Sean Marshall Is a Rebel

Since a young age, pitchers have had it drilled into them that the best pitch they can throw is strike one. Hitters take a vastly different approach when behind in the count rather than ahead, and so the first pitch of an at-bat is almost always the most important one. Because they want to get ahead in the count, most pitchers throw first pitch fastballs, as it’s the pitch they are most confident that they can put in the strike zone.

Well, Sean Marshall is not most pitchers – at least not anymore. He followed the traditional first pitch fastball model for the first few years of his career, throwing it 64 percent of the time in 2006 and 56 percent of the time in 2007. He was moved to the bullpen in 2008, and dropped his first-pitch fastball usage down to 44 percent, though it was still the pitch he used most often.

The last two years, though, it has lost its prominence, thanks to the addition of the ever popular cutter. Last year, he threw a first-pitch fastball just 23 percent of the time, and this year it’s down to 18 percent, half as often as he throws a first-pitch curveball. He’s also more likely to throw a cutter (27 percent) or a slider (19 percent) on the first pitch of an at-bat.

Despite pitching backwards, Marshall has actually thrown more first pitch strikes than he did when he was featuring his fastball – 57 percent this year. He’s achieving the goal of getting ahead of hitters, but he’s just doing it with off-speed stuff.

Even when he falls behind 1-0, he still doesn’t throw the fastball. He bags the curveball for the most part, but throws a lot of cutters and sliders. Even 2-0, he only throws 26 percent fastballs, sticking with the two softer pitches he feels he can throw for strikes. He finally relents on 3-0, throwing the fastball 86 percent of the time, but given how often hitters have the take sign, he knows its not all that likely to be chased. On 3-1 counts, he rarely throws it.

Besides the 3-0 count, the two times Marshall is most likely to throw a fastball? 0-2 and 1-2, when he’ll throw it 41% and 42% of the time, respectively. He’s still more likely to throw his curve in those counts (he scraps the other two pitches), but he features the high fastball as a strikeout pitch, along with his big curve. Interestingly, however, when the count is 2-2 or 3-2, he again goes away from the fastball.

It’d be interesting to see if he would keep pitching like this if the Cubs moved him back to the rotation next year. He’s defying nearly every established pattern of pitching, and it’s worked, as he’s become one of the game’s best left-handed relievers. Could he pitch backwards for six or seven innings? I’d be curious to see if he could do it.

For lefties with pedestrian fastballs but good secondary stuff, this very well may be the most efficient style of pitching, at least while everyone else in the game is pumping fastballs to start off every at-bat.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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I remember Greg Maddux once saying that the most important pitch of most PAs (for him, obviously) was the 1-1 pitch. That the difference between 2-1 and 1-2 drastically changed the way he’d approach the rest of the PA more so than any other account.

Just supporting the point that different pitchers will approach counts in different ways, and it’s not necessarily one-size-fits-all.