Penny’s New Out Pitch

It is no secret that Dave Duncan is a huge fan of his pitching staff getting groundballs. He’s made a career out of taking discarded pitchers and turning them into useful parts by convincing them to get hitters to pound the ball in the dirt. As Steve Sommer showed a few weeks ago, there is a quantifiable “Duncan Effect”, where pitchers under his tutelage see a significant up tick in their GB%.

The newest member of the Fixed By Dave Duncan club is Brad Penny. You almost don’t need me to run off the numbers, as the story is so predictable. In his first four starts for St. Louis, he’s running a 53.4% GB%, which would be a career high. He’s followed the Joel Pineiro path to success by pounding the strike zone, issuing walks to just 3 of the 109 batters he’s faced this year. The groundballs and strikes combo is working like a charm, and Penny looks to be well on his way to finding career revival, thanks to Duncan’s teachings.

However, while the results are reminiscent of Pineiro’s conversion, the process is entirely different. Last year, Duncan got Pineiro to reduce the frequency with which he threw his off-speed stuff and rely heavily on his sinker, taking his fastball percentage from 58% to 71%. Penny has done the exact opposite; he threw 71 percent fastballs last year, but Duncan has him down to 51 percent this season.

Instead of his fastball, Penny has added a new pitch, a splitter (Pitch F/x calls it a change-up) that is averaging 89 MPH and has been devastatingly effective so far this year. You can see it as the big yellow blob in the first chart below, and see how this is a pitch he just wasn’t throwing last year in the graph of a game from last April below that.

His splitter has been +4.3 runs above average so far, making it one of the best pitches in baseball to date. So it’s not just a trick pitch, but an actual viable weapon. And Duncan apparently taught Penny how to throw it in a month.

For all the talk about how great Leo Mazzone was, Duncan is a guy who we have tangible evidence of his philosophies changing how guys pitch, and seeing dramatic differences in results. If you’re ever going to put a pitching coach in the Hall of Fame, it should probably be this guy. What he’s done over his career is nothing short of amazing.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

10 Responses to “Penny’s New Out Pitch”

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  1. LJ says:

    Wait … I’m looking at the chart and it says that Penny has thrown the splitter 0.7%. For 293 pitches in 2010, that means he’s thrown it twice. Somehow, I don’t think that you can explain anything on two pitches.

    I’m also dubious that Penny is just now throwing this pitch. Isn’t it more likely that he stopped throwing it when he was injured?

    The increase in GB rate is one thing, but the reduction in HR rate is the clear difference and one that’s equally unsustainable.

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    • Ryan says:

      Read the article a little closer, it says that the splitter shows up as a change-up on the graph.

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    • astrostl says:

      The article mentions that Pitch F/X reports his splitter as a changeup. also reports that *27.4%* of his *394* 2010 pitches have been splitters.

      For his career, including 2010, just 2.4% of his pitches have been classified as splitters. Anything close to his current clip would be a dramatic change, and not a continuation of pre-injury patterns.

      His xFIP – replacing his current HR/FB ratio with the league average – is also still pacing an all-time low of 3.68 of against his career average of 4.20. Small sample size alert, of course, but this year’s limited results apparently cannot be chalked up to unsustainably low – or, more specifically, nonexistent – HR rates.

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  2. Frank says:

    that must have the pitch classified wrong, because I have seen Peny throw it a ton this year.

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  3. The Hit Dog says:

    Dave Duncan’s daughter once asked him for a pony for her birthday. “Look down,” he said. “You’re already on one.”

    And she was.

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  4. Mike Fast says:

    Very interesting find, Dave!

    He did throw the splitter last year, but only about 7% of the time, whereas this year he’s throwing it more like 30% of the time. He also used a slider last year in August-September that he appears to have put back on the shelf in 2010.

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  5. hank says:

    Penny has been throwing a splitter since 2006. Was messing around with it playing catch before a Vegas rehab assignment game, has been his change-of-pace ever since.

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  6. joser says:

    So perhaps it’s not entirely accurate to say it’s a completely new pitch or that “Duncan apparently taught Penny how to throw it in a month.” Nevertheless, he convinced Penny to rely on it, and to change his entire approach to getting batters out. With experienced pitchers, even ones coming off injury, that may actually be far more difficult than the simple mechanics of a new pitch. It in no way detracts from the growing legend of Dave Duncan.

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  7. onemancat says:

    Penny’s splitter has been off and on since 2006. It was really good in Spring Training with the Dodgers in 2006, he used it quite well in April of that year, and then he seemed to lose the feel for it. It will be interesting to see if it can remain a quality pitch for him over the course of an entire season.

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  8. Alireza says:

    The splitter isn’t a new pitch for Penny. Indeed, Russell Martin made numerous references to the split after one of Penny’s more dominant start during his better days with the Dodgers. The problem is that getting Penny to throw the pitch has always been like pulling teeth.

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