When Tyler Mahle was in the minor leagues he was dominant. And at times that word wasn’t strong enough to describe his game. Like the time in which he threw a perfect game in Double-A that required all of 88 pitches. Or the year before that when only a hit batter kept him from a perfect game in Daytona.
But that dominance came in a way that wasn’t always something that seemed like it would fully translate to the Major Leagues. Despite dominating in the Minor Leagues during the 2017 season between Double-A and Triple-A where he posted an ERA of 2.06 with 30 walks and 138 strikeouts in 144.1 innings, here’s what I wrote in his scouting report following the season that year:
For Tyler Mahle he lives and dies with the fastball. Sometimes that can be to a fault. The right hander throws a lot of fastballs. It’s not Tony Cingrani level, but it’s higher than normal. With all of the different ways he can use his fastball, though, it’s giving hitters different looks despite them falling under the “fastball” category. How his secondary stuff plays against Major Leaguers will be the most interesting part of his future development. As things stand right now, I expect his strikeout rate to decline and his walk rate to increase a little bit from his minor league time. The secondary pitches just aren’t put-away caliber and while he can pound the zone, big leaguers will be able to spoil things that minor leaguers couldn’t.
The right-handed pitcher earned a spot in the rotation in 2018 out of spring training. At times he dominated – like in his first start of the year against the Cubs. And he was quite good through the first 15 starts of the season. He posted a 3.89 ERA in that stretch. But he struggled after that, ultimately being demoted to Triple-A in early August. Over his final eight starts with the Reds in 2018 his ERA jumped up to 7.84 and his walk rate ballooned as he walked 21 batters in 31.0 innings.
Some of that very well could have been injury related. Tyler Mahle was dealing with some shoulder fatigue late in the season that could explain how his second half turned out. But he also thinks there’s another reason that could explain some of it. Bobby Nightengale of The Cincinnati Enquirer notes that the now 24-year-old believed he was relying too much on his fastball. And that he’s dropped his slider to throw his curveball more.
It came down to living off the fastball, I think,” Mahle said. “There were days, just like everyone has, that the other pitches would come around, but for the most part, I was just pitching on one pitch. You can’t do that, especially in the big leagues with everything they have now. Guys know you are going to throw it
With baseball going more and more towards offspeed pitches, Tyler Mahle threw his fastball 68% of the time during the 2018 season with Cincinnati. Among the 140 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2018, that ranked as the 11th highest rate in baseball. That doesn’t necessarily work against everyone. J.A. Happ, Tyler Glasnow, and Brad Keller all had a higher fastball rate and performed well.
For Tyler Mahle it may have been the combination of such a high fastball rate to go along with a poor breaking ball. As noted, he has scrapped his slider to go with a curveball instead. Going back to the scouting report I wrote following his 2017 season, here’s what I said about the slider:
The pitch he goes to most of the time out of his secondary offerings, the slider works in the mid-to-upper 80’s. It’s an average offering a large majority of the time. Every so often it will show good, hard biting action that would give it above-average looks – but he rarely finds the strikezone when it’s at it’s best.
Not every pitcher in baseball throws a slider. But among the 140 pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2018, 107 pitchers did feature a slider. Among the group, Tyler Mahle’s slider was the 9th worst according to Fangraphs based on the value per 100 sliders thrown. It simply was not a pitch he found any kind of success with.
Likewise, his change up was also a pitch he didn’t find much success with. Using the same metric as above, Tyler Mahle’s change up was the 7th worst in baseball among the 135 pitchers with 100 innings who threw change ups. He also scrapped that pitch. Instead he will be focusing on a splitter.
The splitter was a pitch he actually started using down the stretch after his demotion to Triple-A. He only made one start in Cincinnati after moving to the pitch, but it shows very different action than his change up did. Using the charts available at Brooks Baseball, here’s how his pitches moved on the vertical and horizontal planes each month during the 2018 season at the Major League level.
I circled the splitter in green. The algorithm marked the pitch as a change up, but it’s clearly a very different pitch. There’s more bite to the pitch. There’s more cutting action to the pitch.
With the fastball, while hitters seemed to know Tyler Mahle was going to throw it, he was still successful with the pitch. It rated out as an above-average pitch using the same Fangraphs metrics referenced above. It wasn’t dominant, but it did rank 57th out of the 140 pitchers. That could be a good sign of things to come.
In 2018 Tyler Mahle was essentially a fastball, slider, change up pitcher. The curevball and cutter seen on the chart above combined to account for 1.21% of all pitches thrown during his Major League season. In the upcoming season he’s going to be a very different pitcher, at least when it comes to what he’s throwing. The fastball is going to be there. But the curveball is replacing the slider, and the splitter is replacing the change up. Those two pitches were among the worst in baseball in their respective categories. Baseball is a game of adjustments. And 2019 for Tyler Mahle is one where he’s hoping to make them, and take a step forward.