Sliding Headfirst: Jaime Barría and the First-Pitch Slider

Jaime Barria
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Since early in our history, FanGraphs has been tracking pitch type linear weights, or pitch values organized by pitch type, based on both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x pitch type data. While metrics like wRAA and wRC+ look at run generation through the outcomes of plate appearances, the idea behind pitch values is to take a more granular look. The outcome of each pitch changes the run expectancy of any plate appearance, and pitch value is a method for quantifying the overall impact of all of a player’s pitches, not just the pitches that end plate appearances, as most metrics do. In the form of pitch-type linear weights, we use these pitch values to evaluate the performance of pitchers’ specific pitch types — or hitters’ ability to hit them — either on an absolute basis with stats like wFB (runs above average on all fastballs) or on a per-pitch basis with stats like wFB/C (runs above average per 100 fastballs).

Pitch values can also be a useful way to evaluate how pitchers (or hitters, for that matter) have fared in specific counts. Executing pitches in particular situations to get ahead in counts is a crucial part of a pitcher’s approach, and at times, it feels like we narratively underestimate the impact that the outcome of an early-count pitch can have on the rest of a plate appearance. In 2022, firing a first-pitch strike was enough to drop an opposing hitters’ wRC+ from the normalized average of 100 to 68; missing on the first pitch gave hitters enough of an advantage to lead to a mark of 130, just about in line with recent years. That’s roughly the difference between Kyles Tucker and Isbel.

2022 MLB wRC+ Through Each Count
Count 0 Strikes 1 Strike 2 Strikes
0 Balls 100 68 22
1 Ball 130 90 38
2 Balls 179 130 68
3 Balls 265 212 144

My colleague Ben Clemens has written on the strange historical practice of pitchers grooving fastballs right down the middle to start plate appearances and the perhaps even stranger practice of hitters letting them get away with that. But those practices are fading away, Ben writes, and in an analytical era in which teams are looking for every advantage, the first pitch is being recognized for what it is: a frontier of pitch value opportunity, a first chance to lower the expected scoring outcome of the plate appearance.

In 2022, the strongest performer overall on first pitches was none other than Angels reliever Jaime Barría, who finished with a summed run value of -10.1 on the opening offering, nearly two runs better than any other pitcher despite facing just 316 hitters. On a per-pitch basis, Barría’s performance was even more exceptional: his -.032 runs per first pitch were nearly twice that of any other pitcher with as many as 300 batters faced. It’s worth mentioning that there are limits to what we can glean from this data; around 300 pitches is a relatively modest sample size, and Piper Slowinski warns us that pitch value is more effective as a descriptive stat than a predictive one. Barría is a true outlier here, but as we indulge in taking a look at what was new in his approach, we should do so without assuming he’ll be able to reproduce these numbers in the future.

Highest Pitch Value per First Pitch, 2022
Pitches First Pitches PV PV/Pitch
1 Jaime Barría 316 -10.1 -.032
2 Tyler Wells 426 -7.3 -.017
3 Roansy Contreras 409 -6.9 -.017
4 Nick Martinez 449 -7.5 -.017
5 Nick Nelson 306 -4.9 -.016
6 Paolo Espino 487 -6.2 -.013
7 Andrew Heaney 310 -3.9 -.013
8 Ranger Suárez 664 -8.2 -.012
9 Spencer Strider 528 -6.2 -.012
10 Jordan Montgomery 728 -8.3 -.011
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Barría’s primary pitch has always been his slider, though in 2021, his four-seam fastball came close to overtaking it. In 2022, finding himself in a more relief-heavy role than earlier in his career, he doubled down, throwing the slider 47% of the time. From a shape and profile perspective, it’s not all that special a pitch; its 32 inches of vertical break and four inches of horizontal break are both below league average. But he leaned on it even more heavily to start off, increasing its first pitch usage from 36.8% to 57.6% year-over-year in 2022. That’s more often than any pitcher with at least 300 batters faced in the 15 years of Baseball Savant’s pitch data, and 46% more frequently than any of the 178 pitchers that reached that threshold in 2022.

