Reality checks come fast and furious in baseball, and they can hit pitchers in particular pretty hard. Hard enough to knock them out of the game in no time at all.
But not all of them. The good ones know that a good reality check means change is needed, and they change as needed.
We've seen more than a few pitchers go from being totally figured out one minute to being back on top the next. It would take too long to list them all, and reading a list like that would be about as boring as writing one.
I figure it'll be more fun if we take a look at how pitchers can turn their careers around, stopping to consider a few examples along the way.
If you'll just follow me this way...
Giving in to the Cutter Craze
If you're just now returning from a long sabbatical to Mars, you probably haven't heard that the cut fastball has become all the rage in Major League Baseball in recent years.
I've written some pieces on the subject, but Albert Chen of Sports Illustrated is the guy who hit the nail on the head when he asked back in 2011 whether the cutter is a "magic pitch."
There are a couple of veterans who will vouch that it is, namely Dan Haren, Josh Beckett and Mike Adams. The cutter helped rescue their careers.
Haren, one of the main subjects of Chen's story, recalled a conversation with Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia in 2010 in which he admitted that he wasn't going to get by as a fastball/splitter guy anymore. He had lost some zip over the years, and he knew that his days of blowing hitters away were likely over.
Now, Haren was already throwing a cutter by the time he was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Angels in 2010. Per BrooksBaseball.net, Haren threw his cutter 27 percent of the time in 2009, and he was throwing it roughly 30 percent of the time as a member of the Diamondbacks in 2010.
But it was with the Angels that Haren's cutter really became a weapon. That's something that can be seen in the ISO—or Isolated Power, which is essentially a slugging percentage that pays singles no mind—hitters posted against his cutter by month in 2010.
|Month||ISO vs. Cutter|
All of Haren's August and September outings, of course, came with the Angels. He had a 2.87 ERA with them, a nice improvement over the 4.60 ERA he had as a Diamondback.
It helped that opposing hitters had a .125 ISO against Haren as a member of the Angels in 2010, as opposed to a .186 ISO against him as a member of the Diamondbacks. Keep in mind that we're talking about a guy who went from the National League to the American League. What he pulled off was no easy feat.
Haren's cutter served him very well in 2011, too, as he took to throwing it roughly 50 percent of the time by both BrooksBaseball.net's reckoning and Baseball Info Solutions' (via FanGraphs) reckoning.
Haren saved 1.70 runs above average for every 100 cutters he threw in 2011, making it the most effective pitch in his arsenal in a season that saw him post a 3.17 ERA and finish seventh in the American League Cy Young voting.
Beckett, meanwhile, was also making good use of a cutter in 2011. Per BrooksBaseball.net, he threw his cutter what was then a career-high 19 percent of the time, and FanGraphs shows that he saved 0.95 runs above average for every 100 cutters he threw. It wasn't his most effective pitch, but it gave him four effective pitches where he only had two or three before.
The result: a career-low 2.89 ERA. A nice change of pace for a guy who had compiled a 4.39 ERA between 2008 and 2010.
Adams arrived at the cutter a little differently than Haren and Beckett. He told Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News in 2011 that he picked up the cutter after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2009.
“The more I’ve thrown it, the more comfortable I’ve become with it and the more confident I’ve gotten with it,” Adams said in 2011. “I’ve learned situations that are best for it. It’s been the key to my success so far.”
No kidding. After achieving so much success with his cutter in 2010, Adams threw it about 60 percent of the time in 2011. This time, not even Rivera saved as many runs with his cutter as Adams did, and the 32-year-old finished the year with a 1.47 ERA over 75 appearances.
Is the cutter a cure-all for everyone? That certainly looks like the case based on how many pitchers are throwing cutters nowadays, but Haren warned in 2011 that it's a tricky pitch.
Haren recalled giving the following advice to Angels right-hander Jered Weaver:
Weaver wants [a cutter] bad. We'll be playing catch and he'll try to throw one, and it'll be terrible. I tell Jered this: It's not for everyone. It can mess up your other pitches—you can lose your feel for the pitch. You can lose your grip on your curveball. You can start to lose velocity on your fastball. Jered's stuff is already good enough. He doesn't need it. When he's old like me, he'll need it.
Indeed, the declines of Haren and Beckett go to show that a cutter can't revive even an old pitcher's career forever. They've both been shells of the pitchers they were in 2011 over the last year or so.
That's the "But..." that any veteran pitcher thinking of working in a cutter should be aware of. The warning aside, though, it is something new to try and it has been proven to be a difference-maker for those who master it.
Phasing Out the Four-Seamer
A cutter is an attractive option for veteran pitchers looking to add something new to their arsenals, but sometimes it's not so much about adding a new pitch as it is about phasing out a pitch that's just not good enough.
Not even the four-seam fastball, the simplest pitch in the realm of pitches, should be exempt. When it's gotta go, well, maybe it should go.
