It’s become a cliche, but the sentiment still holds true: the best pitch in baseball is a well-located fastball.

Overwhelmingly, the most commonly thrown pitch in the game is the fastball — whether it’s a four-seamer, cutter, or sinker — and it has been since the sport was invented. But as more data becomes available, there’s an interesting trend developing among starters. Fastball usage is on the decline. Since 2002, the first year PITCHf/x data is available, starters have gradually thrown the heater less.

There are likely many reasons for this. One cause is breaking balls are simply not hit as hard as fastballs, and the growing trend of using them in traditional hitter’s counts (2-0, 3-0, etc.) rather than a fastball right down Broadway keeps hitters off balance. Against fastballs, batters are managing an average exit velocity of 89.2 mph and a .453 slugging percentage in 2018. Versus breaking balls, those numbers drop to 87.0 and .353, respectively.

But there’s also been an emphasis on pitchers throwing their best offering more frequently, and it has occurred both with players who do and do not have a quality fastball.

Clayton Kershaw has done it. Masahiro Tanaka, along with basically every other Yankees pitcher, has done it. Patrick Corbin’s breakout season is in part attributed to it. But the most notable example in recent memory is Lance McCullers Jr. Yes, the same guy who threw 24 straight curveballs in Game 7 of the ALCS to help send the Astros to the World Series last year.

McCullers is one of the most extreme examples of “pitching backwards,” as his curveball is his primary pitch. Starting in 2016, he stopped trying to throw a fairly ineffective fastball the majority of the time and turned to the biggest weapon in his arsenal — a lot. Over the past three seasons, McCullers has thrown his curveball 46.9% of the time, by far the most in baseball among starters. He still uses his fastball, now preferring a sinker to a four-seam, but he’s cut its usage down to 40.9%. This season, he’s throwing it less than ever (39.7%) as he has mixed in a changeup more often.

For McCullers, the primary problem with his four-seam fastball had nothing to do with velocity — he could fire it at 99 mph, after all. Rather, command was the issue. Despite his electric stuff, he struggled to get ahead in the count with his fastball and the pitch got crushed when he came in the zone with it.

Sound like anyone Reds fans know?

While not an identical case, Robert Stephenson fits a similar mold. The former first-round pick can dial his fastball into the upper-90s and average around 93-94, but it has been an ineffective offering because he can’t control it consistently. Traditionally, the fastball is meant to be a get-ahead pitch. Although Stephenson has used it on 57.4% of his big-league pitches, it has found the strike zone only 48.6% of the time. Among all pitchers who threw the pitch 500 or more times in 2017, only eight had fewer called strikes for every ball thrown than Stephenson (0.40).

But Stephenson continues to rely on it when he falls behind hitters anyway. In hitter’s counts, he’s thrown the fastball 58.2% of the time. With three balls, 63.9% of his pitchers are heaters. It’s not particularly surprising, then, that on 59 of his 72 career walks, ball four came on the four-seamer.

When he does throw it in the strike zone, he doesn’t excel at painting the corners or keeping the ball high or low enough that hitters swing through it. In his 121 2/3 major-league innings, the four-seamer has been crushed for a .324/.451/.606 slash line, and 16 of his 21 home runs have come on the pitch. Here’s a look at the career heat map:

What Stephenson is missing in fastball effectiveness, however, he makes up for with his secondary offerings. His curveball held batters to a .148/.172/.259 slash line last year and had a respectable 13.0% whiff rate. His changeup registered a 21.2% whiff rate. Now we’re talking. Only 16 other pitchers in baseball who threw the pitch 200+ times had a higher percentage of swings and misses. Despite the strong whiff numbers, Stephenson doesn’t have the same dominant results (.263/.290/.404), but the pitch is a solid one when he keeps it down in the zone.

Neither of those would be the pitch to take the McCullers approach with, however. His best offering is, funnily enough, the newest addition to his arsenal: the slider. He just picked it up last year, and it’s already an elite-level weapon. The opposition managed an 83.8 mph average exit velocity (league average for SPs: 85.2 mph) and a pitiful .136/.177/.203 line against it when they put it into play, which wasn’t very often. Per Statcast, Stephenson got a whiff on the pitch 25.0% of the time he threw it. Of the 221 pitchers who used the slider 200 or more times last year, only 15 had a higher whiff rate than that. Among the names just ahead of Stephenson: Carlos Carrasco, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke.

