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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.