A variety of indicators tell us that Spring Training is here. The “Best Shape of My Life” stories, the ” _____ has reported to camp” tweets, and pitchers coming to camp talking about new pitches.
When not staring out the window waiting for spring to arrive, pitchers have a lot of time to review the previous season. As Albert Einstein famously said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That quote fits pitchers extremely well. Sometimes, they themselves realize their process is not working and want to add a new pitch. Survivor bias can set in for pitchers as they see new blood coming to camp and want to stand out from the crowd in camp. Other times, the team will have seen something and want to correct it.
Recently retired pitcher Jensen Lewis believes other factors are in play as well. “Adding pitches in camp rarely happens for an established pitcher unless the following happens,” Lewis said.
- Performance of the pitcher suffers so much that the front office or coaching staff decides it is necessary to add a pitch to survive at the major league level
- A veteran pitcher adds something to compensate for a loss of stuff/velocity
- You add a pitch by mistake just by playing catch or trying something different in a side session
“Most of the time, we pitchers will mess around playing catch and during side sessions with grips and anything we glean from fellow teammates or opposing pitchers, ” he said. “The art and craft of pitching is ever-evolving and thus breeds multiple avenues to get hitters out. Remember, deception is the common theme every pitcher is trying to accentuate,” Lewis said. “Only a few dozen guys have the overpowering stuff that you simply have no chance to hit. The rest of us go about each year tweaking our arsenals to further that deception. It boils down to one simple creed: hitters get themselves out; pitchers merely develop and hone ways to miss the sweet spot of the barrel on a consistent basis.”
Lewis went on to say that, “It’s your career, so any inch of ground you can gain by adding to your pre-existing repertoire or augmenting that arsenal through an additional pitch is completely individual. Pitchers can get really mental and think they need a new pitch when they merely need only to refine what they throw and have confidence in what they throw.”
Josh Zeid from the Houston Astros shared similar thoughts. “In this game, everyone is evolving. The hitters are getting better, and the other pitchers are getting better, ” he said, “so if I can add a pitch or fine tune a pitch so much that it gives me another weapon, I have to give myself that chance.” Zeid has been working more on his splitter in camp and says, “It’s a pitch that I have used sparingly to lefties and it’s given me a leg up when I’ve used it.” He is gaining confidence in his ability to throw it to both sides of the plate, and would like to use it against righties, “to stop them from sitting away as it brings a pitch back into them.”
Adding the pitch was more of a self evaluation for Zeid over the winter and he says the coaches have been receptive and supportive of the idea. He noticed right-handed batters had more success against him than left-handed batters (.305 batting average vs .178 batting average) last season, so he feels that, “without trying to change a whole lot, I can adapt and mold what I already have to give myself a better chance against all hitters.” He plans to continue working on the pitch in camp and once camps breaks and recognizes that if it is going to be a successful pitch for him in the long run, he has to use it in games. “If I’m confident in it AND having success with it, then I can’t wait to use it a lot more,” Zeid said.
This spring, over 25 pitchers are working on new pitches in camp. The reports have come from stories, both in print and on radio, and sometimes as in the case of Brian Wilson, the pitcher just surprises us by whipping out the pitch unannounced on the mound.
These are the things pitchers are reportedly working on this spring:
Some of the pitchers, in explaining their new pitches to the media this spring, echoing the insights from Lewis and Zeid. Sabathia is incorporating a true cut fastball this season, under the encouragement of Andy Pettitte, to help with his decreasing velocity. O’Day is adding a changeup to help make him more effective against left-handed batters. Cincinnati brought the slider to Cingrani. McGee, coming off a season in which he allowed the fifth-fewest balls in play for all relievers, bringing his curveball out of the mothballs. He told Neil Solondz of the Rays Radio broadcast team that he feels the larger speed differential will make his fastball even more effective.
Martin Perez tells Richard Durrett he is adding the cutter this season because he wanted a power pitch in his arsenal:
“Everybody knows I have a good changeup, but I wanted something with speed,” Perez said. “This year, my curve is better and I wanted to try the cutter. In the past, I tried it and if it wasn’t good, I’d throw it out. But now I’ve got more confidence. I can throw it and I feel great.”