Would increasing his slider usage and decreasing his fastball percentage unlock Stephenson’s potential? It seems plausible based on last year’s results. As the chart below shows, he gradually became more comfortable with the new breaking ball as the year moved on, using it around 30% of the time in his August and September starts. And the results were promising. In those two months, he posted a 2.50 ERA and 24.3 K%. But that came at the expense of his curveball rather than the fastball, and his walk rate remained high at 13.1%.

Would decreasing his fastball usage help him sort out the command problems? There’s no way of knowing unless he does it. I’m not a pitching coach, and I don’t pretend to be. The Reds have significantly more data than I do, so they may have concluded that this approach would be a complete disaster for Stephenson. Maybe he’s also unwilling to give it a shot. But just looking at these numbers, it’d be an interesting experiment to try.

Stephenson is again in the midst of an inconsistent season in Triple-A Louisville (4.11 ERA, 26.6 K%, 13.9 BB%) as he tries to claw his way back to the major leagues. His strikeout rate indicates his raw stuff is still strong, though the walk rate would tell you that fastball command remains an issue. Perhaps unfurling his best pitch with more regularity could be beneficial for the 25-year-old and help him become a mid-rotation-level starter or better. For a rebuilding team whose ace is arguably a pitcher with two starts under his belt in the last year-and-a-half, that would be a significant development.

46 Responses

  1. greenmtred

    I’m not a pitching coach, either, but it seems like a plausible theory to me.

  2. seanuc

    Awesome post. Pulling for Stephenson because we need him; guys with his stuff and easy delivery are so hard to find.

  3. Tom Mills

    Well researched idea. I hope someone in the Reds system sees it.

    • Colorado Red

      The FO will reject it, since it was not invented here.

    • Colorado Red

      The stupid FO will reject in, since it was not invented here

  4. James H.

    I think you’ve struck gold, TBH. Maybe send this in an email, and not just a link to your article? What could it hurt?

  5. Scott Carter

    Good stuff. I hope somebody in the Reds organization sees this and convinces Bob Steve to try it. Man we need him at the MLB level. Still the best pure stuff I believe in the organization, with perhaps the exception of Iglesias.

    • Colorado Red

      Reds are not smart enough to do that

  6. SultanofSwaff

    Thank you!!! I’ve been advocating for BobSteve to ‘pitch backwards’ for him for a long time.

    On a more macro level, I think you could argue this approach should be employed across the board in the organization. When I look around the league I’m always amazed at how average the ‘stuff’ of other pitchers is compared to our pitchers and yet our guys get knocked around like pinatas. There has to be more to it than ‘our guys suck’. We’ve eliminated one variable (Price/Jenkins), yet the pitch sequencing is still dogmatic in hitters counts. Maybe it’s time to reassign the advance scouts in favor of some new blood. Finally, you can’t absolve Tucker Barnhart either. I’d be curious to know how he processes and implements his information. Of course, this would require reporters who ask real questions.

  7. WVRedlegs

    Nice research and article.
    The good thing is that this is a trail that has already been blazed. There are examples to point to for Stephenson. The hard part will be to get Stephenson to buy into this. Stephenson is in love with his fastball and dearly wants to be one of those pitchers like Noah Syndergaard with 100 mph heat. But he also needs to learn the other side of the coin with Syndergaard and that heat, and all the injuries syndergaard has recently dealt with.
    Stephenson not only can rejuvenate his career with such a move, he also could prolong his career and maybe be a 10 year pitcher in the Majors. It is food for thought. Can they get Stephenson to buy in?

  8. Bill

    Am I wrong, but it seems like most left handed batters like the low and most right handed batters like the ball up. I know not all do but most, so why not try to do the opposite of what they like.

  9. Hotto4Votto

    Great idea, certainly worth a shot. Agree we need to figure out a way to get Stephenson to access his natural talents more effectively and efficiently.

  10. Bill

    I think the real questions are: Is this something the Reds management/coaching staff is open to exploring? and Is this something Stephenson would put effort into? As we all know the Reds haven’t completely bought into the modern methods and Stephenson has a history of not wanting to change. This is the same front office that wants Hamilton a Red for life and a few years ago was criticizing Votto for walking so much. A recently as last month Stephenson was giving interviews saying that his walks didn’t matter that much, despite everyone else on the planet noticing he needed to stop walking batters.

