He’s Not the Same Pitcher Any More

We’re in that awkward time between the true offseason, when most deals are made, and the spring, when all the Best Shape of His Life news stars flowing in. Let’s call it Projection Season, because we’re all stuck ogling prospect lists while perusing the projected numbers for the major league squads.

One of the most frustrating things about projection season can be the fact that most projection systems remain agnostic about change. Many of the adjustments the players talk about in season don’t take, or take for a while and then require further adjustment to remain relevant. So projections ignore most of it and assume the player will continue to be about the same as he’s always been until certain statistical thresholds are met and the change is believable from a numbers standpoint.

But projections do worse when it comes to projecting pitching than hitting, so there’s something that pitchers do that’s different than the many adjustments a hitter will make to his mechanics or approach over the course of a season. The submission here is that pitchers change their arsenals sometimes, and that a big change in arsenal radically changes who that player is.

Look at Greg Maddux pitching for Peoria in 1985. He’s not the Greg Maddux we know and love. Watch him throw fourseamers and curveballs. It was enough to get through the minor leagues, but, at that point, he’s barely throwing the two pitches that made him a Hall of Famer eventually.

He’s a bulldog on that mound, he still has good command, but the fastball has none of the movement that you see in vintage Maddux. We barely saw that curve much in the big leagues. Here’s what we saw.

He’s not the same pitcher any more in that second clip. It’s pushed to the extremes with this example, but you really wouldn’t want to have projected the second Maddux from the first. It wouldn’t have made sense.

Now that we have systems to track pitcher mix and shape, we could maybe stay on top of this from a projection system standpoint. But that’s beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, let’s just ask a simple question: who was very different, by pitching mix, in 2014?

Fastball Mix
Generally, sinkers are good for grounders, and four-seamers are good for whiffs. An above-average sinker gets 50.5% ground balls compared to 37.4% for the four-seamer, while an above-average four-seamer gets 6.4% whiffs to 5.6% for the sinker. But there are just some pitchers that can get more extension in their deliveries and therefore more rise out of their four-seamer, while other pitchers can get more horizontal movement out of their sinker. Either way, a big change from one to the other can be huge for a pitcher. One general caveat: separating two-seamers from four-seamers is not always easy, and some of these changes may have come from the systems merely catching up to old change.

More Sinkers

Pitcher IP 14 FA% 14 FT% 14FA-13FA 14FT-13FT
Jeff Locke 131.1 23.2% 38.6% -35.0% 32.6%
Tanner Roark 198.2 35.1% 31.6% -28.7% 31.6%
Vance Worley 108.2 19.7% 40.8% -25.1% 31.1%
Drew Pomeranz 52.1 41.8% 28.9% -21.9% 28.6%
Chris Archer 194.2 19.9% 46.9% -17.3% 24.4%
Tyson Ross 195.2 24.9% 30.8% -25.9% 22.8%
Doug Fister 164 12.3% 51.2% -8.0% 21.5%
Andrew Cashner 123.1 33.3% 36.5% -11.8% 20.5%
Yordano Ventura 181.1 53.7% 20.0% -22.0% 20.0%
Tommy Milone 117 30.3% 28.1% -15.5% 19.3%
Garrett Richards 168.2 35.9% 22.1% -8.1% 15.5%

When Jeff Locke first came into the league, he had a decent amount of rise on his four-seam fastball, about an inch more than average. So he threw it all the time, perhaps to set up the drop on his best pitch, the change. In his first three seasons, he threw 2018 four-seamers to 212 two-seamers. Then maybe he figured out that his sinker only got seven fewer whiffs per 100 while it allowed ten fewer line drives per 100. Last year, he threw 757 two-seamers and PITCHf/x didn’t call any of his fastballs four-seamers. That might just be how it chose to label the pitches, but his fastball now gets two inches more horizontal movement than his four-seamer ever did. He’s changed!

We’ve already talked to Tanner Roark about this change, so it’s no surprise to see him here. Andrew Cashner also told us about how the sinker might be helping him stay healthy. Maybe that’s the idea behind Doug Fister’s long march towards exclusive sinkerdom.

But for a certain class of pitchers on this list, there’s a chance that the sinker is working for them just because they used to have a more limited repertoire without it. Look at Drew Pomeranz, Chris Archer, Tyson Ross, and Garrett Richards. Without the boost in two-seamers, they’d all be at the risk of being two-pitch pitchers. In each case, their usage charts look remarkably similar now — you’re just as likely to get a two-seam, four-seam, or breaking ball from these guys, and the difference in the three pitches (along with good velocity and decent command, in most cases), is enough to keep hitters guessing.

