First Pitch: Changing Speeds to Keep the Hitters Guessing

The 1-0 pitch from Nick Anderson to Carlos Correa in last night’s Rays/Astros contest was an 84 MPH curveball. Correa, who was obviously hunting a fastball, had almost completely finished his swing by the time the ball crossed the plate, being way out in front on the pitch.

The very next pitch was the fastball that Correa was hunting. 96.4 MPH, up in the zone.

Correa launched it over the fence and the Rays turned to game six to try and close out the Astros.

The decision to go with a fastball in that situation baffled me. One of the things I’ve picked up from the game over the last ten years is to read what the batter is looking for, and don’t help him out.

If a batter can’t catch up to your fastball, don’t help him out by slowing things down with an offspeed pitch. Keep throwing that fastball until he shows that he can get his swing and timing close to the pitch.

If the batter is hunting fastballs, like Correa was last night where his swing was way out in front of the pitch, don’t help him out by speeding up the next pitch to match his swing timing.

That pitch had me thinking about a topic from earlier this week: Where is the game heading next?

We’ve seen ridiculous fastball speeds, and we’re starting to see ridiculous breaking pitches to complement those fastballs. The fastballs are leading to increased home run rates, and the breaking pitches are aimed to counter those.

Nick Anderson only has two pitches. There is the curveball that he threw in the first two pitches to Correa, and the fastball that got crushed for a home run. There’s a 10 MPH difference between the pitches, and he does a good job of making both pitches look similar out of the hand. But if you’re in a situation like Correa was in, you can sell out to the fastball. If everything looks the same coming in, you might as well guess fastball and go for it. Correa did that on the second pitch, and it led to an easy strike.

Let’s change focus here and go to another pitcher who has been having a lot of success in the playoffs: Max Fried of the Atlanta Braves.

Fried is a starter, so he has more than the two pitches you’d expect from a reliever like Anderson. The thing about Fried’s pitches is that he covers three ranges of speed.

His fastball comes in at an average of 93 MPH.

His slider averages 84 MPH and is thrown about 21% of the time. His changeup is thrown 5% and comes in at 83 MPH.

His curveball is his second-most used pitch, at 22.5%, and comes in at 74 MPH.

In a situation like the one with Anderson and Correa, the batter has two speed options. This allows them to sell out to the fastball, which isn’t a guarantee when a pitcher can throw mid-90s. When you’ve got a third speed choice to worry about, things become really difficult. If the batter’s timing is at the middle speed, you can go higher or lower in velocity. If the batter is hunting fastballs, you can go slow or slower. And the batter can’t easily sit back on the breaking stuff because those come in with their own separation of 10 MPH.

Looking at the Pirates, I think this is why Joe Musgrove is so successful, despite not having the best stuff on the team. His fastball averages 92.5 MPH, and he only used it 39% of the time this year, which was a career low. His cutter averages 88 MPH and his changeup averages 86 MPH. He used those a combined 16.7% of the time. His slider comes in at 82.6 MPH on average and his curveball comes in at 81 MPH, with a combined usage of 44%.

He’s got the 10 MPH separation between his fastball and his main offspeed stuff, but he also has that 5 MPH pit-stop in between with his cutter and changeup. It’s not the extreme 10 MPH separation between each speed category like Fried has, but it’s effective.

Mixing up pitching speeds to keep batters guessing isn’t a novel idea. It’s one of the core components to pitching, and it’s the reason we had so much discussion about Tyler Glasnow’s changeup while he was with the organization. But when you add in the extreme speeds of the fastballs, the extreme movement on breaking pitches, and the ability to tunnel pitches and make all offerings look the same out of the hand until the last minute, you get a dynamic that is extremely difficult for opposing hitters.

This all has me looking at Mitch Keller’s 95 MPH fastball, his 87 MPH slider, and his 78 MPH curveball…

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First Pitch