Much like a fingerprint or a snowflake, every pitcher is different. While all pitchers need control, command, velocity, and deception, how they check each box varies wildly. There are a plethora of different arm angles, release points, and other mechanical nuances a pitcher can use. Pitch selection plays an enormous role as well.
Some throw a 100-mph fastball, while others barely touch 90. Some have sharp-moving breaking balls that induce a lot of swings and misses. Others rely on pinpoint command to induce weak contact and get called strikes. Few pitchers have four or five plus offerings in their arsenals. Heck, most don’t even have three. Ultimately, pitchers have to figure out what works well for them and how to deploy their strengths against hitters while mitigating weaknesses.
That’s the approach pitching coach Derek Johnson took with the Brewers, and it’s the same one he’s implementing with the Reds. After his hiring was announced in October, Johnson talked about this mantra as he explained how he could help Cincinnati’s young arms find success at the big-league level.
“The gist is that each one of these pitchers come to us with strengths and that’s why they are in the major leagues, why they are a major league pitcher or close to being one. In my mind, we spend way too much time trying to develop what they are not and the things they don’t have and opposed to trying to develop things they already are good at.
The early returns for Reds pitchers have been nothing but promising. The staff ranks fourth in fWAR, ERA, and strikeout rate, second in FIP and xFIP, and first in home-run rate. It’s an unbelievable turnaround from last year. The offseason acquisitions have certainly helped. But the team is also seeing huge developments from pitchers who were around before 2019. The two most notable examples are Luis Castillo and Robert Stephenson.
Other factors have played into their initial success, but they’re also pitching to their strengths.
What’s the simplest way for a pitcher to play up their strengths? Use their best pitch a lot. The premise is simple. Rather than focusing solely on attacking a hitter’s weakness — which may involve throwing something the pitcher isn’t comfortable with or using a pitch they can’t command well — let the pitcher throw what they’re confident in to get outs.
The traditional approach is leaning heavily on fastballs while mixing in off-speed and breaking balls here and there. That has worked for a lot of pitchers, and the heater is still an important part of any repertoire. But not every pitcher throws 98 or has Greg Maddux-esque command.
Most pitchers turn to their sliders, curveballs, or changeups to miss bats or initiate weak contact. Since those pitches disrupt timing and are, thus, harder to hit than a fastball, why shouldn’t pitchers throw them more? Teams started catching onto this long ago. Fastball usage has steadily dropped since pitch tracking began in 2002, and particularly so since 2015. Although the 2019 season is still in its infancy, fastballs are seeing their biggest year-to-year drop in the last 17 seasons.
This season, the Reds are only throwing fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, sinker, cutter) 50% of the time. That’s a far cry from the steady 60% they’ve sat at for the last three seasons. In fact, it’s tied with the Mariners for the lowest rate in baseball. Not every team would benefit from this approach, but the Reds have several pitchers with excellent breaking and off-speed pitches. Johnson has seemingly encouraged his staff to highlight those pitches.
Let’s start with Castillo and Stephenson, who are both off to dominant starts on the mound. Each one possesses an electric pitch that misses a lot of bats. For Castillo, it’s the changeup; for Stephenson, it’s the slider. They’re both using their best weapons even more in 2019. Castillo has increased his changeup usage at the expense of his four-seam and two-seam fastball, which have gone from a combined 57.0% usage rate to 53.0%.
Stephenson has truly embraced pitching backward, a trend that started last year. He’s throwing the slider over half the time and has dropped from 36.4% to 33.1% usage with the fastball. The curveball, which he had trouble commanding, has gone extinct, and the changeup has made only cameo appearances (5.2%). With better fastball command to help, Stephenson is featuring his best pitch heavily and seeing tremendous success in relief.
Several other players have started throwing their best pitches more.
(Keep in mind that any data from the Mexico Series is not included here.)
In all of these cases, the pitchers are featuring their best swing-and-miss offerings more than they did last year. We can see that illustrated below, along with how it’s affecting what hitters do with each pitch.
At the very least, the pitchers — minus Roark — are seeing an uptick in swings and misses this year. That can only help each player in the long run if they maintain the change. Roark aside, the approach is also helping each pitcher limit hard contact and/or keep the ball out of the air. Changeups and sliders have downward movement and are thrown lower in the zone, which results in a lower launch angle (i.e., more ground balls).
Like every bit of statistical analysis this early in the season, take this information with a grain of salt. It doesn’t explain every bit of each pitcher’s success nor the staff’s effectiveness as a whole. These are data points worth monitoring as the season unfolds. That said, Johnson’s philosophy appears to be having a net positive impact thus far.