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There has always been a fascinating aspect of baseball, pitcher vs. hitter. Can that pitcher find a way to throw the ball 60 feet six inches past the batter? This day and age, a triple-digits fastball will get put into the bleachers routinely so that pitcher needs to have something else up his sleeve. Off speed pitches and breaking balls will keep the hitter off balance and generating what every pitcher wants, the whiff.
This article will focus on five starting pitchers and highlight their pitches with significant movement. I also hope to give a better understanding of each pitch’s purpose and some reasoning behind why a pitcher would throw it. Enjoy!
Trent Thornton – SLIDER
A slider falls under the category of breaking ball pitches because it does not travel straight as it approaches the batter. It can move both downward and side to side. The primary purpose of a slider is to deceive hitters with spin and movement away from the pitcher’s arm side. In regards to velocity, a slider is typically thrown with less speed than a fastball, but higher than a curveball.
Trent Thornton featured a slider thrown 743 times last season. That accounted for 26.9% of his entire arsenal pitched. While being his second most used pitch in the arsenal, it is Thornton’s go-to for punch outs. Sixty-four times he sat hitters down on three strikes with this pitch. This slider not only creates a 12.1 SwStr% but also has a 17.8 CallStr%.
An intriguing aspect of this pitch is its thrown slower than many other sliders out there. The average pitch velocity is 80.5 mph, which gives it a huge difference in the speed of the four-seamer(92.9 mph). A below-average velocity can be scary for a slider, but the massive break keeps batters off-balance. The slider only allowed a measly seven barrels on 119 batted ball events.
The movement on this pitch is intoxicating to watch. Thornton’s slider was tops in the MLB in terms of vertical movement(52.3 inches of Drop). Pair that with the 11.0 inches of a horizontal break, and you have something that is GIF worthy. Thornton’s slider is clearly in an elite class in terms of movement and outcome.
Rich Hill – CURVEBALL
A curveball is a slower pitch thrown with a top-spin action on it, whereas a fastball is thrown much faster and with backspin. From a hitter’s perspective, a curveball should start at the top of the zone and break to the bottom. A common trait is this pitch; it will be the slowest offering in a pitchers repertoire and a significant arching drop.
Crafty veteran pitcher, Rich Hill, threw his curveball 41.4% of the time. This heavily relied upon pitch made up 400 of the 958 pitches he threw in only 58 innings of work. In terms of speed, Hill throws the curveball exceedingly low at 74.5mph on the radar. A breaking ball this slow you would think gets hit all over the yard, but in reality, it had a .219 xBA and a minuscule .264 xwOBA. That is incredibly efficient for a pitch seen as often as it is by the batter.
As far as active spin goes for Hill’s 6-12 curveball, it stands alone on the top. His perfect 100% active spin on this pitch means its moving in perfect harmony up and down. As you see in the GIF, the curveball appears to arc up in the zone then slowly bottoms out, nipping the strike zone.
The movement on this curveball is a thing of beauty—nearly six feet(65.9 inches) of a vertical break on the pitch. Hill even manages to find 18.5 inches of horizontal movement to drive hitters baffled at the plate. The horizontal movement aspect is 67% better than all other curveballs thrown in the MLB with similar speeds.
Dallas Keuchel – TWO-SEAM FASTBALL
The two-seam fastball, or sinker, is a variation of a fastball pitch. Thrown a little less velocity than a four-seam fastball and start to break down and towards the pitcher’s arm-side. Right to a right-hand pitcher and left to a left-hand pitcher. This pitch is meant to jam a batter and create ground ball hits.
After several years in Houston, Keuchel found himself without a home to start the 2019 MLB season. After shaking off some rust, he finished the season with a respectable 3.75 ERA. Keuchel has spent all of his careers relying on the two-seamer to be his main pitch and throwing it nearly 50% of the time again.
Keuchel has made a living off of throwing his two-seamer to create ground balls. In fact, since 2015, he has never had an average launch angle above 0 degrees. The MLB average ground ball rate is 54.7%, and Kuechel flattened that with a 70.7% rate. If you’re getting so many balls put on the ground, you are not striking nearly as many out. There was only a 5.3% SwStr% to this pitch. Since it is not a big whiff pitch, he tends to throw the ball early or even in counts.
The 12.8 inches of horizontal movement helps back the pitches into the zone. Where the extra break does help is in the 21.6% called strike rate. Add in 30.6 inches of vertical break, and it is no wonder all the balls that get hit into the infield.
Jake Odorizzi – CUTTER
The cutter is a fastball thrown with the movement of a slider towards the pitcher’s glove-side arm. The pitch velocity is typically a few miles per hour slower than a four-seam fastball. The late break and faster pitch velocity will induce weak contact by keeping the batter from barreling up a ball.
After two previous seasons of struggling, Jake Odorizzi decided to make a much-needed pitch mix change. The change? Jake decided to increase his cutter usage to 18%. No previous season in his career did Odorizzi throw this pitch more than 12% of the time. The amazing tidbit to this cutter is that it struck out more batters in 2019 than his previous three seasons combined.
Another change made in the arsenal was the speed of his cutter and four-seamer. In previous years, Odorizzi’s four-seam fastball would be about 91mph and the cutter at 86mph. In 2019, he put a greater velocity gap between the pitches. The four-seamer had a pitch velocity of 92.9, and the cutter had an 85.4mph.
The velocity changed his cutter quite a bit. It found an additional 3.6 inches of horizontal break and gained 6.6 inches of drop. Remember, what you want from the cutter is to look like the fastball and run back into the pitcher’s glove side. The 5.6 inches of h-mov was number nine overall in the MLB and helped induce a 51.3% ground ball rate. The MLB ground ball percent average for a cutter is 43.9%.
Kevin Gausman – SPLIT-FINGER FASTBALL
Split-finger fastballs are referred to as splitters too. They are offspeed pitches thrown to look like a fastball and dive dramatically at the plate. A low spin rate is an indicator that the pitch is a splitter. Generally thrown more velocity than a changeup, but slower than a fastball.
Kevin Gausman took his splitter to a new level in 2019 as the threw it over 41% of the time. That is an incredibly high spike when you consider he had never thrown the splitter more than 27% of the time. It is great to see that even with the significant increase in usage, the effectiveness continued. The pitch only let up two total barrels on 109 batted balls events and a .293 wOBA.
Gausman’s offspeed offering is also known for creating a ton of swing and misses with over a 40% whiff rate. On top of being an unhittable pitch, it was has a 22.7% SwStr%, which is much higher than the 17.8% MLB average SwStr%.
A terrific splitter should fall off the table at the last minute, so you want to see as much vertical movement(v-mov) as possible before it gets to the plate. Gausman’s 35 inches of drops put him in the top 10 of all pitchers. To add even more life into this pitch, the horizontal movement(h-mov) was 13.8 inches. That made it a top-five splitter with regards to h-mov. The only other splitter with a similar h-mov and v-mov belonged to Kirby Yates.
As a young boy growing up outside Chicago, I was able to watch one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Greg Maddux. He was like a wizard on the mound with all the movement he could create on his pitches. With no baseball played, going back and watching some of his games was the inspiration for writing this piece.
Thank you for reading and be safe out there!
*All statistics and graphical representations were extracted from BaseballSavant.com, Fangraphs.com, and Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard on Tableau.