Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray are good pitchers. You could argue that they are even better than good pitchers. And pitching coach Derek Johnson is considered to be one of the best pitching coaches in the entire league, and he was also given a promotion to Director of Pitching for the entire organization in late October. But over at Fangraphs a new article suggests that Castillo, Gray, and Johnson may be going about things in a way that could be improved for different and better results.

Ben Clemens looked at pitchers across Major League Baseball who throw both 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs at least 10% of the time in their pitch arsenal. There were only 49 such pitchers in baseball last season with the Reds duo of Castillo and Gray being apart of that grouping. He also then looked at hitters who were considered extreme ground ball and extreme fly ball hitters. Then he looked at how the group of pitchers utilized their fastballs against both groups of hitters.

What Clemens found here was interesting. Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray were both throwing significantly more 2-seamers to ground ball hitters than they were to fly ball hitters. Gray actually had the largest difference in all of baseball last season of throwing a higher rate of 2-seamers to ground ball hitters when compared to fly ball hitters. Castillo had the 4th largest difference. That would seem to suggest that someone was making this choice – be it the catcher, the pitching coach, the organization as a whole.

Historically Luis Castillo’s 2-seamer has been far better than his 4-seamer, but in 2021 both pitches were below-average according to their pitch values. We all saw this play out during the season when Castillo struggled in the first half as his pitch usage was different than the past before getting back to throwing more 2-seamers in the second half of the season and watching his year turn around. For Gray, his 2-seamer has also been far and away the better pitch of the two in his career and it played out that way in 2021 as well.

Clemens notes that guys should throw their best pitches more frequently and in both cases for the Reds the 2-seamer is the better pitch. And in theory, that’s the right approach. But theory isn’t always reality. A pitch on it’s own isn’t always what makes it perform as it performs. Sequencing and usage matter. If a guy throws his fastball 90% of the time hitters are probably going to hit it a lot better than if a pitcher is throwing his fastball 60% of the time because in the first scenario the batter knows he’s almost assuredly going to get a fastball.

How pitches play off of each other matters. Sequencing matters. Location of pitches matters. It’s never as simple as “throw this pitch more”. And to be clear, I’m not saying that Clemens was saying that it was that simple, just pointing out that pitching is far more complicated than just deciding to throw your best pitch more often and thinking that it will just maintain it’s value it previously had when it was being thrown less. It’s certainly possible that it can do that, but it’s not a guarantee either because so many other factors go into why that pitch worked the way that it did.

What will be interesting to look back on in the 2022 season, though, is if the pitch usage does change a little bit in these kinds of scenarios. With Tucker Barnhart now with the Detroit Tigers and Tyler Stephenson presumably taking over as the #1 catcher on the team, will how he calls a game change things up a little bit? And if so, what does that do for how the guys perform on the mound?

15 Responses

  1. west larry

    very interesting article, but I’ll stick with D. Johnson and his earned reputation as a great pitching coach. I’m sure he will read the article and decide what’s best for the reds pitching staff. I’ll go with whatever the pitching tsar decides.

  2. LDS

    DJ certainly has a good reputation but it’s hard to point to the results in the team stats. They led the league in walks issued, 5th in HRs allowed, below the league average in ERA, WHIP, FIP, etc. So, the question in my mind is whether it’s a lack of talent or a failure of coaching and management. Personally, I maintain, as I did all season, that the Reds lack the field management needed to win.

    • Jimbo44CN

      Wouldn’t a lot of those bad stats come from some of the releivers in the early part of the season? They were horrible.

      • Michael

        Jimbo I think you are correct. The starting 5 who made 142 starts had era+’s at 120,127,141,114 and 101. This would lead me to believe the issue was a lot of the guys in the bullpen sans Santillan, Antone, Cessa and weirdly Art Warren.

    • earmbrister

      Some of your stats might be influenced by GABP. Not for nothing.

  3. DataDumpster

    It is incredulous that someone will run a database query on some scenario, notice a pattern, try to establish a cause and effect with no basis, and publish it as a finding. Kudos to Doug for discrediting a good part of this conjecture. Also, the point with how Stephenson calls the game will be interesting but I suspect that a veteran like Barnhart will be missed in this area.
    Secondly, are we to assume that each catcher knows these kind of statistics for each hitter that comes up to the plate? Where to pitch him (sure!); but pitch selection, sequencing, etc. seems more situational than anything analytics tables could give you (to the extent these stats are known and memorized).
    Lastly, LDS has made some good points as to why the managerial end of things may be less successful than we think. A team that leads the league in pitches thrown, walks, and near the top in HRs is not acceptable in any circumstance. Pitchers that have these tendencies should not be used frequently. It is probably also likely that the overthinking, analytical approach trying to maximize each pitch draws the long counts that cause trouble because pitcher’s don’t necessarily have the skill of placement over each pitch type on any given day. That’s where situational skill trumps descriptive stats most every time. Maybe someone can calculate the expected run value of 2 walks in one inning, this team had that in spades.

  4. Doc

    In theory, theory and practice (reality) are the same, but in practice they are not.

  5. MK

    If catchers are calling the pitches they at times call pitches that make it easier for them with me on base. This information might be better if we knew the difference in pitch calling with runners on base.

    • David

      In other words, pitch selection might be different if the pitcher is throwing out of the stretch (men on base) or the wind up (bases empty).
      Pitching out of the stretch, I think pitchers tend to throw more fastballs and want to get it to the plate ASAP, to prevent the baserunner from getting too much of a lead, and not throwing a breaking ball because it might bounce in the dirt and cause the runner to move up a base.
      This is just fundamental baseball.

      I think sometimes these stats just tend to reinforce that water is wet, and most days end in the letter “y”.
      As for another point, yes, I think that good scouting reports do tell the manager what the pitcher should throw to which batter under certain circumstances. I’ve seen managers look at their stats books in the dugout. Dave Johnson (late of the Nationals) was famous for that, and he was not the only one.
      Other managers eschew that kind of advanced scouting. I think Dusty Baker was one of those. Dusty, who played a lot of baseball, and watched a lot of baseball, might have thought he had a better intuitive sense than the scouting reports did.

    • Mark Moore

      Their performance may have me hooked to watch the Super Bowl for something other than the commercials this year.

      Well done and quite the effort beating that KC team TWICE this season.

      • Michael

        Be careful @lucius, it’s a weak QB draft class and the reds might follow your advice;)

  6. SultanofSwaff

    Doug is right that sequencing and usage matter. In that department, my frustrations with Barnhart are well documented. As much as the Reds saved in salary by trading him, I believe they’ll likewise benefit with the pitch calling.

    I’m a bit torn with Sonny Gray. He’s an ideal trade candidate in a starting pitching thin market, but you’d hate to lean too hard on a staff of mostly youngsters. For that reason I’m inclined to hold onto him until the trade deadline….see where the team is in the standings.

  7. Steve Schoenbaechler

    I have one statement. . .

    Gray altered his pitch usage with the Yankees, if I remember right. And, it lowered his performance. He came here and got back on track.

    Mahle has been doing fine. If anything, tweeks. I wouldn’t do any major overhaul of him. He’s been improving every season.