The new season has begun and it is time to familiarize ourselves with the weapons each Reds hurler wields in battle. There is quite a bit of difference between each pitcher when it comes to how they get hitters out. To the casual observer it looks like all pitchers are throwing pretty much the same sort of stuff, but if you look more closely you can see a wide variety of different pitches being used. In this article I will show you what each Reds pitcher throws and how often he throws it. I will also explain the various types of pitches. Some of you might want to print this out for use as a reference guide when watching the games to help you identify the pitches being thrown.
Today I will cover the starting pitchers and next week we will look at the relievers.
The data for this chart was pulled from the 2014 season for Cueto, Leake, Bailey and DeSclafani. Marquis did not pitch in 2014 so I used his 2013 pitches. Raisel Iglesias is a special case because he has never pitched in the big leagues, so I was forced to use his pitches from the Arizona Fall league and Spring Training.
See below for a description of each type of pitch. Relief pitchers usually only use two or three different pitches, most often a fastball and a slider. Starting pitchers need a minimum of three offerings, preferably four. You can get by with two pitches if you only face each batter once in a series. If you will be facing batters multiple times in a game you need to keep them off balance and guessing by mixing in a larger, more varied repertoire.
Johnny Cueto — We might as well start our analysis by looking at the best Reds pitcher most of us have ever seen. Cueto has an exceptionally large repertoire, with six different pitches and pinpoint command of each of them. Cueto does not throw many breaking balls. He throws his slider and curve on less than 15% of his pitches combined, which is less than any other Red. He gets ahead with the fastball and cutter, then gets strikeouts with his changeup. If he needs a groundball he uses the sinker. Cueto has above average fastball velocity at 94 mph (92 is average) and is capable of reaching back for some extra hemp when he really needs it. He keeps hitters off balance not only by constantly mixing pitches but also by shifting his tempo, resulting in the highest called strike rate in baseball last year. Cueto is also extremely adept at controlling the running game. Runners have stolen only 22 bases off Cueto in his career (7+ years), compared to 36 caught stealings and 20 pickoffs! That is simply sensational. In the photo you can’t see the grip since he has already released the ball, but judging by the slightly twisted inward state of his arm I would guess he has thrown a sinker using the pseudo-screwball delivery he often uses.
Mike Leake — Leake has the reputation of a soft tosser like Bronson Arroyo, but Mike actually has average fastball velocity that has risen slightly each season, starting at 89.7 his rookie year in 2010 and working its way up to 92.1 last year. Leake very rarely throws a standard 4 seam fastball, preferring instead the extra downward trajectory from the 2-seam fastball or “sinker”, which he throws almost half the time. He throws a sharp cutter in addition to a slider, curveball and changeup. He uses an unusual knuckle grip when throwing his curveball. The slider is his strikeout pitch and most effective pitch overall. Leake has been moving to more of a sinker/slider approach while reducing the usage of his less effective curve and changeup. In the photo we can’t see the seams but that must be his sinker grip.
Homer Bailey — Bailey wields the hardest fastball among Reds starting pitchers at 95.2 MPH. In fact that placed him in the top 10 in all of baseball among starting pitchers in 2014. Bailey made great strides with his split-finger last year. Historically the splitter has been a very bad pitch for Bailey, but last year was the first year in which it had a positive run value. After years of being his least effective pitch it was actually his most effective pitch last year. In 2014 batters hit over .300 against Bailey’s fastball, sinker and curveball, but only .069 against the splitter and .200 against the slider. Bailey’s slider has always been a very effective pitch with 12-6 movement that generates a lot of ground balls. Bailey does not throw a true changeup, the splitter serves as his offspeed pitch. Note the slider grip in the photo.
Anthony DeSclafani — He is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher, which is one reason why many scouts have pegged him as a reliever long term. DeSclafani does have a sinker and a rarely used changeup as well. Statistically in a small sample size the slider is his most effective pitch, inducing ground balls at a high rate. The changeup is his least effective pitch, which explains why he rarely throws it. His success as a starting pitcher may depend on his ability to develop an effective offspeed pitch. He has good velocity at 93.5 mph. The Reds have a good coaching staff including Jeff Pico and Bryan Price, so the odds are good that DeSclafani will expand his arsenal and improve on the 6.27 ERA he delivered for the Marlins last year (although his xFIP was much better at 3.80).