    • Jim Walker

      Doug Gray has done some debunking of the notion that RS doesn’t want to change. He has pointed out several times that RS has learned new pitches, the slider in fact, as one in an attempt to improve.

      • Bill

        There is also this

        “This is what we’ve been going through with this kid for the last three or four years,” DeShields said, referring to Stephenson’s control issues. “Until he makes an adjustment, it’s going to continue. It’s not going to get better. It’s on him. He’s been told what he needs to do and what he needs to work on by numerous coaches and staff members. It’s up to him to make those adjustments. If I was him, I’d be embarrassed.

  11. big5ed

    Stephenson has some interesting splits. He has 46 Ks & 14 BBs in 129 ABs against RH hitters, but 21 Ks and 21 BBs in 81 ABs against LH hitters. LHs have hit only .148 off him, but have 5 HRs. RHs hit .233 against him, and have but 4 HRs. His BABIP against LHs is abnormally low, at .127, but is .329 against RHs, as I calculate it.

    His problem, then, is an abominable 20.6% walk rate against LHs, and a 4.9% HR rate. (The almost 10% walk rate against RHs isn’t good, but it is manageable.) The good news is that this would seem to be a mental issue, rather than anything wrong with his arm or his stuff.

    Maybe he just needs to work on his pitch selection against lefties.

  12. Scooter Rolen

    Great idea, hope the Reds and Stephenson will consider it. Having Stephenson live up to his hype would really push the Reds forward on the road to competitive and playoff baseball!

  13. Jim Walker

    Stephenson made 11 MLB starts in the last third of the 2017 season. For those starts he posted a 3.30 ERA. Nobody else the Reds have tried save Castillo last season (15 starts/ 3.12 ERA) has come close to that result over a stretch of a third of a season those 11 starts represent.

    Maybe it is time the Reds quit worrying about the sky falling because of RS walk rate and try to ride his results by pitching him every 5th day at MLB and working on his control in side sessions until and unless the sky falls on him multiple times like it does virtually every turn of Romano and all too often with Mahle and even Castillo this season.

    Clearly over time RS walk rate as to come down for him to be a long term success at MLB. However, as Matt points out given his whiff rates and stuff quality maybe he doesn’t need to get it down that much to be OK. I get the sense the Reds are still looking for his 1A/2 level ceiling while the rotation is going up in flames and would be significantly improved by a solid #3. This is no time for them to be greedy.

    • Jim Walker

      At the start of the season the Reds did not know how far down the road Mahle and Romano were. They had the better springs and got the shots. Now we know they both seem to have a ways to go. In fact, with almost a full season worth of starts across 2017-18, it now seems to be fair to question if Romano can stick as an MLB starter.

      So, why wouldn’t the team want to know whether a guy who put up a 3.30 ERA (4.22 FIP) over 1/3 of a season of starts in 2017 could pick it up and do the same or better now?

      To borrow from Woody Hayes three things could but in this case only one of them is really bad. RS could continue like he did in 2017 and become a middle of the rotation starter; or his BB rate could catch up with him resulting in a crash and burn; or, he just might keep learning on the job like he seemed to be doing last year and become #2 slot guy.

  14. Tom Mitsoff

    How is his control of his curveball?

  15. redsfan06

    This is something the Reds and Stephenson should consider. Someone else posted DeShields comment about Stephenson going through the same things for the last 3-4 years (too many walks). I do not believe the walks are a result of Stephenson’s stubbornness or lack of effort. He just has the same issue as McCullers – he can’t control his fastball accurately.

    Why would DeShields and Reds management take the view that Stephenson is at fault if he can’t throw strikes? That he needs to keep doing the same things to try to improve it? After 3- 4 years, they should be looking for another solution to try.

    • big5ed

      We don’t know specifically what DeShields was referring to, and I assume it was more than “Just throw strikes, son.” Maybe he won’t slow his mechanics down. Maybe he overthrows. Maybe he won’t collect and load himself better over his right leg. Maybe he won’t throw inside to left-handers. And maybe they’ve made a bunch of suggestions and given him drills to do, that he just won’t follow through on. Or maybe he’s just raw and wild, still.

      So, who knows, really, why he walks so many guys, particularly left-handers?

      But I am generally with the group here. Bring him up. He is better than Romano.

