Livescore Sunday, April 21
Newsletter
[gtranslate]

Even though Spring Training has wrapped up, that’s no reason for us to stop looking into pitchers who are throwing new pitches. In fact, this is when the fun begins. Many pitchers will test new pitches in the spring but then abandon them when the regular season starts. It can often be more informative to see which pitchers have drastically changed their pitch mix or pitch shape after a few starts in the regular season.

With that in mind, we will continue with the premise of the series I had called Pitchers with New Pitches (and Should We Care) by breaking down notable changes in a pitcher’s pitch mix (hence “Mixing” it up). We’ll look at pitchers who are throwing a new pitch, have eliminated a pitch, or are showcasing a different shape/velocity on a pitch.

I’ll continue my analysis with the simple premise that not every new pitch should be greeted with praise. A new pitch, like a shiny new toy, might be exciting on its own, but it also needs to complement what a pitcher already has and fill a meaningful void in his current pitch mix. We want to check and see if he has any splits issues. We want to see what his best pitch(es) is and see if this new pitch would complement that. Then we want to see what this new pitch type is generally used for (control, called strikes, etc.) and see if that is something this pitcher needs help with. We can also now see the pitch in action to look at the shape and command and see if it’s actually any good. Once we’ve done all that, we can decide if the pitch is a good addition or not.

If you missed any of the previous editions of this series, you can click this link here to be taken to the tracker, which I’ll update as the season goes on. It will also include links to the original articles so you can read them in full if you’d like.

Shane Bieber – Guardians (Cutter, Change-up, Curve)

(Editor’s Note: This was submitted before Bieber’s start on Tuesday night)

The big story in the offseason was that Shane Bieber had gone to Driveline and added velocity to his four-seam. While that’s true, and is clearly important, Bieber was actually only up one mph with his fastball in the first start, so I think the velocity is only part of the reason to get excited about Bieber in 2024. But make no mistake about it, we are excited.

The veteran also made a few other changes worth looking into, like tweaking his cutter and change-up. But first, as we’ve done with all the pitchers in prior installments, we need to look at what Bieber was missing in 2023.

The biggest thing that stands out is the declining swinging strike rate (SwStr%). As Bieber has lost velocity on his four-seam fastball and dealt with injuries, his SwStr% plummeted from 17.5% in 2021 to 14.8% in 2022 to 11.2% last year. Yikes. That’s not good. His chase rate (or O-Swing%) also decreased each season and his zone contact rate rose, reaching 89% last year with his overall contact rate up over 12% from 2021. All of that contact creates a fine tight-rope to walk and limited Bieber’s ceiling.

On the bright side, his Ideal Contact Rate – ICR% – which measures Barrels + Solid Contact + Flares/Burners over Batted Ball Events has held stable at around 39.5%, so he was not allowing more hard contact, even though he was been missing fewer bats. That’s good at least.

Lastly, Bieber was developing a minor splits issue. In 2023, left-handed hitters batted .288/.350/.483 with a 19.7% strikeout rate, while right-handed hitters hit .220/.257/.335 with a 20.4% strikeout rate. So, overall, Bieber needed to add more swing-and-miss back to his game while limiting the amount of contact lefties made off of him.

Enter, a revamped change-up and cutter.

In his first start, Bieber showcased a cutter that was a little bit harder and featured less horizontal movement. However, the decreased spin on the pitch added vertical movement, and the pitch graded out well on Pitcher List’s PLV metric, which makes sense considering it had a 50% SwStr% and gave up no contact in that one start.

What’s doubly nice about the cutter for Bieber is that it alone is a good pitch to use to attack left-handed hitters, something we covered that he needed to do. It can get in on their hands and induce weak contact even if it doesn’t get whiffs. However, because Bieber also throws a slider that’s about two mph slower than the cutter with similar horizontal break but more vertical drop, he now has added deception between those two pitches. More deception in an arsenal is always a good thing.

Another weapon against left-handed hitters is Bieber’s “power change-up.” The Cleveland broadcast team mentioned that Bieber didn’t like throwing the change-up last year because his four-seam velocity was down so he didn’t think he had enough of a velocity gap between his four-seam and change-up to make the change-up effective. As a result, he used it just 3% of the time in 2023. Yet, here it was in 2024 at 16% usage and being thrown two mph harder.

The pitch added a little more fade away from lefties this year and featured a 31% SwStr% in his first start. Interestingly, it was a bit more effective against righties and also posted a 50% ICR that we’ll need to keep an eye on, but there were a few nice change-ups in the outing that made me sit forward and take notice. It may take him a little time to get fully comfortable with it, but I think it’ll be a strong offering to lefties and will also allow his four-seam to play up more against them since they know he has the change-up he can go to.

