, as compared to 52% for the league average. One observation that I think speaks to the deception of Gallen’s stuff is that hitters only swung at 65% of his pitches in the Heart of the zone, as opposed to 73% for the league average.

So Gallen threw the majority of his pitches around the edges of the zone, and batters swung at about a half of them, in line with the league average. It sure would be great if the takes were called strikes, wouldn’t it? We’re ready for the second member of the League of Shadows to take the stage.

Fangraphs projects Stephen Vogt to appear in about 65 games in 2021, with the bulk of the catching duties going to Carson Kelly. Fangraphs also projects Vogt to be the worse overall fielder of the two. However, there was one thing Vogt did exceptionally well in 2020, and that was framing pitches.

I will leave it up to the Diamondbacks front office and coaches to decide, whether Vogt’s marked improvement in framing is real or not. However, based on Statcast, in 2020 Vogt was the fifth best pitch framer in baseball, in terms of converting non-swings in the Shadow of the zone into called strikes.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Were there any particular areas, where Vogt was most effective? Vogt was most successful in Zone 16 – away to righties and inside to lefties, where he converted 69% of non-swings in the Shadow zone into called strikes, 11th best baseball. His second best outcome was in Zone 18 – down below the knees, where he converted 60.9% of non-swings into called strikes, 7th best in baseball. Here is how Vogt compared to Carson Kelly in those two zones (I couldn’t find Varsho’s framing data on Statcast).

NameZone 16 (wide)Zone 18 (down)
Stephen Vogt69.0%60.9%
Carson Kelly64.2%52.9%
Courtesy MLB Statcast

What does it all mean? There is obviously way more that goes into catcher-pitcher pairing than just this. At the same time, we have a young pitcher, who has thrown about half of his pitches around the edges of the zone in 2020. Two particular edges, to be exact. He also generates swings on those pitches at about the league average rate. If Gallen wants to keep working mostly in those areas of the zone going forward, the Diamondbacks have a catcher on their staff, whose strength is framing pitches in those exact areas. If batters swing at those pitches, great – that’s how you get an average exit velocity of 87mph. If they take those pitches, Gallen has help back there to convert those pitches into called strikes. Zac Gallen and Stephen Vogt: The League of Shadows battery. Potentially coming soon to a ballpark near you.

ACE Webinar Video

Last week I did an interview with Craig Mercer about my journey in tennis, my favorite moments from juniors, college, and the pro tour, as well as some tips and advice for juniors looking to improve their game. It’s a little longer but it was a lot of fun to do. Hope you enjoy.

Pound the Knees, Steven

The Toronto Blue Jays have recently traded for left-handed pitcher Steven Matz. Matz’s 2020 was a year to forget – join the club Steven – but FanGraphs projects him to slide into the bottom of the Jays starting rotation, and pitch about 132 innings this year. Let’s take a look at who Matz is as a pitcher, and why a change in fastball location is something the Jays coaching staff might consider.

Matz pitched only about 30 innings last year, so in the interest of sample size, I will also be using statistics from 2019 and 2018. Here is what Matz’s last three seasons looked like:

There is a lot of moving parts in there, but I’d like to direct your attention to the fastball ratings. Specifically, how Matz’s fastball, in the past three seasons at least, had an above average velocity, and a below average raw spin rate. That in and off itself doesn’t make a pitch “good” or “bad,” but might hint at its effectiveness in different parts of the zone.

Matz stopped using his four-seamer in 2018, and now only throws one type of fastball – a sinker. The sinker is his bread and butter pitch; he has thrown it over 50% of the time in each of the past three seasons. It sits in the 93-95mph range, with a spin rate that has been increasing, but was still under 2,300 rpm in 2020. And there just might be a way for Matz to get more out of it.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

I’m not sure how familiar you are with Bauer units. Yes, that Bauer, the reigning Cy Young award winner. The formula for Bauer units is really simple; it’s just the spin rate of a pitch in rpm, divided by its velocity. Why would we want to do that? It allows us to compare and classify pitches as high spin, or low spin, while normalizing for velocity. Fastballs thrown at a higher velocity tend to spin at a higher rate, and Bauer units allow us to remove velocity from the equation when comparing how “spinny” a particular pitch is.

Why is that important? According to the linked Driveline article, the average MLB fastball is around 24 Bauer units. Fastballs with higher Bauer units tend to be more effective up in the zone; these are the fastballs that seem as if they are “rising” to the hitter, and hitters struggle to square them up. The poster boy for a higher Bauer unit fastball is – ironically, if you know their UCLA and even pro history – Gerrit Cole. In 2020, Cole averaged 2,505 rpm on his four-seam fastball at 96.7 mph. That’s 2,505/96.7 = 25.90 Bauer units. And here is Cole’s four- seam fastball heat map from 2020, with a clear preference for locating his four-seamer up in the zone.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

This brings us back to Steven Matz. Here is a table of his sinker Bauer units from the past three years.