Slider Usage on First Pitches, 2022
Pitcher Sliders Total Pitch %
1 Jaime Barría 182 316 57.6
2 Hunter Greene 209 531 39.4
3 Drew Hutchison 182 463 39.3
4 Tyler Rogers 125 319 39.2
5 Luis Cessa 132 337 39.2
6 Keegan Akin 128 330 38.8
7 Clayton Kershaw 187 493 37.9
8 Shohei Ohtani 250 661 37.8
9 Jakob Junis 180 481 37.4
10 Caleb Smith 104 302 34.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

He attacked the strike zone, mostly with a pitch he wasn’t worried about batters swinging at; his 58.9% rate of first pitches in the zone, up from 48.4% in 2021, ranked 16th out of the 178 pitchers, as did his first-pitch swing rate of 36.7%, up from 28.8%. Led by the slider, he earned 0–1 counts on 51.8% of his initial offerings and conceded 1–0 counts on just 31.6%. On 52 balls put in play, opposing hitters had an average exit velocity of 78.7 mph and wound up with a .158 wOBA. The slider gave him an opportunity to tempt hitters into taking bad swings at a pitch they weren’t necessarily sitting on. If they laid off, chances were they ended up in the hole anyway.

When I say that he wasn’t too afraid of hitters swinging at sliders in the zone, I mean it. Barría threw a lot of his first-pitch sliders down and away to both righties and lefties, but he also threw his fair share — 25 of them — right down the middle of the plate, particularly to right-handed hitters.

Fourteen of those were taken for strikes. This was likely somewhat a product of a good scouting report. A handful of those takes were from habitually passive first-pitch receivers like J.P. Crawford, Mitch Garver, and Ramón Laureano; free-swinging Javier Báez and Jose Altuve got theirs off toward the edge of the strike zone. But Barría invited swings from both sides of the plate and ended up with a lot of 0–1 advantages and a lot of weak contact.

This isn’t to suggest that Barría’s first-pitch approach entirely transformed him. Even with his unmatched success on the opening pitch, he was worth all of 0.1 WAR in 2022. His ERA dropped by two full runs from 2021, and he showed marked improvement in his expected statistics, but his xERA, FIP, and xFIP were all over four, he gave up 1.25 HR/9, and he struggled to get left-handed hitters out. Even the slider was not all that effective later in counts; it had pitch values of -4.5 on first pitches and 8.8 in all other situations. This is less a story of a remarkable pitch and more one of what Barría was able to do in a specific situation with a relatively unremarkable one.

Barría’s approach was the most extreme example of a trend exhibited significantly throughout the game in 2022: abandoning the fastball on first pitches, particularly for sliders. Last year, four-seamers hit their low in Baseball Savant’s pitch data with a 33.7% usage rate, down a full three percentage points from 2021. Sliders, meanwhile, rose from 17.8% to 19.5% of first pitches, surpassing the two-seamer as the league-wide secondary option for the first time. Relievers opted for sliders 24.7% of the time, compared to 15.8% for starters, both 15-year highs. And they worked: across the league, sliders generated a run value of -52.4 in first-pitch opportunities, making them the most effective option in that spot. They yielded swinging strikes on 11.5% of offerings, compared to 6.4% on first-pitch four-seamers, and were watched for called strikes at almost the exact same rate — just over 30%. When they were put in play, they were hit 3.6 mph more softly than four-seamers. Pitchers like Max Scherzer, Dylan Cease, and Clayton Kershaw ticked up their slider share and saw strong results.

As the first-pitch four-seamer falls out of fashion, pitchers are getting more comfortable being more creative with the start of their sequence. While Barría’s approach is by no means a one-size-fits-all template, his success in 2022 offered a glimpse of what a more slider-heavy mix could do for a pitcher in his position.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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1 year ago

It’s a good way to estimate the impact of unpredictability. As you say in Barria’s case it kept him in the majors and not much else. The best pitches are those batters can’t hit even if they’re expecting them. It might be that the worse the arsenal the more unpredictability helps