When you watch Shane McClanahan, what’s the main thing you notice about the way he pitches? Far more often than not, the answer to that question is that he throws really, really hard. Lefties with fastballs that touch triple digits don’t grow on trees. Ones that can keep that velocity in their back pocket for a full start are even rarer. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s his third-best pitch.
Velocity Can’t Do It All
I know what you’re thinking – how can he have two pitches better than a fastball that looks like this? It all lies in the movement of the pitch, or a lack thereof. Rise, cut, sink- terms you’ve probably heard before. McClanahan’s fastball doesn’t do much of any of those. It has some arm-side run but is vertically unimpressive, making the velocity the only real positive about it. That zone in between rise and sink is the last place you want your range of movement to be as it most closely resembles the 4-seam fastball shape of pitchers who primarily use sinkers as a direct result of said bad shape. Due to him being in this zone, when hitters sit fastball and catch up to the heat, they clobber it.
So now we’ve established that his fastball wasn’t as effective as it appeared last season, but that’s not necessarily a fair statement. It wouldn’t have been great on its own, however, it’s his third-best pitch. Whether intentionally or not, it served as a decoy. It struck fear in hitters’ minds that they needed to be ready for the high octane stuff. In reality, this is what they should have been afraid of.
McClanahan’s breaking balls were filthy to begin with, and having the ability to bump up past 100 when he wanted to only furthered their effectiveness. It’s challenging enough to hit an 82 mph curveball that moves like this:
It’s even harder to hit when the thought at the forefront of your mind is “don’t be late on the fastball.” This was how McClanahan did so well last season- he thrived on fear. It didn’t matter that his fastball got knocked around because most of the time, hitters were too busy whiffing on the nasty stuff.
What Does This Mean For The Future?
The prominent questions that follow are: Is this sustainable, and how can he improve upon this? 2021 was a year of mixed results for him and his peripheral stats tell a strange story of two halves. As his philosophy evolved through the season, he saw better results but with worse underlying numbers. It’s difficult to say exactly why this happened the way it did. Perhaps some of the blame could go to the usual statistical variance that occurs in this sport. Alternatively, when a pitcher makes a change to their plan of attack and different results follow, it can’t be overlooked as a possible cause. This leaves us with additional complex questions: Which version of him is better? Which game plan should he choose going forward?
Option One: Stick with what worked. This will likely be the path he goes down as in the second half of the season, McClanahan saw great success with a modified approach.
On the surface, there’s a marked improvement. With this revamped strategy, most of his numbers saw a trend in the right direction. When looking at the surface-level numbers, this seems like the clear choice. At the end of the day, results are what decide games. The difference here is difficult to ignore. That said, if this approach proves to not be viable for the long term, he may be forced to change. It’s difficult to consistently have results better than your expected numbers, especially for a high strikeout, fly-ball pitcher.
Option Two: Revert to what theoretically should have worked. While the outcomes may have been disappointing, it’s worth noting that the quality of contact he allowed was less explosive than it was in the second half.
This is the outlier in his second-half numbers when compared to the first. It may be simple luck that his throwing more curves coincided with his barrel rate increasing. The performance of his curve remained largely the same despite its increased usage which speaks to that possibility. However, as that pitch stayed excellent, the slider suffered some diminishing returns down the stretch. Reverting to a slider-heavy approach when that slider was recently underperforming could over-correct something that isn’t broken.
Option Three: Try something new. This is a more radical approach but certainly not an unprecedented one. Generally speaking, a pitcher will have an aptitude for one type of fastball. This doesn’t stop pitchers from throwing both a 4-seam and a 2-seam but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should. McClanahan exclusively uses a 4-seam grip when throwing his fastball, but trying out a sinker could pay huge dividends. We live in a three true outcomes world, but there’s something to be said for pitchers who can induce ground balls. The only concern with this is that if he switches fully to a 2-seam fastball, his curve may suffer the consequences because sinkers and curves aren’t traditionally pitches that play off of each other; at least not as complementary as a 4-seam and a curve.
Even if nothing were to change, it’s hard to see a future in which McClanahan struggles much. His stuff is almost too good to fail and his ability to limit walks so far in his career separates him from the average hurler. When you combine velocity, control, and breaking pitches like this, you get a scary pitcher.
Most of this article was written before the season started, however, two starts into the season, we have some important new information. While it’s important to remember that it’s a small sample size, McClanahan seems to have made a change this season. I’m not certain what he’s doing differently to cause it, but the movement of his fastball has changed. His release point, extension, spin rate, and active spin percentage are all about the same as they were previously. Yet, seemingly out of nowhere, his fastball rises now. It has a bit less of the arm-side run it used to have, but the vertical movement has suddenly shot up. This should help his fastball miss more bats. He’s also throwing a bit harder (as if he needed to).
Furthermore, McClanahan and his coaches are leaning hard into his second-half success and pushing the option one philosophy into overdrive. Through these first two starts, he’s throwing his curveball 34.6% of the time. This far exceeds his previous rates and perhaps says something about the confidence he’s gained in the pitch. Funnily enough, that 34.6% is the same percentage of pitches he threw that were sliders last year.
While his start to the 2022 season hasn’t been particularly efficient, throwing 153 pitches in 9.0 innings across two outings, he’s been no less dominant. Only time will tell if these changes are for the best, or if they’re even sustainable, but for now, I’m going to enjoy watching him do his thing.
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)