The Most Backward Starters in MLB

So much of what makes pitchers effective at the major league level is their ability to keep hitters off-balance. Sure, a 95 mph fastball with movement and a Lord Charles curveball help, but even these physical tools are only as effective as a pitcher’s ability to create uncertainly in the hitters mind from pitch to pitch.

One — admittedly crude — way of looking at this is whether a pitcher throws the type of pitch that’s expected in a given count. Does a pitcher throw fastballs in “fastball counts”, or do they throw off-speed pitches? Pitchers that throw counter to expectations are often said to “pitch backwards”. The Rays’ James Shields is someone that has been referenced as such a pitcher over the past few years.

But exactly how backwards does Shields pitch? And who are some other pitchers that fit into this category?

To tease this out I first need to define what are “fastball counts”. I used PITCHf/x data from 2010 through 2012 to calculate the percent of fastballs (i.e. four-seam, two-seam, cutters, sinkers, etc.) and off-speed pitches thrown in each of the 12 possible counts. Here’s how the counts shook out, sorted by descending fastball frequency:

Count League Average: Fastballs
3-0 94%
3-1 84%
2-0 81%
3-2 70%
2-1 69%
1-0 69%
0-0 69%
1-1 58%
0-1 57%
2-2 56%
0-2 54%
1-2 51%

Not surprisingly, pitchers tend to go to a fastball of some sort in three-ball counts at least 70% of the time. Facing a 3-0 count, a pitcher wants to avoid walking the hitter and generally goes to the pitch they can control the best–most often, their fastball (94%). 2-0 counts draw a fastball 81% of the time, likely due to pitchers wanting to avoid a 3-0 count and all that comes with it.

Pitchers league-wide generally move away from fastballs as the count moves in their favor (i.e. two-strike counts, excluding 3-2), throwing no more than 56% of fastballs in these counts on average. This makes sense, as pitchers have the advantage as hitters will generally expand their zone to protect against a called third strike, making them more likely to swing at breaking balls and other off-speed pitches.

Now that we’ve got a baseline to work off of, let’s see who the most backwards pitchers are in the league — meaning, those pitchers that vary the most by count in terms of the frequency of their fastball usage. For this article, I am focusing just on starting pitchers*:

Count Lowest Fastball Percentage
3-0 Bronson Arroyo (38%)
3-1 Bronson Arroyo (34%)
2-0 Bronson Arroyo (32%)
3-2 Francisco Liriano (30%)
2-1 Bruce Chen (34%)
1-0 Bronson Arroyo (44%)
0-0 Brett Anderson (48%)
1-1 Felix Hernandez (48%)
0-1 James Shields (24%)
2-2 Francisco Liriano (25%)
0-2 James Shields (23%)
1-2 James Shields (26%)

Some analysis I’ve seen defines pitching backwards primarily off of first pitches, or 0-0 counts. In that instance, the Athletics’ Brett Anderson takes the title, throwing a fastball in just 48% of 0-0 counts since 2010 (league average = 69%). James Shields does throw fewer fastballs in 0-0 counts than league average, but his 57% is only the 17th fewest in the league.

Where Shields really throws counter to expectations is in two strike counts as well as 0-1. Shields throws the fewest fastballs in the league in 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts and throws the second fewest fastballs in 2-2 counts (31%). However, Shields pretty much pitches to expectations in those counts with the highest fastball frequencies league-wide: 3-0, 3-1, and 2-0. In fact, Shields throws more fastballs in each of those counts than league average.

So who throws the fewest fastballs in those counts?

The Reds’ Bronson Arroyo:

The chart plots the fastball frequencies of Arroyo, Shields, and Francisco Liriano against league average for each count. These were the three pitchers that showed up most often in the top-three for each count.

Liriano and Shields are very similar, consistently throwing more fastballs in “fastball” counts and throwing less in less frequent fastball counts. Arroyo, however, appears to be the mirror image of both Liriano and Shields, throwing near or above league average in less frequent fastball counts and throwing fewer (and, in many cases, the fewest) fastballs in the highest frequency fastball counts.

Now, this is the most basic way to define and examine pitching backwards. More advanced analysis could take into account not just the count, but the base-out state as well. Furthermore, you could also take into account the batter being faced. 3-0 counts may result in a fastball 94% of the time, but that number will likely drop when facing the eighth hitter in the National League.

For now, we can name Bronson Arroyo as the most backwards starters in the league.

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*For obvious reasons, I excluded knuckleball pitchers from the analysis.

