Logan Webb entered his age-24 season as a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher with only 19 MLB starts under his belt. He exited it as a bona fide superstar.
2020 was all but a forgettable campaign for Webb. Appearing in 13 games, 11 as a starter, Webb posted a 5.47 ERA, with only slightly more encouraging peripherals––a 5.13 xERA and a 4.52 xFIP. His slider and sinker showed promise, but his four-seam fastball, thrown 34.6 percent of the time, was crushed for a .375 xwOBACON.
2021 told a far different tale for Webb, as he cut his xERA down to 3.18 and his xFIP down to 2.79, while increasing his strikeout rate, decreasing his walk rate, and weakening opposing contact. Successfully making the leap from the back end of the rotation to the front is no small task, but to fulfill such an ambitious mission, Webb found a plan of attack that was both feasible and sustainable. Whereas an old adage advises one to work smarter, not harder, Webb worked smarter and harder to develop into the ace he is today.
Increased Sinker Usage
Throw your best pitches most often.
No, Corbin Burnes would not turn into the greatest pitcher of all time if he threw solely cutters. The art of pitching requires a degree of deception and sequencing that allows pitchers to optimize the balance between playing to their strengths and remaining unpredictable.
For Webb, however, the problem was clear as day. In 2020, Webb’s two most frequently thrown pitches were a mediocre four-seam fastball and a changeup that––although its movement profile rendered it an effective pitch––left much to be desired, as Webb did not locate it optimally.
Whereas most pitchers who struggle to prosper with a heavy reliance on a four-seam fastball and a changeup likely would need to resort to pitch development as a means of improvement, Webb’s arsenal was not scarce of strong pitches. In fact, Webb threw the two pitches that would prevail as his strongest, his slider and his sinker, only 15.3 and 14.5 percent of the time in 2020, respectively.
Simply put, two primary methods of retiring hitters at the Major-League level are generating strikes and inducing weak contact. In 2020, Webb proved to be below average at generating whiffs, posting a 9.6 percent SwStr%, and approximately average at picking up called strikes, with an 18.9 CS%. Additionally, while Webb induced ground balls at a high rate, 55.1 percent, the contact he allowed was hard enough to boost his xwOBACON to .322, a mark well above league average.
However, hidden within these metrics is a gem that Webb utilized to take his game to the next level. Webb found inducing weak contact to be the primary department to improve, and the mechanism through which he achieved his newfound success was his sinker. In 2020, Webb recorded a tremendous 79.3 ground ball rate on his sinker, prompting him to throw the pitch nearly twice as frequently in 2021. As a result of increasing his sinker usage to 37.6 percent, his ground ball rate jumped from 55.1 percent to 63.4 percent, decreasing his xwOBACON from .322 to .254.
Simultaneous with his extreme drop in quality of contact came an increase in Webb’s ability to generate strikes, derived from his increase in his slider usage. However, his slider profiled as a relatively mediocre pitch in terms of CSW% in 2020, so it required a significant improvement in stuff to become a pitch that Webb could utilize as his primary whiff pitch.
Seldom does an increase in pitch usage and the consequent increase in its predictability lead to stronger results on that pitch, yet Webb’s ability to pair his high slider usage in 2021 with a new pitch shape and location fostered his breakout. In 2020, Webb’s slider featured more sweep than the league-average slider, but its vertical movement was far from extraordinary. That changed in 2021, where he added nearly two inches in vertical drop to his prior metrics, adding a layer of deception that forced hitters to whiff at a far higher rate––boosting his slider swinging-strike rate from 8.5 percent in 2020 to 22.1 in 2021, a monumental increase derived primarily from the horizontal drop that he added to the pitch.
The other characteristic of Webb’s slider that cried for a change in 2020 was its location, for Webb left it in the middle of the zone far too frequently to experience success against some of the league’s strongest hitters. By frequently bringing his slider out of the zone––specifically, below the zone, increasing his loLoc% from 66.7 percent to 81.1 percent––Webb added a whiff pitch to his arsenal. In fact, although Webb threw his slider in the zone at a lower rate in 2021, his 2021 strike rate on his slider exceeded its 2020 counterpart by more than 10 percent because of its 43.9 percent o-swing rate, a testament to the development of his slider both stuff-wise and command-wise.
Rounding Out Webb’s Arsenal
Beyond Webb’s sinker and slider lies a changeup that has remained in the mix at a 23.6 percent usage rate, featuring a CSW% and an xwOBACON better than league average in 2021. An added bonus, his four-seam fastball that was punished at a high rate in 2020 because an extremely effective asset for Webb. In fact, Webb brought the xwOBACON against his four-seam fastball down from .375 in 2020 to .257 in 2021, a change that cannot be attributed to solely the decrease in its usage. Webb brought his four-seam fastball to the top of the zone more frequently––often setting up his newly located slider below the zone––and he shaped the pitch to be more flatter, according to Alex Chamberlain’s study of vertical approach angle.
Who Can Mirror Webb?
Among the many pitchers who can use Webb as the prototype for pitcher development, none stand out more than Taijuan Walker. Walker’s primary pitch is his four-seam fastball, thrown 32 percent of the time, and––although it gets mediocre results––he offers a sinker with a mere 6 percent usage that generates ground balls and other forms of weak contact at a high rate. Additionally, Walker’s arsenal features a slider with a strong movement profile but questionable location metrics. Walker currently throws his slider high at a 27.3 percent clip, likely a limiting factor of his ability to pick up whiffs, as shown by its 6.8 percent swinging-strike rate. Should Walker bring his slider to a lower location, he could experience a similar degree of improvement to that of Webb in 2021.
The list of pitchers who could mirror Webb’s tactics does not stop at only pitchers who have yet to break out. Even Walker Buehler, one of the league’s top pitchers of the last half-decade, could adopt a strategy that fostered Webb’s development. In fact, Buehler’s four-seam fastball has generated frightening results this season, as his fastball has yielded the second highest xwOBA among MLB pitchers who have thrown at least 300 pitches in 2022. Nonetheless, Buehler throws five other pitches––his sinker as the most infrequent of the bunch––that allow him to drop his four-seam fastball should he not regain his fastball of the past.
The sky’s the limit for Webb and various pitchers alike as they seek to progress even further. While we cannot know with absolute certainty how the remainder of Webb’s career will progress, we can say confidently that the mental and physical adjustments he made to his game has rendered him one of the most well-developed pitchers in baseball.
Photos by Alexander Milo/Unsplash, Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire and David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire | Featured Image by Ethan Kaplan (@Ethan Kaplan on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)