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A Look at How Jameson Taillon Generates Whiffs In the Zone

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the talk surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff in 2018 circled around the revival of breaking pitches, designed to get a hitter to chase. But what about when circumstances dictate coming back into the zone or challenge a hitter?

Much had been made — and continues to be made — about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting pitchers shifting towards a breaking-ball centric approach. While the fastball certainly isn’t going anywhere, the idea is that Pirates pitchers won’t have to come into the zone as much to be effective.

But what about when they do? Getting a hitter to look foolish on a looping curveball or sharp slider that drops out of the strike zone looks great, and it will probably land you on Pitching Ninja’s twitter feed. But the need to challenge a hitter with a pitch in the zone is still very real. It’s not going away any time soon.

I talked to a minor league pitching coach recently for this piece, and he had this to say:

“We still preach to our guys that they will need to throw a strike a lot more than they think they will need to, so they better be able to get one when they need it. The breaking stuff in the game right now is awesome to look at and watch, but being able to get a hitter to swing and miss in the zone is a truly special ability.”

With that in mind, we will be looking at how Pittsburgh Pirates starters fared when they had to go into the zone. For this exercise, we will look purely at how Bucco hurlers garnered swings and misses in the zone.

A team-level look

First, let’s look at how Pirates’ starters fared in the zone against the rest of MLB starting pitching:

In-Zone Whiff Figures

Metric 2018 PIT 2018 RANK 2018 MLB-WIDE AVG/RATE 2018 MLB Leader
Metric 2018 PIT 2018 RANK 2018 MLB-WIDE AVG/RATE 2018 MLB Leader
In-Zone Raw Whiffs 723 19th 765.8 - Average HOU - 1055
In-Zone Whiff Per Swing % 9.2% 22nd 9.86% HOU - 13.9%
In-Zone Fastball Whiff Per Swing % 5.2% 17th 5.19% HOU - 8.4%
In-zone Breaking Whiff Per Swing % 2.6% 17th 2.9% ARI - 5.1%

On first glance, the data shown here should not surprise anyone. Pirates starters ranked right below-average in terms of many of these metrics. Yet, the groupings are rather tight. Only 32 total raw whiffs separate Pittsburgh from the Houston Astros, and their rates in whiffs per swing are right at the league averages.

Keeping in mind that the Pirates’ stable of starters that are returning from last year are poised to make incremental (at worst) improvements year-over-year, it could be reasoned that the club’s workhorses might tip the scales towards the upper half of baseball in this regard.

Is there anything seen from last season that might inch us towards accepting that as likely?

Jameson Taillon

A quick look at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ace shows a fastball-heavy approach to attacking:

And why not, with solid velocity and movement? Taillon’s four-seam fastball accounted for 50.6 percent of his in-zone whiffs in 2018. His sinkers matched his four-seam’s average movement (yes that is not a typo), and his slider whiffs were perfectly positioned against left handed bats.

With 172 in-zone whiffs, Taillon used an ability to change eye levels while mixing and matching velocities in the zone. Of the in-zone whiffs that came on his four-seam fastball, Taillon carried a combined range of velocities of 3.8 mph between his highest-velo in-zone whiff (97 mph) and his lowest (93.2 mph). This range of 3.8 put him 22nd among all qualified MLB starters.

What does this range tell us? On the surface, not too much. But a big-picture look on how these pitches function in an at bat tells us much much more.

Here was a nice pitch that Taillon fooled Matt Carpenter with last year:

Great pitch, no doubt. But Taillon had to work to setup that pitch.

Take special note note of pitches five through seven here. Taillon didn’t get Carpenter to bite on a slider in the dirt - or, Taillon flat out missed - and came back with another slider that Carpenter before going back away with the four-seam to end things.

Not only did Taillon carry a 4.5 mph range from pitch five to seven, he also mixed locations rather well, with a perfectly placed pitch. It doesn’t hurt that Taillon’s four-seam (2350 RPM on average) and slider (2392 RPM) carry similar spin rates (on average) nor did it hinder him in this particular at-bat that he was able to tunnel them so well:

These are recognition points for pitches six and seven in the above sequence. Pardon the crude overlay, but as you can see they are awfully close together. The reaction points are similar:

The longer an at-bat goes, the more craft a pitcher might need to pull out of his bag of tricks. With a higher spin-rate fastball (Taillon ranked 32nd among all qualified MLB SPs in Avg. four-seam spin rate at 2350 RPM) giving the perception that his fastball may not sink as quickly as some hitters think it does, the hopeful 2019 Cy-Young candidate can use his fastball to come back into the zone when he needs to. While all eyes will be on Taillon’s breaking pitches this season, chalk this up to another example of why his four-seam fastball may still yet be his most important pitch.

Check back later this week/early next week on Bucs Dugout as we take a look at how “the other guys” — Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Chris Archer — garner in-zone whiffs.