Pittsburgh Pirates starter Trevor Williams has never been a high-volume strikeout pitcher.
Welcome to Bucco Breakfast, a new daily morning feature designed to help Pittsburgh Pirates fans through the offseason. Each day we’ll roll out a quick topic designed to spark conversation as well as provide some interesting baseball reading from around the web.
For this week’s Bucco Breakfast menu, we will look at how each Pirates’ starting pitcher earned his strikeouts in 2018. Today let’s talk about Trevor Williams.
Full Disclosure: As I type this, I am deeply embedded in a nest of Twitter replies about whether or not Williams is ....well, good.
So let’s get one thing right. Williams has worked himself into absolutely earning the good moniker. A mid-rotation type of starting pitcher does not post 4.8 fWAR across two seasons without having a considerable amount of talent.
Yet, the lack of the ability to miss bats consistently combined with an elevated fly-ball rate means that watching Williams pitch takes on a tightrope-type of feel.
Clearly, no one walked a tightrope better than Williams during his strong finish to 2018. During that time, it was not uncommon to see starts from Williams with something like eight strikeouts in six innings. It was equally common to see one or two strikeouts across seven-to-eight inning starts.
And therein lies that which flummoxes Williams fans: The potential for more. Can Williams find another gear, leading him to miss more bats? Perhaps if we look at how he compiled his 126 strikeouts last season, we can start to answer that question.
Type and Location
The good news is this: Williams has a solid foundation in his strikeout zone map from last season on which he can build more strikeout ability.
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The foundation I’m referring to is an ability to change eye levels. You’ll notice that many of Williams’ strikeouts come from a fastball up, or a slider down and away. A full study would require gathering cumulative at-bat data across all of his strikeouts, but a quick glance at this data tell us that Williams is comfortable going up or down to seal a punchout.
Take this example, from his August 29th start, in which he struck out eight hitters:
This is an admittedly cherry-picked example, but it does show us how Williams can learn — and is currently learning — how to maximize his arsenal. I picked out the last two pitches of this swinging strikeout here, the first of which (the slider labelled as “3”) had 6 inches of vertical break. The fourth pitch — the four seam fastball — carried a vertical break of -7.6 inches. That’s a swing of 13.6 inches. At similar spin rates (the slider here had a 2191 rpm spin rate; the four-seamer had 2172), the hitter has two factors against him in one sequence: recognition and change in eye level.
For Williams to consistently get a competent amount of hitters to strike out and mask his less desirable tendencies, he will have to use every trick in the book. Luckily for him, he’s already learned a few.