Lastly, Bieber has spoken about losing the feel for his curveball in recent seasons. That pitch was crucial to his dominance in 2021, and so getting feel for it back would be monumental for Bieber. In this first start, he showcased a touch more velocity and less horizontal break, making it more of a 12-6 shape. It’s not yet back to the version we saw in 2021, but taking away some of the sweep is a good first step. He was able to command it for strikes in his first start, but it didn’t miss any bats, so that’s something we need to keep an eye on.

VERDICT: MEANINGFULLY IMPACTFUL. There are just too many changes here to ignore. The velocity. The tweak to the cutter. The re-introduction of the change-up. The changes to the knuckle curve. These are all things that are crucial for Bieber, and considering the lack of strikeouts was the only glaring flaw in his profile before, we could see a version of the veteran that’s about 80% of what he was at his peak, which would be a tremendous value at his draft cost.

Early in the spring, I noticed that Whitlock was throwing a gyro slider to try and give him another pitch to attack lefties. It turns out, he wasn’t just adding a gyro slider but also a cutter as well. So before we dig into the new pitches, let’s figure out why Whitlock decided he needed them in the first place.

It’s hard to read too much into Whitlock’s 2023 season since he battled injuries and was in and out of the rotation while also trying to make changes to his pitch mix. That led to general inconsistency and a season that seemed to strengthen the idea that he was more of a multi-inning reliever than a starter. As a result, coming into 2024, Whitlock needed to show that he had the depth of arsenal to go deep into games and that he had a good swing-and-miss offering for right-handed hitters. He was a sinker-slider-change pitcher whose slider was ineffective, which meant he didn’t have a true “out pitch” for right-handed hitters.

What we saw in his first start was not just two new pitches but also a change to his release overall.

Let’s start with the changes to the pitch mix. Whitlock added both a cutter, which came in at 87 mph, and more of a gyro slider, which was 84 mph.

He also kept his sweeper but added almost two inches of horizontal movement to it, which gives him three variations of slider/cutter that he can use to induce weak contact against lefties or miss bats against righties due to the overall deception of the mix.

The harder slider was perhaps the best of the three in his first start. Whitlock was able to pound the zone with it and used it to jam lefties inside with a 93rd percentile inside location. He threw it both up in the zone and low in the zone, similar to how one might throw a cutter. It posted a solid 13.3% SwStr% and also induced a few weakly hit groundballs. Pitcher List’s PLV metric loved it and also loved the sweeper, but the sweeper was thrown in the zone far less often and also didn’t get any swinging strikes. Two things that were a problem for Whitlock in 2023 as well.

As of right now, the pitch lives in the middle of the plate too often. While he didn’t give up hard contact on it, he’s going to need to have a better feel for that pitch so he can get swinging strikes from right-handed hitters. Even though he had eight strikeouts, he had just an 8.6% SwStr% in that first start, which is poor. He’s not going to keep racking up strikeouts if he misses that few bats.

However, the other notable change for Whitlock in his first start was that, as Lance Brozdowksi noticed, he lowered his release height by five inches compared to 2023, which is a lot. As a sinker/change-up pitcher, the lower release point could help him get on the side of those pitches more and create more movement on those pitches.

Lastly, we should note that Whitlock only threw his sinker 28% of the time in his first start after throwing it 52% of the time last year and 59% of the time in 2022. Turns out, that’s a clear organizational change. New Red Sox pitching coach Andrew Bailey views fastball as a “jab” and doesn’t want his pitchers using fastballs as often since “The history of baseball suggests that fastballs in general have the most damage attached to them.” Instead, he’d prefer pitchers leverage their “best off-speed weapons to do the most damage against the hitter, even if that means throwing an off-speed pitch for a strike when you’re behind in the count. This is part of the reason the Red Sox threw the fewest four-seam fastballs of any team in the majors over the first weekend, as they leaned more on cutters and sliders. Whitlock will also clearly be part of that shift, which could help him pitch deeper into games and have more success as a starter.

VERDICT: MARGINALLY IMPACTFUL. The new pitches are nice to see from Whitlock and the new philosophical direction of the Red Sox will likely enable him to stick in the rotation with his new five-pitch mix, but until that sweeper starts missing bats, his upside is going to be capped by a lack of strikeouts.

I’ve always been intrigued by Logan Gilbert, but he never seemed to be able to pair an above-average four-seam fastball with a good secondary offering. In the first few years of his career, he showcased a solid four-seam but couldn’t find a reliable secondary. Last year, his slider took a clear step forward but he had his lowest swinging strike rate on the four-seam fastball with just a 9.3% mark. He also didn’t elevate the pitch much against righties and it allowed a 43% ICR and had a 5.05 Defense Independent ERA (dERA) and 4.47 pFIP (which is Alex Chamberlain’s predictive ERA metric).

However, the slider he added performed well. What was once an 83.4 mph slider with 6.5 inches of horizontal movement became a true gyro slider at 88.7 mph with just 0.8 inches of horizontal break. It resulted in an excellent 17.5% SwStr% in 2023 and had the lowest barrel rate allowed of his MLB career. So what Gilbert needed to do heading into 2024 was find a way to bring together the pieces he had shown at separate times and showcase them all together.