One of the more well-known examples of a pitcher phasing out his four-seamer is that of Brandon McCarthy, whose story was told by Eddie Matz in 2012 for ESPN the Magazine.
McCarthy's still young by baseball standards at the age of 29, and he was very young back when he made what was then a career-high 22 starts for the Texas Rangers in 2007. He didn't do so well, though, compiling a 4.87 ERA and 1.56 WHIP.
In those days, BrooksBaseball.net shows that McCarthy was throwing his four-seamer more than 60 percent of the time. FanGraphs shows that it had a negative value, not surprising seeing as how it was a 90-mph pitch with little movement.
The story goes that McCarthy got into sabermetrics and that he decided in 2009 he was going to remake himself into Roy Halladay.
"I could never be Justin Verlander because I can't throw 101," said McCarthy. "But there's nothing freakish about Halladay, nothing that wasn't within the realm of possibility for me."
McCarthy resurfaced in 2011 with the Oakland A's, and the data shows that he threw exactly 20 four-seam fastballs in 25 starts spanning 170.2 innings. Instead, he threw sinkers (i.e. two-seamers) and cutters.
One of the main results was a dramatically improved ground-ball rate, which helped lead to a 3.32 ERA. Per FanGraphs, McCarthy also posted an AL-best 2.86 FIP, meaning he led the league in a stat that only cares about the four things pitchers can control: strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs.
Though he only stayed healthy for 18 starts, McCarthy posted a solid 3.24 ERA in 2012 and got himself a nice two-year contract from the Diamondbacks over the winter. Phasing out his four-seamer has panned out pretty well for him.
Another starter who benefited from phasing out his four-seamer was Bronson Arroyo of the Cincinnati Reds, who found himself in need of a change after 2011.
The 2011 season saw Arroyo come very close to tying the single-season record for home runs allowed. He gave up 46 long balls, which helped inflate his ERA to 5.07.
During spring training in 2012, Mark Sheldon of MLB.com wrote that Arroyo was looking to try out a "one-seam sinker" that he had learned from fellow Reds starter Mike Leake. Arroyo already had a sinker in his arsenal, but he had thrown it less frequently than his four-seamer in 2010 and 2011, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
That changed in 2012. Arroyo threw his sinker 33 percent of the time, and his four-seamer only 7 percent of the time. Not surprisingly, the data shows that it was his go-to ground-ball pitch by a big margin.
Overall, Arroyo's ground-ball percentage rose from 38.7 percent in 2011 to 41.4 percent. The 26 homers he allowed in 2012 were the fewest he'd surrendered in a season since 2005, and his ERA fell from 5.07 to 3.74.
Among relievers who have phased out their four-seamers in recent years, how about one of the most underrated lefties in the business: Jeremy Affeldt.
Affeldt's profile on BrooksBaseball.net shows that he was basically just a fastball-curveball guy in 2007 and 2008. But since joining the San Francisco Giants in 2009, his sinker has become much more of a weapon. Especially since he struggled to the tune of a 4.14 ERA in 2010, a year in which he threw 30 percent four-seamers and 41 percent sinkers.
Affeldt took to throwing his four-seamer only 20 percent of the time in 2011, with his sinker usage increasing to 43 percent. Last year, the data shows that 43 percent of Affeldt's pitches were sinkers, as opposed to 18 percent four-seamers.
Affeldt threw his sinker primarily to right-handed batters in 2012, who posted a merely decent .299 average against it with a .075 ISO. That's one of the reasons Affeldt was able to hold right-handed batters to a .656 OPS a year after they knocked him around with a .764 OPS.
His reward? A three-year contract worth $18 million.
That's outstanding money for a non-closer lefty reliever, and you wonder if Affeldt would have gotten it had he remained committed to his four-seamer.
Exploring Strange New Off-Speed Pitches
When it comes to making changes, pitchers don't have to focus on just the hard stuff. They can incorporate new off-speed pitches as well.
You don't hear about guys doing this all that often, but one of the quieter success stories in recent memory unfolded just last year in San Francisco.
He only posted a 4.15 ERA, but 2012 was basically the season the Giants had been waiting for ever since they signed Barry Zito to a massive contract before the 2007 season. He was one of their most reliable hurlers down the stretch in 2012, and then saved the club's bacon in the postseason.
What changed for Zito?
He committed himself to throwing his slider—it's referred to as a "slutter" in some circles due to it's cutter-ish qualities—more often, and he benefited greatly from it.
In 2010, Zito threw his slider 15 percent of the time, according to BrooksBaseball.net. In 2012, he threw it 31 percent of the time, making it the most commonly used pitch of the five he featured.
Zito's slider wasn't an overwhelming success, but it did rate as his second-most effective pitch after his curveball in 2012, according to FanGraphs. That made his reliance on his slider worthwhile, and I'm guessing Zito wouldn't change a thing from last year if he could go back and do it all over again.
For a changeup story, we turn to Roy Oswalt.
For the longest time, all Oswalt needed was his fastball and curveball. You really don't need much else when you've got a 95-mph heater and an Uncle Charlie that's among the best the game has ever known.
By 2009, however, Oswalt's BrooksBaseball.net card shows that he was throwing a sinker and slider along with his curveball. He was a more versatile pitcher, but he got a career-worst 4.12 ERA for his troubles.
In September 2010, Oswalt told David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News that he committed himself to learning a new changeup grip in between 2009 and 2010.
Murphy described the new grip like so: "The grip looks a lot like how Mr. Spock might throw a changeup, the ball jammed between the middle and index fingers in a sort of live-long-and-prosper configuration."
Oswalt used his new Vulcan changeup 15 percent of the time in 2010. Per FanGraphs, it ended up being his most effective pitch. Oswalt finished the year with a 2.76 ERA, a personal best for a 30-start season.
As far as relievers go, you're generally not going to see too many of them try out new off-speed pitches. Many of them don't need to, as your garden variety reliever only needs good velocity and one effective off-speed pitch to get by.
That's all Joe Nathan needed back in the day with the Minnesota Twins. He was strictly a fastball/slider guy, and those two pitches were good enough to make him one of baseball's deadliest closers.
He's changed over the last couple years since coming back from a Tommy John operation that cost him the 2010 season. His BrooksBaseball.net card shows that he started experimenting with a curveball in 2009, and it's since become much more than just an experiment.
Nathan threw his hook 19 percent of the time in 2011 and 15 percent of the time last year in his first year with the Rangers. Among his primary pitches, it was the hardest to hit.
|Pitch||AVG Against||ISO Against|
The victims of Nathan's curveball in 2012 were primarily left-handed hitters. He threw more curveballs against them, and they hit just .080 against it with a zero ISO.
Not surprisingly, Nathan's curveball rated as his single most effective pitch in 2012. Per FanGraphs, he saved 3.06 runs per 100 curveballs. His next best pitch was his slider, which saved 0.66 runs per 100 pitches.
Along with Zito and Oswalt, Nathan can vouch that it's never too late to put a new spin on things.
...Sorry, couldn't resist.
Adopting a Special Delivery
A pitcher having a rough time overcoming the opposition doesn't necessarily have to alter his repertoire. Sometimes he just needs to alter his mechanics.
And sometimes that's not a matter of fixing the "mechanical flaws" you hear so much about throughout the course of a season. Sometimes, something more drastic is required.
For example, take one of the guys we looked at above: Brandon McCarthy. His reinvention didn't just involve upgrading his repertoire. It also involved remodeling his mechanics.
Kyle Boddy of Hardball Times wrote about McCarthy's transformation back in 2011, noting that McCarthy was using his lower half more efficiently to become less of a "max effort" guy.
In addition, McCarthy's release point changed. He was an over-the-top guy in his days with the Rangers, but his release point dropped in 2011. Whereas he used to be an over-the-top guy, he became closer to a three-quarter guy.
He's not the only pitcher in recent memory who found success after changing his release point. Another fascinating case study that eventually turned up in a (long and frustrating) Google search is that of Ben Sheets.
Back in 2008, Adam McCalvy of MLB.com wrote about how Sheets was working on a new arm slot in spring training and that it appeared to be working for him.
"I feel a little stronger this year," Sheets said. "I feel like I've got the better arm slot, and that's why I feel stronger. ... The ball is just livelier out of that slot."
Sheets certainly needed to make a change. Due to various injuries, he hadn't made over 30 starts in a season since 2004. A new arm slot was as good a place as any to start.
Did Sheets' arm slot actually change?
I can't show you the visual data here, but the answer would appear to be yes.
If you go to BrooksBaseball.net and pull up data from a start Sheets made against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on August 29, 2007 and another that he made at Wrigley on March 31, 2008 and scroll down the "Release Point" graphics, you should be able to see a subtle shift. It looks like Sheets was throwing more over the top in 2008.
It worked. Sheets stayed healthy enough to make 31 starts in 2008, and he pitched a career-high five complete games and three shutouts. The 3.09 ERA he posted that year stands as the second-best of his career after his 2.70 ERA in 2004.
It doesn't necessarily take a new arm slot for a pitcher to reinvent himself, however. Something much simpler than that can do the trick.
Consider Fernando Rodney. He compiled a 4.42 ERA between 2007 and 2011, making him quite the reclamation project for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Next thing anyone knew, Rodney saved 48 games in 2012 with a 0.60 ERA, a major league record for a reliever.
So...What the heck happened?
Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times wrote a piece on Rodney last July that credited newfound consistency in Rodney's delivery for his turnaround, but R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus noticed something else.
What Anderson noticed was that Rodney went from pitching from the third base side of the rubber in 2011 to pitching from the first base side of the rubber in 2012. A subtle change, to be sure, but the results speak for themselves.
Pitching in the major leagues rivals rocket science in complexity, but sometimes it just comes down to location, location, location.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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