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.

Marcell Ozuna, Braves Choose Value Over Commitment

The latest issue went out to subscribers overnight, with my extended thoughts on Marcell Ozuna signing with the Braves. I dug into how the Braves made the choice to pursue this instead of upping their offer to Josh Donaldson, and what their offense looks like for 2020. I also pondered the current state of the NL East. Here’s an excerpt on Ozuna himself, and what makes him unique:

His swing is wildly unorthodox, with a big leg kick (that sometimes goes nowhere), an early hip clearance, a tilt just like that of the model modern power hitter—and then a really bizarre, very quick, yet unathletic whip of bat through zone. He generates a ton of bat speed, but doesn’t contact the ball with the bat more or less perpendicular to the flight path of the pitch as often as most hitters do. He extends his arms (especially his back arm) far, far more than most hitters do before and through the point of contact. It’s really difficult to read the ball off his bat, which sometimes helps his BABIP, but the resultant slice hurts his power production. Meanwhile, he can be tied up inside, and he doesn’t cover the low, outside corner well. He’ll expand his zone, especially down, and is even susceptible to a right-on-right changeup tumbling in toward his feet. When he’s right, he can be a nightmare for opposing pitchers, but his unique setup, swing, and approach are a nightmare for a coaching staff tasked with keeping him right. It’s funny: he and Starlin Castro have had radically different career arcs, but Castro is just eight months older than Ozuna, and they now seem very, very similar—from broad things like their poorly-aging bodies and discouraging defensive profiles, to details of their swings and approaches. I certainly expect Ozuna to be a better hitter in 2020, but not by so much that it invalidates the comparison.

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Trevor May, Flowering Slider Monster

Today’s edition went out to subscribers this afternoon. It centers on Trevor May, who changed the grip on his slider and immediately found something back in the early stages of the season. I wrote about that adjustment and its importance for May at Baseball Prospectus just after Memorial Day, but it didn’t translate to great results right away. Three months later, however, that’s changing. Here’s an excerpt from the newsletter:

In August, he has seven whiffs on the slider. He’s gradually ramped up the spin rate on the pitch; it now approaches 2,600 revolutions per minute. With a slider he can command so much better and a fastball he’s trusting more than ever, he reemerged as a dominant force in Minnesota’s muddled bullpen. It’s very difficult to maintain command and execution of four different pitches as a reliever, and May made the right choice when he junked the curve instead of the slider. Now, he can cut loose with the same arm action on everything he throws, and he’s more comfortable with all three offerings.

Here’s one thing worth noting: regular, predictable usage patterns might benefit May quite a bit. After the first appearance of his encouraging stretch, he went another five days without taking the mound, and was asked for just one out when he did return. Since then, however, he has pitched almost exactly every third day, sometimes getting as many as six outs at a time. If the Twins think he’s benefiting from that routine, they might consider shifting him to an opener role. They could certainly use someone to pad the landing in each game for Martín Pérez, and arguably, Kyle Gibson and José Berríos could use the same. If the team doesn’t want to mess with either Gibson or Berríos based on their seniority in the rotation, they could have May open for Pérez each time through the rotation and then lurk as a short reliever for a couple of games between those games.

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Maldonado and Bailey Depart Kansas City

Today’s Penning Bull covers the Cubs’ side of the trade that sent Martín Maldonado to Chicago in exchange for fellow double-M Mike Montgomery. It also touches on the Royals swapping Homer Bailey to the A’s. Here’s an excerpt, on how the Cubs will juggle Maldonado, Willson Contreras, and Victor Caratini:

Something about the timing and nature of this move has people thinking it means something bigger. There had already been whispers that the team would treat Caratini as a trade chip; those whispers have given way to full-throated discussion. A frequent line of thinking on Twitter right now is that when Contreras is ready to return (technically, just before the deadline), the room on the roster will come from a deal that jettisons Caratini in exchange for the relief upgrade the Cubs sorely need.

I don’t view it that way. In every season of the Joe Madden era, the Cubs have carried three catchers at certain points. In 2015, they opened with Wellington Castillo as an ill-fitting spare part alongside Miguel Montero and David Ross. Later that season, with Castillo long traded, the team brought Kyle Schwarber up to join the rotation of catchers, moonlighting there while also getting at-bats as a left fielder. In 2016, they opened with the notion of Schwarber serving as a third catcher again. He went down for the year in the second series, but by mid-June, Contreras had come up, and he would take time from both Montero and Ross (along with some outfield work of his own) throughout the second half and the postseason. In 2017, they started with just Montero and Contreras, and after Montero was cut in a fit of pique in June, Madden quickly began riding Contreras too hard. The front office dealt for Alex Avila in July, to ameliorate that state of affairs, and then in August, they traded for Rene Rivera to provide depth in September. Last year, they carried Chris Gimenez for about half the season, kept Taylor Davis on call in Iowa, and swapped Gimenez for Bobby Wilson as an emergency option down the stretch. 

I think the Cubs will listen if a team makes an exceptionally attractive offer for Caratini, but I don’t think they plan to move him. I think they want Maldonado to stabilize the run-prevention infrastructure a bit, and be a veteran voice for the catching cadre.

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Red Sox Acquire Andrew Cashner

Today’s edition of Penning Bull consists of my breakdown of the Red Sox’s trade for erstwhile Orioles righthander Andrew Cashner. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Cashner still throws that heater at roughly 94 miles per hour, so he has some ability to overpower opponents. His changeup works off that pitch much better than it worked off the sinker, because it creates much more movement differential (as you would guess, Cashner’s sinker both drops more and moves more to the arm side than does his four-seamer) and a greater velocity differential. He can also change eye levels better with the pitch, because he’s both more confident and more effective in the upper half of the zone with the four-seamer than with the sinker.

The same things largely true of the changeup are even more true of Cashner’s revamped curveball, which he’s throwing with less speed but greater vertical movement. That means that he’d be getting more of a movement differential even if he were still throwing the sinker, but with the switch to more four-seamers, it’s been especially pronounced. He’s getting a lot of ground balls with that pitch this season, which helps explain his success despite a low strikeout rate.

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