Switchin’ Pitches: He Throws WHAT? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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While researching Zack Greinke’s pitch f/x stats Monday night, and thinking up a grand scheme for Tuesday morning’s cutter article, I asked a huge question, and then filed it in the back of my mind: how many MLB pitchers added a new pitch at some point in their career? I asked because, frankly, even though it’s tough to follow every MLB team, one STILL doesn’t seem to hear about a pitcher adding a new pitch all that frequently.

I’m not talking, “who threw a slider that’s now classified as a cutter?” There are boatloads of MLB pitchers with pitches that behave the same way but are classified differently over time. For instance, over time, you’ll find that just about everybody throws a “two seamer” in pitch f/x. Now, almost no one threw a “two-seamer” four years ago, because the pitch was not clearly classified in pitch f/x data. So, a lot of starters that now throw “cutters” and “two seamers” really always threw some type of moving fastball, it’s just that they were only called “fastballs” four or five years ago. (It’s kind of like the old time “slow ball” category, where any pitcher’s junk offering, palmball, forkball, slow curve, or whatever was placed under a single umbrella. Those classifications change when we’re trying to say something about the game that we didn’t previously realize, or we care about being more specific-than-less specific).

Greinke’s cutter is easy to spot, of course, because (a) we know he tried to learn one, and (b) he also throws a slider that is completely distinct from his cutter. This second point is key to distinguishing a new pitch in a pitcher’s arsenal. Again, there are loads of pitchers throwing sliders or cutters that are probably the same pitch (or slight variations of the same pitch); we can find the same example with fastballs/sinkers, and splits/changes. I attempted to sort through the rubble, and I present to you various shades of gray.

I conducted two off-the-cuff surveys: (1) Pitchers with 400+ innings from 2008-2011, and (2) Pitchers with 200+ innings from 2010-2011. Basically, these two lists yielded something like 145-150 distinct pitchers. I looked at their pitch f/x, and I specifically sought pitches that went from “0.0%” to “20.0%,” or so — that is, pitches that pitcher added and then took a special place in his heart. Those instances are not as rare as I thought; I found approximately 17 pitchers that added new pitches and then used them significantly. However, there are several different areas of pitchers that we can classify: (a) Less clear examples of “new pitches,” or new-pitches used less-frequently or for only a very short amount of time, and (b) pitchers that might throw one particular pitch that was classified differently.

Since I’m mostly posting lists here, I also provided a GIF of Felix Hernandez throwing an insane change up, and, for fun, The Folly Floater.


Pitchers that may have added cutters (needs further review):
Cl. Lee
C. Hamels
C.J. Wilson
J. Lackey
J. Guthrie
B. Myers (sinker and cutter)
J. Blanton
J. Peavy
J. Jurrjens
An. Sanchez (sinker and cutter)


King Felix's Strange Change

Pitchers that added a significant new pitch:
F. Hernandez (change up): Hernandez’s change up might top a shortlist of bizarre MLB offerings. You might say, “Zettel, King Felix clearly threw his change up 5% of the time from 2007-2009,” which is true, but that’s arguably a different pitch than his current change. Oddly enough, as his fastball velocity deteriorated, he developed a harder change up. If I didn’t know any better, I’d call it a hard two-seamer or a screwball, but, people call it a change of pace, and it breaks hard against righties at an average of 89 MPH — again, almost like a hard sinker.

C. Zambrano (split, “curveball”): This is a tough one, because Zambrano’s 2012 splitter might arguably take the place of his previous change up. However, it looks to be the case that he threw different versions of his split and change during the last few years. Anyway, Zambrano’s a tough case overall because he’ll throw the baby with the bath water, and I’d say there isn’t a pitch that he hasn’t thrown. Extra points to Carlos for keeping his strange “nothing” pitch unclassified by pitch f/x; that weird slow offering he added a few years back might be called a “curveball” under pitch f/x.

M. Latos (curve, cutter): While one might argue that Latos’ cutter is simply a variety of a moving fastball previously subsumed under his “fastball” heading, he seemingly developed the pitch to work alongside his two-seamer. But, there’s no faking a 77-79 MPH curve, and Latos is throwing that one over the last two years.

H. Bailey (slider): Bailey gets extra points for his slider because he seems to have thrown two completely different versions of the pitch during different parts of his career. After apparently scrapping the pitch a few years ago, he brought back the slider in spades, throwing the pitch over 23% of the time last year.

J. Lester (sinker): I know what I said about fastball classifications, but this one jumped out at me because the rate that Lester combined fastballs and cutters over the last few years has not truly decreased at the same rate his sinker increased; if anything, the full range of fastballs increased from this young hurler. Anyway, if anyone has a “true” sinker via pitch f/x classifications, it’s Lester, as this offering busts in and drops from the main fastball more than other pitchers’ “sinkers” or “two seamers.”

C. Kershaw (slider): Not only is Kershaw more valuable than Sandy Koufax at a younger age, but the Dodgers’ ace also throws a different signature pitch. Originally praised for his ridiculous schoolyard curve, Kershaw pretty much shelved the pitch in favor of a hard breaking ball. Kershaw now throws the slider more frequently than he ever threw the curve, and this one darts into the zone at nearly 85 MPH.

J. Beckett (change): See also, “Hernandez, King Felix.” If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Beckett throws a little moving fastball with his change up. But, in the tradition of King Felix, Beckett’s change up got faster as his fastball slowed up (although the effect is not as drastic as Hernandez’s change). However, Beckett already throws a full range of fastballs, cutters, and two-seamers; this change up is a truly distinct pitch. It works on roughly the same plane as his “two seamer” which leads me to guess that Beckett throws the change up off of his secondary fastball (which is probably a true sinker).

H. Kuroda (curve, split): Kuroda appears to be another “everything” pitcher that might already throw anything under the sun, so his splitter may or may not be a different pitch than his change. However, that curveball came into favor as the years progressed, giving Kuroda a slow pitch beyond any change, split, slider, sinker, etc.

D. Price (curve, change, cutter): Price only threw 233 pitches when he burst onto the scene in 2008. Since then, the fastball / slider-or-cutter pitcher really diversified his offerings. The change up first appeared in 2009, and the curveball in 2010. Price’s cutter is a very strange story, as his original 2008 cutter functioned almost exactly like his 2009 slider. Now, however, the southpaw is throwing a hard slider AND a slow moving fastball that is distinct from his slider. Pitches slower than 93 MPH in 2008: 24.9% (cutter/slider). Pitches slower than 93 MPH in 2012: 35.8% (cutter, slider, curve, change).

Pitchers that added a less-significant new pitch:
C. Luebke (curve)
R. Nolasco (split)
J. Santana (two seamer)
J. de la Rosa (split, slider)
M. Pelfrey (split, curve)
D. Braden (sinker)
T. Wakefield (fastball, 2010)
R. Porcello (slider)
V. Padilla (eephus!!!)
K. Correia (curve)
M. Bumgarner (curve)
B. Morrow (curve, split)

Pitchers that have a particular pitch that might be classified differently:
R. Halladay (change / split)
D. Haren (slider / cutter)
U. Jimenez (change / split)
Je. Weaver (several moving fastballs)
J. Danks (cutter / slider)
R. Dempster (change / split)
A. Wainwright (cutter / slider)
C. Carpenter (cutter / slider)
A.J. Burnett (curve / kcurve)
C. Buchholz (cutter / slider)
K. Davies (cutter / slider)
J. Vargas (slider / cutter)
D. Davis (slider / cutter)
M. Parra (split / change)
B. Cecil (several moving fastballs)
B. Bergesen (change / split)
W. LeBlanc (slider / cutter)

I don’t know why it surprised me that I found so many pitchers switching things up. Pitching is a dynamic exercise, whereby hurlers can change the movement and speed of their pitches by varying finger pressure and making other physical and mechanical adjustments. Of course, pitchers can do this on a batter-by-batter basis, or a game-by-game basis, and therefore, not all of a pitcher’s changes are going to be captured or classified by pitch f/x (for instance, Zack Greinke’s slow curve is still just a curveball, even though it functions differently than his other curve; we could probably talk all day about pitchers that feature different fastballs to different effect in different starts).

Basically, this should serve as a foundation for further research. For instance, now I want to look into how effective these specific pitches were after their pitcher switched things up. Furthermore, I think there’s a lot that can be done to study the relationship between cutters and sliders in pitch f/x, in order to determine the extent to which pitchers are actually cutting their fastballs. Not unlike the two-seamer explosion 2-3 years ago, part of me suspects that as we become more proficient with pitch f/x technology, it’s easier to classify different pitches. Therefore, where there were only fastballs five years ago, there were fastballs / two-seamers three years ago, and now there are fastballs / two-seamers / cutters.

The more we study these sorts of things, the more we can learn about what a pitcher tried to do with a specific pitch, and how each pitch functions.

RESOURCES: FanGraphs Pitch F/X pages.

IMAGES: http://pocketdoppler.com/2012/03/09/why-greinke-will-win-the-cy-young-no-seriously/

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