Braking Down The News

Why Some MLB Pitchers Are Abandoning The Fastball

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It was less a baseball game, by the sixth and seventh and eighth innings, than a conference-room presentation, with the pitches as bullet points and the batters walking to the plate and jogging back to the dugout, screen-left, like slideshow graphics. “Taking It For A Spin: The Outsized Efficacy of the Breaking Ball in the Contemporary Space.” On Sept. 3 in Chicago, the score was 7-0, then 13-0, but the drama was provided by the question of whether Dylan Cease of the White Sox would no-hit the Minnesota Twins, and the implications — a thwack of pointer on projector screen — went even further beyond that.

Though Cease did give up a lone hit with two outs in the ninth inning, he spent the rest of the evening throwing his signature pitch at the Twins, to not-at-all-diminishing returns. Cease’s slider — a darting and disorienting and freshly zoomy thing, like a fishing line with a firecracker at the end of it — sniped into the bottom of the strike zone, drawing puzzled looks and panicked swings. Or it clung to the edge of the plate and, at the moment the batter offered, simply let go. Fifty-two of Cease’s 103 pitches were sliders — he collected 16 of his 27 outs with the pitch — and only 42 were fastballs. A few years ago, such an abdication of the No. 1 would have been an outlier almost on the scale of a no-no itself. Now, it’s the latest step in baseball’s age-old evolutionary shuffle. One season’s reimagining is the next’s routine — and in this case, the new normal carries a lot of historical significance.

Barring a late-season turn back toward traditionalism, 2022 will see Major League pitchers throw more non-fastballs than fastballs for the first time in recorded history.1 The logic is straightforward. Hitters love facing a heater, as the numbers and the hitters themselves will tell you, so why give it to them? Across spectrums of age and station — old guys still pacing rotations, mid-career self-reinventors, ascendant aces coming into their primes — pitchers are going more and more to the slower stuff, often to better and better effect. Pitching backwards — using off-speed pitches to set up the fastball (or just more off-speed pitches) — has become the way forward in modern baseball.

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Understanding the logic is one thing, says Chicago pitching coach Ethan Katz, who’s overseen Cease’s transition from back-end starter (a 4.39 career ERA entering this season) to slider sorcerer (2.16 in 2022, on the strength of the pitch with the best run value in the majors). But putting it into practice is something else entirely. Having been taught from Little League days to pump four-seamers into the zone, and having risen to and through the ranks of the most exclusive baseball league on the planet by doing so, pitchers must come to believe that something better still might sit just past the outer bounds of convention. “There’s a human element to it,” Katz told me. “The numbers can tell us something, but then you can talk to the player, and he might have a different mindset. It’s about trying to get them to understand what they do well.”

What it starts with, and what the backwards-pitching aces all share, is a pitch or two worthy of trust. Stuff alone isn’t enough. “Guys who have these capabilities, they have to be really good at throwing it for strikes, and at the same time really good at getting whiffs,” Katz said. One coincides with the other less often than you might think. The elements that distinguish a late-in-the-count chase pitch (sharp action and unpredictable movement) tend not to produce what you want at the start of an at-bat (landing the ball at one or, preferably, multiple spots right at the boundaries of the strike zone). Pitches like Joe Musgrove’s slider, the prioritization of which sets his unspectacular first acts in Houston and Pittsburgh apart from his All-Star-level tenure with the San Diego Padres, both generates swings and misses (a 35.8 whiff percentage) and finds the tougher quadrants of the plate, to the tune of a .285 weighted on-base average allowed (wOBA). Even if the curveball of St. Louis Cardinals forever-ace Adam Wainwright isn’t quite the strikeout-generator it was in his prime, it remains tough to square up (a .278 wOBA and .338 slugging percentage allowed) in a way that the 41-year-old’s sinker, which sits at 88.7 miles per hour, never could be.

Those pitchers blessed with the raw materials then have to rethink how they mix them, on pitching’s granular levels: mechanics and targets. Katz describes bullpen sessions with Cease starting last season, in which Cease labored to break down a career’s worth of muscle memory while Katz positioned and repositioned the catcher’s glove. “They might try to throw it in the same spot over and over again, and they miss the plate in the same spot over and over again,” Katz said. “It’s about getting them to expand their horizons a little bit because they don’t realize how much room they have to work with.” The ideal features the swerve of a top-shelf breaker and the anywhere-in-the-zone accuracy of the No. 1. “The sweet spot is like what you get from a fastball: pitching up and down, landing it for a strike or being able to go strike to ball whenever you want,” Katz said. Check and check, for Cease’s slide-piece: a 45.1 whiff percentage with a .176 wOBA.

But even if a pitcher can rework himself into a new-school spin artist, the increasingly common directive of the enlightened fan — “just throw your best pitch the most” — is too tidy by half. “It’s not like there’s a secret sauce, where we’re putting a number on how many times Dylan is going to throw his slider,” Katz told me. “We’ll dig through batters’ heat maps, see where they’re susceptible — who’ll chase more, who will have more backdoor opportunities. Who’s aggressive, who’s passive. It’s a lot deeper than just batting average against a given pitch.” For someone helping rethink the fastball’s status as the sport’s dominant pitch, Katz reveres it — but in the right time and place, with an emphasis on in-game instinct. “It’s on the catchers, to see guys making adjustments, leaning out,” he said. “Then we pop a fastball in, make them uncomfortable, change the direction of their eyes.”

In the best cases, rethinking the mix makes the whole catalog play up. Through the 2020 season, Julio Urías threw his four-seamer over half the time, an approach that worked well enough: He put up a 3.20 ERA over his first five seasons and fired the corner-painter that sealed the Dodgers’ World Series win in 2020. Over the last two seasons, as he’s whittled his fastball usage rate down to the high-40s and bumped up his curveball usage into the low 30s, his ERA has dropped to 2.64, including a National League-best 2.27 in 2022. By itself, the tilt-a-whirl breaker does plenty, yielding just a .201 batting average this year. But its prominence has also boosted Urias’ fastball, a well-located but otherwise unremarkable pitch that this season sits at 93.1 miles per hour, the slowest it’s been since 2018. Despite the sluggishness of the stuff, hitters, many of them no doubt holding their hands back in expectation of something loopy, have managed just a .181 batting average against it.

As with so many of the sport’s advances, it eventually comes down to simple talent. Cease’s no-hit bid ended when Luis Arraez poked a slider to right-center. The Twins were surely sitting on the pitch by this point, and Cease got two foul-ball strikes on the next batter, Kyle Garlick, with a fastball and knuckle curve. But that slider is as much obligation as it is luxury. Cease’s job, per Katz, is to know what he does well and trust it. He spun one on the strike zone’s rim and let it tumble into the batter’s box, and Garlick wasn’t close, flailing at it for the final out.

I asked Katz whether he expects to see fastball usage drop further in years to come — and whether there’s still hay to be made with this latest optimization. He prefers to think, and prefers his pitchers think, on the scale of the batter, not the era. “Baseball’s a game where everybody’s always adapting and changing and finding new things,” Katz said. But whatever adjustments and counter-adjustments come along, they’ll pay little mind to the former dogma of “establishing the fastball.” “If a guy has a true weapon,” Katz said, “we definitely want to lean on that.”

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