There are few developments this early in a baseball season we should be granting anything more than a grain of salt. Lineup construction, how often a player or team runs, and pitch velocity are all on that short list. My favorite item that actually does already matter is pitch usage, specifically the unveiling of a new offering, or significantly increased usage of an old one. Any pitcher who is using a new pitch or leaning more heavily on one he already threw is telling us about a direction he wants to pursue this season, and it doesn’t take more than a start or two for those indications to become clear.
We have already seen a number of intriguing changes in pitch usage, but we can’t cover them all in one column. Instead, we culled the list down to five individual pitches, all of which are either entirely new or taking on greater importance in a repertoire, that could have a lasting effect on the pitchers who throw them.
Jose Berríos’ curveball
Berríos threw his curveball about one-quarter of the time across his first two full seasons in the majors. In his first start of the season, he threw 37 curveballs, which translated to a usage rate of 38.5%. Five of Berríos’ 10 strikeouts in the start—four swinging and one looking—came with the curve on strike three.
New Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson came from the University of Arkansas, where he was a proponent of maximizing velocity and spin rate as the Razorbacks’ head coach, so it’s no surprise to see Berrios already leaning on the curve more in 2019 than he ever had previously in his career. Don’t expect the usage rate on Berrios’ curve to come down any time soon
Justin Verlander’s changeup
The changeup was a regular offering in Verlander’s pitch mix across the first nine years of his career, but he started going away from it in 2015, and threw it only sparingly the last two seasons. In 2017 and 2018 combined, the pitch had a usage rate of 2.8%, making it a statistically insignificant part of his repertoire. That’s why it was such a surprise when he broke out 10 changeups in his first start this season, accounting for 10.2% of his pitches in a win over the Rays.
The Rays went 0-for-4 with the change as the action pitch, with a strikeout, two groundouts and a lineout. In addition to the strikeout pitch, Verlander got three more whiffs with the change, giving it a swinging-strike rate of 40% in the outing. He mostly threw it to lefties, but did break it out against a same-sider two times in the start, inducing a whiff on one of them.
Verlander is still going to rely primarily on his four-seamer, slider and curveball, but the change will give him another weapon to go to against lefties.
Frankie Montas’ splitter
This is a completely new pitch from Montas. He threw 1,615 pitches in the previous two seasons, and none of them were splitters. In his 2019 debut against the Angels, he threw 17 splitters on 77 pitches. Lest you think this is simply Statcast picking up changeups as splitters, Montas threw his change just 4% of the time over the last two seasons. Plus, as you'll soon see, this moves nothing like a changeup. This is a splitter, and it apparently has a huge role to play for the 26-year-old this season.
Montas got one strikeout, three groundouts, one popout and three whiffs with the splitter. He gave up a double to Justin Bour, but that was the only hit he surrendered on the offering and that proved to be the last pitch he threw on the day. It has a similar effect as a changeup would, coming in about 10 mph slower than his four-seamer and sinker, which registered average velocities of 97.1 mph and 96.4 mph, respectively, but the movement is much different than a typical chage.
This is a necessary pitch for the hard-throwing Montas because it’s something that can keep hitters off his high-90s heat. Hitters will adjust once word of its existence starts to spread, and it will then be up to Montas to adjust back while keeping every pitch in his repertoire an asset. If he can throw the splitter for strikes and get hitters to chase it, it could be the pitch that leads to a breakout season.
Sandy Alcantara’s breaking balls
Alcantara started the season firmly on the right foot, blanking the Rockies for eight innings while allowing four hits, striking out six and walking none. Alcantara came into this season with six starts and 42 1/3 innings under his MLB belt, and was the No. 73 prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus. It wasn’t going to be hard to find something interesting about him early on, so long as he had a modicum of success. Turns out, it took all of one start.
In Alcantara’s brief time in the majors before this season, Statcast had him throwing both a slider and curveball. The slider had a usage rate of 18.3%, while the curve was at 7.5%. Statcast again had him throwing both in his 2019 debut, but something changed. This time, the curve had primacy between his breaking balls, sitting at a usage rate of 26.2% compared with 19.6% for the slider. The other was their combined profile within Alcantara’s pitch mix. Nearly half of the pitches he threw against the Rockies were breaking balls. In 2017 and 2018, his curve and slider combined for a usage rate of 25.8%.
Alcantara is throwing two distinct breaking pitches, which we can tell from velocity. One, the curve, registered at anywhere between 82 mph and 86 mph against the Rockies, tending toward the lower end. The other, the slider, clocked in between a range of 86 and 89 mph, with most in the 87-88 neighborhood once he got settled in. You can also see different movement on the pitches.
Here’s the curve.
And here’s the slider.
If Alcantara can regularly pair those two offerings with his upper-90s four- and two-seam fastballs, he can take off in his first full season in the majors.