The SANDbox: This Pitch Is Now Being Thrown At An All-Time Low

Jared Sandler
May 28, 2019 - 10:08 am
Mike Minor

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

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Whether its rules or strategy or just the physical specimen that plays the game, baseball looks a lot different these days than ever before in the sport’s history. That statement is especially true when it comes to pitch selection and pitch usage.

Pitchers throw harder now than they ever have. The average fastball clocks in at 92.9 mph, an all-time high if the season ended today. Despite that, fastball usage is at an all-time low.

During the 2002 season, fastballs were thrown 64.4% of the time. Year-after-year, with a few minor exceptions, that number has decreased. So far in 2019, fastballs have been thrown 52.8% of the time, the lowest usage since tracking such a figure. For context, fastballs were thrown 55.0% of the time last year, so a drop of more than 2% from last year to this year is pretty significant.

Why the change? For one, more damage is done against fastballs by hitters than any other pitch. In 2019, big leaguers are hitting .262 with a .827 SLG against fastballs, chasing the pitch just 22.2% of the time. In comparison, they’re hitting .227 with a .367 SLG and 27.3% chase rate against curveballs. Against sliders, those numbers are just .208/.359/32.8% versus the slider and .223/.378/35.2% against the changeup.

Moral of that paragraph: Pitchers give up more hits for more power with less success outside of the zone on fastballs than any other pitch.

So, why do they throw the pitch at all? Well, for one, it is the easiest pitch to control. For some pitchers, it helps them maintain count leverage, set up other pitches, and locate more specifically than with other pitches. For other pitchers, it truly is an impact pitch. But, it does seem like data is pushing pitchers, perhaps on their own or encouraged by teams, to throw that pitch less.

The pitch that has experienced the biggest jump is the slider. So far this year, 18.4% of pitches at the big league level are sliders. According to pitchers with whom I spoke (more on that below) they feel like the slider is the easiest secondary pitch to command. Thus, in hitters counts* pitchers are utilizing a non-fastball they command well to eliminate a degree of predictability. So far this year, pitchers are throwing the slider 14.1% of the time in hitters counts, up from 12.5% last year, 12.1% in 2017, 11.3% in 2016, 10.3% in 2015, and 10.2% in 2014.

While the rate of arm injuries from pitchers proves that we are far from figuring out how to best prevent them, many believe that too high of a slider usage can do damage to the arm. That’s one reason why some pitchers don’t throw it more, though, so far this year, 14 qualified starters are throwing it more than 30% of the time, well up from the seven who did it in 2012. Other people suggest that the more you throw the pitch and the more hitters see it, the more success they’ll have against it. That might explain why relievers will throw certain pitches at a much higher rate than starters. This year, 19 relievers, who rarely face a hitter twice in a night, are throwing their slider more than 50% of the time.

I got my hands dirty and asked several players about the shift in pitch usage and got some interesting feedback.

I spoke to 20 hitters spread across five teams over the last couple weeks and 19 of them said that a good slider, compared to a “good fill-in-the-blank-pitch” is the toughest pitch to it. The most common response is that pitchers have become really good at “tunneling” sliders, meaning the pitch, from the release point to its initial movement out of the hand, looks like a fastball longer than any other non-fastball. Other hitters mentioned how some pitchers, like Justin Verlander, can manipulate the movement of their slider in different ways.

According to the pitchers, of whom I spoke to 20 slider-throwing pitchers across six teams, 16 said they command their slider better than any non-fastball. While the changeup can be a lethal pitch, many of them shared with me that it can be more of a “feel” pitch and tougher one to command as consistently.

How do the Rangers stack up? They are throwing sliders 15.1% of the time this year, 25th in MLB. They’re throwing their fastballs 57.7% of the time, 2nd highest in MLB. That figure, it’s worth noting, is inflated by the fastball-heavy Lance Lynn, who throws his heater 69.3% of the time. No other Ranger (min. 30 IP) ranks in the Top 40.

There’s no doubt that the shift in pitch usage is a product of the advance in data teams are consuming now-a-days than ever before. Strategically speaking, it makes sense. In a game of adjustments, pitchers are throwing some “pitch selection punches,” if you will, and now it’s up to the hitters to punch back.

