Let’s Improve Some Pitching Arsenals

Yesterday, we talked about Corey Kluber and Jose Fernandez, who have both made an effort to improve their arsenals in the second half by maximizing the usage of their best pitch — in this case, their similarly frisbee-like breaking balls. Kluber and Fernandez, in this regard, have been inching closer toward following in the footsteps of pitchers like Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Lance McCullers, Matt Shoemaker, and Masahiro Tanaka each of whom has thrown some version of a breaking or offspeed pitch this season more often than they’ve thrown a fastball.

A comment by Hill in May seemed to suggest that more pitchers could benefit from being told that they should simply throw their best pitch more often, regardless of whether that pitch is a fastball. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway told me more recently that “traditional things take some time to change,” and that the thinking with Kluber was that he could become more efficient in getting ahead in counts by throwing his best pitch, the curve, more often, rather than the more traditional choice of his two-seam fastball.

Guys like Hill, McCullers, Shoemaker, and now potentially Kluber and Fernandez have already made the adjustment to lead with a non-fastball. Because this approach interests me so much, I’m now curious who else might benefit from such a change.

The thinking with Kluber was likely twofold. One, the breaking ball is fantastic. Two, the fastball has graded out as a subpar pitch. That’s what inspired our own Jeff Sullivan to predict the very change that wound up happening back in March, and so that’s where we’ll begin here: an average-or-worse fastball paired with a well above-average secondary offering that isn’t being thrown enough. Using the PITCHf/x individual pitch-type grades on our leaderboards, I identified 39 qualified starters whose fastballs this year have graded out as below-average. From there, to find potentially underused secondary offerings, I looked for breaking and offspeed pitches which have (a) graded out as +1.0 run above average or better per 100 pitches, and (b) been thrown less than 20% of the time this year (but more than 5%, to weed out classification errors and strictly show-me pitches).

This methodology nets us 11 names and 12 pitches, one of which just so happens to be Kluber and his curveball. The rest of the names, along with their primary fastball and potentially underused secondary pitch(es), are as follows:

Potentially Underused Secondary Offerings
Name Pitch Type Usage Runs/100
Anibal Sanchez Changeup 15.9% 3.88
Brandon Finnegan Changeup 11.2% 2.21
Corey Kluber Curveball 18.6% 3.33
Jeff Samardzija Slider 17.9% 2.54
Jerad Eickhoff Slider 17.6% 1.26
Jeremy Hellickson Curveball 16.4% 1.51
Jimmy Nelson Slider 15.9% 1.46
Marcus Stroman Slider 11.2% 1.64
Mike Leake Cutter 18.4% 1.61
Scott Kazmir Slider 8.9% 1.14
Trevor Bauer Curveball 18.1% 1.08
Trevor Bauer Changeup 13.2% 1.05

And now I’ll detail five of the pitchers who I find to have the most compelling and/or interesting cases to swap out some fastballs for some slower stuff.

Jerad Eickhoff

It’s funny that the slider popped up, because the pitch for which Eickhoff is more known is the curve, and that pitch just barely filtered out of our search with a 23% usage rate. So perhaps this one is twofold. Eickhoff’s two-seam fastball has been a major problem (.985 career OPS allowed) and the four-seam hasn’t done a great job of taming lefties (.720). The curveball’s been death on all hitters, but especially lefties (.368), yet Eickhoff’s actually thrown more sinkers (27%) to lefties than curves (24%) and has thrown his slider and its well above-average whiff rate to righties less than a quarter of the time.

The potential improvement: scrap the two-seam, more sliders to righties, more curves to lefties.

Jeremy Hellickson

I promise we’ll get to some non-Phillies pitchers in a second, but I found Hellickson too compelling to pass up, mostly because I just wrote at the trade deadline how Hellickson’s more interesting now than he’s ever been, due to a newly discovered changeup that’s getting more whiffs per swing than any other changeup in the game. Hellickson’s kryptonite has always been the lefty, and the changeup could go a long way toward solving that.