Commenters have convinced me that Arroyo is more the prototypical “backwards” starter, here, with Shields more typical in heavy fastball counts and more likely to throw off-speed in less-frequent fastball counts. I can live with that.




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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


22 Responses to “The Most Backward Starters in MLB”

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  1. timtebow says:

    if anything, i’d say james shields is the opposite of a backwards pitcher: he throws more fastballs in fastball counts and fewer fastballs in breaking ball counts

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    • Dave (UK) says:

      I agree, you need to look at the trends not just the differences. Arroyo’s overall trend displays a backwards approach, Shields’ does not.

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    • scruddet says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking as I read; pitching backwards is about being unpredictable and going against the norm. Shields looks about as predictable as a high school pitcher in this graph.

      Very interesting article.

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  2. MSpitz says:

    For someone to be a backwards pitcher, doesn’t that mean they would throw a high number of fastballs in traditionally non-fastball counts?

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    • Bill Petti says:
      FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Depends on how you want to define it, since technically all counts are fastball counts (some more, some less) given the percent of fastballs is always higher than off-speed. Arroyo, for me, is a backwards pitcher given the large split in the highest fastball counts. Shields fits only when looking at the lower-end–more than anyone, he avoids fastballs at the 51-58% fastball counts. No one throws fewer in those counts (save 0-2).

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      • MSpitz says:

        Agreed that Arroyo would be the most backwards pitcher, not so much with Shields. In an 0-2 count, with the hitter looking to protect the plate, I wouldn’t say it’s “backwards” at all for Shields to throw a change-up (his best pitch) or another off-speed pitch.

        I think it would make the most sense to divide the counts into two groups, say 0-2,1-2,2-2 counts, and then everything else. Then see who throws the lowest percentage of fastballs in the “everything else” counts, and the highest percentage of fastballs in the 2 strike counts. Then maybe add up the differences and see who has the highest?

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      • Brendan says:

        I agree with MSpitz. I have always heard backwards as throwing fewer fastballs when behind in the count and more when ahead. The idea is that rather than getting ahead with the fastball and putting the hitter away with offspeed, you are getting ahead with offspeed and finishing him with fastballs, usually throwing the opposite of what a typical pitcher would. Throwing less fastballs across the board is simply using your offspeed more (a “junkball pitcher”), not pitching backwards, at least how I have alwasy heard/used the term (but it can certainly be defined differently).

        Thus, in counts where the pitcher is behind (i.e. 3-0, 3-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, I would even include even counts in it like 0-0, 1-1, or 2-2) he would throw a lower percentage of fastballs than league average but when he is ahead (0-2, 1-2, 0-1) he will throw a higher percentage of fastballs than league average. Shields’ FB% goes down as the count goes in his favor while Arroyo’s goes up. I would consider Arroyo a pitcher who works backwards while Shields is just someone who utilizes his offspeed pitchers more often, especially when he’s ahead in the count.

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  3. TKDC says:

    John Rocker was pretty backwards.

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  4. guesswork says:

    Perhaps not as interesting, but why not give us the chart for SPs that throw the highest percentage of fastballs?

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  5. snoop LION says:

    excellent article!

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  6. bossman jr says:

    I’d bet a steak dinner the 3-0 data on Arroyo is bad. I’m guessing he throws around 67.5% fastballs in 3-0 counts. He is a serial BP-fastball thrower in the non-consequence counts of 0-0 and 3-0. Pitch F/x probably codes them as changeups

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  7. scott says:

    After he burst onto the national scene I’ve come to appreciate Kris Medlen’s willingness to throw any pitch at any time. Not quite the same thing but that little dude will pull the string on a change up 3-1. It’s pretty neat to watch.

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  8. Jon L. says:

    This is a great article, and really cool analysis. I agree with the people saying Bronson Arroyo is revealed to be the most prototypically backwards pitcher.

    Since someone called for nitpicking (and I choose to interpret it non-sarcastically), I will say that even after blowing up that last chart to full-screen, I nearly went blind trying to consistently interpret the color scheme.

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  9. Buster Posey says:

    The whole Shields thing seems like a terrible assessment of data. Pitchers, as a whole, throw many less FB with 2 strikes. Of those pitchers, Shields throws the least. That is not “pitching backwards”. Your lame attempt to point out “all counts are fastball counts” simply comes off as just that – a lame attempt to use semantics to wiggle out of a poor conclusion you made before hitting submit. You even mention in the article how the expectation is to move away from fastballs as 2-strike counts occur … which is exactly what Shields does. So how can you point to him as pitching backwards???

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