In almost every sport I have ever played or watched you will hear a coach or an announcer say at some point in time that the player needs to shoot his best shot. Whether it be hockey, basketball, soccer, etc. there is a moment when a player is holding on to the ball/puck/whatever looking for an opportunity to take an open shot or a shot from a place where he/she feels comfortable. They are playing the odds; trying to gain an advantage, gambling on themselves and their ability or just trying to find the clearest path to what will hopefully be success for his/her or their collective team. For an MLB pitcher this type of cat and mouse game is being played on repeat for up to a hundred or more times per game. You would think the pitcher has the advantage because only he really knows where the ball is supposed to go and how it is supposed to get there. I mean the catcher has a little bit of that knowledge to, but really the pitcher is the only one that truly knows himself and his abilities. So, why doesn’t a pitcher just throw his “best” pitch or pitches all of the time? I can’t answer this question completely, but I have a few hunches.
Maybe the pitcher is being told what he should pitch and how often. Maybe he is not fully aware of what his best pitches are. Maybe he thinks that he needs to have an entire tackle box full of pitches like Yu Darvish to better fool the batter. It could be any of these reasons. This got me thinking about what each of the Pirates pitchers best pitches actually were, how often they threw each pitch, and how they successful they were when utilizing them. Yes people this is what I do for fun. And luckily for all of you, you get to come along with me on this journey to see what the most successful/best pitch is for each starting pitcher for the Pirates, as well as which are the worst and probably should never be thrown again. This will be just for starting pitchers as of right now, but I do plan on crunching the numbers for each of our relief pitchers as well.
Before we get started with each of the Pirates starting pitchers in a 5-man rotation, with one wildcard for the upcoming 2020, season I wanted to discuss the statistics that I utilized in my decision making process. The first was the easiest; it was the number of each particular pitch they threw and the percentage this equated to. I next looked at overall batting average and OPS (On Base plus Slugging) to try to differentiate between hard hit balls and bad luck dribblers, as well as to take into account walks that could occur leading to the batter getting on base. Finally, I looked at for each pitch were average velocity (mph) and swinging strike percentage (because missing bats is important in today’s baseball).
For pitchers with less of a major league track record or numbers that were too close to call, and I didn’t want to make a judgement call, I even broke out spin rate. Then I started the process by shutting off my logical baseball mind and turned on the analytic side, which is sometimes hard to do because you think the correct decision is the obvious one, but sometimes your eyes can deceive you. So what do you say we get started? In no particular
The potential 2020 opening day starter because of his performances and pretty much workhorse status for an otherwise depleted starting rotation. The man known affectionately as Big Joe. Over the past two seasons Big Joe has thrown one of his pitches more often than any other and to no surprise from a man of his frame it was his four-seam fastball. However, was this his most successful pitch?
Well, in 2018, it was according to AVG against at .221 and .665 OPS, but in in 2019 it was one of his worst with a .300 AVG and .902. So should Joe get rid of this pitch? I think we all know that the answer is a resounding no. A 6’5, 230 pound man is not getting rid of his fast ball which he throws between 33% and 38% of the time. So what pitches should Musgrove take with him into the 2020 season for the Pirates and what one(s) should he leave behind.
His most prosperous pitch that should be kept along with his four-seam fast ball is his changeup. In the two previous years combined he threw his change up 12.25% of the time and resulted in a combined .217 AVG, .587 OPS and a 21.95% swinging strike rate.
A close second was his slider, which batters only fared slightly better against. He threw this particular pitch 20.2% and 22.4% in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Opposing batters have struggled against the slider to a tune of a .200 AVG, a .630 OPS and a 18.55% swinging strike rate.
The one wildcard in the line of best pitches for Big Joe is his curveball, which he has just recently started to use a lot more. In 2018 he only threw his curveball 8 times (.4% of his total pitches). In 2019 he threw it 243 times (9.2% of his pitches). In the 8 pitches in 2018 opposing batters crushed his curve for a .333 AVG and a 1.000 OPS, but he did get a 25% swinging strike rate on it. In 2019 batters only hit. 180 against it with a .624 OPS and a 17.3% swinging strike rate. So just based on that I am advising that he keep this pitch.