Doolittle tells Susan Slusser he is refining what he throws as well as his confidence in this new pitches.
“Just because I have a new toy, I can’t change the way I pitch too much,” he said. “But I had a lot of innings last year where I had a lot of long battles with hitters fouling balls off. If I can get a guy on three pitches instead of having those kinds of battles, that will be a lot better than those 20-pitch innings.”
Odorizzi tells Roger Mooney he is evolving his changeup into a splitter to mimic the one his teammate, Alex Cobb, throws.
“I had an all right change-up. It wasn’t anything special, wasn’t anything terrible. It was just average,” Odorizzi said. “I wanted something I could throw more consistent and have more movement as opposed to speed-wise. I don’t know how they are speed-wise compared to each other, but the movement alone on the new pitch makes a world of difference, honestly. Even if it’s bad, it’s got movement.”
Adding a pitch to one’s repertoire is no magic elixir to cure a pitcher’s ills on the mound. It did help Wade Davis when he moved from the Tampa Bay rotation to the bullpen in 2012 as the addition of a cutter plus the increased velocity he utilized as a reliever allowed him to dominate in high leverage situations that season. Detwiler added a slider in 2012 and saw his overall SwStr% improve 18% from the previous season. Buchholz added a splitter after the 2011 season and his SwStr% declined from the previous season as did his K%. Kevin Correia added a cutter in 2010 and saw his K% improve five full percentage points, only to plummet six percentage points the next year. Sometimes, adding a new pitch is not enough and is only a temporary band aid to the problem and a pitcher decides to blow it up and start from scratch
Danny Farquhar serves as a most recent example of how rebuilding from square one can change a pitcher’s fortune. In a two-month span during the 2012 season, Farquhar was involved in the following roster moves:
DFA’d by Toronto
Claimed by Oakland
DFA’d by Oakland
Claimed by New York
DFA’d by New York
Outrighted to Double-A
Assigned to Triple-A
Traded to Seattle for Ichiro Suzuki
During all of those moves, Farquhar went through multiple reviews and arm angles before finally settling on his current one with the Mariners. Once he nailed down an arm angle, he added a curveball to his repertoire. A strong start to the Triple-A season with the new approach vaulted him to the Seattle bullpen for good in mid-May. As he explained to Ryan Divish:
“It’s a big off-speed pitch that I need to continue to throw for strikes; continue to mix in there because I have the fastball and cutter, which are two hard pitches…..even if it’s just showing it to hitters, it’s changing the speed, changing the plane and the eye level. The curveball is a big difference maker.”
The new arm angle and new approach helped Farquhar post one of the 50 best K% for a reliever with at least 50 innings of work in a season in the past 15 seasons. Rather than rest on his laurels, he is continuing to evolve as a pitcher in 2014 joining the cool kids by adding a new pitch – a two-seam fastball – as well as utilizing his changeup more frequently. Normally, the addition of those two pitches would be suggested for a reliever that has issues against opposite-handed batters, but that is not the case for Farquhar as left-handed batters hit 84 points worse and struck out 17% more frequently against him than right-handed batters.
Farquhar’s proactive approach to his craft is something he explained to Jason Churchill back in January:
“My big work-in-progress is a two-seam fastball, like a good, consistent two-seam fastball, and I want to start it on the left-hander’s hip and let it run back over the plate.” As Farquhar went on to say, he uses his cutter in on the hands of lefties and a biting two-seamer is the perfect counter for that, since it’s movement is the exact opposite, despite the pitch looking nearly identical to the hitter.”
The new pitch will give left-handed batters more to think about when he comes inside on them. Instead of just being able to guess cutter, they’ll now have even less time to read cutter or two-seam fastball and may allow Farquhar to collect a few more strikeouts looking as well as some poorly-struck baseballs as he sets up new closer Fernando Rodney.
Farquhar and the other 25 pitchers on the list are simply heeding the advice of Tupac Shakur who once said, “I want to grow. I want to be better…We’re made to grow. You either evolve or disappear.” That applies to one’s hip-hop career as much as it does one’s baseball career as starting pitchers attempt to remain in rotations and relievers avoid becoming the next fungible commodity.