      • redsfan06

        I find it difficult to believe it is something he just won’t follow through on and suspect it is more something he has difficulty replicating.

  16. Nick Carrington

    Nice post, Matt. Stephenson’s “success” at the end of 2017 was unsustainable because of his 14.1 BB%. No one succeeds long term walking that many guys. If this strategy could reduce some of those walks, then it’s worth a shot.

    It’s hard to give up on Stephenson because of the stuff he has. His slider is one of the nastiest pitches I’ve seen. But, I’m confused as to why the Reds continue to give him opportunities over other young pitchers who have seemingly improved on their deficiencies. Stephenson’s control remains his biggest problem, as it’s been since 2014.

    • Jim Walker

      RS gets the chances for the reasons you and Matt have cited. He has outstanding breaking stuff and misses bats a lot. That helps lead to results better than his walk rate suggests he should have.

      On the one hand yes, his walk rate in 2017 can’t be ignored; but on the other his results were nearly the as good as Castillo’s. Maybe if RS had made those additional 4 starts in2017 which Castillo did, that is the sky would have fallen on him; but we don’t know that.

      Right now if he was dropped into an MLB rotation, he is almost certainly a 4 or 5 and maybe a 3 depending on the team. Those spots, especially 4 and 5 turn over frequently because the guys in them are flawed and the league catches up to them and/ or somebody else comes along to do as well and is seen as a higher ceiling or cost friendly..

      Right now the Reds don’t have anybody better based on actual results. We want to believe Castillo will rediscover last season’s magic; or Mahle will progress because of his youth; but, neither of those is a given. They take the ball every 5th day and what happens, happens and eventually either the results will be there or they won’t. And where Romano is concerned, I would suggest we’ve seen enough to know that unless he comes up with a reliable third pitch, he is destined for a bullpen role.

      • Nick Carrington

        I’m suggesting that results in a short sample aren’t all equal. The way that Castillo performed last year was sustainable based on the peripherals. Stephenson got results by doing it in a way that no has never led to success long term.

        So his ERA in those 11 starts means nothing to me. If he’s going to succeed, he’s going to have to do it in a very different way than those 11 starts. He might do that. But equal results in a short sample don’t mean equal performance. .

  17. Bill

    Maybe bring him and let him be wild at 98 mph it may have the same affect it had on John Kruk when Randy Johnson pitcher to him, he just swung at 3 pitches so he could get back in the dugout after Johnson threw a heater over his head.

  18. WVRedlegs

    I’d like to keep Stephenson for another shot at a rotation spot.
    Finnegan might be a different story.
    The Reds are in need of some RH hitting to replace Duvall. There might be a deal out there that is tailor made for the Reds and the Yankees.
    The Yankees have INF/OF Brandon Drury at AAA and he isn’t going anywhere with Torres and Andujar hitting the way they are. No room in Yankees OF, but Yankees need some pitching.
    Service time-wise, Drury and Finnegan are on the same schedule. And both biding time at AAA. Both will be/ can be arbitration eligible in 2019. Both will be/ can be free agents after the 2021 season. If they can get back up to the Majors and accrue a little more service time.
    Drury is hitting .312/.446/.448/.894 in about 35 games at AAA. He didn’t have a good start this season in NY and got quickly demoted. Drury is a ML hitter. Finnegan has pitched fairly well in 3 out of his 4 last starts at AAA. There just might not be room for Finnegan in Cincinnati’s rotation. But there could be with New York or their bullpen. And same with Drury, no room in NY but some in the Reds OF. Drury is listed at a solid 6’2″ and 210, and he is not a 5’10” INF. Drury’s RH bat helps with the LHness of Winker, Schebler and BHam (and Votto, and Scooter and Tucker). Duvall would be expendable to trade to another team. Time to revamp this Reds OF.
    This is a trade that could go down quickly and help both teams.

    • Tom Mitsoff

      If Finnegan can pitch effectively as a starter, I certainly don’t want him traded. But he hasn’t yet shown any signs of being able to consistently dominate Class AAA hitters, which to me is a good indication that someone is ready to take the step to the next level and be effective. Someone who is average in the minors does not inspire me at all as an answer for the big-league rotation.

