First Pitch: Pitching Changes

There was a time when the Pirates were among the best in the game at finding pitching values.

A guy like Tyler Anderson would have been less of a surprise, and more of an expected result that we were starting to see more and more often.

I wrote yesterday about how they did a good job of identifying the players who could fit well in their system. From there, a big reason for their success was the coaching of Ray Searage and Jim Benedict.

Searage and Benedict were both good teachers, in the sense that they knew how to connect with the players, and describe the necessary changes in a way the player would understand. This requires not only telling the player how to implement a lesson, but also explaining why this will help him.

Both coaches had been around in the game for decades. The game of pitching is constantly changing, due to league trends, but not much had changed when the Pirates were having their success.

The biggest change around the game has been the decline of fastball usage over the last few decades. In 2002, the average pitcher threw a fastball 64% of the time. That number is now down to around 50%. The average fastball velocity in this time has gone from 89 to 93.3 MPH. The slider and cutter has become more prominent during this time.

The Pirates were playing an edge around the 2012-15 years, opting for more two-seam fastball pitchers than four-seamers. The league was gradually moving away from the flat, four-seam fastballs, and the Pirates opted for the route of throwing fastballs with inherent movement.

From 2011 through 2015, the fastball usage around the league stagnated at around 57.7%. The slider/cutter usage was around a combined 20%. Starting in 2016, the league started moving away from the fastball at a steady pace, with the slider/cutter replacing things.

The sinkerball has massively declined in use during this same time. In 2015, the last year the Pirates were in the post-season, the sinker declined a full percentage point. The sinker has since gone down to 15% usage, with the changeup and curveball getting a slight boost. Ultimately, the slider was the benefactor, which is interesting, as the slider traditionally plays well off the sinker.

The four-seam fastball saw consistent usage, but has seen more horizontal movement over the years, and slightly more vertical movement, especially the last two seasons.

The key thing the Pirates did well during their run under Searage and Benedict was target the right pitchers. A.J. Burnett and Edinson Volquez benefitted from a heavy two-seam approach, because they were both really good two-seam fastball pitchers. The same goes for Francisco Liriano, and most of the other reclamation projects of that time. While everyone was looking for more movement on pitches, the Pirates were finding their solution with pitchers who had lively fastballs.

The league moved more towards better breaking stuff, working off a four-seam a third of the time, and another fastball type as a secondary pitch. What has the sinker become over the last few years, other than perhaps a harder changeup or a bad breaking pitch? You can see why it wasn’t a good thing for the Pirates to stick with the sinker-heavy pitchers, while also sticking with a fastball-heavy approach.

The game of pitching is always evolving. The Pirates were good in the past at identifying a league trend at the time, and exploiting the early stages to their advantage. They weren’t as good with evolving their approach (I can’t tell you how many joking references I heard to launch angle during the 2017-18 years).

I don’t know if we’ve seen enough from the new group to say whether they can have similar results that Searage and Benedict saw. For all the sour taste that the last few years has left, there were some very good moves from 2013-15. Hopefully the Pirates can recapture that magic of identifying and developing pitching values again. Perhaps this time they’ll also find a way to make it a long-term thing.

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