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April 13, 2013

Overthinking It

The Year's New Pitches

by Ben Lindbergh

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Every year, a few pitchers add a new pitch to their in-game arsenal after working on it over the winter or in spring training. Sometimes, the new pitch goes nowhere: it doesn’t produce results and is quickly abandoned, or it lingers but fails to make an appreciable impact. Other times, it helps a pitcher achieve some specific goal, like limiting opposite-handed hitters, but it doesn’t propel him to much greater heights. And every now and then, a new pitch transforms a pitcher into something far superior to what he was before, like Mike Scott’s splitter, Esteban Loaiza’s cutter, or, more recently, Jason Hammel’s sinker, which he added to great effect in 2012.

According to the custom, PITCHf/x-based pitch-type classifications provided by Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball, five pitchers have already unveiled new offerings in 2013. It’s too soon to say for sure whether they’ll all be successes, but a small sample can often reveal more about a single pitch than it can about a player’s overall performance. Here’s an early assessment of each one.

Carter Capps, Mariners: Slider

Capps is just 22, with only 25 big-league innings under his belt before this season, so it’s not a surprise that the converted catcher’s approach is still evolving. The righty threw harder than anyone but Kelvin Herrera last season, averaging 99.1 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball, but he didn’t have much to pair with it. Capps threw a curveball, but over 40 percent of his curves were called balls, with only about one in 10 inducing a swing-and miss. The pitch may have helped make his fastball more effective, in that it gave hitters a look at something over 15 mph slower than his heater, but it didn’t do much on its own, since those hitters weren’t willing to chase. As a result, Capps threw fastballs nearly 80 percent of the time, more than any other pitcher except Sean Doolittle.

It’s possible to succeed for a time on velocity alone when you throw as hard as Capps does, but developing an effective breaking ball could catapult him into the ranks of elite relievers, as well as make him a better bet to sustain his success when his heater inevitably slows. This season, Capps has introduced a slider that he’s thrown almost three times as often as his curve—mostly when ahead in the count to righties—suggesting that the slider has supplanted the curve as his go-to secondary offering. The early returns are encouraging. Almost half of Capps’ sliders have convinced hitters to commit, and when they have swung, they’ve missed about 56 percent of the time, which would have been a top-10 figure for sliders last season. Thus far, the only damage done has been one single.

Capps said he was “falling in love” with his slider this spring, and it’s easy to see why. Mariners fans should have similar feelings.

Paul Maholm, Braves: Slow curve

This one might be more of a novelty than a new pitch; Maholm’s slow curve isn’t going to turn the league-average innings eater into an ace. However, it does seem to be something new. Maholm’s regular curve averages 73.4 mph, so it isn’t exactly speedy. But the slow curve averages only 62.3 and can dip down into the 50s. So far, he’s thrown it four times: twice to start an at-bat and twice with two strikes. Three of the four slow curves were delivered to southpaws.

Maholm’s four-seamer has lost a few ticks over the past few years, so maybe he just wants to give hitters a look at something even slower. Maybe he’s hoping for the element of surprise. Whatever the thought process, it’s working so far. Maholm’s four slow curves have resulted in two balls, a weak grounder to first, and, much to Chase Utley’s dismay, a strikeout looking.

Ivan Nova, Yankees: Sinker

Nova’s curveball and slider have been effective weapons for him in each of the last two seasons, but his heater has been crushed. The righty gets good velocity on his four-seamer, but he left it over the plate too often last season, and hitters teed off to the tune of a .371 batting average and a .632 SLG. Nova has always thrown a two-seamer with some sink and recorded a pretty good groundball rate, but this season, he seems to be getting much more downward movement when he wants to, to the point that Brooks Baseball now classifies the sinker as a distinct pitch.

According to Yankees catcher Chris Stewart, Nova shortened his arm motion this spring in an attempt to repeat the motion more consistently and improve his command, but maybe the new motion also imparted some extra life. Anything that keeps Nova’s pitches out of the heart of the plate, and his batted balls out of the air, can’t be a bad thing, especially given the flyball-friendly dimensions of his home park. Through one start—Nova’s second outing was skipped after a rainout—the sinker has generated more foul balls than balls in play and whiffs combined, though the one fair ball was a grounder.

Julio Teheran, Braves: Sinker

Teheran had a dominant spring, but his hot start didn’t extend to his first outing of the regular season, in which he had a hard time missing bats. An improved breaking ball would be the best addition Teheran could make: in his first start of the season, he threw 23 curveballs with only one whiff to show for them. His fastball doesn’t have a lot of life, either. And even more oddly, Teheran hardly used the changeup that we recently rated the best of its kind in the minors.

If Teheran can’t make his changeup a more prominent part of his mix or bring back enough of his breaking ball’s former movement to rack up swings and misses, getting groundballs would be a good way to compensate. Teheran gave up a ton of flies (when he wasn’t allowing line drives) in his first few cracks at the majors, but 12 of the 22 batted balls he allowed in his first start were hit on the ground, mostly thanks to the sinker. That’s a positive sign.

Sergio Romo, Giants: Cutter

This is a weird one. Romo threw his slider almost 60 percent of the time last season (more often than anyone but Luke Gregerson), mixing in a four-seamer, a sinker, and an occasional changeup. As most of the hitters who faced him last season can testify, it didn’t look like he needed any extra help. But according to the Brooks classifications, Romo has thrown four cutters this season, averaging around 85 mph—about halfway between his changeup and four-seamer/sinker—with movement distinct from his other offerings.

The cutter has the same vertical break as his slider, but it’s thrown several miles per hour faster, and without the sweeping horizontal break that leads to silly-looking swings. Thus far, he’s thrown it exclusively on the outside corner to righties, early in the count, getting a called strike, two foul balls, and a weak grounder that he fielded himself. There is some risk that throwing the cutter too often could cause Romo to lose a little feel for the slider, but if he can avoid that fate, the new pitch should be an effective, if infrequent, part of his attack.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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John Carter

Cool and useful.

Apr 15, 2013 09:14 AM
rating: 0
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