The Most Predictable Pitcher Ever

Matt Thornton throws a lot of fastballs – more than anyone else in baseball, actually. He’s thrown the pitch 92 percent of the time this year, in fact, relying heavily on his ability to blow hitters away with his velocity. Thornton throws it with such regularity that he might just be the most predictable pitcher in the history of the game.

On the first pitch of an at-bat, Thornton throws a fastball 96 percent of the time. You can be pretty sure that you’re going to get a first pitch fastball from him, pretty much every time. If he falls behind in the count, well, then you can forget the pretty much – you will see nothing but fastballs until he’s evened the count up again. Literally, nothing but fastballs.

On 1-0 counts, he’s thrown the fastball 100 percent of the time this year. Same with 2-0 counts, 3-0 counts, 2-1 counts, 3-1 counts, and 3-2 counts. He has not thrown a single non-fastball in any of those situations all year.

When he gets ahead in the count, he’s more willing to work in the slider. He throws the slider 18 percent of the time on 0-1 counts, 17 percent of the time on 1-2 counts, and 13 percent of the time on 0-2 counts. Every count is dominated by heavy reliance on the fastball, but he’ll at least show you something else in those situations from time to time.

Behind in the count, though, and he becomes the definition of a one pitch guy. And here’s the crazy part – it still works. Despite some struggles since returning from the disabled list, Thornton has still been one of the game’s best relievers this year, and his dominance over the last three years is rivaled only by the likes of Mariano Rivera, who also interestingly throws just one pitch most of the time.

I love the game theory aspect of pitching, where guys like Jamie Moyer can get hitters out through pure deception, keeping hitters off balance and not letting them figure out patterns. The other side of that coin is kind of fun too, though, and that’s Thornton in a nutshell. You often hear announcers say that any big league hitter can drill a fastball if he knows its coming. Well, apparently not. Not this fastball, anyway.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Ellis
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Ellis
5 years 11 months ago

Interesting! Nobody’s more predictable than Mariano, though, who throws the cutter all the time and to the exact same spot!

The Duder
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The Duder
5 years 11 months ago

It’s so nuts he can whiff 12 per 9 doing that. Unreal.

Nixon
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Nixon
5 years 11 months ago

What about Wakefield?

Aaron
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5 years 11 months ago

Wake’s pitch selection is predictable; his pitches are not.

Matty Brown
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Matty Brown
5 years 11 months ago

Wakefield throws the Knuckler around 83% this season and for his career. Although he has 2% of pitch XX…which could be a knuckler?

Wakefield also possesses 2 other options, rather than just a slider.

(all numbers courtesy of this lovely site)

Matt
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Matt
5 years 11 months ago

I believe Wakefield also throws 2 different types of knuckleballs. Not sure if that applies to Thornton’s fastballs.

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 11 months ago

Thornton does – “Completely unhittable” and “maybe you’ll get lucky.”

Erik
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5 years 11 months ago

Could also be having a tough time separating Wakefield’s fastball from his change up and what not.

DavidB
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DavidB
5 years 11 months ago

Wakefield doesn’t throw a change up. He throws knuckleballs, curveballs and fastballs.

Trebecois
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Trebecois
5 years 11 months ago

“fastballs”

Lucas
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Lucas
5 years 11 months ago

I recall Jim Thome catching up to a Thornton fastball a few weeks ago…

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 11 months ago

You’re right, it was majestic and awe inspiring, even to a White Sox fan. He also gave up a big hit in the all star game to lose home field advantage for the AL. Leaving aside whether he was hurt, overextended or not when he faced Thome, do you really think that makes him less than an elite reiever? Even the untouchable Mariano gets touched every now and then. I remember being at a game at US Cellularr field when Konerko lined a cutter off the foul pole to tie a game a few years back. And I remember a world series game in the desert that the Yankees didn’t win even though he was on the mound.

When you pretty much only pitch in high leverage situations you are going to get your heart broken every now and then. I’ll take Matt Thornton most days and most days, I’ll come out ahead.

Daniel
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Daniel
5 years 11 months ago

It was also Thornton’s second inning of work after already being extended for quite some weeks.

Dann M
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5 years 11 months ago

I find it interesting that his first-pitch strike rate and his swinging strike rate are both comparable to Carlos Marmol, who this year has settled on about a 40/60 split between fastballs and sliders. The swinging strikes for each pitcher are just about 15%, while they both are getting a first pitch strike right around 60% of the time. Thornton’s contact rate is 10 points higher, but he’s only hitting the zone a few percentage points more often than Marmol, despite the latter throwing so many more breaking pitches.

PG
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PG
5 years 11 months ago
Daniel
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Daniel
5 years 11 months ago

The comments section was just as good.

MikeS
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MikeS
5 years 11 months ago

They were right. One team got a bust of a prospect with fixable flaws and the other team dumped a bust of a prospect. I try to remember deals like this every time a GM does something that makes my head spin.

Marc
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Marc
5 years 11 months ago

So… How exactly does Thornton succeed do it?

dustygator
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dustygator
5 years 11 months ago

Gas. A lefty reliever that throws . Hmm, reminds anyone of a Cuban sensation? I’ll bet his fastball has some late movement and possibly his delivery helps hide the fall. He’s also got his command worked out since he got traded and moved to the bullpen.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 11 months ago

The USSMariner article & comments are classic.

That Kenny Williams sure is d-u-m dum.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 11 months ago

Lots of hitters can hit a strong fastball well when it’s centered in the zone. When it’s down or up or outside corner or in on the hands … not so much.

Mo is the classic example. Some relievers are just “failed starters” (to use the popular phrase) because they have one dominant pitch. Better that then just 3 average or worse pitches.

dave
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dave
5 years 11 months ago
John
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John
5 years 11 months ago

Where can I find pitch distribution numbers by count?

JR
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JR
5 years 11 months ago

I was thinking about this article tonight as I watched Thornton strike out Napoli on a 3-2….slider!!!!

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