YearSinker RPMSinker VelocityBauer Units
20182,06993.4 mph22.15
20192,10293.3 mph22.53
20202,23094.5 mph23.60
Courtesy MLB Statcast

The sample size for 2020 is not great, but regardless, Matz’s sinker is a low spin offering and should therefore be more effective low in the zone. Let’s see what the batted ball data says.

The above is only for the sinkers in the three seasons 2018 – 2020. When Matz throws the sinker in the bottom third of the zone, and contact is made, you can hear it. We have exit velocities of 93, 95, and 97mph. However, after you hear the loud contact – with the advances in fielder positioning, shifts etc. – the next thing you hear is probably the smack of the ball landing in an infielder’s glove. That’s because the launch angles in the bottom of the zone are all below 10 degrees, with the lone exception being when Matz misses down to his glove side. Do the outcomes line up with the underlying metrics?

If Matz stays away from the middle of the plate, he has more success down in the zone. The wOBAs are decreasing as we travel down in the zone to Matz’s glove side: .342, .302, .175 from top to bottom – as well as to his arm side: .349, .250, .151. Down to his arm side seems to be his most effective location: wOBAs of .151 in the zone, and .145 on the chase, driven by launch angles of 3 and -6 respectively.

With all that out of the way, let’s take a look where Matz has actually been throwing his sinker in the past three years.

Well, what do you know – Matz has mostly been working his sinker up in the zone. Remember that location with low wOBAs and launch angles from the pictures above? Matz has gone that way hardly at all. The reason, of course, might be that if Matz goes down and to his armside, he catches the batter off-guard and that’s why he’s been successful when he has gone down there when he has. Yet I wonder if this is something the Jays might have picked up on? We’ve all read the stories of Astros targeting high spin guys in trades in their World Series years, and getting them to work up in the zone more. Gerrit Cole is a prime example of that. Could the Jays have seen a potential adjustment to be made and bought low on a pitcher coming off a disastrous 2020?

There is obviously more to a pitcher’s plan of attack than just location of one pitch; how a pitcher’s full arsenal of pitches compliment each other, pitch tunneling, all of those are important. I could be way off base, but now I’m curious whether Matz’s sinker will stay more or less the same in 2021, or if we’ll see him try to keep it lower in the zone a little bit more.

Teoscar Hernandez: Is It Real?

As a baseball fan, who recently relocated to Toronto, I feel like I should have at least a passable knowledge of what’s going on with the Blue Jays. My interest in baseball developed while living in Texas, and I have been a supporter of the Texas Rangers ever since – you might know that the Rangers and Blue Jays have a bit of a history. As I was browsing the various Statcast leaderboards from last year, I came across Teoscar Hernandez and his progress in 2020.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Statcast formulates the xwOBA metric based mostly on launch angles and exit velocities of a particular hitter’s batted ball events, and uses that data – along with walks and strikeouts – to predict what the hitter’s wOBA “should” be. And based on xwOBA, Hernandez was the third most improved hitter in baseball in 2020. The coach in me wanted to look under the hood and see, first, what drove Hernandez’s progress, and second, how sustainable it was and whether there were any red flags or possibilities for regression.

Starting with the various projections for 2021, Steamer and ZiPS are split regarding Hernandez’s offense:

Courtesy Fangraphs

In 2019 Hernandez’s offensive output was worth 1.8 runs above average, and that number spiked to 12 runs in 2020. While both Steamer and ZiPS see Hernandez as a well below average fielder, ZiPS seems to mostly buy Hernandez’s improvements, projecting him to be worth 9.9 runs above average in 2021. Steamer, on the other hand, is skeptical, and expects Hernandez’s offense to regress to 2019 levels. So how did Hernandez go about increasing his offensive metrics in 2020?

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Looking at the table above shows that the driver behind Hernandez’s xwOBA increase was the fact that he simply hit the ball harder: his average launch angle stayed the same at 15.3 degrees, while his exit velocity metrics increased. He squared the ball up more often, going from 11.7% to 18.0% barrels; as a result, his hard hit percentage (the percentage of balls that left his bat at 95mph+) jumped to 53.1%, and his average exit velocity increased by about 2mph.