Jason Marquis — The veteran soft-tosser has a very unorthodox repertoire for a successful starting pitcher. He quit throwing his 4-seam fastball years ago to feature his 2-seam fastball (sinker), which he throws 57% of the time. Marquis switched to a split-fingered grip on his changeup in 2013, with very good results because the splitter got hammered much less than his changeup had before. The Reds have a philosophy of featuring the sinker, much like former Cardinals’ pitching coach Dave Duncan. Nearly all Cardinal and former Cardinal pitchers throw a lot of sinkers, so do Reds pitchers. So former Cardinal Jason Marquis fits right in on both counts. Given his predilection for throwing sinkers, it is no surprise that Marquis is a ground ball pitcher. His career 13.5% strikeout rate (5.3 K/9) leaves something to be desired however. Combine that low whiff rate with his high 9.0% walk rate and you get a very ugly 4.5 K-BB%, one of the worst you will ever see in that key metric. In fact since the year 2000 when the now 36 year old Marquis reached the major leagues, only 10 pitchers in those 15 years have delivered a lower K-BB% than Marquis — and none of them were above average pitchers either (min. 1000 IP). Note the traditional changeup grip in the photo, which indicates Marquis is revisiting the traditional changeup he used prior to 2013.
Raisel Iglesisas — There are a lot of questions regarding whether Iglesias will end up as a starter or a reliever. Most scouts saw him as a reliever when he was playing in Cuba and later when he was trying out for MLB teams as an international free agent. The Reds see him as a starter. He certainly has a starter’s repertoire, with at least 4 good pitches and a developing sinker. He throws a solid 95 mph fastball, both breaking balls (slider and curveball) and a changeup. Scouts say his slider flashes plus. The sample size is way too small to have any confidence in his usage rates or pitch effectiveness yet. After all, he has never played in a major league game or even a minor league game. He threw only 7 innings in relief last October/November in the Arizona Fall League and has worked as a starter during Spring Training. Iglesias is a very raw product for a 25 year old. We really don’t know what the Reds have in this Cuban defector right now. We will find out soon, but I am guessing Iglesias will spend a brief time in the minor leagues after Homer Bailey returns to action and will then be recalled when the Jason Marquis experiment blows up. The photo shows a 4-seam fastball grip.
Here is a brief explanation of each type of pitch, how it is thrown, how it moves and which pitchers are most proficient at its use. To identify pitches during the game you can compare the velocity and the shape/movement of the pitches that you see on the TV screen to their descriptions below.
This pitch is the fastest pitch in the game and also the most commonly thrown. Nearly every pitcher in baseball uses it and most of them throw it more than any of their other pitches. The fastball features very little horizontal or vertical movement. It is the easiest pitch to control and locate with precision. The average fastball velocity in the majors is 92 mph and has been steadily increasing as I covered here. Relief pitchers tend to throw slightly faster than starters do. The highest usage rate of the fastball among starters in baseball belongs to soft-tosser Bartolo Colon of the Mets at 83%, which goes to show that you don’t have to be a flamethrower to have an effective fastball if you can locate it well. It is the most common pitch because it is the most effective overall and it also sets up the other types of pitches. Batters have to gear up for the fastball or else it will blow past them, which makes it hard for them to adjust mid-swing for the slower breaking pitches and changeups. Without fear of the fastball to keep hitters honest the other pitches would not be very effective.
Sinker or 2-Seam Fastball
This pitch is slightly slower than the 4-seam fastball and features a little bit of downward movement as it approaches the plate. Can be thrown with some downward wrist action to increase the sink. If located well it causes batters to strike the top part of the ball and hit a grounder. This pitch is also less likely to be hit for a home run. Pitchers who don’t have an elite fastball often opt for the sinker to get a little extra movement at the bottom of the strike zone. The larger strike zone in today’s game along with the realization that ground balls are less damaging than fly balls have combined to make this pitch more commonly used than in prior decades.
Cutter or Cut Fastball
This pitch is a 4-seam fastball that the pitcher slightly pronates his wrist during release to get a small but sharp horizontal break near the plate. The cutter was popularized by the success of Mariano Rivera and has rapidly proliferated around the league in the last few years. Many experts credit the cutter for being a major reason why scoring has been steadily declining in the majors. Starting pitchers who tossed a lot of cutters last year were Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Corey Kluber and Dan Haren. Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake are the two Reds starters who make good use of this pitch. Mariano Rivera was known to throw almost 90% cutters and is widely credited with the having the best cutter ever.
