Bryan Shaw’s Two-Headed Fastball

Remember when the Rockies attempted to assemble a super-mega bullpen? During the 2017-18 offseason, the team committed a combined $106 million to Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and the protagonist of this article, Bryan Shaw. What followed was a disaster. The trio put up just 0.4 WAR while part of the Rockies bullpen, a miserable return on investment.

Each pitcher had his own flaws, but none was worse than Shaw, who dragged down an already disappointing total with -0.5 WAR over a two-year span. If you’re not too familiar with him, Shaw is synonymous with his cutter, which he’s thrown upwards to 80% of the time in his career. It’s a fantastic pitch, featuring some of the league’s best horizontal movement in tandem with ample rise. The problem: In Colorado, the high altitude suppresses magnus force, the source of backspin and thus vertical break. Many of Shaw’s cutters became extremely hittable in this new environment – his Hard Hit rate jumped from 28.6% in 2017 to 39.7% the following year.

That’s where the story ended, for a while. Even at FanGraphs, our last mention of Shaw was in a Sunday Notes column back in 2019. Two years later, Bryan Shaw is now an essential part of Cleveland’s bullpen, his former home, with a 1.42 ERA and 3.56 FIP. Talk about a resurgence! What’s more, it’s not as if he’s added a secret new pitch. He still throws the cutter as often as he did years ago.

But at a glance, the numbers on it can appear underwhelming. For example, since his first stint with Cleveland in 2013, here’s the movement profile of Shaw’s cutter by year:

Cutter Movement by Year
Year H Mov (in) V Mov (in)
2013 1.2 4.5
2014 2.1 3.7
2015 3.0 3.9
2016 3.5 4.1
2017 2.5 4.2
2018 2.6 2.9
2019 2.4 2.9
2020 2.4 4.6
2021 3.0 2.4

What’s going on? Though Shaw has escaped the clutches of Coors, the vertical break on his cutter is still down. Based on this, one could assume the good results it has produced so far (a .177 wOBA, a 21.3% Whiff/Swing%) are misleading, or that there’s little to explain Shaw’s return-to-form.

This is where things get interesting. Per Baseball Savant and Baseball Info Solutions, Shaw still only throws a cutter. But consult Pitch Info, and it’ll tell you that he’s added a four-seam fastball to his repertoire. Pitch classification is an inexact science. The boundaries between different pitch types can be ambiguous, and often, classification is determined by what the pitcher himself calls it rather than its movement. But before we make any judgments about who’s right or wrong, let’s check out the contestants. First, here’s a pitch that was labelled as a four-seamer:

The signature arm-side cut is there, but muted, and the pitch doesn’t drop as much as you’d expect from a conventional cutter. Velocity is also a giveaway. While Shaw’s normal cutters are averaging 92-93 mph, his four-seamers are up to 98 mph this season. Next, here’s a pitch that was labeled as a cutter:

Same trajectory as the four-seamer before, then swerves to the bottom of the zone. Now, I did choose two pitches with different locations for the sake of visual contrast, but the numbers will tell you that their movement profiles alone set them apart. Overall, here’s the data on Shaw’s four-seamer and cutter so far this season:

Four-Seamer & Cutter Data
Pitch Type H Mov (in) V Mov (in) Velo (mph)
Four-Seamer 1.8 5.6 95.5
Cutter 3.0 2.4 92.2

Based on everything so far, I’m inclined to believe Shaw has developed two distinct fastballs – one with higher velocity and better vertical break, and another that is slower but thrives because of its horizontal movement. Still, you could argue that they’re in fact the same pitch. Throughout his career, for example, Shaw’s faster cutters have always had more rise. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to him. In general, spin rate increases with fastball velocity, and the former keeps the pitch afloat as it reaches home plate. Furthermore, his cutters have long had a wide range of horizontal movement, and if anything, it was greater in previous years.

