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?