*Hitters counts are 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, and 1-0

STRATEGY NOTE OF THE WEEK

The Rangers have started to utilize an “opener” to support their starting rotation. Outside of Minor and Lynn, there isn’t a starter that you can rely on giving you six innings for now. There are different ways to use an opener, but the Rangers have so far asked their openers to simply pitch the first inning. What’s the point of that? It allows the starter to give you five or six innings (hopefully) and face the top of the opposition’s order—usually some really good hitters—just twice and not three times.

Hitters have more success against a specific pitcher the second time they face them versus the first and the third time they face them versus the second. Thus, it stands to reason that preventing some of the best hitters on the other team from getting the chance at a third time versus a pitcher will help your chances in run prevention.

If Verlander or Scherzer or Sale or…Mike Minor are on the mound, you just let them go. But when you have guys who have struggled mightily and you’re tasked with trying to put them in the best position to succeed, using an opener seems to help.

AROUND THE TEAM

*The Rangers’ struggles versus LHP is probably well past the point of teams trying to manipulate their rotation to exploit that challenge. It’s a challenge to do it to an extreme degree during the regular season but when there is any room for flexibility or chances for teams to give righties “an extra day,” you better believe teams will do that until Texas proves otherwise. They’re hitting just .217/.297/.409 (.705) vs. LHP. That BA ranks last in MLB while the other metrics rank in the league’s bottom-third. As Texas continues to build their roster to a level of contention, one area they’ll have to consider is to how to limit their exposure in this regard.

*It is interesting that teams are now starting to pound Gallo up-and-in with the fastball. He’s been able to get some hits off that pitch but hasn’t hit for a ton of power. For pitchers, the risk is missing too far in and hitting him or missing over the middle of the plate, so it is a tough strategy to consistently execute. Against those who are likely to not only attempt to pound him up and in but execute it well, one coach told me that Gallo, to counter that, might stand a little bit further away from the plate to make that pitch not be so tight to his stance. Nothing super noticeable, but enough to make a difference.

*The Texas Rangers announced that outfielder Josh Hamilton and former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene will be inducted into the Texas Rangers Baseball Hall of Fame prior to the game on Saturday, August 17. They will be the 21st and 22nd inductees. According to Hamilton, it will be his first time at Globe Life Park since his final game played in 2015. I’ll be writing more about Josh in the week leading up to his induction.

*Was hoping Rougie would really take off after the double-day off, but he hasn’t. Pretty simple.

*Mike Minor has been outstanding this year. Great note from Tepid Participation:

*Jeanmar Gomez was DFA’d yesterday. It was the right move. He just hasn’t produced enough to justify a continued spot in the pen. With that said, the Rangers’ pen depth is thin so hopefully he clears waivers and stays in the organization just in case.

*Detroit returned Rule 5 selection RHP Reed Garrett to the Rangers. He was assigned to Nashville upon the return. Garrett went 8.2 IP allowing just 1 ER over his first seven appearances, but went on to allow 13 runs over his next six games spanning 6.2 IP. Garrett, 26 years old, posted a 2.04 ERA over 61.2 IP last season split between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock. He might be a bullpen factor later in the season.

MAILBAG

@GTOPhil: What do we do at 3B next year?

I think the Rangers’ top priority in free agency is Gerrit Cole, but much like when they missed out on Cliff Lee prior to the 2011 season, their plan B might be a third baseman. Last time it was Beltre, this time it might be Rendon. Internally, Andy Ibanez, who is playing well at Triple-A Nashville, could be an option. Matt Davidson is always a possibility if they keep him around as is Patrick Wisdom. The most likely scenario is that they find a guy in free agency who isn’t necessarily a top-line guy.

@mrromeo98: Any possibility of upgrading the catcher position?

Maybe in the future but likely not this year. The Rangers have Mathis on a 2-year deal and they love the work he’s done with this staff. Mike Minor has credited him a number of times this year and other pitchers have offered compliments, too. I’m not sure how the Rangers are evaluating what they want to see out of Izzy Kiner-Falefa thus far, but they’re definitely intrigued by his catching future. Perhaps they change their mind on that at the end of the year. Some might also depend on the continued development of Jose Trevino in Triple-A Nashville. At the end of the day, I think the Rangers are valuing the defensive side of that position more than the reverse and with a lineup that is the highest-scoring in MLB, they can withstand a catching spot that doesn’t produce a ton.

@JoeOMarshall: What are the odds that the Rangers keep Minor and/or Lynn beyond the trade deadline?

I’d be shocked if Lance Lynn were traded. They need a guy like him to eat innings and take the ball every 5th day. He’s not bad and will almost certainly be in their 2020 rotation. Mike Minor is the big question. Right now I’d say it is 50-50. I think the team’s contention in 2019 could impact it but it really just depends on the market. How many starters with at least another year of control will be on the market? Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Mike Clevinger, Matt Boyd, and Noah Syndergaard are just some of the guys who are in that category with Minor. The more of those guys available, the lower the likelihood the market is favorable enough for the Rangers to deal Minor. Just depends, I guess…

MOMENT OF THE WEEK

Drew Smyly waited over two years between Major League wins. From September 13, 2016 to May 24, 2019, he endured a major surgery with a couple of setbacks along the way. He’s admitted that there were times he was unsure if he’d pitch in a big league game again. I’m sure at times this year he was wondering when he’d win a big league game again. Well, he’s done it…and he pitched well doing it, too. Hats off to Drew…Here’s to several more of those wins in 2019!

ANECDOTE OF THE WEEK

Danny Santana was one of the key contributors in the Rangers’ series finale walk-off victory over the Cardinals on Sunday, May 19 in which they won 5-4 in 10 innings. After suffering bruised ankle the night before when he was hit by a 96 mph Carlos Martinez fastball flush on the bone, many thought Santana broke his ankle and then when X-Rays were negative, almost everyone was certain he’d be down for at least a couple of days with a strong likelihood he’d require an IL trip. Nah. Santana collected a pinch-hit HR in the 8th versus Andrew Miller and drew a critical walk vs. Jordan Hicks and scored the eventual winning run on Maz’s sac fly in the 10th. That Santana was even available was impressive. Here’s everything Danny Santana had to do to even be considered an option for the game, per Head Athletic Trainer Matt Lucero.

1—Contrast (hot/cold tubs): 5 cycles of 1 minute hot, 2 minutes cold.

2—Marc-pro for 1 hour (this is a recovery pump e-stim modality that contracts and relaxes muscles quickly)

3—Hivamat (lymphatic drainage modality)

4—Game ready (cold compression).

5—Rest for 1 hour and repeated a

6—Repeat steps 1 through 4

7—Light compression wrap

8—Outside for testing

After step 8, Lucero determined he looked great and Santana determined he felt great so they went to Woody and suggest he be considered available if needed.

KT’S “HOLY WOW” PLAY OF THE WEEK

Rougned Odor’s home run versus the Mariners was the longest home run hit down the right-field line at Globe Life Park in the stat cast era, checking it at 459 feet.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“I’ve been making up for lost time with my girls just being a dad…My girls needed me more than I needed baseball.” -Josh Hamilton on his decision to stop playing baseball. Hamilton last played in a game in 2015 but spent two years trying to recover from recurring knee injuries. He’ll be inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame on Saturday, August 17.

“I told him, I said don’t get any of that soft, easy get-back-into-it or get-your-feet-wet type of deal. I’d rather be thrown right back into the fire. That’s more my style.” -Shawn Kelley after he secured his third save of the season the same day he was activated off the IL following a minor operation the week prior to remove lumps on his vocal cords that proved to be benign.

I’d much rather have him playing than sitting on the bench. Man, can he talk. I don’t know how somebody can talk like that. The ninth inning and he is still talking. I told [manager Chris Woodward>, ‘The next time you don’t play him, just send him home.’” -Shin-Soo Choo on Elvis

STATS OF THE WEEK

The Rangers are 7-1-1 in home series this year. They’re 1-4-3 on the road.

*Mike Minor is the new franchise record holder with 29 consecutive scoreless innings at Globe Life Park. The previous record was held by C.J. Wilson, who reached 25.2 consecutive scoreless innings as a reliever over 2009 and 2010.

*As a team, the Rangers are hitting .169 with 2 strikes, 13th in MLB. In 2018, the Rangers hit just .152 with 2 strikes, last in MLB. Their .464 OPS with 2 strikes also ranked last in 2018, while their 2019 mark of .558 ranks 9th best.