Fewer Sinkers

Pitcher IP 14 FA% 14 FT% 14FA-13FA 14FT-13FT
Hector Noesi 164.2 42.6% 14.6% 24.9% -37.3%
Randall Delgado 16.1 54.5% 11.9% 32.5% -31.9%
Robbie Erlin 58.2 36.3% 24.2% 28.0% -29.5%
Brad Hand 89.1 39.9% 28.3% 22.9% -28.8%
Ian Kennedy 201 53.1% 9.2% 28.8% -26.9%
David Holmberg 23.1 57.9% 0.2% 10.4% -22.3%
Carlos Martinez 32.1 56.7% 18.3% 10.3% -17.8%
Brett Anderson 43.1 28.4% 20.4% 8.3% -15.5%
Wade Miley 201.1 31.5% 32.2% 9.7% -14.9%
Jorge de la Rosa 184.1 36.6% 2.4% 3.5% -14.2%
Gerrit Cole 138 62.5% 5.1% 11.4% -13.4%
Joe Kelly 96.1 12.3% 53.3% 11.2% -12.7%
Matt Harrison 17.1 33.0% 42.1% 27.4% -12.5%
Alex Cobb 166.1 34.7% 14.3% 15.9% -12.0%

Randall Delgado actually relieved a fair amount in 2014, so perhaps he was just going for the fastball that had more velocity. But, considering that his sinker doesn’t even get 25% grounders, and his four-seamer has almost two inches of rise over the average four-seamer… he should make this change for good. Along with his excellent whiff rates on both his change and breaking balls, increased command of the four-seamer and dropping the two-seamer could lead to a breakout.

Strangely, Ian Kennedy might have had a similar revelation. His sinker has never gotten average grounders or whiffs, and so he went away from it last year. That allowed him to take more advantage of the whiffs on his four-seamer… and maybe it contributed to his career-best velocity.

Since Carlos Martinez’s sinker actually drops and runs more than his changeup, maybe he moved to his four-seamer in order to set up his changeup better? That change got the best whiff rate of his career and finally looked useful the same season he cut his sinker rate in half. These things could be related, and could have implications for his ability to get lefties out in the future. (He still has some ways to go, considering he walked more lefties than he struck out last year, even as his change was showing signs of progress.)

Boston’s new pitcher never got 50% grounders on his sinker, and his four-seamer has good rise (10 inches). But Joe Kelly’s sinker is a little better than his four-seamer when it comes to balls and grounders at least, so it’s a little bit weird that he went away from it. Maybe this is a thing for Boston. They seem to like four-seamers.

Not every pitcher needs a changeup, of course — a couple breakers and a couple fastballs can be enough for a righty — but increased use of a change might mean that the pitcher is starting to trust the pitch more. Decreased use? Hopefully it comes with the rise of another pitch.

Name IP 14 CH% 14 CH% -13CH
Felix Hernandez 236 32.6% 23.1%
David Holmberg 23.1 30.4% 14.1%
Erasmo Ramirez 67.1 25.9% 10.1%
Taylor Jordan 25.2 25.4% 9.4%
CC Sabathia 46 24.6% 8.4%
Chris Sale 174 28.0% 8.1%
Matt Shoemaker 121.1 23.1% -8.1%
Randall Delgado 16.1 17.6% -8.3%
Tyler Skaggs 113 10.2% -9.2%
Jon Lester 219.2 2.7% -9.6%
Franklin Morales 118.2 7.6% -10.1%
Carlos Villanueva 19.2 13.8% -10.2%
Jake Odorizzi 168 3.0% -15.4%
Ubaldo Jimenez 120 0.0% -18.9%

In the last month of the season last year, Felix Hernandez threw his changeup more than either fastball… and just a few ticks short of more than both fastballs *combined.* He got a 23% whiff rate on the change according to Brooks Baseball, which does the unenviable job of teasing out an 89 mph change from low nineties sinkers. Throwing one pitch over a thousand times and getting nearly a whiff on a quarter of them is only one of the many ways Felix Hernandez is king.

Chris Sale got better. He switched the usage on his slider and change and the change got more whiffs the more he threw it. Considering he’s a lefty going up against righties all the time, this is good news.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a few pitchers switching changeups, really. Jake Odorizzi learned the splitter from Alex Cobb, and Matt Shoemaker’s change is a splitter, so that’s probably just classification issues. Same might be true for Ubaldo Jimenez, who throws a splitter.

Jon Lester seems to have returned to the pitcher he was at the beginning of his career. He used to throw more than three curves for every change from 2007-2009, and then he spent three years throwing one for one, and then last year he threw six curves for every change. In any case, big curves like that have reverse platoon splits and give him what he needs against righties.

