Four Pitchers With New Pitches

Let’s say you’re a big league pitcher. You’ve had some success at the highest level, but like any good professional, you’re looking to improve. How do you do it? Getting into peak physical shape helps, but it’s extremely rare for a pitcher to add significant velocity in a single offseason, and command is generally improved over a period of several years, not all at once.

So what can you do? For many pitchers, the best route is to add a new weapon to their arsenal in the form of a new (or improved) pitch. As just one example, Clayton Kershaw came to the big leagues without a slider and threw it infrequently for most of his first two seasons. Now it’s not only one of his best pitches, it’s one of the most feared offerings in baseball.

Each spring, you hear about numerous pitchers coming to camp hoping to showcase a new pitch. Today, we’ll focus on four of them to watch for this season.

Stephen Strasburg, RHP | Washington Nationals
New pitch: 

Between his 2011 elbow injury, the ensuing (and controversial) 2012 shutdown and the fact that a disappointingly large number of people probably put stock into an 8-9 record last year, it seems as though the public perception is that Strasburg hasn’t lived up to the massive hype that surrounded him as 2009’s No. 1 overall draft pick. Despite the missed time, he’s still in the top eight for ERA, FIP, K/9 and K/BB among all pitchers with 400 innings from 2010 to ’13.

Make no mistake, Strasburg is an ace, and the idea that he’s adding a slider to his usual fastball/curve/change arsenal is a scary one. In March, Strasburg told reporters that he wanted something else to keep hitters “from cheating on the fastball too much.” That came in handy in his debut against the Mets; Strasburg struggled to reach his usual fastball velocity in chilly weather, and turned instead to his new toy.

We saw the slider 11 times on Monday, and the Mets didn’t manage a single hit off it. Five were strikes — four swinging — including David Wright‘s flail for strike three in the bottom of the fifth, with the Washington television announcers arguing that the slider may have been his most effective pitch of the day.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP | Los Angeles Dodgers
New pitch:

Last season, Ryu came to America as a big question mark, with no shortage of opinions about whether he could throw hard enough to set apart his outstanding changeup. Ryu ended up being excellent, putting up the same 3.00 ERA that Strasburg did, and proving to be one of the most consistent and reliable parts of a turbulent Dodgers season.

But while Ryu had a curve to go with his fastball, change and slider, it wasn’t effective. He threw it 295 times and was hit — hard — to the tune of a .307/.325/.480 line against.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis mentioned to reporters that Ryu had changed his grip on the curveball to increase its effectiveness, and the results were immediate. In his domestic debut against San Diego, Ryu threw the curve 13 times, and all of a sudden the pitch was breaking nearly twice as much as it had last year, dropping nearly 9 inches. Nine of the 13 were strikes — five swinging, including Chase Headley looking silly in striking out to end the sixth — and the Padres managed just one hit.

Of course, Ryu allowed six runs in the first inning Friday against the Giants, which might indicate the new offering is still a work in progress.

Sergio Romo, RHP | San Francisco Giants
New pitch:

Romo is seemingly known for his beard and his on-field excitement more than he is for his pitching, but that’s selling him short, because he’s been one of the best relievers in the National League since his debut in 2008. After Brian Wilson‘s 2012 elbow injury, he added “closer” to his résumé, and has been nothing but successful since, thanks largely to a wipeout slider that has ranked as one of the most devastating pitches from any qualified reliever over the last three years.

Despite the success, there were signs that trouble was looming. Romo’s swinging-strike rate had trended downward from 17.0 percent to 15.3 percent to 13.6 percent from 2011 to 2013; and lefty batters, whom he’d previously been very successful against, suddenly put up a .276/.312/.433 line against him in 2013. So when Romo had a brutal spring, putting up a 12.38 ERA, it raised some eyebrows.

But in the millionth different version of “spring stats don’t matter,” Romo hadn’t completely lost it. He’d just shelved his trademark slider for the first few weeks in favor of working on his little-used changeup, hoping to improve it against lefty hitters. In his first two appearances, he threw it just five times against lefties, far too soon to draw conclusions, though he did manage to whiffEric Chavez with it on Monday. That equals the amount of third strikes he managed with the change against lefties all last year.

Tony Cingrani, LHP | Cincinnati Reds
New pitch:

Cingrani tore through the minors as a starter, striking out 301 in 228 2/3 innings, but due to his limited repertoire, his big league future seemed to be as a reliever. The presence of Aroldis Chapman and some injury issues in the rotation led the Reds to give him 18 starts in 2013. And despite throwing almost exclusively fastballs — Bartolo Colon was the only starter to throw more fastballs than Cingrani’s 81.5 percent last year — Cingrani not only survived, he struck out well over a man per inning, even with a lingering back injury.

But such a limited arsenal can last for only so long, and Cingrani arrived at camp trying to include a slider, cutter and curveball. The slider looks to have worked out the best, and while Cingrani still threw mostly fastballs (73 of 92 pitches) in shutting out the Cardinals over seven innings on Wednesday, we did see 11 sliders. It’s not necessarily a new pitch, since he’d thrown it infrequently previously, but he’s committed to including it this year, and the Cardinals didn’t manage a hit off it.

Cingrani’s final pitch came in the top of the seventh against Matt Adams, hitting with two on and two out in a scoreless game. Cingrani threw a slider. Adams missed badly. The Reds would go on to win 1-0.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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Dick Schofield
Dick Schofield

It’d be interesting to see this updated in July or September.