*The Rangers have fared much better this year versus RHB than they have versus LHB. Check out how their vs. RHP and vs. LHP differences stack up around the league

BA: 2nd biggest difference (.048)

OBP: Biggest difference (.049)

SLG: 5th biggest difference (.071)

OPS: 3rd biggest difference (.121)

*The Rangers have had 17 plate appearances of 10+ pitches, most in MLB. Rougned Odor leads the Rangers with 3 plate appearances of 10+ pitches. That ranks T-6th in MLB.

DUMB TWEET OF THE WEEK

Darren Rovell making sure to get some spotlight by making Bill Buckner’s passing about him:

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Adam Morris of Lone Star Ball with his take on Carter Stewart. Stewart is essentially bypassing the poor minor league conditions to make better money in better conditions in Japan, while setting himself up to hit free agency in his mid-20s with approximately $7 million already in his bank. Will more guys try do this? I thought more would do that when Brandon Jennings played overseas instead of play a year of college hoops, but more guys haven’t really followed suit. Maybe baseball will be different? Possibly. Ultimately, I think most guys will elect to stay within the domestic system and go the traditional route, but Stewart’s move is interesting and certainly better for the bank account.

*The news that Dustin Pedroia’s knee might lead to premature retirement is unfortunate. He was the 2008 AL MVP and a multi-time Gold Glove winner. But more than that and more than his 2007 Rookie of the Year or one of four All-Star appearances, he’s been the heart and soul of the Red Sox for more than a decade.

*Where does Matt Chapman rank among MLB 3B? He definitely isn’t the best because Nolan Arenado’s defense is, at minimum, as good as Chapman’s and his bat is more productive, but a strong case can be made that Chapman is top 3. I’d put Arenado and Rendon ahead of him…and I’ll Bregman over him, too. If you consider Bryant a 3B then give me Bryant and let’s call Chapman number 5. And, no, I didn’t forget about Manny Machado.

*The Minnesota Twins not only lead MLB in 105, but they already have FOUR games with 6+ HR, a MLB record before June 1. Wow.

*Ryan Pressly allowed a run on Friday…the first run he’d allowed since August 10, 2018. Jackie Bradley Jr.’s homer snapped a stretch of 40 games and 39 straight scoreless innings. What a run…pun intended.

*I doubt it plays out in this fashion, but how interesting:

MINOR LEAGUE

*LHP Joe Palumbo is one of the top prospects in the Rangers system and has a great chance to debut at the big league level this year. Palumbo, who is pitching well for Double-A Frisco, chatted with me about his developing changeup, pitching with an opener, Fortnite strategy, and more.

*RHP Demarcus Evans, 22 years old, hasn’t allowed a run since April 17 and has a 0.81 ERA over 22.1 IP with 40 strikeouts and a .127 Opp. BA. One area that can improve is the walk department, in which he’s surrendered 17. Even with that, he’s been dominant with Down East. Hopefully we’ll get to see him with Frisco this year.

*I’m not yet sure what to make of Wei-Chieh Huang. He’s allowed 5 R/2 ER on 8 hits over 5.2 MLB innings. With Triple-A Nashville, however, he’s 9.0 scoreless innings having surrendered just 3 hits with 13 K and 4 BB. He’s 25 so he isn’t a baby by any means. His upside isn’t a closer or anything, but maybe a solid reliever? I guess we’ll see.

*OF Scott Heineman, who is on the 60-day IL after left shoulder surgery, began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday. So far he’s 6-for-26 with a double. Upon the completion of his rehab assignment, he’ll get activated off of the 60-Day IL and likely get optioned to Triple-A Nashville, for with whom he is rehabbing.

*23-year old Juremi Profar ranks 4th in the Texas League with a .322 BA. His .832 OPS ranks 12th. I’m not sure his best positional fit but his progress at the plate is notable and fun to follow. I wouldn’t consider him a big prospect or anything, but he’s certainly not just around because of his last name.

A/V DEPARTMENT

*During his weekly appearance with Ben & Skin, Jon Daniels shared an awesome story about Josh Hamilton:

*Josh Hamilton joined the Ben & Skin Show on Tuesday, one day after it was announced he’d be inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in August. Here’s their conversation: