It Takes Two to Make a Thing Go Right

Dinelson Lamet's devastating two-pitch combo has earned him ace status.

Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock said it best. It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two to make it outta sight. Hit it! (or in Dinelson Lamet‘s case, don’t hit it.)

Conventional wisdom has taught us that a bonafide starting pitcher in baseball needs to have at least three quality, above-average pitches to make it as a starter and avoid being relegated to bullpen duty. Most elite starters have four or five. And then there’s Yu Darvish, who has nearly a dozen the last time I checked.

(Side note: speaking of Darvish, check out this fun pitching overlay that Alex Fast put together recently showcasing all of Darvish’s pitches.)

This past season, San Diego right-hander Dinelson Lamet was one of the true breakout stars of the abbreviated 60-game MLB season, finishing ranked in the top five in all of baseball in both ERA and WHIP. And he broke the mold in doing so, baffling National League hitters while relying on basically what amounted to a dominant two-pitch arsenal. Such a heavy reliance on just two pitches usually lands most pitchers in the bullpen. But not Lamet. Because those two pitches of his are two of the very best in baseball, as evidenced by the fact that both were featured on the recently-released “Top 150 Pitches of 2020” video here at Pitcher List.

Check out Lamet’s Baseball Savant profile for his Statcast performance in 2020. He finished ranked 90th percentile or higher in xERA, xBA, K%, Whiff %, xwOBA, x SLG, and fastball spin and velocity.  There was nothing fluky about his performance this past season. He was simply terrific.

The Repertoire

 

Lamet’s breakout performance in 2020 appears to have been in large part due to a notable change in his pitch-mix. Here’s a quick look at his pitch tracking data (ranked in order of frequency) over the past few seasons, per Baseball Savant:

2017: Slider (38.9%), sinker (30.8%), four-seam fastball (24.5%), changeup (5.0%), curveball (0.8%)

2018: Injured (Tommy John surgery)

2019: Four-seam fastball (35.9%), curveball (31.7%), sinker (18.8%), slider (12.2%), changeup (1.5%)

2020: Slider (53.4%), four-seam fastball (37.3%), sinker (9.3%)

It’s all about that slider. In 2020, he appears to have completely scrapped the curveball and changeup altogether. It also seems plausible that in his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2018 that he backed off on his slider usage initially in 2019 until he returned to full health. Ben Clemens over at FanGraphs also made the point that Lamet, in a way, transformed his curveball into a variant of his slider, essentially giving him two versions of his slider.

As you can see, he relied essentially on what amounts to a two-pitch combo of his slider and four-seamer 90.7% of the time. That’s a closer-esque arsenal, not a typical starter’s.  His third pitch, a 96-97 mph sinker with movement, was also very effective (.115 BA with a -3 run value). However, he threw the sinker only 9.3% of the time this past season.

Lamet also saw a notable increase in 2020 in his first-strike % from 60.1% (2019) to 65.5% (2020). This jump helped him get ahead in the count far more often which likely increased the effectiveness of his devastating slider.

Coming off such a strong season and having had so much success, it will be interesting to watch if Lamet sticks with his two-pitch approach primarily, decides to reincorporate his curveball or changeup again in 2021, or even simply increases the usage of his sinker just to give hitters more to think about. Not many starters can survive on two pitches, so hopefully Lamet can settle in on a reliable third offering to mix in more often with the fastball and slider.

 

The Slider 

 

There is a very specific reason why Lamet threw his slider so often this season: because it was nearly unhittable. I mean, really unhittable. Hitters in 2020 hit .080 against that pitch. Point zero eight zero. Why would he want to throw anything else? Dispelling any concerns about opposite-handed batters that many two-pitch pitchers face, his slider was surprisingly even more dominant against lefties than righties and had the highest put-away % and lowest xwOBA of any slider in baseball.

 

As noted above, Lamet threw his slider more than half the time (53.4%) this season, which is simply unheard of. By comparison, the following list shows some of the top pitchers in baseball this past season along with the pitch they threw with the most frequency.

 

 

Notice a trend here? Generally speaking, the majority of baseball’s elite pitchers work off of their four-seamer. Makes sense, not really a surprise there as most baseball fans would expect that a pitcher throws his heater most frequently and then mixes in his offspeed stuff. Nola, Ryu, and Castillo work off their changeups, Gray off his curveball.

Then there’s Maeda—a Pitcher List favorite—who, in a similar fashion to Lamet, works off his slider, but even he throws it far less often given his more diverse pitch mix and reliable changeup. Patrick Corbin threw his slider 40.2% of the time, the second most behind Lamet. Corbin and Lamet actually share a lot of similarities in their pitching profiles when looking at their pitch-mix and approach, but Lamet’s ability to hit triple-digits with his fastball certainly distinguishes him a bit from the southpaw Corbin.

(Another quick aside: how about Tyler Glasnow‘s 60.6% four-seamer usage in the chart above.)

Getting back to it. Lamet was the only starting pitcher (minimum 150 plate appearances) in all of baseball to throw a specific off-speed pitch more than 50% of the time. Simply remarkable. Zach Davies threw the most changeups (41.3%), Rich Hill the most curveballs (43.8%), and Lamet the most sliders. Talk about rewriting the book on pitching, as Lamet essentially took a relief pitcher’s approach to pitching and applied it as a starter. And he did so with tremendous success.

Technically, Clayton Kershaw threw a breaking ball more than 50% of the time, but that’s the result of a combination of two different pitches – his slider (39.8%) and curveball (18.8%) which is a bit of a different conversation. Plus, the future Hall-of-Famer is not from this planet and shouldn’t be used as a measuring post for other pitchers anyway. 

When I began my research for this article, I knew Lamet’s slider was a dominant pitch. I didn’t realize, however, that it was literally the most dominant pitch in baseball in 2020, and it wasn’t even particularly close. Per Baseball Savant, the run value against his slider was -19 (!) which rated BY FAR as the best single pitch in baseball this past season, even ahead of the Airbender. His slider had a run value of -2 in 2019 (in four more innings), showing the significant jump in effectiveness he had with that pitch in 2020.

That’s quite the list and features some of the best pitches in baseball, from both starters and relievers alike. The chart below takes an even more in-depth look at the Statcast data specific for Lamet’s slider in 2020. Notice how the BA, SLG, and wOBA results were all pretty much in line with the corresponding expected values (xBA, xSLG, xwOBA) suggesting again that there was not an element of good luck associated with Lamet’s 2020 success. He and his slider were simply that good. The 47.40% whiff rate, in particular, was sensational.

 

Dinelson Lamet‘s 2020 Slider Performance (2020)

The numbers honestly speak for themselves. Here is another clip below of Lamet’s slider overwhelming the potent Dodgers lineup. Given the sheer brilliance and effectiveness of his slider in 2020, it’s no wonder why he threw it so often. If he continues to have anything resembling this level of success with his slider in 2021, the sky is the limit for Lamet. If he finds a third pitch that he can trust enough to throw more than 10% of the time, it will keep hitters even more off balance and at the mercy of the slider.

 

The Four-Seam Fastball

 

Lamet’s fastball surely isn’t his slider, but that’s not a very fair comparison. That would be like saying that Marvel’s The Avengers movie (2012) isn’t Infinity War (2018). Well of course it isn’t, as one is clearly superior to the other (in my humble opinion). But both are great in their own right, and The Avengers served as one of the foundational pieces on which the MCU was built, allowing for Infinity War to be the tremendous success that it was. Without The Avengers, there is no Infinity War. And without Lamet’s 100-mph fastball, the slider would not as effective as it is.

Oh boy, I’ve gotten a bit off-topic here. Getting back on track.

In order for the slider to be as dominant as it has become, Lamet has to be able to keep hitters honest and prevent them from sitting on it. This is where the 97-100 mph heater comes in to play. Lamet’s four-seam fastball gave him issues in 2019, when hitters hit .323 against it with a .624 SLG.

However, with an uptick in velocity (+1 mph increase from the 96.0 mph to 97.0 mph average in 2019) and improved control of the fastball yet another year removed from Tommy John surgery, Lamet’s four-seamer was more effective in 2020 (.286 AVG, .462 SLG). Still not dominant by any stretch, but more than good enough to complement the wipeout slider, especially when he sits 97-98 mph with it and can crank it up to 100 mph when needed.

Lamet’s four-seam fastball ranked seventh in velocity in all of baseball at 97.0 mph last season (minimum 150 plate appearances), behind Dustin May (99.1 mph!), Jacob deGrom, Sixto Sanchez, Dylan Cease, Luis Castillo, and Nathan Eovaldi. With a run value of 1, the fastball was technically the least-effective of his three pitches in 2020. However, the xBA, xSLG, and xwOBA were all a tad lower for his fastball compared to the actual stats produced against the pitch, suggesting a bit of bad luck specific to the four-seamer.

Considering that his fastball had a run value of 7 in 2017 and 4 in 2019, he definitely showed continued improvement with the pitch in 2020 which is paramount to his success with such a limited pitch-mix otherwise.

 

The Fantasy Angle

 

During this offseason as we look forward to the 2021 MLB season, the fantasy industry is attempting to do something that’s really never been done before: deciding how we reconcile the performances (both good and bad) from the abbreviated 2020 season and project for the coming year off of a sample size that is 37% the norm.

Surely fans of a player that struggled this past season will argue “small sample size!” and request a mulligan. Meanwhile, doubters of players who performed well (such as Lamet) will make a similar argument that the sample size allowed the player to perform well and surely would have regressed throughout the course of a full season sans a pandemic.

Then there’s the whole caveat about starting pitchers and workloads. How much will starting pitchers be allowed to pitch in 2021 after throwing only roughly only 60-80 innings in 2020?

Recently-acquired White Sox starter Lance Lynn led the majors with just 84.0 IP last season for the Rangers. Not only do many expect that top prospects and younger pitchers will be treated very carefully in regard to their workloads next season coming off a short season, but what about the established veterans as well? Will teams let their prized hurlers jump upwards of 120-130 innings year-over-year to get back to that more common 180-220 IP range? I remain skeptical.

Below is a quick look at Lamet’s game log in 2020. He certainly was limited to begin the year from an innings/pitch count standpoint, averaging just 83.8 pitches/game through his first five starts. However, that stretch in September really jumps out, as he punched-out 11, 11, and 10 batters over a three-game span as he began pitching a little deeper into games and truly began asserting himself as a true ace against opposing lineups. He never allowed more than six hits or three earned runs in a game (and only did that once), and cut down on his walks as well, which was another big development towards his success.

While some cynics might point to the fact that he benefitted from facing a whole lot of Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco on his schedule, he also permitted just two earned runs across 12.2 IP over two starts against the mighty World Series champion Dodgers. Plus, he still pitches in the NL West which, guarantees even more dates with those clubs in 2021.

Dinelson Lamet Game Log (2020)

 

With an ADP in the 130-140 range last spring, Lamet was a popular sleeper heading into drafts and emerged as a true league-winner of sorts, finishing ranked as the #7 starting pitcher per Razzball’s 12-team Player Rater (ESPN) behind Shane Bieber, Yu Darvish, Trevor Bauer, Kenta Maeda, Gerrit Cole, and Jacob deGrom.

The 28-year-old right-hander made 12 starts, yet factored in only four decisions (3-1) suggesting that he could have easily been ranked higher on the player rater with just a couple more wins added to his ledger—looking at his game log above, he certainly deserved a few more wins.

 

Dinelson Lamet‘s 2020 Traditional Fantasy Statistics 2020

 

There is no denying that the statistical profile in the chart above is that of a true ace. The ERA, the WHIP, and fantastic K/9. And yet here we are, in mid-January 2021, and Lamet currently shows an ADP of 67 (SP# 23) per NFBC ADP and 56 (SP#20) per Fantrax HQ. Lamet is being drafted amongst the likes of pitchers such as Luis Castillo, Brandon Woodruff, Zac Gallen, Kenta Maeda, Tyler Glasnow, new teammate Blake Snell, Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Zach Plesac, and the aforementioned Lynn.

Something doesn’t quite add up here. Let’s check in with TV legend Ron Swanson to get his thoughts:

 

There seems to be much doubt regarding Lamet’s 2020 performance given his limited pitch arsenal. Many doubt his ability to repeat his success in 2021, and/or have concerns over his projected workload or injury status for the 2021 season coming off a shortened season. It seems the latter of these issues (the injury and workload questions) are the primary concerns. And they are very valid concerns. Lamet has only pitched 256.1 innings in his career.

2017: 114.1 IP

2018: Did not pitch

2019: 73.0 IP

2020: 69.0 IP

Coming off a shortened season, will the Padres turn Lamet loose and allow him to pitch 180-200 IP? Highly unlikely. I’d bet the farm against that. I would expect 140-150 IP to be his ceiling in 2021, which certainly dims his outlook in terms of season-long value. In a normal year, this would surely warrant bumping Lamet down a tier or two on fantasy draft boards.

However, outside of some of the top workhorses in baseball (the deGrom, Cole, Lynn, Scherzer types), it seems reasonable to think that most pitchers will be scaled back in terms of workloads for the upcoming season given the limited innings pitched in 2020. I would imagine most starters will end up somewhere around that 150-180 IP range in 2021, with very few exceeding 200 IP. In a way, this actually works in Lamet’s favor and mitigates the risk associated with his workload concerns because many other pitchers will be facing the same fate.

Then there is the injury concern, which appears to be the clear culprit behind Lamet’s suppressed ADP heading into fantasy drafts. The right-hander was removed from his final start of the season against the Giants with what was deemed biceps tightness and general arm fatigue. He was, unfortunately, unable to participate in the postseason for the Friars, but was treated with a simple platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection and recommended to rest.

Having had a full offseason to recover, there has been no inclination that the injury should be a concern moving forward. However, for a pitcher who has already undergone Tommy John surgery once on his right elbow, it’s certainly not a great sign that he wasn’t able to finish the season due to “fatigue” after only 69 innings.

That type of issue is one with the potential to pop up again in the future, especially for the most slider-dependent pitcher in baseball. There is a level of legitimate concern here, although it’s just as possible that the 6’3″, 228-lb Dominican hurler has made a full recovery and will enter the season looking to pick back up right where he left off. Every pitcher carries some level of risk as it pertains to injury in fantasy baseball, and Lamet is certainly no exception to that.

By any measure, Lamet was a top-10 pitcher in all of baseball this past season, and that’s a conservative estimate. I could easily argue that he was more of a top-5 guy. Either way, he’s currently being drafted just outside the top-20 at his position looking ahead to 2021 due to the aforementioned questions marks pertaining to his ability, his health, and his future workload.

However, there is no denying that he emerged as a truly elite, Cy Young-caliber pitcher in 2020, thanks in large part to the dominance of that filthy slider. With the additions in San Diego of Yu Darvish and Blake Snell this winter, the Padres have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation (with Mike Clevinger injured) which could terrorize the NL West and the National League as a whole. I’ll be watching Lamet’s performance and health reports during spring training very closely.

If fully healthy, a thorough analysis of Lamet’s 2020 performance and his fantastic slider/fastball combination reveals nothing to suggest that he can’t repeat as one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2021, which would qualify as highway robbery at his current ADP.

While most starting pitchers might need three-to-five pitches to be effective, certainly to be dominant, Dinelson Lamet proved in 2020 that it just takes two to make a thing go right.

 

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

 

Lucas Spence

Writer for Pitcher List and contributor for FantasyPros and InStreetClothes. Certified Physician Assistant trained in Emergency Medicine + Urgent Care services. Proud husband and father of three. Follow him on Twitter @lspence24. "No amount of money ever bought a second of time." - Tony/Howard Stark

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