Breaking down Hernandez’s hitting statistics by pitch type reveals that his increase in both xwOBA and exit velocities was achieved almost exclusively by punishing fastballs.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Hernandez’s xwOBA on fastballs was an astronomical .486, driven by a 20 degree launch angle and an average exit velocity of nearly 97mph. However, there is a problem with putting all your eggs into the fastball basket.

While being an elite fastball hitter, Hernandez has struggled with hitting breaking and offspeed pitches. In the past three years, his xwOBA on breaking balls is yet to surpass .300, and he has been swinging and missing at them at a rate of about 40% or worse. He has been able to improve his whiff percentage on the offspeed stuff, but has been pounding those pitches into the ground with an average launch angle of 7 degrees. The worrying part, for Hernandez anyway, is that pitchers have noticed, and he has been seeing fewer fastballs: from about 57-58% in 2018 and 2019, to about 53% in 2020. The decrease in fastballs has been offset by an increase in the number of offspeed pitches thrown to Hernandez, but given the data above, I would not be surprised if he starts seeing a larger share of breaking balls in 2021.

Moreover, Hernandez so far hasn’t show the ability to get on base consistently in a different way than pounding the fastball.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

His 2020 strikeout rate of 30.4% was in the 12th percentile for all batters, while his walk rate of 6.8% was in the 24th percentile. Walks and strikeouts are certainly not the end-all-be-all, but Hernandez is well “above” the MLB average in terms of his whiff percentage – 36.0% for his career as opposed to 24.5% MLB average, caused in large part by his below average zone contact percentage: 71.5% for his career as opposed to 82.8% MLB average.

Baseball is a game of adjustments, and it will be interesting to follow Hernandez’s 2021 season. I would not be surprised if Hernandez saw less than 50% fastballs going forward, and it will be up to him to show the pitchers that he can handle the breaking ball in the zone. Given the league-wide trend of overall decreasing fastball usage – and Hernandez’s limited contributions on defense – learning how to do damage on something other than fastballs is a critical skill for Hernandez’s future as a major league contributor.

Second Serve +1 = 3

Knowing that even following a second serve, the majority of points in men’s professional tennis are contested in the 0-4 shot range, what are some of the ways in which players could go about increasing their effectiveness in these short rallies? As a server, you want to maximize the number of “1” and “3” shot rallies in that 0-4 range, i.e. the rally lengths that lead to you winning the point (remember that rallies of an odd length mean a point for the server, while rallies of an even length lead to a point won by the returner). Are there any particular areas of the service box you should target more often with your serve? Furthermore, let’s say you’d prefer your first stroke after the return to be a forehand. How does that change the equation?

Once again, I decided to use the dataset of all individual points played in the 2020 US Open men’s singles matches, compiled by Jeff Sackmann. Specifically, I wanted to focus on points starting with the second serve, and a rally length of 3. (The few lines of code needed for the article can be found here.)

Second Serve Rally Lengths, 2020 US Open Men’s Singles

There are two reasons why I think this particular scenario is important. The first is simply that it was the most frequently occurring rally length in dataset (see above). The second reason is slightly more tactical. If I wanted to maximize the rally length of 1 after a second serve, that means I don’t want the serve to come back. I need to either hit it harder, with more spin, risk more, or be more unpredictable with its location. On the other hand – maximizing the rally length of 3 – I want the serve to come back. I just want it to come back to where I want it, so I can do damage with my “+1.” I don’t need for the serve to be the dagger and take a lot of risk with it; I only need it to set up the rest of my game.

Let’s start with the 30,000ft view. Overall, there were 6,541 second serve points in the dataset, for which the serve direction was tagged. The direction was assigned one of five values: Wide, Body-Wide, Body, Body-Center, and Center. It’s important to mention that the 6,541 points are both deuce and ad points combined, as well as righty and lefty servers combined. Here are the direction percentages for all second serve points:

Second Serve Directions: Overall

DirectionWBWBBCCSum
Serves Hit6881,7001,2141,8241,1156,541
% of Serves Hit10.52%26.00%18.56%27.89%17.05%100%

We can learn two things from the table: one, the body serve reigns supreme. When we combine all three of the body serve categories, we see that more than 7 out of every 10 second serves were aimed at the body of the opponent. The body serve is especially effective when the returner wants to take the return early, or on the rise – right around the baseline or inside it. It will lose some of its bite when the returner stands 2+ meters behind the baseline and has time to move and make space for the return. Second, the players are apprehensive about opening up the court for the opponent, going wide with their second serve only about 10% of the time.

With that general overview of the second serve direction patterns, let’s zoom in on the second serve patterns that yielded the rally length of 3 most often. There were 1,577 second serve rallies of length 3 in the datatset, tagged with the corresponding serve direction. The breakdown is as follows:

Second Serve Directions: Rally Length = 3

DirectionWBWBBCCSum
Serves Hit1734083154452361,577
% of Serves Hit10.97%25.87%19.97%28.22%14.97%100%

Looking at both of the above tables combined, it doesn’t seem that serving into one particular area of the box resulted in more 3 stroke rallies than expected; the percentages are all basically the same. The biggest difference was in the “Center” location, where players directed 17.05% of their second serves, but that location yielded about 15% of three stroke rallies. That 2% difference is probably due to the fact that after a second serve down the center, both the server and returner are positioned near the middle of the court, not dissimilar to what you would see in the warmup. It is harder to generate any attacking angles from that part of the court, and we’re likely to see a longer baseline rally as a result.

If there aren’t any obvious areas of the box to serve into to increase the likelihood of the 3 stroke rally by themselves, are there any areas that increase my chances, as a server, that my “+1” will be a particular stroke? I would argue that the majority of players would prefer that first stroke after the serve to be a forehand.

Short of watching every point and tagging the first stroke hit by the server following the return, we’ll need to use a proxy. If a specific rally in the dataset ended with a winner, the point is tagged with either a ‘F’ or a ‘B’ – forehand or backhand – based on the type of shot that resulted in the winner. What we have below are second serve points, of rally length 3, that ended with a forehand winner. Overall, there were 373 of those points in the dataset, with the distribution as follows:

Second Serve Directions: Rally Length = 3, Winner = ‘F’

DirectionWBWBBCCSum
Serves Hit65100619453373
% of Serves Hit17.43%26.81%16.35%25.20%14.21%100%

The thing that stands out in this table is the column with the “Wide” serve direction. In the tables above, we saw that about 10.5% of all second serves were hit into the wide section of the box, and 11% of all second serve 3 stroke rallies started with a wide second serve. But when looking at second serve 3 stroke rallies finishing with a forehand winner, that number jumps to over 17%.

Obviously looking at a small subset of points – the ones ending with a winner – has its limitations. For example, we are not considering rallies that ended with a forced error by the returner on stroke number 4. However, I think that there is something to pay attention to even with the relatively small sample size.

We saw from the data how infrequent second serves out wide are – only about 11% of second serves were hit out wide in the dataset. I would guess the percentage would be even smaller than that in just the deuce side of the court. In the ad side, the kick out wide tends to be the easiest topspin serve for a right handed server to hit, and the wide “slider” in the ad is the bread and butter of lefties. So if a player decides to hit a second serve wide in the deuce, he often catches the opponent by surprise, resulting in a weaker return. And on that weaker return, the server has time to move around his backhand if he needs to, and get on offense with his forehand. Moreover – just by the geometry of the court – it is harder to direct a return from the wide section of the deuce side into the ad side of the server: the net is higher, and the court is shorter that way. As a result, the return will probably come back through the middle, or cross court – allowing the server to “cheat” that way in preparation for his +1.

If you are a player yourself, or maybe coaching a player, and you would like to increase the chances of crushing a forehand following your second serve, don’t forget about the wide target. Especially in the deuce side.

Aaron Nola Will Make You Question Yourself

In one of the later chapters of The MVP Machine, the authors describe a working relationship between a professional baseball player (an unnamed position player) and a writer at an “analytically inclined” baseball website. The player felt that his club’s advance scouting data wasn’t granular enough, and asked the writer to supplement the information with more detail. The writer summarized that the player was basically looking at three things: “Am I squaring up the ball? Am I swinging and missing? Am I swinging at strikes?”

That last question got me thinking. As a pitcher, it is rarely a bad idea to have batters look at called strikes, and swing at balls. Which pitchers, in 2020, were particularly effective at doing just that? To make that determination, I looked at Statcast data for all pitchers, who threw at least 60 innings in 2020. Specifically, I looked at their outside-zone swing rate, their zone take rate – calculated as just (1 – zone swing rate) – and took the average of the two. Note that this analysis completely omits of what happens if contact is made with the ball. We’re merely interested in taking strikes, and swinging at balls. (If you’re interested in the Statcast query and the few lines of code for this, click here.) The top ten was as follows:

NameOz_swing_%Z_take_%Avg
Aaron Nola0.3660.3970.3815
Zac Gallen0.2940.4050.3495
Kenta Maeda0.3930.3060.3495
Brady Singer0.2710.4270.3490
Shane Bieber0.3440.3530.3485
Jose Berrios0.3120.3840.3480
Alec Mills0.2990.3930.3460
Dylan Bundy0.2910.3960.3435
Marco Gonzales0.3030.3770.3400
Adam Wainwright0.3010.3760.3385
Courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

Aaron Nola was in a league of his own in this made-up stat in 2020. The difference between him and Kenta Maeda with Zac Gallen is as big as the difference between Maeda/Gallen and the 22nd player on the list. Let’s take a look at how Nola goes about creating uncertainty in the batters’ minds. We’ll look at what happens before he even throws a pitch, and once a pitch leaves his hand.

