Tony Cingrani, Shelby Miller and the Two-Pitch Approach

The rookies are taking over. After a handful of major-league starts, Tony Cingrani and Shelby Miller have exceeded early expectations. While they were never compared to each other in the minors, both pitchers are succeeding utilizing an extreme fastball-heavy approach. Both players currently rank in the top-10 in four-seam usage, and would have ranked second and third last season. Even though hitters know exactly what’s coming, they haven’t been able to touch either pitcher thus far. The popular thought is that starting pitchers need three offerings in order to succeed in the majors. The track record of pitchers who utilized just two offerings makes it tough to find comparables for Miller and Cingrani.

Cingrani is currently throwing his fastball 78.1% of the time, Miller sits at 74.8%. Trying to find similar pitchers who utilized the same approach is fairly difficult. Over the last 10 seasons, most of the pitchers who tossed a high percentage of fastballs were sinker-type pitchers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that guys like Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe or Aaron Cook are at the top of the list, but none of those guys are really comparable to Cingrani or Miller. The non-sinker pitchers near the top of the list are hardly inspiring names. Both Daniel Cabrera and Jaret Wright make appearances.

The issue with most of these pitchers is that none of them had a third offering that they used consistently. That’s mostly because they never developed a solid third pitch. The results are pretty mixed. Most of the players in the top-50 experienced brief bouts of success, but eventually flamed out. One of the most successful pitchers here, Carlos Zambrano, eventually developed a cutter and splitter, taking him out of our sample. There are also guys like Jason Schmidt and Bartolo Colon, who were mostly successful using just two pitches. Colon had a nice long career, while injuries ruined Schmidt. In their primes, they only had two offerings.

The most interesting name that sticks out is Chris Young. Young has able to get by with a middling fastball due to the deception in his size and delivery. The term “deception” is often mentioned with both Cingrani and Miller. It’s incredibly evident with Cingrani, as you can’t read a scouting report without hearing about his unusual delivery. However, it should be noted that Cingrani’s fastball has improved over his career, and now averaged 92.76, which is pretty fast for a lefty. At 93.64 mph, Miller has also been utilizing a hard fastball. While he’s not typically thought of as a pitcher who relies on deception, it’s come up a lot more recently. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Miller’s fastball looked much faster than his hitters anticipated, based on the way the ball came out of his arm. Mike Matheny has described the pitch as “deceptive” and having “late life.” That sounds pretty similar to Young. The difference is that both Miller and Cingrani have much harder fastballs than Young.

It’s tough to really predict how Cingrani or Miller will perform going forward, or whether the league will figure them out. There are so few pitchers who have been able to utilize a similar approach, that we can’t accurately say whether the league wil catch up to Miller or Cingrani. It should also be noted that Miller had been working on a change-up last season, which was supposedly improved, but hasn’t used it much this year. That could make him a better bet to succeed if he needs to mix in three offerings. Cingrani remains a big question. Chris Young was able to succeed with a deceptive fastball, but Yusmeiro Petit was just a flash in the pan.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

17 Responses to “Tony Cingrani, Shelby Miller and the Two-Pitch Approach”

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  1. Chcago Mark says:

    Word has it that Molina….no I can’t name that Molina, is calling the pitches and may use the curve and change more the second time around. Has anyone else heard that? Thoughts?

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  2. Nick says:

    I’ve read somewhere that Cingrani’s 2-seam and 4-seam fastballs are different enough that they could be considered two pitches. I’ve also read some sites that say his change is his next best pitch and above average, but that his curve is lacking. Others say it’s the curve that is #2 and the change needs work. That could mean they’re both decent pitches, or both not very good…

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  3. R says:

    Does this mean that one or both would be smart sell-highs in a yearly league?

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    • Bert says:

      I wouldn’t sell either! Cingrani has heat and is a lefty. Miller is performing like the top prospect he’s been touted as. He’s a legit ace in the making. And I do buy that Yadi is having Miller stick w/ what’s working now (the fastball). As the season progresses that awesome curveball Miller has and that work in progress, changeup, will likely appear more often. But if it ain’t broke, don’t mess w/ it!

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  4. Shawn says:

    I echo what Bert said. Do not sell either. Unless you get someone who is willing to give up the world for them.

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    • Dealer A says:

      I traded Shelby Miller for Gio Gonzalez, if nothing for the fact that by the time fantasy playoffs roll around, Miller will probably be shut down for the season.