He seemed to do that and then some in his first start.

Gilbert started by taking over two mph from that aforementioned slider and adding more vertical drop to it. The reason was likely to create more differentiation with the new cutter he added to his arsenal. The pitch was 91 mph with 11” of vertical movement and 5” inches of glove side break. That’s more sweep and less drop than the usual cutter but because his slider has added break, the two pitches can move in different ways and create more deception.

While the slider graded out slightly worse in terms of PLV, it still posted a 17% SwStr% and didn’t allow hard contact. Gilbert seemed more comfortable pounding the zone with that now that he knew he had another pitch to come behind it. The cutter also missed bats with a 15.4% SwStr% but it did give up a 50% ICR, which is something we’ll need to keep an eye on. It had a 23% mistake rate, which is not ideal but also not uncommon with a new pitch as the pitcher works to find the feel of it.

He also seemed to make a big tweak to his curveball, adding almost three mpg with considerably less vertical movement and more horizontal movement, which almost gives it more of a sweeper profile. That makes sense as a cutter/slider/sweeper trio would give him three variations of a similar movement profile that could keep hitters off balance. While the pitch didn’t miss bats in his first start, it graded out well for PLV, and I like the idea of him creating a pitch mix where the components work well off one another. I think that trio will give him a solid foundation for success even if one of them is “off” in a given start.

Lastly, Gilbert also made a tweak to his splitter that PLV didn’t like. The pitch is now three mph slower with less spin and less arm-side run. I’m not entirely sure why he was making changes to a pitch that had a 20% SwStr% and fine 39% ICR last year, but perhaps the plan is to have his splitter velocity match his harder curve velocity so that they can perhaps look similar enough out of the hand and then break to opposite parts of the strike zone. Considering he had below-average strike rates on the splitter last year, I’m open to him making changes that give him better command of the pitch.

VERDICT: MEANINGFULLY IMPACTFUL. A deeper arsenal of pitches is a great thing for Gilbert, who could take a big step forward with more reliable pitches. After one start, the trio of breaking balls seemed to provide him more swing-and-miss and he also was elevating the four-seam against righties, which was great to see. Gilbert has always had a solid floor, but if he can miss more bats and limit some hard contact, he could emerge as a top SP2 arm.

When the Rays acquire a pitcher, we expect them to make clear changes to unlock a new level, as they did with Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Jason Adam, Robert Stephenson, and so many more. As I covered in my second-half changes article in January, we saw a minor tweak begin with Civale’s slider after he was traded to Tampa Bay. Before coming to the Rays, the pitch averaged 83.2 mph with 11 inches of horizontal movement. After coming to the Rays, the pitch averaged 81.9 mph with 12.4 inches of horizontal movement. While he was only throwing the pitch 5% of the time, it had a massive bump in SwStr% up to 13.4%. However, it also gave up a lot more hard contact, but a mid-season switch is never going to be perfect, so we had to expect there would be some changes in the off-season.

What we wanted to see from Civale primarily was some increased swing and miss. He had just a 10.7% SwStr% in 2023 and has never been above 11.4% in his career. He didn’t have any pronounced splits issues, but it was noticeable that he had a 26% strikeout rate to left-handed hitters, but just a 20% rate to righties. So if we were going to change our view on Civale as being more than a deep-league, safe-floor option, we’d need to see a change that could lead to more strikeouts of righties.

We saw some of that potentially take shape in his first start.

You’ll notice above that Statcast is saying Civale added the sweeper as a new pitch, but as we discussed above, he had a slider last year that he was already adding sweep to. Over the offseason, he added seven inches of horizontal movement to that pitch and so now Statcast is calling it a sweeper. The velocity on that pitch is also down over two mph from last year. Given that sweepers tend to be solid swing-and-miss pitches against right-handed hitters, we like that change on the surface.

However, the sweeper didn’t miss bats in his first start, with just one whiff on nine swings. Civale, on the whole, had just a 15% whiff rate and 28% CSW, which means we’re not seeing the swing-and-miss in action. However, it was just one start and 86 pitches with a new pitch mix, so we need to give him a little more time before we react to that.

The sweeper wasn’t the only change he made to the arsenal as he also tweaked his curveball to have three inches more movement away from right-handed batters and four inches more drop. That additional dive away from righties should be good for adding swing-and-miss, and Pitcher List’s PLV grade liked the new curve. Civale only three it six times, and he got one whiff on three swings, so we certainly need a bigger sample size before we can react, but adding that sweep could help it play better off of the sweeper, which is something we always like.

VERDICT: POTENTIALLY IMPACTFUL. Civale needed swing and miss to his game, and he tweaked two pitches in ways that should give him that. We didn’t see it after one start, and he likely will never be a real strikeout asset, but I believe we’ll see gains that make him more than just a standard 12-team streaming option.

Read the full article here

Leave A Reply