But what this entry’s about is the curve. Hellickson generates more spin on the curve than any starter in the game. The guy in second? McCullers, who throws his half the time to excellent results. The guy in fifth? Hill, who throws his half the time to excellent results. Hellickson’s usage rate this year? Just 16%! Instead, Hellickson continues to lead with a four-seam fastball that’s long led to homer issues and is allowing an .871 OPS this year, while the curve that in one way compares favorably to Hill and McCullers and has allowed a .402 OPS is used as a fourth pitch. Unleash the spin!

The potential improvement: fewer four-seams, way more curves.

Jimmy Nelson

What fueled the Eickhoff and Hellickson selections is that both pitchers possess what appear to be true plus pitches. What fuels Nelson’s selection has more to do with what the fastball’s done. The two fastballs thrown by Nelson this year have combined to be worth -17.1 runs below average, the sixth-worst among all pitchers. Nelson’s gone to the fastballs nearly three-quarters of the time, and the primary sinker’s allowed a .776 OPS. The slider doesn’t look great — it isn’t above-average by whiff rate or ground-ball rate — but the results have been excellent throughout his career (.398 OPS) and something’s got to give.

The issue here is the command; Nelson’s struggled to keep his walk rate under 10% while throwing three-quarters fastballs, and so maybe throwing more bendy pitches isn’t the greatest idea. Or maybe throwing more bendy pitches could get batters to chase at would-be balls and turn them into strikes.

The potential improvement: fewer fastballs, more sliders.

Marcus Stroman

Maybe this one’s cheating a bit, because Stroman’s already taken the advice, and it’s yielding great results. But that’s worth a note on its own. As the season’s gone on, Stroman’s gone more and more to the slider, leaning less heavily on a sinker that’s been knocked around. At the start of the season, Stroman was throwing nearly 60% sinkers and just 12% sliders. Lately, the sinker usage has dropped down closer to 40%, with the slider and its insane ground-ball rate paired with an average whiff rate doubling in usage to 25%. Since the slider began seeing an uptick in usage, Stroman’s ran a 3.43 ERA and a 3.08 FIP.

The potential improvement: might have already been made; fewer sinkers, more sliders.

Trevor Bauer

Bauer is the only pitcher who had two secondary pitches pop up on our list: both the curve and change are potentially being underused. What makes Bauer’s inclusion interesting is that he’s already made the first step of the Kluber adjustment, in swapping out a four-seam fastball for a two-seam to get the ball on the ground more often.

While the primary fastball type has changed, the overall fastball rate hasn’t budged much, still sitting around 50%. Perhaps Bauer could benefit from taking the Kluber adjustment one step further by going to any number of his secondary offerings more often. The catch-22 with Bauer, however, is the same as Nelson: whether the command is good enough to allow such a change.

The potential improvement: even fewer four-seams, more curves and changes.

* * *

Of course, Bauer and Stroman’s deep arsenals in particular provide another much-needed caveat to every suggestion in this post, in that every weapon in a pitcher’s arsenal works together, and perhaps the only reason why these secondary offerings have happened to grade so well is because the usage is already, in fact, close to optimized, and using them any more would only depreciate the value. Sequencing can be just as key, if not more, than usage rates. But there also exists the possibility that good pitches are being underused, like Kluber’s curve, which Callaway said was “such a good pitch that, even if he does throw it more, it’s not going to turn into an ordinary pitch.” None of these pitchers throw a pitch as good as Kluber’s curve, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have weapons.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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7 years ago

I have to nitpick a little bit. Seth Lugo has made a couple of starts for the Mets now, and his curveball spin rate ECLIPSES every other starter in the league.

Now through 3 starts (and a dozen total appearances), Lugo’s curveball has an average spin rate of 3337 RPM, but was filtered out of your search because he hasn’t been in the league long enough to throw 200 curves yet. But at 82 samples, it appears to be the real deal.

Sidebar: Lugo’s curveball has a 16.1% swinging strike rate and is allowing a .501 OPS!!!