Those are all valid points. But what also convinced me of Shaw’s transformation is this: He looks like he’s in control of which version of the fastball he wants to throw. Before, his single cutter took charge in pretty much every count. He did mix in the slider (versus lefties) or the curveball and later the changeup (versus righties), but their usage paled in comparison. In recent games, though, there’s a bit more variation. Below is a table showing Shaw’s four-seamer and cutter rate in different types of counts:

Pitch Usage by Count Type
Count Pitches 4S% Cutter%
Batter Ahead 103 16.5% 70.0%
Even 134 26.7% 50.7%
Pitcher Ahead 72 26.4% 38.9%
Two Strikes 81 30.9% 29.6%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

When batters are ahead, Shaw relies on the slower cutter he can reliably throw for strikes. In even counts, the split between cutters and four-seamers resembles the overall rate. The story takes a turn when Shaw has the upper hand. Consider how when there’s two strikes – a chance to put away the batter – the rate of four-seamers becomes almost equal to that of cutters.

More than ever, Shaw is reserving his harder, rising fastball as a strikeout pitch. For comparison, let’s look into his 2019 season. There wasn’t a distinction between the four-seamer and the cutter back then, so as flimsy as this method is, I divided his cutters into two groups: Ones thrown 93 mph or higher, and ones thrown 92 mph or lower – his average velocity was 92.5 mph, so the split is even. Did Shaw prefer one group over the other in certain counts? Not really. An example: When ahead, he threw his faster cutters 32.9% of the time; when behind, he lowered their usage to 24.6%. There’s a gap, sure, but its significance is questionable. This season, Shaw has found a way to diversify his repertoire without having to abandon what worked in years past.

I’ve glossed over his brief layover in Seattle, but what he accomplished that year is just as noteworthy. After a disastrous six-inning stint, Shaw worked at the alternate site, where “he revamped his throwing program and strength training and tinkered with his mechanics and pitch mix,” per Zack Meisel at The Athletic. He then sent his Rapsodo data to Cleveland during the offseason, which was enough to earn him an invitation to spring training – and eventually, a spot on the roster.

After reading Meisel’s article, it seemed appropriate to check if Shaw had made any mechanical tweaks. Here’s a fastball he threw in 2020:

And here’s one he threw in 2021 (also to Ohtani, because he’s fabulous):

The biggest difference I noticed is how Shaw has simplified the beginning of his delivery. Last year, he began by lowering his glove, exhaling slightly, then raising it back up again for the windup. In the clip from this year, Shaw enters his windup almost immediately. The process is much simpler. Granted, he’s seen success with the old version, so maybe this isn’t a huge factor. But we might as well point out whatever changes he’s made. Perhaps more importantly, Shaw has moved towards the third base side of the rubber:

There are numerous reasons why pitchers move where they stand on the rubber. In Shaw’s case, however, a crucial detail is that where his front foot lands hasn’t changed very much. He’s releasing the ball from roughly the same angle and height as before, but now, he has a more direct path to the plate. Shaw no longer has to over-extend his lower body to replicate his mechanics. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say this is comfortable, allowing for easier velocity and movement on his pitches. The walks are still an issue, but he’s also striking out a career-high 29.3% of batters faced. As of now, whatever Shaw has altered is probably best for him.

If Julio Urías is a breaking ball fusion scientist, then Bryan Shaw is a fastball diffuser. The change is masked in the aggregate, but he seems to have taken the positive elements of his cutter and sorted them into two pitches. Higher velocity is paired with vertical break, and lower velocity is paired with horizontal break. I don’t know if this is necessarily better. It is from a pitch design perspective, but again, he enjoyed his heyday without such separation. Maybe an uptick in velocity and a change of scenery is all there is to his improved 2021.

Even so, the disagreement between Pitch Info and other sources is intriguing. I guess it boils down to intent. Is this pitcher varying his velocity and movement on purpose, or is it happening naturally? Potential nitpicks aside, the new Shaw seems to fit the first bill. Pitchers often add new pitches, but rarely do they tap into their existing material. Though the verdict on Shaw’s effectiveness is still out, his two-headed fastball is enough bliss for me.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

Justin, if you get any better you’re going to get a job with an MLB team. Good for you, bad for us.