So if these are the ones that he is keeping; which ones have to go? First off it has to be his sinker; without a doubt. In two years combined, hitters have knocked this pitch around the park. The AVG (.365) and OPS (.863) is by far the highest of any of his pitches and his swinging strike rate of (6.6%) is one of his lowest. A close second is his cutter, of which he did decrease his reliance. Batters posted a combined .295 AVG and a .846 OPS and only had swinging strike rate of 8.2%.
In my mind the decision for Big Joe moving forward is clear. Use the fast ball, the changeup, the slider, and the curve and leave all of the other pitches at home.
Trevor Williams was number two starter at the beginning of last year and the presumptive number 1 once Jameson Taillon went down. William is an interesting case for the Pirates and one that one of Pirate Maven's fellow writers, Gary Morgan, dove into pretty extensively in a previous article. Go ahead and do yourselves a favor and go back and read it for some clarity. Because of this I might not have to go as in depth on this one.
Once again, as with Big Joe, Williams is not dropping his most used pitch, the four seam fast ball. The numbers in 2018 were better than they were for 2019, but not by an astronomical amount. The batting AVG was better (.214 to .273) and the OPS was better (.638 to .851), but the swinging strike rate was higher last year (11.2% to 7%). We all know he is keeping this pitch.
The next pitch he has to keep is his slider. During the previous two years he got the highest combined swinging strike rate (13.35%) with the slider. He didn't get the results from his slider in 2019 that he did the previous year. Because of the potential it showed in 2018 with a .218 AVG and .641 and the previously mentioned high swinging strike rate, I'd still consider this his number two pitch.
The next/final pitch he should keep is a very close one. I was surprised to find out that it was a decision between his sinker and his change up, both of which he throws a decent amount of the time (16.35% vs. 13.8% respectively). The combined numbers for his sinker over the past 2 years has been a .265 AVG, a .740 OPS and a 6.75% swinging strike rate. The numbers for his change up are a .287 AVG, a .803 OPS and a 7.4% swinging strike rate. Neither of these have been very good pitches for Williams, but neither of them are particularly awful either. I might be taking the easy way out on this one, but I am going to let the new pitching coach fight it out to see which the better pitch is. The one that is an easier decision to drop is the one that he has used the least amount, his curve ball (only 22 pitches last year). It is also by far his worst pitch. In those 22 pitches batters have hit for a collective .700 AVG and 1.700 OPS, with on a 2.3% swinging strike rate. I know he didn’t throw it that much, but he would have been better off not throwing it at all.
He is probably the most polarizing pitcher on the Pirates' staff. Mostly due to the fleecing that former GM Neil Huntington took at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays in acquiring him for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz. But also because of his underwhelming pitching performances in a Pirates uniform.
Now we don’t have to search to far find the pitch that should be dropped immediately, if it hasn’t been already. In at least the last four games that he pitched last season Archer made the decision, along with catcher Jacob Stallings, to do away with his sinker. But just for arguments sake let’s take a look at the numbers.
In the past two years, part of that with the Rays. Archer threw his sinker only 8.15% of the time, but the results were devastating to say the least. Over two seasons Archer’s sinker was struck at a .348 AVG and a 1.098 OPS by opposing batters, with a lowly 5% swinging strike rate. This pitch is obviously out. Another easy choice is his curve ball. Even though he did have an 11.6% swinging strike rate, the other numbers .400 AVG and a 1.400 OPS) make this decision a no brainer.
That leaves Archer with his three most effective pitches. His four-seam fastball, his slider, and his changeup. His four-seamer produced a .283 AVG, a .871 OPS and a 6.5% swinging strike rate. Not great numbers, but a heck of a lot better than the first two options.
His change up fared much better with increase usage last year. Over the past two years he has thrown it around 11% of the time. This comparison over those years is; .309 AVG to .214 AVG and 765 OPS to .724 OPS. He consistently gets a 15% swinging strike rate on this pitch.
Archer's best pitch is his slider; with a .230 AVG, a .677 OPS and a 21.55% swinging strike rate. So for Archer it is pretty simple. Throw the slider and mix in the fastball and change up.
Another polarizing pitcher for the Pirates, but for much different reasons than Archer. One of the Pirates' most touted pitching prospects in recent memory; he was made to feel like a human yo-yo, as the Pirates chose to bring him up to the big league club only to demote him back to the Indianapolis Indians with reckless abandon.
When he was up here he was prone to giving up multiple runs in the first inning and then striking out 9 batters over the next 4 innings. Keller has the least amount of experience of any of the Pirates' starters, but also has the most potential.
