This article is part of our Collette Calls series.Earlier this year, I looked back at the 2016 pitchers who rolled out new pitches. What I found is that most guys who said they were working on new pitches in Florida and Arizona left them there. However, there were a number of pitchers that found success with new pitches including Kyle Hendricks, Drew Pomeranz, Jon Gray, Michael Wacha, James Paxton, Kevin Siegrist and Joe Smith. This year, the New Pitch Tracker had a gaggle of names on it and rather than break down each one individually, I grouped them by classifications.
Let's start with the new pitch du jour of 2017 – the changeup. It makes sense that at a time when hitters are out hunting fastballs, pitchers need to throw off the timing of the hitters and disrupt swings with changeups. A number of pitchers said they were using the pitch in 2017:
Only six pitchers on this list used the changeup more in 2017 than they had in 2016 and one of those pitchers, Martes, had no previous data but enough usage of the pitch to be noticed.
Cecil had a slight bump in swinging strike rate, but his overall strikeout rate dropped from an excellent 29 percent to a strong 23 percent. McCullers struggled to stay healthy this year, and he too saw a drop in strikeout rate. Glasnow has been a complete mess this year with tweaking mechanics and losing all aspects of his control. He was sent down in June, came back last week and has been even worse. Gray used the pitch this year and saw his overall swinging strike rate jump from 9 to 12 percent. Paulino has not pitched much, nor very effectively, but has used the changeup. He is an extreme flyball pitcher in an unfriendly environment, so the 2.5 homers per nine innings are rough, but the 27 percent strikeout rate and the 21 percent K-BB% are tough to ignore. What is not tough to ignore is his suspension for PEDs.
Overall, there was a lot of talk about changeups in camp, but not too many were used and the results simply were not that good for those that did use the pitch. The changeup is a feel pitch, and it isn't something many can just pick up and run with. Gray's utilization of the pitch is encouraging as much as Jimmy Nelson's non-usage is. Nelson has played with a changeup each of the past two springs, but has not really used it much in-season. It is unlikely he'll work on it this offseason since he will spend most of it recovering from shoulder surgery and is not expected back on the mound until close to Memorial Day.
New Arm Angle/Delivery
Two pitchers were public about wanting to change the way they pitched – Craig Breslow and Jesse Hahn. Breslow had this line of reasoning:
"Taking some baseline data I could tell what my breaking ball looks like today, what my sinker looks like today. And then as I adjust my own arm angle and start to manipulate the spin axis, I can look at what that does to my breaking ball. Does it increase the spin efficiency, does it decrease it, does it end up making a bigger breaking ball, a smaller breaking ball, one that moves later or earlier."Breslow did see his strikeout rate from 11 to 14 percent and his opponents' batting average dropped from .356 to .283. Those are improvements, but that did not move the needle much for him in real or fantasy baseball.
Hahn told Susan Slusser his reasons for changing his arm slot:
Jesse Hahn says he needed to clear his head this winter after rough 2016. He is back to his old arm slot, says that old FB movement back.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) February 14, 2017
Hahn has had issues with health, again, this season as he has pitched just under 70 innings. When he did pitch, he got his strikeout rate closer to where it was in 2014 in his breakout season with the Padres. The pitch run value on his fastball was better this year than it was last year, but Hahn has struggled to throw strikes. There may be a future for him in the pen with his ability to generate ground balls and his health. I'm intrigued by him in Oakland if Billy Beane decides to get creative with him.
The purpose of the cutter is to get increased suboptimal contact for batters looking fastball. It is a pitch that hurlers can use against opposite handed batters when they struggle with changeups as well. A number of guys will say they will work on it, but bad cutters become flat sliders to the abandonment rate on the pitch is high. This year, only two guys who discussed it in spring used it in-season:
Asher scrapped his slider for a cutter and cut back on his changeup this season. That combination allowed him to spike his strikeout rate from 12 to 18 percent this season, but his walk rate also went up as did his home run rate. Osuna is the one to focus on here.
Osuna has had an amazing year for an also-ran Toronto club in the pen taking his already solid skills up a level. His strikeout rate has rised from 29 to 33 percent, he has a 29 percent K-BB ratio, and opposing hitters still can't really square him up. He has a .198 opponents' batting average for his career that now spans over 200 innings. He has not rested on his laurels and instead, looked to reinvent himself this year by adding the cutter. His groundball rate jumped from the low 30s to the high 40's and he greatly reduced his hard contact by using his slider/cutter duo just as much as he used his fastball:
There have been a number of impressive performances by relievers in 2017, but this one has gone a bit overlooked.
New Old Pitch
Much has been made of how the Orioles took away Dylan Bundy's cutter during his time in the minors. This was the year Bundy was going to throw it again … but he has not. He has used his slider quite a bit, but the cutter remains on the mothballs.
Yu Darvish said he was going to throw his splitter again. He threw 98 in 2012, 181 in 2013, 61 in 2014, and none in 2015 when he was out injured and none when he returned later in 2016. This season, he has thrown more of the sloooooow curveballs (30) than he has splitters (17).
Adam Wainwright said he wanted to bring the changeup back this year and admitted to being too heavy on the cutter. He did reduce his usage of the cutter this year, but the changeup usage remained constant and rather his fastball utilization went up.
Bruce Rondon also said he was going to use his changeup more in 2017. True to his word, he tripled the use of the pitch from three percent in 2016 to nine percent this season. Rondon has improved his strikeout rate for a third consecutive season, but that is where the good news ends. He could not throw strikes and permitted 31 baserunners and 19 earned runs in 15.2 innings of work.
Edwin Diaz said he wanted to bring back his changeup that he last used in the minor leagues. It seemed unfair he would be doing that after a season in which he struck out 41 percent of the hitters he faced. Not only was it unfair, it was also untrue as he has thrown the pitch all of three times this season. Perhaps he should have used the time working on his changeup working on his fastball command, which has been less than stellar this season. His strikeout rate this year is a strong 31 percent, but his 12 percent walk rate is bad for a closer and the 1.4 home run rate is even worse.
Hector Neris said he was bringing his slider back. More fake news; he threw the pitch fewer times this season than he did last season. Insteal, he's been all fastball/splitter this season grabbing 23 saves on the cheap for owners that understand that even bad teams get saves and having the role is half the battle. Jeanmar Gomez's skills were inferior and skills won out for Gomez despite the old pitch not coming back around.
Phil Hughes was true to his word and brought his changeup back. Unfortunately, things did not get much better for him as he got a few more strikeouts, but still could not avoid the long ball nor the injury as he hit the shelf with reoccurrence of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
JC Ramirez wanted to bring his curveball back, and he has. He has not thrown the pitch at the big league level, but used it 17 percent of the time this season as he made a successful transition to the rotation from the bullpen. He was able to hold his skills from the pen, and made 24 starts on the season before his arm gave out. He is hoping to go the route of Andrew Heaney and Garrett Richards and use PRP injections to avoid TJ surgery and has been shut down for the season. His 11 wins and 4.15 ERA had some value in AL-Only formats this year where he previously had no fantasy value.
New Breaking Ball
Sean Manaea said he wanted to tighten up his slider this year so that it was not as loopy as it had been in 2016. He has used the pitch more in 2017 as he has thrown in 19 percent of the time compared to 14 percent utilization last year. Yet, the run value of the pitch has gone mostly unchanged while still serving as his best pitch. His overall metrics and performance are right in line with last year's numbers so the addition of a new pitch really has not done much for him although his performance has taken a nosedive in the second half.
Chris Rusinworked on a slider in camp, but used the pitch less in 2017 than he did in 2016. He threw it as much as nine percent of time in 2015, but has used it just three percent this year. His 2016 and 2017 numbers look rather identical in his long relief role.
Carlos Martinez said he was going to do more with a curveball this season. He ended up not doing it, but has still improved with what he has utilized with a career-high 25 percent strikeout rate and holding opposing batters to a .230 average. Home runs, which had previously not been an issue, have been this season as his home run rate doubled from his previous levels and his HR/FB rate went from 10 percent up to 17 percent this year. Curveball or no curveball, this is still an outstanding pitcher.
Kenley Jansen said he was working on his slider this year and once he got it down, it was going to be pretty fun. He has now struck out 40 percent of the batters he has faced for a third consecutive season and has an amazing 39 percent K-BB% while converting 40 of 41 saves. He was already unhittable and now he is pitching at a Mariano Rivera-like level with the fastball/slutter combination.
Taijuan Walker has attempted to add a slider to his repertoire for three consecutive springs. The good news is that it actually stuck in 2017 as he has thrown the pitch 15 percent of the time this season while replacing his cutter. Walker has good numbers for pitching in a tough home park in the NL West with a 3.54 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP, but has now struck out at least 20 percent of batters in each of his five seasons in the big leagues. The previous two seasons, he allowed 25 and 27 homers in a friendly Seattle park but has allowed 17 as we enter the final week of the season in a similar amount of time.
Sean Doolittleworked on refining his slider in camp. He has not thrown the pitch more frequently this season, but his run value on the pitch is positive for the first time in three seasons and it has helped improve his fastball as well. He has pitched like an elite reliever this season despite not having a closer role for a chunk of the season.
This, along with the changeup, are the real pitches I like to focus on in camp. Changeups and splitters lead to swings and misses. Unfortunately, they can also lead to hanging pitches that get slammed 450 feet. Three guys said they were going to throw splitters in 2017: Trevor Bauer, Luis Garcia, and Kirby Yates.
Bauer has thrown a splitter this year, but there has only been a handful of them (1.4 percent), which is down from his rates earlier in his career. Bauer has utilized at least five pitch types this season on his way to his best season as a big league pitcher.
Garcia went from never using the pitch to using it 14 percent of the time this year, but he didn't get any gain from his swinging strike rate which has remained 11 to 12 percent throughout his time in the big leagues. He continues to generate groundballs in bunches but no amount of new pitches will change his role on the team as the guy who comes in when a double-play is needed in medium and high leverage situations.
Yates is where it gets interesting. He was on the Triple-A to MLB shuttle in Tampa Bay in 2014 and 2015 and gave up an absurd 14 homers in 56.1 innings of work. He went onto New York in 2016 and still struck guys out while keeping the ball on the ground more than he had in Tampa Bay. He was shipped to the Angels and then quickly to the Padres where he has struck out 39 percent of the batters he has faced out of nowhere much like a RKO from Randy Orton. Sure, the long ball holds him back from closing but 87 strikeouts in 55.2 innings of work has value in NL-Only leagues and adding the splitter gives him an above average swinging strike rate to build around.
Overall, this year looks much like past years where more was said than was done, but the new pitches did help some pitchers take a step forward in productivity.