Pitch arsenals are constantly being modified, tweaked, worked, and perfected through a pitch design process. There’s a multitude of ways to change just a single pitch type to get more of the action and shape that a pitcher desires. Looking at five different pitchers who rely on each different pitch type to be successful, we can find out ways that pitches can be changed. I’m going to analyze Corey Knebel’s fastball, Touki Toussaint’s splitter, Dustin May’s curveball, Matt Andriese’s changeup, and Masahiro Tanaka’s slider and see if there are ways to improve the pitch or if nothing should be done at all.
Fastball – Corey Knebel
Starting this series of pitches is Corey Knebel’s fastball. It can be difficult to differentiate one’s fastball in comparison to others. A lot of pitchers will create an intentional cut on the ball while throwing a fastball but refuse to call it a cutter. Other guys are like Gerrit Cole who has a lot of rise on the pitch and can generate swings and misses because of it. The fastball is one of the more difficult pitches to create separation between other pitchers, which is why I want to look at Corey Knebel.
Knebel missed all of 2019 due to injury and came back in 2020 with decreased velocity and spin. He struggled mightily with his command and wasn’t generating the swings and misses on his fastball. Knebel has a ¾ arm slot and gets around a 12:30-12:45 spin direction on his fastball. He’s close to the average spin efficiency on a fastball at 88%. That is the key for Knebel.
Back in 2017, Knebel’s fastball generated -17 runs of value. It was one of the most effective pitches from a reliever in baseball that year. Knebel was able to get a 34% whiff rate on the pitch in that season. He was incredibly effective with the pitch and threw it at around 97 mph. Since then, Knebel has lost both spin and velocity on the pitch mainly due to injury. He also lost efficiency. Knebel’s fastball added more inches of drop in 2018 and 2020. Part of that is the decrease in spin and velocity but one would also assume that he isn’t as efficient with the pitch as well. How does he improve his fastball?
Knebel will have to get behind the ball more to improve his active spin rate. He can do this through some cues to himself or maybe changing the grip on his fastball but that seems unnecessary. He’ll also need to regain his velocity again. This part is a little bit more difficult. It was too small of a sample to know if the velocity has completely gone away for him but if it has, he will have to maximize his spin and efficiency and command for it to be effective. He hasn’t pitched much in the last 2 years because of Tommy John surgery. It’s not a guarantee that the fastball velocity comes back.
Luckily for him, he’s in the right place to try and do it. Going to the Dodgers will help him as they have a knack for developing players and redeveloping players (Blake Treinen says hello). The Dodgers will try to improve Knebel’s spin while maintaining his spin direction most likely. The ultimate key for Knebel will be getting his velocity back. If he’s unable to do so, he will need to regain the efficiency of his fastball.
Splitter – Touki Toussaint
Touki Toussaint struggled in 2020 and Atlanta is still hoping for big things from their once-promising prospect. He does however have a promising pitch to build off of, his splitter. Splitters are usually thrown in a way to get a lot of vertical break and kill spin. The average splitter sits around 1500 RPM and that’s on the low end for all pitch types. Here’s a look at Toussaint’s splitter.
Toussaint’s splitter drops like you’d expect and registers a spin rate of 1506 RPM, exactly around average. The lower the spin rate and the more drop you get, the more likely the pitch is going to be effective. Toussaint’s splitter gets a lot of drop on the ball. He gets about seven percent more drop on the pitch compared to the average splitter and has good spin efficiency on the pitch as well.
Interestingly, Toussaint registers around a 2:00 spin-based spin direction on the pitch. Initially, I thought it might mean that he gets some side spin and perhaps some horizontal movement on the pitch, but Toussaint is slightly below average in horizontal break for a similar splitter type. This isn’t an issue though, and he doesn’t need to make any adjustments on the pitch for now. Toussaint gets about 80% spin efficiency on the pitch which is good for a splitter/changeup. Some people kill the spin more on the pitch but that isn’t necessary for Toussaint here because the pitch is solid as it is.
His splitter is effective. It was his main out pitch and registered a 37.5% whiff rate on the pitch and a 33.0 CSW% on the pitch as well. Over his past two seasons, he has gotten around a .220 xwOBA on the pitch as well. It’s a great pitch, and Toussaint should probably look to throw it more if anything. It fits all the molds of a classic splitter and doesn’t need to be worked on in any major way. If I were to make a change to the pitch I’d try to get the spin direction closer to his fastball’s spin direction to see if he could create even more vertical break on the pitch. It’s only an option though, and Toussaint has several other pitches that could use some work.
Curveball – Dustin May
When you think of Dustin May, you are probably thinking about his sinker. He can throw it 100 mph and it gets featured on Pitching Ninja breakdowns quite a bit. It was his main outpitch with a putaway% of 25.8 in 2020. It’s an unusual pitch and one that can create some confusing thoughts because it doesn’t move like a curveball as you can see below.
You may be saying to yourself, that looks more like a slurve, and you’d probably be right! May has a spin-based spin direction of 8:00, which is the general spin direction value of a slurve. His curveball also has above average movement horizontally, but below average movement vertically. It fits the classic case of a slurve. He has a spin efficiency of 61% which is also in the range of the average spin inefficiency for a curveball. All measurements point to Dustin May throwing a slurve, but the better question is: Should he?
May’s main two pitches are a sinker and a cutter. He gets some sweeping action on one of his pitches already, so should he have another pitch that does something similar? His cutter is effective too. He gets weak contact with it and gets close to ¼ whiffs on it as well. According to savant’s RV metric, it was his most valuable pitch with -3 runs in 2020. It would seem that a curveball that can play off the cutter would be effective, which May has, but it’s also possible for a more traditional curveball to be effective because May doesn’t have a pitch that moves in that way. He could lower his spin direction and try to get more topspin on the ball to get more vertical break. May doesn’t have to do that though.
Despite how strange it may be, May’s slurve is effective. He registered a .156 xwOBA, a 31.6 CSW% on the pitch in 2020. It registered a near 40% whiff rate, it was an effective out pitch for May. He got about 36% of his strikeouts on the pitch. So while intuitively one might feel that his curveball could use more vertical movement and move away from a slurve towards a more traditional curveball, May’s slurve is good for him and he shouldn’t change it. If May begins to struggle with the pitch or hitters understand how it works, then May can make the change to a more traditional top spin heavy breaking ball; but for now, May’s slurve is a good pitch. Even if it frustrates me the fact that it moves less than his sinker.
Changeup – Matt Andriese
The new Boston Red Sox Pitcher Matt Andriese has one of the most interesting changeups in baseball today. There are a few different types of changeups, a slower version of the fastball that relies on mostly vertical break, a fading changeup with arm side run, and a split-change that’s meant to lower spin and get vertical break. Andriese doesn’t fit the category of any of those pitches.
Andriese’s fastball is about 92 mph and his changeup is 86 mph which would make you think it’s closer to the first kind of changeup I described. Those changeups have a spin direction that mirrors a fastball around about 1:00. Andriese’s fastball spin direction is close to 1:00 but his changeup is closer to 3:00. A fading changeup can have a spin direction that’s closer to 2:00 and Andriese’s spin-based spin direction is 2:30. The problem with that is Andriese gets almost no horizontal movement. In the last three seasons, Andriese has had close to 60% less horizontal movement on his changeup than the average one.
Like I said, his changeup is bizarre! He can get side spin and backspin on the pitch, but all the pitch does is drop and not fade. It has too much spin for it to be a splitter as already mentioned. What Andriese’s changeup has that most changeups don’t is a lot of gyro spin. He gets 32% spin efficiency on the pitch. That is unusual for a changeup, but it could explain how a pitch close to a 3:00 spin direction doesn’t get a lot of fade. The gyro component of the pitch can help create the drop it has. It’s unusual but does it work?
Andriese has never registered an xwOBA on his changeup above .305. His whiff rate has steadily dropped on the pitch over the few seasons while his movement on the pitch has slowly dropped as well. The pitch has gotten an inconsistent RV with it being worth exactly 0 runs over the past 4 seasons. I don’t think there’s anything that can be done for the pitch to improve it at this point in his career. If he were to try and change it up, I’d consider trying to get more arm side run on the pitch by improving the spin efficiency and adjusting the spin direction of the pitch. However, the pitch doesn’t need to be changed as it is fine how it stands. Perhaps the Red Sox will look to make some changes.
Slider – Masahiro Tanaka
Moving on to Masahiro Tanaka’s slider. It has become Tanaka’s primary pitch for the last 4 seasons. His usage rate on the pitch has been over 30% and reached a career-high 37.7% in 2020. As his troubles with the baseball have grown apparent, Tanaka’s reliance on the pitch has also grown. First, take a look at a few different sliders in the GIF below.
Tanaka’s spin direction on his slider has a lot of variances if you look at his spin direction from savant. He’s anywhere from roughly 8:00 to 1:00 which is unusual. A slider from a right-handed pitcher rarely crosses into the 1-3 o’clock territory, but Tanaka likely manipulates his slider to create more of a slow cutter at times, calling it a slider. It could also just be the flukiness of the small sample size, but I don’t have more information on his spin direction to go off of so I can’t say.
Typically, sliders like Tanaka’s are going to be heavy on gyro spin and don’t have a lot of glove-side break. Tanaka fits into the category with very low movement horizontally on his slider, 57% below average in 2020, and a 17% active spin rate. This was the first year where Tanaka had this extreme of a slider profile. In years past, his slider had more arm side run on it and greater efficiency. If Tanaka purposefully made this change, then I’m not sure how successful it’ll be moving forward.
Looking at his results, Tanaka had a 40.6%(!!!) whiff rate on his slider in 2020 with a 38.9 CSW% as well. He had a .224 xwOBA on the pitch as well, but according to Savant, it was worth zero runs of value in 2020. That might come as a surprise because, in 2019, it was worth -24 runs of value! That was 3rd among all sliders from starting pitchers behind Justin Verlander and Patrick Corbin. It had 34.3% whiff rate, a 37.7 CSW%, and a .256 xwOBA in 2019. Tanaka had an effective slider, changed the spin and efficiency on it, got more swings and misses, and better quality of contact on it but worse results. Why?
Well, Tanaka gave up four home runs on the 1000 sliders he threw in 2019. In 2020, he gave up three home runs on 290 sliders. Is that small sample size noise or is the pitch being more reliant on gyro spin making him more susceptible to the home run? I don’t know, but I think Tanaka should limit the variability in his slider spin direction and try a more gyro spin-based slider again in 2021 to see the full results. A bigger sample size might tell the full story.
All five of these pitchers will play big roles in their respective team’s success. How they use each of these pitches will help determine their value in 2021.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)