Some Pitch Usage Trends Thus Far in 2020

On Saturday afternoon, the Cardinals had the visiting Indians on the ropes. It was 1-1 in the bottom of the eleventh inning, when Paul Goldschmidt led off with a deep flyout to center field. Paul DeJong couldn’t advance to third base, but with Brad Miller (a left-handed hitter with a 127 DRC+ since the start of 2019) due up, Terry Francona issued an intentional walk. That brought Yadier Molina to the plate, with the winning run in scoring position and Nick Wittgren on the mound for Cleveland.

Molina had already poked a key single to catalyze the seventh-inning rally in which St. Louis had tied the game. He’d hit a game-tying home run, his first dinger of the year, in the latter innings of a seven-inning doubleheader game earlier in the week. Despite having been sidelined with COVID-19 even after his teammates got back onto the field, Molina already has a handful of crucial hits for the Cardinals this season. The stage was set for him to do that yet again, and give his team the win. 

Instead, Wittgren threw Molina one pitch, and then he was able to head back to the visitor’s dugout on the third-base line. The pitch was a changeup, low and on the outside corner, and Molina was way out in front of it, weakly floating the ball out toward shortstop. Francisco Lindor and César Hernández turned a slick double play, with Molina’s leaden legs making up for the slowness of the ball off his bat. Wittgren rarely throws his changeup against righties, but in Cleveland, this is (in one sense) the new norm. Only 43.5 percent of the team’s first pitches in plate appearances this season have been four-seam fastballs or sinkers, the second-lowest figure in the league. Rapidly, the whole league is turning down a path a few clubs began blazing several years ago. The first-pitch fastball will soon be a minority occurrence.

Fastballs (FA, SI) as Percentage of All 0-0 Pitches, 2008-2020

Season Fastball % Season Fastball %
2008 62.2 2015 61.9
2009 64.1 2016 61.0
2010 63.7 2017 60.1
2011 62.8 2018 59.8
2012 62.7 2019 56.0
2013 62.7 2020 54.2
2014 62.2

Mostly within the last half-decade, as pitch design and some of the fancier analytical approaches to player development and strategy have evolved, there’s been a race toward near-perfect parity between fastballs and non-fastballs to start plate appearances. This has the same flavor, when studied closely, as the growth of defensive shifts throughout the league over the last decade. Here are the eight teams who have made the most notable changes to their fastball rates on 0-0 so far this year.

Changes in 0-0 Fastball Rate, Teams, 2019-2020

Team 2019 0-0 Fastball % 2020 0-0 Fastball % Change
Pirates 64.4 52.3 -12.1
Indians 55.3 43.5 -11.8
Braves 57.3 46.8 -10.5
Orioles 63.3 53.9 -9.4
Twins 54.4 45.4 -9.0
Red Sox 45.7 38.0 -7.7
Tigers 57.5 67.3 9.8
Dodgers 56.2 67.0 10.8

The Pirates are under wholly new management, and it shows. They’d quietly fallen well off the cutting edge with regard to pitching, and now they’re making a bid to catch back up. The Orioles and Twins are usual suspects on a list like this, too, because they’re each a few years into organization-wide leaps in terms of dedication to analytics. The Braves and Indians, though, are clubs who had already enjoyed several years of success; who have had continuity on their coaching staffs; and who take relatively humanist (or at least, anti-technocratic) approaches to pitching. The Red Sox, meanwhile, were the team who threw the fewest first-pitch heaters in 2019, and they’ve proved that the number can still be driven considerably lower, just as the Joe Maddon Rays kept proving that the previous standard they had set with regard to shifting was merely one more step toward an undiscovered, far-off practical cap on the number of shifts a team could deploy. 

The Tigers and Dodgers, of course, are counterexamples, and anytime the Dodgers are zigging where the rest of the league zags, it merits a raised eyebrow. In this case, though, it feels a bit more like when the Joe Maddon-led Cubs backed off from shifting in 2015 and 2016—like one team proving that they have found another path to success, without invalidating what the rest of the league is doing. 

In one reading of the data, though, none of this is really working. The league’s OPS on the first pitch (both the raw figure and the adjusted figure, relative to the league’s overall offensive output) has steadily risen over the 33 seasons for which we have pitch-by-pitch data. Since about 2012, in fact, the increase has been more sharp than steady. The league’s .946 OPS on the first pitch this year can’t quite match last year’s .994, but it’s higher than in any other season on record. Hitters are seeing fewer of the pitches for which they’re supposed to be looking on 0-0, but doing more damage on that pitch than ever.

You know the punchline. That figure, the OPS on the first pitch itself, is a selective sample. It only counts times when batters not only swung at the first pitch, but made contact, and put the ball in play. You can’t strike out on the first pitch, and you’re still seeing a fastball more often than you do on 0-1, for example, so you can definitely put up better numbers on that pitch than in most other counts, by themselves. However, only 10.4 percent of all plate appearances are ending on the first pitch so far this year. That would be the lowest figure on record, by a healthy margin. Batters are swinging less often on 0-0 than they have since 2014, and when they do swing, they whiff pretty frequently. After all, that’s what non-fastballs are meant to induce. Half of all plate appearances start 0-1, at which point the pitcher has a clear advantage.

The league is throwing more changeups and sliders, as percentages of total pitches, than they have since pitch tracking began in 2008. They’re throwing fewer four-seam fastballs than in any year since 2012, and fewer sinkers than in any other season on record (though, so far, sinkers haven’t actually lost ground from 2019, as they had in each of the previous five campaigns). Nothing’s coming in straight anymore, even in counts in which batters used to be able to expect that, and it’s making hitting a whole lot more difficult—even if it’s also creating opportunities for quick damage.

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