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In the second inning against the Mets on July 2, Bartolo Colon threw an 0-1 slider to Angel Pagan, and Pagan grounded it to the shortstop. An hour later, with two outs in the fifth, Colon threw a 2-2 slider to Jason Bay, this one low and outside for ball three.

In between, the game settled into a predictable routine: Ken Rosenthal appeared in a bow-tie. Jose Reyes disappeared with a tight hamstring. Tim McCarver considered different ways to pronounce Cleburne, Texas. Puns about Dillon Gee. And, from Bartolo Colon, 40 fastballs in a row. 

One of these days, Colon is going to go an entire game without throwing an off-speed pitch. His first 40 pitches against the Tigers on May 2 were fastballs. His first 37 against the Angels on June 5 were fastballs. His first 30 against the White Sox were fastballs.

I’m dying for an all-fastball game. Sometimes, the announcers pay attention to what’s going on, and they sound almost giddy by the end of the second inning. It’s like they’ve stolen the other team’s signs, or developed the ability to tell the future, or at least found something to talk about besides the shadows that are creeping in around the mound. An all-fastball game would make everybody feel smart for noticing it.

Twenty-three times this year starting pitchers have thrown at least 86 percent fastballs (minimum 80 pitches) in a game. Bartolo Colon, Justin Masterson, and Charlie Morton account for 17 of them. Happily for fans of the Rule of Three, Colon, Masterson, and Morton are also all surprise successes this year. They're each a bit different in their reliance on the fastball and in how they got to be all-fastball threats, but together they raise a question: Are secondary pitches really necessary?

Colon’s fastball is really two fastballs. He throws a four-seam fastball more often to left-handed batters and early in the count. He throws a two-seam fastball later in counts, against right-handers, and usually on the outside part of the plate, with tailing action that brings it back toward the plate for frequent called third strikes. The Bartolo Coloniest sequence is something like this:

The first two were four-seamers, the last a two-seamer that froze the right-hander. Colon has thrown his two-seamer 40 times in 0-2 counts, and 12 of them were taken for strike three.

Masterson throws his sinker early in the count, and the four-seamer later. His extreme reliance on fastballs is relatively new; in 2008, he threw his slider 30 percent of the time. That dropped to 24 percent in 2009, 19 percent in 2010, and 16 percent this year. He also had a changeup he would throw every 30 pitches or so, but he never throws it now. This year, he is throwing his fastball 83 percent of the time, and 85 percent since June.

The most Mastersonian sequence of the year:

Like Masterson, Morton used to throw a breaking ball more frequently—a “plus curveball,” according to the 2011 BP Annual—but has moved toward a one-pitch game. In 2010, he threw a breaking ball 30 percent of the time and a changeup 10 percent of the time. This year, it’s been 80 percent fastballs, nearly all of them two-seamers. On 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2 counts this year, Morton has thrown 100 percent fastballs, 96 percent of them two-seamers.

The Charlie Mortonest sequence of the year:

So far as I can tell, there are six things that we could consider about these pitchers:

  1. The game-theory elements of pitch selection might be overrated for certain types of pitchers. The I Know That You Know That I Know That You Know chain eventually loops back around on itself, worthlessly. In most situations, the best pitch might simply be the one that the pitcher throws best.
  2. If (1) is true, then the value of secondary pitches is primarily in giving a pitcher different weapons depending on batter handedness. Charlie Morton does not need a second pitch to get right-handers out. He does need a second pitch to get left-handers out, because his fastball isn’t effective against them. Either a second pitch, or an extremely creative pick-off move, like the kid in Rookie of the Year had.
  3. In 20 years, I could see one third of the league throwing almost nothing but cutters, one third of the league throwing almost nothing but two-seam fastballs, and the rest mixing the two. Except Jamie Moyer, who will throw a combination of gyroballs, knucklers and eephuses. Eephi.
  4. The risk-averse-manager phenomenon is well known, but pitchers might be too risk-averse, too. Bartolo Colon is essentially a league-average pitcher, by OPS allowed, but after an 0-2 count he has been quite a bit better than the rest of the league this year. He is also far more likely to throw a fastball in the strike zone on 0-2 than the rest of the league. Sample-size fluke, perhaps. Bu maybe pitchers don’t throw enough two-strike fastballs because they don’t want to be second-guessed for allowing an 0-2 hit.
  5. The “used to be a thrower but now he’s a pitcher” line evokes images of a guy craftily mixing his speeds instead of relying on his fastball. “Now he’s a pitcher” = “Now he’s like Rick Reuschel.” But all three of these pitchers have found success where no success looked likely, and they’ve done it by simplifying, or perhaps by tricking us with misleading first halves, which leads to…
  6. Maybe these three are nothing. Jamey Wright used to throw all fastballs as a starter, and he never got good. Mike Pelfrey used to throw 80 percent fastballs, and he has been quickly moving away from that strategy. Daniel Cabrera used to throw nothing but fastballs, and now Daniel Cabrera throws nothing. It could be that Colon, Masterson, and Morton are significant only as curiosities that, for a half-season, defied their pasts and found short-term success. Maybe! I just thought you should know about them.

Sam Miller also writes for the Orange County Register.

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Why yes, I should know about them. Interesting article!
I had no idea about this, and the idea intrigues me. I look forward to the follow-up article in October when the season is done.
Blake Beavan of the Mariners might be trending that way, too.

In his first start on 7/3, he threw 71 fastballs in 90 pitches. In his most recent start on 7/17, he threw 89 fastballs in 104 pitches.

Not sure if this is just small sample-size flukiness or if Beavan likes his fastball a lot.
It seems we sometimes forget to appropriately value the basics. A well-located fastball is tough to hit, even if you know (more or less) that's it coming.
Hey Sam, great work and congrats on the new gig!
Very interesting - great article!

From a game theory standpoint, I always thought the optimal mix was to randomize with likelihoods weighted by the strength of the pitch. That is, for someone like Colon it might be 80% fastballs and 20% sliders, with a computer generating a random sequence of pitches with those probability weights.

While there are certain counts where you may want to deviate from a random strategy (i.e. 3-0), I'd love to see a team try it out in spring training or in the low minors. Under specified conditions game theory predicts randomization as the optimal strategy in certain games (i.e. rocks-paper-scissors), and I'd be interested in seeing such a strategy in practice in baseball.
I think it comes down to this: if you have one pitch which you are very good at and some other pitches which are potentially decent but also potentially crap then it behooves you to just stick with the plus offering. Changing speeds is good to keep batters off balance but, for example, if your change-up doesn't do much but hang out over the plate, maybe it's better to throw that two seamer on the black.
Enjoyed this article. Thanks!
I laughed at #3.