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  5. DT Flush says:

    Miller’s fastball is not deceptive at all. Miller fully extends his arm action to make his fastball seem faster with harder bite. When he works down in the zone he’s got unbelieveable natural run that can tail in on hitters completely eating them up and makes very tough to square up. His 4-seamer is explosive and can easily miss bats. His big time fastball/curveball combination is deadly in what will lead to being a front-of-the-rotation kind of guy.

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    • Dave says:

      How can you say he’s not deceptive then basically use the definition of deception in your description? Making seem like something it’s not is the definition of deception, and you said “make his fastball seem faster”.

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      • Decepticon Arm says:

        So the premise of DT’s comment is it’s not the ball that is deceptive its the Pitcher? Wow, how completely and totally non-insightful…”Flush”…

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      • YourMom says:

        While saying that he is not “Deceptive” is probably a bit wrong, what he’s really saying is that he’s not deceptive in the same way that Cingrani is. Cingrani has a deceptive DELIVERY, while Miller has a ball that looks deceptive in how it moves. Riding in on hitters vs. Cingrani who hitters can’t pick up the ball from.

        I agree with how he stated it for the most part though for the comparison. Miller likely relies more on deception due to “stuff” than Cingrani does at this point. Doesn’t mean both can’t work, but it’s not the same as a deceptive “delivery”.

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  6. gorillakilla34 says:

    Shelby Miller yesterday vs the Pirates:
    5.2IP 7H 3BB 3ER 113pitches

    I haven’t got to see him pitch too often but it seemed as though he all but refused to throw inside yesterday. And yes, the third run was somehow scored earned even though Holliday made a pretty bad attempt to catch a fly ball and Inge scored all the way from first (Pittsburgh rested McCutchen and Walker and Snider didn’t play because of injuries) It looked like hitters were just sitting on his outside fastball. It definitely looked like he needed to mix up his pitch selection.

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    • LuckyStrikes says:

      I watched every pitch of Miller’s game yesterday. He didn’t have his usual fastball command. End of story. He was behind on a lot of counts and was having to come back over the middle of the plate. He walked the pitcher (Locke) on four pitches in one at bat. Just didn’t have his best stuff, but I will be interested to see how Molina has him use his off speed stuff the 2nd time around the league.

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      • gorillakilla34 says:

        I watched the entire start as well. So does he usually attack batters inside and just didn’t yesterday since his command was off? I did notice Miller being much more efficient in his first start against the Pirates but can’t recall if he pitched inside or not and how frequently.

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      • YourMom says:

        Yup…you can’t throw two pitches and not throw strikes. Just throwing strikes is an extremely underrated attribute. You may not be a huge K pitcher just throwing strikes, but hitters still ahve to hit the damn ball. If you make them swing odds are if you can mix in a little bit of deception you will be a decent SP.

        Control is the biggest killer of most young future stars. They come up through the minors with junk numbers. High ERAs and WHIs because they can’t stick in the zone. When they get to the MLB that destroys them in so many ways. Walks give up tons of runs and blows their confidence in their “stuff”. MAkes them wild.

        I’m a huge proponent of guys that fglat out have numbers in the minors over guys that just are “prospects” with great “Stuff” and seemingly are future superstars. It always tells me that they 1) THROW STRIKES 2) Know how to PITCH already, or both. ie…my boy Smyly for example. 4

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  7. SonOfDaveRoberts says:

    Cingrani has thrown a change-up 20 times this season. It’s not much, and the results are decidedly inconclusive (8 swings, 0 whiffs). But he does technically/theoretically have it in his toolkit. If his fastball is truly excellent, it’s possible that his change-up doesn’t need to be very good or be thrown very often for it to have its desired effect as a third pitch. A sub-par change-up may not be enough to turn him into a star, but it may be enough to make him effective.

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  8. Steve says:

    Is Cingrani expected to be on a pitch count this season? I know Cingrani pitched 151 innings last season and a 20% increase would put him at ~181 innings. That is 6 innings over 30 starts. However, I the Reds have playoff aspirations. Does this effect how they handle the pitcher? I know the Nats famously shut down Strasburg, however, I think that is a rarity that is done with special talents like Strasburg.

    I see Cingrani pitching 180 innings this season, then the Reds using him in the bullpen during the playoffs.

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  9. Gavin says:

    I think it should be noted that Miller does have a cutter to go along with his change up. I think in coming years he will really develope both pitches.

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