    • Tom Mitsoff

      To that point, Stephenson has a 4.11 ERA in Class AAA. What do you think that will equate to at the major league level? At this point, Stephenson, Finnegan and Romano are all interchangeable, in my opinion. You hold on to them for as long as you can in case one of them figures it out. There is absolutely no reason to trade them, unless another team asks for them in a deal you’re trying to finalize.

      If you get to the point where they’re out of options and you have to say bye-bye, you’re saying good-bye to a guy who couldn’t get it together for years in the minors, not a top prospect.

      I hope they all figure it out, but the best-case scenario is probably that one of them MAY figure it out.

  19. doofus

    Matt, this type of outside-the-box-thinking IS NOT ALLOWED in the world of Castellini/Jocketty/Williams/Krall, but is welcome here in the land of Oz,….er RLN! Well done!

  20. WVRedlegs

    The Reds get to do some Rebuild Comparisons over the next 3 1/2 weeks. They have 2 games with KC, 3 with PIT, 2 with DET, 3 with ATL and 3 with CWS.
    KC looks like the 2015 Reds, a feeble attempt to “compete” and now sound the rebuild horn in mid-stream.
    DET not in a typical rebuild and are competing.
    ATL is writing a new book on rebuilds.
    PIT was more reloading than rebuilding.
    CWS is a light year ahead of the Reds rebuild process in obtaining talent in return.
    The Reds Rebuild doesn’t really compare to any teams’ rebuild, it is that bad.

    • Bill

      Royals traded away prospects and got their WS ring as part of the Reds rebuild. Then couldn’t afford to keep their stars just like the Reds and held on too long. White Sox were also trading partners in the rebuild for the Reds. The Reds rebuild should be years ahead of those two teams.

  21. docproctor

    Good stuff! I buy it completely. Please FedEx this to Louisville.

  22. Chris

    Great read. I pulled up the tubular table and played with it, and unless i did something wrong, here is what i found. 549 0-0 counts. 67.4% of his first pitches are fastballs. If he gets ahead, the hitter has a 34.9% chance of seeing another fastball. If he falls behind, 1-0, the hitter has a 69.6% chance of seeing another fastball. If the count goes to 2-0, the chance of a fastball is 86%. 3-0 is 100% chance of a fastball coming. 3-1 is a 96.3% chance of a fastball. 3-2 is a 76.7% chance of a fastball. Forget tipping pitches. Maybe this is the reason he is in AAA.

    • Bill

      I was listening to the radio earlier and they had the Red Sox manager on talking about one of his pitchers and the results of throwing too many fastballs. I didn’t catch the name but the discussion was around the individual finding success due to his change up. His point was major league hitters can catch up with the fastball if they know it is coming and if nothing else run up the pitch counts by fouling it off.

      With those stats you pulled it is easy to see why he struggles. He has to be able to throw the slider or a change for a strike when he needs a pitch. It looks like he just continues throwing fastballs every time

      • Matt Wilkes

        Great data, Chris. You highlighted exactly the reason I think pitching backwards would help Stephenson. He’s way too reliant on his fastball, and its not a particularly good pitch.

  23. Shchi Cossack

    Well Riggleman was able to get all 4 OF in the starting lineup tonight…

    1. Scott Schebler (L) RF
    2. Tucker Barnhart (S) C
    3. Joey Votto (L) DH
    4. Scooter Gennett (L) 2B
    5. Eugenio Suarez (R) 3B
    6. Jesse Winker (L) LF
    7. Adam Duvall (R) 1B
    8. Jose Peraza (R) SS
    9. Billy Hamilton (S) CF

    • Jeffery Stroupe

      looks like 6 against 9 to me

  24. Streamer88

    I have hope still for Bob Steve. This article’s outline of strategy should serve as his raison d’etre from here on out.

    As a pitcher you can deceive with pitch type, pitch speed, and location. Bob Steve should abandon perfecting the latter most, and instead focus on the former two variables, as you suggest.

    One extreme is Greg Maddux who came up with erratic, electric stuff, opted to tinker by developing about 12 iterations of his pitches and finally became the greatest control pitcher of all time.

    He went stuff, pitch diversity, control, in that order, for his development. Why not Bob Steve too (in a non HOF fashion)?

  25. doofus

    Joe Hudson has caught 3 of Stephenson’s games, all 3 were a QS. Tony Cruz has caught 3 of his 4 stinkers. I wonder what the break down of pitches that were thrown between the two catchers?