Breaking Balls
Because breaking balls are just one long continuum anyway, we’ll lump them in together here. Let’s add knuckle curves to curves to avoid profiling a guy like Drew Pomeranz, who had his curves reclassified as knuckle curves from 2013 to 2014. Use the sorting mechanism to highlight the slider and curve changes separately.

Name IP 14 SL% 14 SL%-13SL 14 KC+CU% 14KCU-13KCU
Erik Johnson 23.2 42.9% 17.2% 5.9% -7.0%
Jake Arrieta 156.2 29.0% 15.2% 17.8% 2.8%
Carlos Carrasco 91 22.4% 14.2% 8.3% -2.5%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 46.2 18.5% 14.0% 10.4% -18.7%
Jimmy Nelson 68 24.8% 12.3% 0.1% -2.7%
Zack Greinke 202.1 17.5% 12.1% 10.2% -2.4%
Scott Baker 40.1 30.0% 12.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Jason Hammel 173.1 30.2% 9.5% 6.9% -3.6%
Chris Capuano 65.2 21.9% 9.2% 7.6% 2.6%
Allen Webster 59 17.1% 8.4% 1.2% -2.7%
Juan Nicasio 73 28.8% 8.3% 0.0% 0.0%
Jordan Lyles 126.2 18.9% 5.1% 8.6% -9.7%
Gerrit Cole 138 13.0% 0.0% 13.9% 13.9%
Josh Beckett 115.2 0.0% 0.0% 30.7% 11.8%
Alex Wood 156.1 0.0% 0.0% 21.9% 9.3%
Brandon McCarthy 200 0.0% 0.0% 23.7% 8.3%
Danny Duffy 141 1.2% -0.5% 21.4% 9.4%
Brandon Workman 80.2 0.0% -1.0% 22.0% 8.0%
Doug Fister 164 0.0% -1.6% 8.9% -11.3%
Matt Shoemaker 121.1 14.7% -2.5% 10.8% 9.7%
Joe Kelly 96.1 6.2% -3.9% 16.9% 8.2%
David Hale 33 0.0% -4.7% 18.5% 9.0%
Jose Quintana 200.1 1.4% -8.4% 24.5% 5.1%
C.J. Wilson 175.2 9.7% -9.4% 17.4% 2.7%
Chris Sale 174 18.4% -11.1% 0.0% 0.0%
Yu Darvish 144.1 25.5% -11.9% 4.5% 1.7%
Trevor Cahill 87 2.3% -12.9% 13.4% 4.3%
Phil Hughes 209.2 0.7% -22.4% 14.3% 5.2%

We know that slider usage was a big part of Jake Arrieta’s breakout, and that Zack Greinke wanted to stop throwing both a cutter and a slider after the two morphed, but it’s remarkable that in his breakout year, Carrasco switched the usage on his change and slider. Remarkable because both pitches are good when judged by whiffs. But the ball rate on his slider is much better than the one on his change — perhaps this is what led to his command breakout. But, by the end of the year, Carrasco was using his slider more than his four-seam against righties. That seems like a significant departure from what he once was.

Jason Hammel had a breakout of sorts, and did it with plenty of sliders. Allen Webster is yet to break out, but he nearly doubled his slider usage and still showed plus whiff rates on his sinker, change, and slider, which gives him a full arsenal.

Phil Hughes once again changed his entire breaking ball profile, but strangely enough it led to a command breakout. Perhaps that’s because the ball rate on his slider is 10% higher than on his cutter. It’s hard to project a guy into a half a walk per nine innings, but perhaps this added command can help us regress to a different mean.

By adding more curves to the point where his changeup and curve usage flipped, Alex Wood took another step last year. His overall peripherals didn’t change a ton, but by remaining as effective after the league had seen his funky delivery a second time, it’s notable that his arsenal change was a part of his success.

There probably isn’t a Greg Maddux in here. But, considering how Jeff Locke, Drew Pomeranz, Carlos Carrasco, Tanner Roark, Garrett Richards, Ian Kennedy, Jake Odorizzi, Jake Arrieta and even Phil Hughes are being projected, it’s still fair to wonder how much they have in common with the pitcher they were before 2014.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Eno, I’d love to see you ask pitchers on how aware they are of Pitch F/X data. I mentioned in another comment that Cole Hamel’s curve got a lot better by adding velocity and movement, giving him two elite pitches vs. RHH, but his usage didn’t change. Especially with analytics inept Phillies. Does he know the pitch got better or not? Your interview stuff is eye opening.