“Addition by subtraction.”
“Less is more.”
There’s something appealing about the idea that you can do better while doing less. We’re often conditioned in modern life to think that more hours at the office, taking less vacation hours, or working through lunch are the keys to success. It’s probably why I’m enamored with the idea of pitchers just completely scrapping a pitch that isn’t working for them.
These pitchers have decided that a particular pitch isn’t working. And while they could certainly attempt to work through it (and probably have), there is a point where they’ve concluded that they could get the same or better results simply by not throwing the pitch that’s doing the most damage to their ERAs. There’s a philosophical lesson for all of us in that, that we can scrap what’s not working and instead focus on the things we do well.
Or, maybe they’re just pitchers going about their craft and I’ve made too much out of it yet again. Either way.
Here are three pitchers who have scrapped pitches (almost) completely in 2021, and what we can glean from those decisions.
Across seven starts for the White Sox last year, Dunning pitched to an effective 3.97 ERA while striking out better than a batter per inning. He relied primarily on his sinker, slider, and four seamer, but that fastball was his least effective pitch, to the tune of a .364 batting average and .545 slugging percentage against.
After throwing that four seamer 21% of the time last year, Dunning has almost completely abandoned it, throwing it just eight times in 79 innings pitched so far in 2021. Those pitches have mostly gone to his sinker, which he’s now throwing more than half the time. While keeping his strikeouts up, Dunning has posted a slightly higher ERA than last season, but mostly on the heels of a .361 BABIP against him. His FIP is down by more than half a run, making his decision to scrap the four seamer look good up to this point.
A smaller change this season has come in the form of Julio Urías’ slider. After having never thrown it less than 13% of his pitches, last season Urías dropped it all the way to 5%, and the results still were less than ideal:
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Urías and/or the Dodgers’ pitching brain trust must have decided even that 5% was too much, as he has now thrown it just once in 2020. Mostly it’s been the curveball that’s been the extreme beneficiary to his arsenal:
It’s worked for Urías, who has the highest strikeout and lowest walk rates of his career in the first half of 2021. That’s obviously not entirely attributable to the pitch mix change, but it certainly hasn’t hurt, and the increase in Urías’ more effective pitches at the expense of an expanded arsenal is worth the tradeoff.
Max Fried, Atlanta- Changeup
Fried’s changeup has never been terribly effective- hitters have slugged over .500 on it in every season save last year’s short campaign in which he threw it nearly 5% of the time and hitters only managed a .200 batting average and .200 slugging percentage against it (albeit in a small sample of just over 40 pitches). Strange, then, that after the year it was at its most effective he’s abandoned the pitch even further, throwing it just 13 times thus far across 72.2 innings.
The rationale behind it may have more to do with his full pitch mix rather than a particular feeling about the 2020 version of the change. Fried is also decreasing his fastball usage while his sinker, slider, and curve all continue their upward trend. Even setting aside the past results with the changeup, perhaps its usage is being impacted by that fastball decrease. Without a fastball to throw as often, the change won’t keep batters off balance to the same degree.
I’m not quite sure what to make of Fried’s career-long fastball usage decrease, as he doesn’t seem to have had a major velocity drop that would precipitate such a move. Fried has largely struggled this season with a career-high in ERA, FIP, and xERA since his rookie season. While the changeup has never been his carrying pitch, one wonders if the mix actually added another wrinkle hitters had to account for that made his four-seamer more effective.
In that way, it’s almost the exact opposite of what happened with Urías, who benefited from a less robust overall arsenal. At any rate, it should remind us that none of these answers are easy, and the “perfect” pitch mix is, if not impossible, largely a matter of years’ worth of trial and error.
Every spring as players report in the best shapes of their lives and a few days before their teammates, many pixels are dedicated to pitchers’ “new” pitches that they added in the offseason. It’s worth remembering (and possibly celebrating) the discarded pitches that players bring to the new season as well.
Photo from Toto-artist, CC BY-SA 3.0 | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)