Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Pittsburgh Pirates prefer that their pitchers serve up a steady diet of fastballs to hitters.
Four-seamers, sinkers, fastballs high and low, tight and inside or painting a corner; All fastballs are welcome. Offspeed stuff should be flashed but not relied upon; Breaking stuff can only be as good when it plays off of fastball command.
Yes, the tired narrative of the club’s pitching philosophy is a well known cliche’ at this point. But, it’s a cliche for a reason. Just this past Sunday on his radio show, general manager Neal Huntington both reiterated the team’s unwavering rigor in maintaining the status quo while recognizing the baseball-wide trend away from the heat.
”We do recognize that it [going away from such heavy fastball usage] is a trend,” Huntington began. “However, we do still firmly believe that everything is predicated off of fastball control. Getting to strike one is still very important for us.”
Of course, he isn’t wrong. The reports of the fastball’s demise may have been
greatly somewhat exaggerated.
If we look at the pitch types that comprise the 13,617 swings-and-misses (as per Statcast) thrown by starting pitchers this season, we see the following break down in pitch type:
(note: two-seamers (FT) and sinkers (SI) are cmobined here for practicality, as many pitch tracking systems see these pitches as interchangeable)
Yes, the fastball is still king, though the hard breaking stuff has a bigger seat at the table than in year’s past. The best starting pitchers out there know when to mix in breaking stuff, which clearly still has its place based on these percentages.
The most wonderful (and vexing) thing about pitching is that it is such a fluid thing. Situations, batter tendencies, ballparks and much more can affect a pitch mix. To date, the Pittsburgh Pirates have brushed off these concerns to stick to their overarching approach. Even when the team brings in a pitcher with a capable curve, such as Jameson Taillon, the peculiarities of the club’s preferred pitch selection could dampen its effectiveness.
And that’s a shame, because as we plan to show, Jameson Taillon’s curveball is still being woefully under-utilized.
Fix it in the mix?
Let’s start with a quick look at those that throw the best curveballs in the game. Using Fangraphs’ weighted pitch values, standardized over 100 pitches, we find that some familiar names at the top of the curveball pitch value leaderboard.
Among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched and 50 curves thrown, Corey Kluber has the most effective curveball by this metric with a 3.22 wCB/C rating. Stephen Strasburg follows him up with a 2.70 clip, while fellow Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Chad Kuhl is surprisingly third with a 2.37 figure. Eagle-eyed readers will not that Kuhl has completed 49.2 innings as of this writing, but what the heck we’re going to include him anyway.
If we take those three starters, and compare their curve usage at each pitch count against what Taillon’s most-offered and second-offered pitches in those counts, we can make some assumptions:
First, we can see that Taillon’s curveball really comes out to play in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. That’s not terribly surprising, as the curveball has long been known as an out-pitch. It’s not seen here, but Taillon’s curve is seen no higher than 18.6 percent at any other count other than the outliers highlighted here.
What i find fascinating is the variety of counts in which the bender appears for the other pitchers seen here. Though the percentages are still what you would consider to be within a “normal” curveball usage rate, the variety of counts in which a viable amount of curveballs are thrown is impressive, if not necessarily surprising. These are some of the best curves in the game, and they deserve to be featured as much as they are.
That’s especially true with Strasburg, who carries a more or less even distribution of curveball in many counts. He throws it a fair amount to start at-bats, to get back in at-bats, and to finish at-bats. It’s a weapon for him.
That’s not true for Chad Kuhl, who clearly doesn’t feel comfortable getting back into an at-bat with a curveball. His usage at 2-1 is the only count in which he does not throw a curve more often than the league-wide figure for starting pitchers. His curves thrown at 1-0 are just above the league mark.
Not bad, but...
It’s also not true for Taillon. That’s not to say that his curve isn’t effective. in the 0-2 count, when the pitch is seen the most, hitters are averaging just 83.4 mph in exit velocity on the six pitches they’ve been able to put into play. Starters will take that 10 out of 10 times, easily.
But, an even 50 percent of the curves thrown by Taillon at 0-2 were taken for balls. It almost becomes a 1-to-1 proposition. The right-hander will throw a curveball half of the time, resulting in a ball half of of the time.
If Taillon’s breaking stuff only comes out at certain times, it stands to reason that batters will certainly have no trouble keying in on it. That’s all a part of normal game planning, after all.
It’s not as if Taillon’s curveball isn’t fully formed. Over the course of his career, hitters can only muster an 85.9 mph average exit velocity against it, with only 37 barrels against the pitch across his three year career, as per Statcast.
Featuring it at more varying counts would not only safeguard against hitters keying in, but could also induce more soft contact for Taillon, who is undoubtedly looking to buck his recent trend:
The sad fact is, Taillon’s curve is falling prey to the Pirates’ pitching dogma. Usage on the pitch has already dropped six percentage points overall, down to 22.18 percent.
Taillon is too talented to simply be a four-seam/sinker pitcher.
He, even more so than Gerrit Cole or Charlie Morton, may end up as the poster boy for the organization’s need to rethink their pitching practices.
Unlike Cole or Morton, Taillon represents the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff. If he continues to be forced into a fastball-heavy diet, that future suddenly becomes quite murky.