It’s Time for a Pitcher to Throw 80% Breaking Balls

A few years back, I was sure that throwing too many breaking balls was bad for pitchers’ arm health. I wasn’t alone — there was some decent research backing up that hypothesis. As the methods for examining the question have become more refined, however, and further work has been conducted on the matter, it looks like we’ve found that it’s not so much breaking balls as velocity that most directly affects arm health.

Perhaps teams have been on the same journey, because curveball usage — and breaking-ball usage, in general — is up to heights we haven’t seen before.

Pitch Percentages by Season
Season Four-Seam Changeups Two-Seam Breakers
2010 40% 13% 18% 29%
2011 38% 12% 19% 30%
2012 35% 12% 22% 31%
2013 36% 12% 22% 31%
2014 35% 12% 22% 31%
2015 37% 12% 21% 30%
2016 36% 12% 20% 31%
2017 36% 13% 19% 32%
Two-Seam = two-seamers plus sinkers
Changeups = changeups plus splitters
Breakers = sliders, cutters, curves, knuckle curves, and eephi

Breaking-ball usage has increased. That said, the uptick has been slow and gradual. Perhaps too slow and gradual. Maybe we should be pushing it.

We’ve written a lot about the juiced-ball theory, but when Ben Lindbergh recently published results from Major League Baseball’s internal ball testing — which produced no indication that the ball would be responsible for the marked increase in home runs — we were left scratching our head as to what the actual cause might be. Russell Carleton over at Baseball Prospectus thought that we could explain a good deal of that increase with a simple look at hitters’ tendencies. Take a look at what he found:

Starting in 2015, around the time of the current power spike, hitters seemed to be sitting fastball more. And why not? Even though fastball usage has actually declined among pitchers, it still accounts for more than half of all pitches. As a batter, you know you’re eventually going to get one. So, why not wait for one and swing really hard? You might miss and eventually you might strike out, but if you do, so what?

Within that piece, there’s evidence that batters are swinging less often and have pushed their average pitches per plate appearance close to four (3.8 last year), up from 3.5 earlier this century. What Carleton proposes is that hitters, now armed with the terminology and technology to discuss and improve how hard they hit the ball in the air, are sitting on fastballs because they’ll still get, on average, one or two per plate appearance.

What if they didn’t, though? We’re talking about a potentially healthier approach for a pitcher — fewer high-velocity fastballs — and also pushing the expected number of fastballs per average plate appearance under one. Can batters use the same approach if they might only see one fastball a night? Or two? The evidence is that velocity differential is not as important for whiffs on breaking balls — it’s not quite like a changeup in that regard, the breaking ball may not need the fastball as much as a changeup does.

What if a pitcher started throwing 80% breaking balls?

One possible outcome might be that said pitcher would walk a lot of people. And that’s a decent hypothesis. Here’s how those big groups of pitches from above rank in terms of zone percentage according to a piece by Harry Pavlidis from back the day. (Note: cutters have been removed from the breaking-ball group in this case.)

Zone Percentages by Pitch Type
Pitch In Wide Zone %
Changeup 43.6%
Breaking Balls 47.8%
Four-Seamers 56.0%
Two-Seamers 54.2%
Two-Seam = two-seamers plus sinkers
Changeups = changeups plus splitters
Breakers = sliders,, curves, knuckle curves, and eephi
From Harry Pavlidis’ Pitch Type Benchmarks piece

The average breaking pitch doesn’t land in the zone as much as the average fastball, no. But if you had a pitcher with multiple distinct breaking balls — and good command of those pitches — you might want to consider pushing that breaking-ball percentage as high as it can go, right? Here are a few pitchers who throw a ton of breaking balls already and also feature good edge percentages on those breaking balls. They could be our best test cases.

Top Breaking Ball Pitchers and Edge%
Pitcher BBFC% BB% BB Edge%
Clayton Kershaw 51.8% 51.8% 20.2%
Yovani Gallardo 40.8% 40.8% 19.3%
Bronson Arroyo 53.4% 48.8% 18.8%
Chris Archer 46.5% 46.5% 18.4%
Andrew Triggs 53.7% 53.7% 18.3%
Miguel Gonzalez 41.9% 41.9% 17.9%
Jerad Eickhoff 45.9% 45.9% 17.3%
JC Ramirez 57.5% 57.5% 17.1%
Lance McCullers 45.5% 45.5% 17.0%
Kenta Maeda 49.0% 44.2% 16.4%
Drew Pomeranz 47.7% 45.0% 16.0%
Jordan Zimmermann 39.6% 39.6% 15.9%
Michael Pineda 39.0% 39.0% 15.5%
Derek Holland 43.0% 43.0% 15.4%
Jason Hammel 37.6% 37.6% 15.2%
Jhoulys Chacin 39.7% 39.2% 14.4%
Tom Koehler 42.7% 42.7% 14.1%
Ricky Nolasco 41.8% 41.8% 13.0%
Robbie Ray 41.9% 41.9% 12.0%
Zack Greinke 37.4% 37.4% 12.0%
SOURCE: Statcast
BB% = Sliders, Curves, Knuckle Curves, Eephi
BBFC% = Above, plus cutters
BB Edge% = Breaking pitches within a baseball ‘s width of the edge of the strike zone divided by all breaking pitches.

Given his success, Clayton Kershaw probably doesn’t need to change anything up, despite his excellent command of his breaking balls. But Yovani Gallardo? Bronson Arroyo? Kenta Maeda? Ricky Nolasco? Jordan Zimmermann? Over the last few weeks, you could add Adam Wainwright and Josh Tomlin, and that would make sense. There’s enough struggle in their recent histories and enough upside in this idea that they might be inclined to go for it. They’ve each got multiple breaking balls and above-average command of those breaking balls — by this incomplete measure at least.

Of course, getting them to agree to be the guinea pigs in our grand experiment won’t be easy either way. Maybe they aren’t so excited. We’ll have to tell them about the whole arm-health and hitters-sitting-dead-red part so they buy in. Maybe if we tell them they’ll be way out in front when the robot umps come — that they’ll be the most ready to take advantage of the new parts of the zone that will open up then — maybe then we’ll get ourselves a pitcher ready to completely flip the script on today’s batters.

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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6 years ago

Clever idea. But if it’s 80% breaking balls then wouldn’t we expect hitters to adapt to that, too? If a pitcher having multiple breaking balls that they could justify throwing 80% of the time that would be great, but the benefit would be that they aren’t throwing any pitch more than 50% of the time and hitters couldn’t sit on anything.

Joe Joemember
6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Think having fastballs under 20% would seem more important than breaking balls over 80% regarding getting batters to stop sitting fastballs.

Choos on first
6 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

But how many pitchers now have multiple sliders that they can throw? Same with changeups (though they don’t for this exercise). Would it really be so hard to a guy with good breaking stuff to learn a couple different slider and curveball grips? Heck, at the point, a hard slider with mostly vertical break could be the primary offering while a bigger curve with the similar break would then become something of a changeup. Having multiple speeds and different kinds of break seems like it could be enough. And if you’ve got a hard fastball, you can use it to throw off the timing of a hitter who’s sitting 82-88 when you blow it by him at 97-98.