His fastball has an average velocity of 95.5 mph and a 2,473 rpm spin rate. If you need someone to tell you, that’s pretty darn good. The average fastball in all of the MLB has a velocity of 92 mph and a 2,200 spin rate. The average batter hits .275 against this type of pitch. With increase velocity and spin rate extrapolated over a full season this should decrease by at least .024. This is why Keller keeps is using his four-seamer in spite of the .461 AVG and 1.214 OPS from batters who faced him this year.
After talking up one of Keller’s statistically terrible pitches you should feel pretty good about the next two pitches, his slider and his curveball. The slider is a pretty infamous pitch for Keller. It is the one from early May that was reported as one of the reasons as to why the Pirates' front office was delaying his promotion. He was supposedly staying in AAA to work on this pitch. If he needed the work I am fine with this decision after I have seen the results. Keller threw this pitch around 20% of the time with great success. Batters only hit .200 with a .523 OPS and a 26.8% swinging strike rate against Keller’s “new” weapon.
Another productive pitch for Keller’s stunted year with the Pirates was his Curveball. Batters struggled to a .138 AVG, a .373 OPS and had a 13.2% swinging strike rate. So he is obviously keeping those pitches.
The only one he could consider dropping is his change up, which he only threw 4% of the time. Opposing hitters hit .800, with an 1.800 OPS against this pitch. If you only throw a pitch around 4% of the time, it is a great pretty easy one to drop from your repertoire.
The man has a killer singing voice; we all know that by now. But I guess I can tell you something that you might not know; he has a killer slider too! You probably missed that because he was too busy throwing like a million fastballs in a row.
This year he threw his four-seam fastball almost 50% of the time. He threw his slider only 20%. When Brault threw his slider he got a 22% swinging strike rate and only allowed a .202 AVG, with a .595 OPS. Please throw that pitch more often, you can still throw your fastball too. It isn’t a bad pitch.
Over the past two years he batters had a .268 AVG and a .829 OPS. The biggest problem with this pitch is the low, 8.4% swinging strike rate. Brault’s second best pitch is his change up, which is a good compliment to the fastball and slider. It yields his second highest swinging strike rate (14.1%) and his second lowest AVG allowed (.217).
His other two pitches can easily be dropped. The first is his curve ball because he only throws it a little over 1% of the time and when he does he struggles with his command of it and/or batters hit the cover off it to the tune of a 1.045 OPS.
The second pitch is the dreaded sinker, which each and every team the Pirates faced exposed. Brault’s sinker was no exception. He gave up a .326 AVG and .869 OPS the sinker and only had a 2.6% swinging strike rate.
Part way through the season Brault was forced into a starters role for the Pirates after early season struggles and, for the most part, performed admirably. He also had some pretty solid pitches that can stand up to opposing batters. He definitely deserves a fair shake at the starting rotation, which is exactly what I think he will get. He just needs to utilize his best pitches more effectively.
Chad Kuhl is the Wild Card in this whole scenario of the potential starting rotation for the Pirates in this upcoming season. As Gary Morgan pointed out in his article earlier this week, we don’t know what to expect from Kuhl he's spent over a season off the mound, but the potential is there.
Over the 2017 and 2018 seasons Kuhl used his sinker almost 55% of the time and it was actually one of his least successful pitches. Batters posted a .307 AVG and a .923 OPS. His fastball and his change up were his other two less than stellar pitches. Both types of pitches resulted in an average over .400 and an OPS over 1.200. So really not good at all.
His most successful pitch was actually his curve ball, which only threw around 10% of the time. If my curveball had a 2,875 rpm spin rate (league average spin rate is 2536 rpm) and batters only hit .111 with a .375 OPS, I would throw that pitch a lot more than 10% of the time.
His other above-average pitch is is slider. He gets the highest swinging strike rate from this pitch (20.95%), his second lowest AVG against (.195) and his second lowest OPS allowed (.504). I am very anxious to see Kuhl get back on the mound for the Pirates as soon as possible, so we will know what we are going to get from him moving forward.
So what can be done with all of this information, stats similar to the and even more advanced metrics? A whole lot! My hope is that Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton, whoever our pitching coaches may be stick to the player centered mantra that they have been emphasizing in every statement about the future of the team. My hope is that they will play to the strengths of each and every player including the pitchers mentioned in this article and not keep up the message of trying to fit square pegs into round holes, even when it fails constantly.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement