Monte Carlo Groundstrokes Spin Rates and Velocities

In tennis, the speed of the serve has been measured for decades. It usually flashes right after the serve either directly on the scoreboard, or on a dedicated display somewhere along the wall of the court. However, with the advent of Hawk-Eye and a more widespread use of ball-tracking technologies, we’ve been able to collect much more in-depth data on strokes other than just the serve. I was therefore happy to see that one of the pieces of data made available to the public during the recently concluded Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters was the average spin rates and velocities of the groundstrokes hit during some of the matches.

Before we get to the data itself, a short disclaimer. First, the data was not available for every match played in the main draw; I’m assuming this is because some of the outside courts are not equipped with the necessary ball-tracking technology. Second, the average spin rates don’t differentiate between strokes hit with topspin and with backspin. This is not much of an issue on the forehand side, as the vast majority of forehands on the men’s tour are hit with topspin. The use of backspin is much more prevalent on the backhand side, but for every match there was just one raw spin number for all the backhands hit by a particular player. With that being said, here are some of the interesting trends from the 33 matches that had the data available (all data courtesy of ATP Tour).

Forehands are hit with more spin and velocity across the board

Below are the comprehensive spin rate and velocity statistics from all 33 matches:

Forehand Spin (rpm)Backhand Spin (rpm)Forehand Velocity (km/h)Backhand Velocity (km/h)
75th Percentile31212292127.15119.35
50th Percentile28532001124.25116.75
25th Percentile26001819122.00113.78

There were 33 matches in the dataset, with 66 total “observations” (two per match: one for each player). In all 66 cases, the forehand spin rate was greater than the backhand spin rate. Furthermore, in 65 cases, the average forehand velocity was greater than the average backhand velocity; the lone exception being Hubert Hurkacz in his Round of 32 match, where his average forehand velocity was 111.5 km/h, while his average backhand velocity was 111.8 km/h.

Let’s combine this with the typical placement of the groundstrokes. Below are the placement breakdowns for Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev from their finals match; they are fairly representative of the overall trend. Forehands are the first gallery, backhands second.

On the forehand side, both Rublev and Tsitsipas preferred to aim their forehand into their opponent’s backhand, but the split is much closer to 50-50 than it is for the backhands. Forehands are hit faster, with more spin, and placed more unpredictably than backhands. This reinforces the traditional view of the forehand as the “sword,” and the backhand as the “shield;” the men’s groundstroke game is really a battle for forehands. At the same time, I think a backhand down the line is a tremendous weapon in today’s men’s game to counter this strategy, but that is for another blog post.

Correlations between spin rates and velocities

What I wanted to look at next is the relationship between the spin rates on strokes and the average velocities. Do groundstrokes hit at faster velocities spin at higher rpms? Are flat strokes faster than “spinnier” strokes? Here is the table of the correlation coefficients:

Variable 1Variable 2Correlation Coefficient
Backhand SpinBackhand Velocity0.0561
Forehand SpinForehand Velocity0.3024
Forehand SpinBackhand Spin0.6381
Forehand VelocityBackhand Velocity0.6370

Starting from the top, the relationship between backhand spin and backhand velocity seems to be completely random; knowing a spin rate or a velocity tells you nothing about the other variable, at least for the matches in the current data set – I wonder if this might be due to the fact that we’re lumping topspin and backspin backhands together. There is a stronger positive relationship between the forehand spin and forehand velocity, even though it is still only a low to moderate relationship. The main takeaway from the first two lines in the table above is that fast groundstrokes can come in different shapes; corollary being that spinny groundstrokes come at different velocities. One example to illustrate this takeaway on the forehand side:

PlayerRoundForehand Velocity (km/h)Forehand Spin (rpm)
Davidovich FokinaR32130.82861

The forehands of Tsitsipas and Davidovich Fokina in their round of 32 matches came in at about the same velocities, but the forehand of Tsitsipas was spinning about 500 rpm faster than Davidovich Fokina’s. Tsitsipas’ forehand will feel “heavier” to the opponent; we’ll return to this point towards the end of the article.

The second big takeaway from the correlation table is the much stronger positive correlation coefficients between the forehand and backhand spin rates, and the forehand and backhand velocities. In simple terms, when a player hits the ball hard from one side, he tends to hit it hard from the other side as well. Similarly, a player with a spinny forehand will most likely have a relatively spinny backhand as well.

This, to me, is especially interesting on the spin side. I would think that correlation would be weaker there; i.e. that players with spinny forehands might still have flat backhands. Forehands and backhands are hit with different grips; a grip on the racket plays a big part in the approach angle of the face of the racket as it makes contact with the ball; and finally the approach angle plays a large part on the spin imparted on the ball (spin and flight of the ball is physics; rocket science really. A rocket scientist I am not, this is overly simplified). What the data from Monte Carlo would seem to suggest is that players with more extreme forehand grips, for example, are more likely to have extreme backhand grips. Similarly, if a player has a grip closer to continental on the forehand (flatter), he’ll most likely have a flatter grip on the backhand as well. There’s a level of consistency in how he hits the ball from both sides.


Let’s finish up with the fun stuff: leaderboards! Who hit the fastest and spinniest forehands in Monte Carlo? Velocity comes first: below are the players with the forehand velocities in the 90th percentile and better.

PlayerRoundForehand Velocity (km/h)
Davidovich FokinaR32130.8

And here are the players with forehand spin rates in the 90th percentile and better.

PlayerRoundForehand Spin (rpm)

What makes Nadal’s forehand untouchable is its combination of speed, spin, and the fact that it comes from the left side. The only other player appearing in both of the above tables is the eventual Monte Carlo champion Stefanos Tsitsipas. Forehands coming in at high speeds, and high spin rates, tend to bounce way up high, and opponents are often forced to make contact either back behind the baseline, or in uncomfortable positions around shoulder height. It is extremely challenging to return those forehands back with interest. Also, Casper Ruud is already ranked #24 ATP as of this writing; his way into the Top 20 and higher will be paved by his forehand. If he could add a few km/h to the stroke, he would be in the conversation for the heaviest forehand in the game after Nadal hangs up his rackets.

On to the backhands, velocity first. These are the players with backhand velocities in the 90th percentile and higher:

PlayerRoundBackhand Velocity (km/h)
Davidovich FokinaQF123.2

Rafael Nadal in his round of 16 match was absolutely bludgeoning the ball. Also, we can see a lot of the same names from the forehand velocity leaderboard in the table above: Nadal, Ramos-Vinolas, Davidovich Fokina, and Fabio Fognini all make an appearance in both velocity leaderboards. This is a good illustriation of the 0.6 correlation coefficient between the forehand and backhand velocities. If you like fast groundstrokes, these are your guys.

How about spinny backhands?

PlayerRoundBackhand Spin (rpm)

Neither Tsitsipas nor Ruud are in the backhand velocity leaderboard, but both are featured in the forehand spin leaderboard, further illustrating the relationship between the spin of the groundstrokes, and a much weaker relationship between the spin and velocity of the individual strokes. Casper Ruud hits a two handed backhand, while Tsitsipas has a one hander.

Rafael Nadal was, unsurprisingly, the king of groundstroke velocity in Monte Carlo, ranking first in both the forehand and backhand velocity leaderboards. Casper Ruud was the unofficial king of topspin, placing first in both spin leaderboards. If the conditions in Paris are fast during the French Open – hot days, no rain, firm clay – watch out for Ruud making an appearance in the second week of the tournament.

Marcus Semien v. 2019 & 2021?

As we’re nearing the end of spring training and getting ready for the start of the regular season, one question on the minds of Blue Jays fans is: which version of Marcus Semien are we going to get? Will it be the Semien of 2019, who finished 3rd in the AL MVP race, and had a wRC+ of 138? Or will Semien’s 2021 season be more in line with his pre-2019 production, i.e. wRC+ in the 90-100 range?

To answer that question, I wanted to look at some of Semien’s underlying statistics from that 2019 season, and compare them, mostly, to his 2018 statistics. Semien had 700+ plate appearances in both of those years, which gives us comparable sample sizes. I will use the 2020 season statistics a little bit to illustrate a few tendencies, but given the overall limitations and unique challenges of 2020, I won’t rely on that unfortunate year too much.

Semien went from slashing .255/.318/.388 in 2018 up to .285/.369/.522 in 2019. Starting with the OBP, the increase – besides the 30 point jump in batting average – was also driven by Semien’s career-high walk rate of 11.6%, and career-low strikeout rate of 13.7%.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Semien’s increased walk rate wasn’t a result of just taking more pitches – in 2018, he saw 4.098 pitches per plate appearance, while in 2019 it was 3.969/PA. Semien simply chased less out of the zone, and made more contact in the zone in 2019.

YearZ_Contact %Chase %Whiff %
Courtesy MLB Statcast

As a matter of fact, in 2019, Semien set a career high for zone contact rate, and career lows (up until 2019) for chase and whiff percentages. He was also one of only five qualified batters, who had sub-20% chase and whiff rates in 2019 (the others being Alex Bregman, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto).

The reason why I included 2020 in the table above is because it highlights two trends that will play a large role in determining what kind of a year Semien has at the plate. First: will he keep chasing less than 20% of the pitches out of the zone? Since 2016, his chase rate has been steadily declining; he didn’t expand the strike zone even after that horrendous start to the 2020 campaign. I would not be surprised to see that particular trend continue.

The second part of the equation, however, will be seeing whether the 2020 decline in zone contact is real or not. The MLB average zone contact percentage is 82.2%, and Semien dipped below that level only in 2016 and 2020. For what it’s worth, Semien’s chase contact percentage decreased only slightly from 61.2% in 2019 to 60.2%* in 2020. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if Semien’s zone contact rate can get back up to the mid-80s.

Turning our attention to the damage Semien does with pitches he makes contact with, his slugging percentage jumped from .388 in 2018 to .522 in 2019. The biggest contributor to that .522 slug were batted balls in the lower two-thirds of the zone.

That fact in and of itself was not new in 2019. In both 2018 and 2019, Semien did more damage when he connected with pitches in the lower part of the zone. The 2018 zone breakdown is on the left, 2019 on the right.

What did change from 2018 to 2019 was that it seems that Semien was more actively looking to swing at pitches down in the zone in 2019. We can use his swing decisions when ahead in the count as a proxy. Below are his swing rates at 1-0 and 2-0, with a minimum of 5 swings per given square in 2019:

And these are the swing decisions in one strike counts, when ahead, in 2019:

Where I think the preference for low strikes is illustrated best is in the 2-0 count box, where the hitter is really in the driver’s seat and can zero in at a particular location. In that count, in 2019, Semien was thinking “middle of the plate, down in the zone.”

Let’s contrast these with the same figures for the year 2018. First, the swing decisions with 0 strikes, minimum five swings per square:

And these are the swing decisions up ahead in the count at 2-1 and 3-1 for 2018:

Looking at the 1-0 and 2-1 counts in 2018, it seems that Semien was thinking “middle of the plate,” but was willing to swing at pitches higher in the zone as well. What I also find interesting is the different 2-0 swing profiles; in 2018, Semien was looking “middle-middle,” whereas in 2019 that became “middle-down.”

Whether or not Semien can keep hammering pitches low in the zone will be the second thing – the first being his chase and zone contact rates – worth monitoring in the 2021 season. He has traditionally had more success with pitches low, and in 2019, his swing decisions, at least when ahead in the count, played into his strength more than in 2018.

As of the evening of March 24th, Semien is slashing .256/.356/.538 in 39 spring training at-bats. An encouraging sign of his continued low strike hitting prowess was on display a few days ago in his first at-bat in a game against the Tigers.

Courtesy MLB Statcast

Semien took pitch #1, swung and missed at #2, and took #3. With the count 1-2, he got a sinker in the lower part of the zone, middle-away – right in his wheelhouse – and didn’t miss it. 102.8 mph exit velocity + 24 degree launch angle = 413 feet home run to center field. Shades of 2019, and a good sign for Blue Jays fans.

College Tennis Alumni at the 2021 Australian Open – Part 4: Women’s Doubles

In this final installment of my mini-series, I will look at college tennis alumni, who have competed in the women’s doubles draw at the 2021 Australian Open. As was the case with the women’s singles overview, I am a bit out of my depth here: all of my college experience has been on the men’s side. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies and omissions.

There were thirteen players in the women’s doubles draw with college experience, compared to five in the singles main draw. Three players competed in the main draw of both singles and doubles: Aliona Bolsova, Jennifer Brady, and Astra Sharma . For every player, I will point out one or two college achievements, followed by a couple of professional highlights. The list is once again ordered alphabetically by the last name.

Aliona Bolsova, Oklahoma State University/Florida Atlantic University

Jennifer Brady, UCLA

Hayley Carter, University of North Carolina

  • College: 7-time All-American, ACC all-time leader in women’s tennis singles victories (168), 2014 NCAA Team Finalists
  • Professional: Career high #31 WTA doubles, 2020 US Open Doubles Quarterfinalist

Carter had an impressive career as a Tar Heel, winning 294(!) matches in her four years in Chapel Hill (singles and doubles combined). What is equally impressive to me are her academic achievements: she was ACC’s Scholar Athlete of the Year in back-to-back years, as well as a Patterson Medal recipient, which is the most prestigious athletic honor awarded at the University of North Carolina.

Kaitlyn Christian, University of Southern California

  • College: 2012/2013 doubles “triple crown” winner: ITA All-American Doubles Champion, ITA National Indoor Doubles Champion, NCAA Doubles Champion
  • Professional: Career high #38 WTA doubles

Christian’s junior season at USC in 2012/13 was remarkable. With her teammate Sabrina Santamaria, they not only won the 2013 NCAA doubles championship, becoming the first pair in USC women’s tennis history to do so. They also won the two biggest individual events contested during the fall – the ITA All-American championships, and the ITA National Indoor championships. Not surprisingly, the pair finished the year ranked #1 in the ITA doubles rankings.

Alexa Guarachi, University of Alabama

  • College: 2013 NCAA Singles Semifinalist, 2013 NCAA Doubles Semifinalist, All-time leader in career singles wins at University of Alabama (109)
  • Professional: Career high #24 WTA doubles, 2020 French Open Doubles Finalist

Desirae Krawczyk, Arizona State University

  • College: 2016 Singles All-American
  • Professional: Career high #22 WTA doubles, 2020 French Open Doubles Finalist

Krawczyk was Guarachi’s partner in their run to the 2020 French Open doubles final, where they lost to the #2 overall seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic. Krawczyk and Guarachi were the #9 seeds at the 2021 Australian Open, and lost in the third round to the pair of Coco Gauff and Katie McNally.

Giuliana Olmos, University of Southern California

  • College: 2016 Singles All-American, Career high #11 ITA Singles, Career high #4 ITA Doubles
  • Professional: Career high #53 WTA doubles, 2021 Australian Open Doubles Quarterfinalist

Olmos is the second USC Trojan on this list. During her sophomore season at USC, Olmos actually paired with Kaitlyn Christian to claim the Pac-12 Doubles Championship crown. They didn’t compete together at the 2021 Australian Open though; Olmos’ partner was the Canadian Sharon Fichman, and the two lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual finalists Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic.

Ellen Perez, University of Georgia

  • College: 2-time Singles All-American, 3-time Doubles All-American
  • Professional: Career high #40 WTA doubles, 2019 US Open Doubles 3rd round

Perez played three years at the University of Georgia, earning the doubles All-American distinction all three years. She was also a singles All-American following her sophomore and junior campaigns. Following her sophomore year, Perez earned a wild card into the 2016 US Open by defeating Ashleigh Barty in the final of a wild card tournament organized by Tennis Australia. Barty was by then ranked around #300 WTA, but is the #1 ranked singles player in the world as of this writing.

Sabrina Santamaria, University of Southern California

  • College: 5-time All-American, 2013 NCAA Doubles Champion, 2013 Pac-12 Player of the Year
  • Professional: Career high #53 WTA doubles

Santamaria is the third and final USC Trojan on the list. During her career in Los Angeles, Santamaria won the 2013 NCAA doubles championship with her teammate Kaitlyn Christian. In the spring of her junior season, Santamaria suffered a serious ACL injury; yet despite that setback, she still won 96 singles matches for the Trojans in less than four years of competition.

Astra Sharma, Vanderbilt

Ena Shibahara, UCLA

  • College: 2-time Singles All-American, Career high #1 ITA Singles
  • Professional: Career high #15 WTA doubles, 2020 French Open & 2021 Australian Open Doubles Quarterfinalist

Shibahara spent two years at UCLA before turning pro, winning 67 singles matches for the Bruins in the process. In both her seasons at UCLA, she was named the Pac-12 Singles Player of the Year – only the second women’s tennis player in UCLA’s history to be a repeat winner of the award.

Luisa Stefani, Pepperdine

  • College: 3-time Singles All-American, 2016 NCAA Singles Semifinalist
  • Professional: Career high #30 WTA doubles, 2020 US Open Doubles Quarterfinalist

Stefani attended Pepperdine for three years and ranks #1 on the all-time Waves’ career winning percentage at .847. During her amateur career, Stefani was ranked as high as #2 on the ITA singles rankings, and #8 on the ITA doubles rankings. At the 2020 US Open, Stefani became the first Brazilian player to reach the quarterfinals in a women’s doubles Grand Slam event; her partner in New York was ex-UNC standout Hayley Carter, who is also on this list.

Belinda Woolcock, University of Florida

  • College: 2-time Singles All-American, 2017 NCAA Singles finalist, 2017 NCAA Team National Champions
  • Professional: Career high #207 WTA doubles

Woolcock’s collegiate career had just about a storybook ending. During her senior year, she played line #1 singles on a team that won the NCAA team national championship. Woolcock was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, and a few days later played for the NCAA singles title. Unfortunately, in her last match as a Gator, she lost to Michigan’s Brienne Minor. Woolcock and her partner Olivia Gadecki were granted a wild card into the 2021 Australian Open, and they won a round before losing their second match to the team of Leylah Fernandez and Heather Watson.

Is college tennis a pathway to the pro game? No doubt about it. We’ve seen college tennis alumni in both men’s and women’s main draw at the Australian Open, and an even stronger representation in the doubles draws. At the same time, the players, who have made a successful transition to the highest level of the pro game, have been some of the best players in college tennis during their time on campus. With the exception of maybe one or two players, all have been All-Americans, and most of them played on teams with legitimate national championship aspirations. That would be my takeaway from this exercise: if you are an aspiring junior player, and choose to go to college before turning pro, go to a nationally competitive program, and try to distinguish yourself by setting a goal of becoming an All-American. If you can achieve that, then not only will you leave a lasting legacy at your alma mater; you will also be well prepared to face the best players in our sport on the professional tour.

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.
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.