This pitch is thrown with the fingers running along the seam instead of across it. The pitcher pronates, twists or rolls his wrist while releasing the ball to generate spin. The ball breaks both horizontally and vertically to the pitchers glove side. The pitch is usually about 7-10 miles per hour slower than the fastball or about 85 mph on average. It is a very common pitch. The slider is a good breaking ball to throw when you need a strike, but generates fewer whiffs than the curveball. Compared to a curveball the slider is slightly faster, has more horizontal break, less downward break and a sharper, shorter break than a curveball. Among major league starters, Tyson Ross (41%) of the Padres and Madison Bumgarner (35%) of the Giants throw it most frequently. Clayton Kershaw (29%) uses a lot of sliders as well.
This pitch is thrown with extreme pronation of the wrist and hence is the slowest pitch in the game other than the knuckleball. The pitch is usually thrown about 15 mph slower than the fastball, averaging about 78 mph. The ball breaks slightly horizontally and strongly downward, sometimes bouncing before it reaches the catcher. The curveball is usually only thrown while the pitcher is ahead in the count. The ball is most often thrown below the strike zone in an effort to get the batter to whiff. If thrown in the strike zone it is considered a hanger that is at high risk of being hit a long way. AJ Burnett, Adam Wainwright and Sonny Gray are the starting pitchers who feature the curveball the most. Among Reds pitchers Sam Lecure uses the pitch 30% of the time. Sean Marshall’s curveball has been said to be the best in baseball when he is healthy, which hasn’t happened for a long time.
This pitch is designed to look like a fastball to the batter. The pitcher uses the same motion, arm speed and release point as he does when throwing a fastball, but he grips the ball deep in his hand, which causes the ball to come out more slowly than it seems like it should to the batter. That throws off the batter’s timing and causes him to swing too early. The changeup if executed perfectly is the best pitch in the game for generating swings and misses, and for that reason is used as a strikeout pitch with two strikes on the batter.The pitch is usually thrown about 5-10 mph slower than the pitcher’s fastball, or about 85 mph on average. Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale are two of the biggest users of the changeup, throwing it almost 1/3 of the time. King Felix’s changeup is very effective even though it averages only 3 mph less than his fastball. That is all it takes to throw off the hitter’s timing enough to get an out. The changeup also tends to have some nice vertical dropoff.
Split-Finger or Splitter
This is a particular grip for a changeup. It is another way of holding the ball so that when thrown with max effort like a fastball the ball comes out looking just like a fastball to the batter but is slightly slower and tends to “drop off the table” as it reaches home plate. The splitter was popularized by Bruce Sutter in the 1970s but the pitch is not very common these days. Former Cy Young winners Mike Scott, John Smoltz and Roger Clemens used the pitch. Its primary proponents right now are the Japanese import pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka, Hisashi Iwakuma, Koji Uehara and Hiroki Kuroda. Only about 15 starting pitchers use the splitter and two of them are on the Reds. Homer Bailey and Jason Marquis use the pitch, as does former Red Alfredo Simon. The splitter has the reputation of being hard on the arm.
This pitch is thrown with only the knuckles, or more commonly the fingertips, on the seams of the baseball. The goal is to throw the ball without any spin whatsoever. The ball then dances in every direction based on the slightest air current. The pitch often exhibits multiple small breaks in various directions before reaching the plate. The pitch is very hard to hit and even harder to catch. For every knuckleballer there has been a specialist catcher with an enormous catchers’ mitt to prevent as many wild pitches as possible. The pitch is very hard to master and control. There are rarely more than one or two knuckleballers in the league at any given time. The only one right now is R.A. Dickey of the Blue Jays, who won the 2012 Cy Young Award when it should have gone to Johnny Cueto (read my thoughts on that here). The Red Sox have a 30 year old minor league knuckler who may get some big league time again this year (Steven Wright). I couldn’t tell you the last time the Reds had a knuckleballer. Anybody know?
This pitch is like a reverse curveball. The pitch is thrown with reverse pronation and breaks slightly toward the pitcher’s throwing arm side. It is not a very effective pitch historically. I believe Hector Santiago of the Angels is the only current starting pitcher to throw a screwball. Fernando Valenzuela was perhaps the pitcher most renowned for his screwball. It was also thrown by Cy Young winners Mike Cuellar and Mike Marshall, as well as Tug McGraw and Christy Matthewson. Former Reds closer John Franco used a screwball too.