Before

Imagine you’re a major league baseball player, and you are about to face Aaron Nola. Starting with the 30,000ft view, which pitches does he throw, and how often? In 2020, the breakdown looked like this:

Pitch Type##RHB#LHB%
Changeup31416415027.4
Curveball30615615026.7
4-Seam FB29011517525.3
Sinker2381489020.7
Courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

Nola throws four pitches, and relies on three of them about equally. He used the sinker the least, but still threw it about a fifth of the time. Regardless if you’re batting righty or lefty, you have to respect the curveball, and the changeup. If you’re batting righty, you might get the sinker more often, and if you’re a lefty, maybe the four seamer. But we haven’t learned much.

What about by a particular count?

Except for the 3-0 fastball, maybe look for the 2-1 changeup? But other than the 3-0 count, we see every pitch being thrown in every count. And there really aren’t any big circles in the picture – no particular pitch dominates a particular count, with the exception of 3-0.

OK, sounds good coach. We know we will get one of four pitches, but very little information on which one might be coming when. Maybe we’ll learn something in the 0.4 seconds we have between a pitch leaves Nola’s hand and we have to decide whether to swing or not?

During

Now you’re standing in the batter’s box. Nola goes into his motion, and delivers the pitch.

According to Baseball Savant, Nola has a “very consistent release point.” The changeup comes in from about 4’8″, the fastballs from 4’9″, and the curveball from about 5’1.” What happens during the release is even more fun.

Let’s compare the two fastballs first:

FastballMPHActive SpinSpin AxisHorizontal BreakVertical Break
4-Seam92.898%1:4513.9in18.1in
Sinker91.796%1:4517.4in24.4in
Courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

That’s two different types of a fastball, coming in at about the same velocity, thrown from the same release point, and spinning around the same axis at release. But one of them has about 3.5 inches more arm side run, and more than 6 inches of additional vertical drop. I would imagine it is nearly impossible to tell them apart before one needs to make a swing decision.

If it’s hard to tell the two fastballs apart, what about the curveball?

PitchMPHActive SpinSpin AxisHorizontal BreakVertical Break
Curveball78.686%7:4515.1in54.8in
Courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

The curveball in and off itself averages 4.1 inches more vertical drop than other curveballs thrown at comparable speeds from comparable release points. What amplifies its effectiveness is how it compliments the fastball. Or in Nola’s case, two fastballs.

I will not attempt to explain spin mirroring on here, Michael Augustine does a much better job of it than I ever will. But notice that the spin axes for the fastballs (1:45) and the curveball (7:45) are exactly 180 degrees apart. In essence, the fastballs and the curveball are spinning along the same axis; the difference being that the fastballs are rotating “backwards” through the air because of the backspin on the ball, while the curveball is rotating “forwards” because of the topspin on the pitch. And for a batter to differentiate between topspin and backspin on a pitch in a split second is extremely difficult. (Seriously, go read the article. Well worth your time. There is a great animation demonstrating this point in there too.)

Alright, so what do we have so far? Three pitches, extremely difficult to tell apart when they leave Nola’s hand, and can be thrown in any count. Great. Let’s play a little game.

We have two fastballs, coming in at 92.3mph on average, and a curveball coming in at 78.6mph. If we were to add another pitch, to upset a hitter’s timing further, how about we have it average about (92.3 + 78.6)/2 = 85.45mph. Also, let’s have the vertical break be halfway between the vertical break of the curve and the vertical break of the sinker? Around 40 inches?

PitchMPHActive SpinSpin AxisHorizontal BreakVertical Break
Changeup84.999%2:3014.5in35.5in
Courtesy of baseballsavant.mlb.com

40 inches of vertical drop on the changeup would be Logan Webb/Devin Williams territory. Nevertheless, the changeup fits perfectly with the fastballs and the breaking ball in terms of speed. It is released from a slightly lower spot than the fastballs, but has about 10 more inches of vertical drop compared to the sinker. In 2020, opponents were just pounding it into the ground, slugging .296 on the pitch with a -6 launch angle.

To summarize, Nola has 4 pitches that complement one another extremely well, and the ability and willingness to throw any one of them in any count. His unpredictability resulted in uncomfortable at bats for the position players in 2020, who were more prone to look at strikes and swing at balls against Nola than against any other starting pitcher.