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Mixing it Up: Gray adds sweep, Phillips intrigues in debut

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins

Aug 25, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) throws to the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Mixing It Up, a weekly column where I look at starting pitchers who are making noteworthy changes to their pitch mix or pitch shape/velocity. In this column, I’ll break down three to five pitchers each week who have shown a change in their profile that has me intrigued. It won’t always be a pitcher who requires an immediate add but could be somebody who has worked his way onto our fantasy baseball radars or a pitcher I think is set to begin a productive stretch. I’ll always try to make sure we have enough of a sample size to work with and I’ll be mixing in both shallow and deep league targets, so there should be a little something for everyone.

In the last few weeks we identified some positive changes in Luis Medina , Freddy Peralta , Cole Ragans , Brandon Williamson , and Chase Silseth before major breakouts so hopefully we can hit on a few more arms making intriguing changes.

With that said, let’s dig in to this week’s pitchers of note.

Sonny Gray - Minnesota Twins

Sonny Gray is in the midst of another solid season for the Twins with a 2.98 ERA (4.08 SIERA), 1.17 WHIP, and 16% K-BB% in 163 innings. He started the year on fire with a 0.77 ERA in 35 innings in March and April but, aside from that period, is now coming off of his best month of the season with a 2.04 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 39.2 innings in August.

I do believe part of that has had to do with the increased reliance on his sweeper, which he began to lean on more over the summer as he dialed back the usage of his sinker and cutter.

Sonny Gray Pitch Mix

On the season, the sweeper has a 0.12 dERA (Defense Independent ERA), .109 BA (.141 xBA), 23.9% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), and just a 3.2% barrel rate. It is far and away Gray’s best pitch, so it makes sense for him to lean into it more. The sinker has also been a fairly mediocre pitch for him on the year with a 3.59 dERA, .269 xBA, 8.2% SwStr%, and 7.5% barrel rate, so limiting its usage also makes sense.

I am curious if his decision to scrap the cutter for his one start in September is a permanent decision or not. The pitch has been solid for him with a 2.81 dERA and 13.7% SwStr%, but I think he could consider using it more against lefties since it’s currently a pitch he features more against right-handed hitters. It misses more bats against lefties and gives up fewer barrels and could be a solid offering to maintain use of while he continues to up the usage of his sweeper against right-handed hitters.

Regardless, even with just the increased sweeper usage, we should see Gray maintain the SwStr% bump he saw in August, and he’s a good bet to finish the season strong.

Matt Manning - Detroit Tigers

Matt Manning is out for the season after suffering a fractured left foot, but I wanted to talk about him briefly because I was intrigued by some of the changes he made to close the season out.

Manning came back from injury at the end of June and made some clear pitch mix changes from July on, increasing the use of his slider, while decreasing the use of his four-seam fastball and curve.

Matt Manning Mix

Much like with Gray, that’s a move that makes sense on the surface. Manning’s slider is his best pitch. It had a 2.32 dERA on the season with a 12.6% SwStr%, and .185 BA (.216 xBA). On the other hand, the four-seam and curve are both fine pitches, with a 3.50 and 3.17 dERA respectively, but they don’t miss bats at all, so Manning is a more interesting fantasy pitcher when he can limit their usage.

While his surface level stats between the first half of the season and second half appear similar, he had a 4.64 dERA and 7.0% SwStr% before the tweak to his repertoire and a 2.59 dERA and 9.1% SwStr% after the change. Of course, that’s not a swinging strike rate to write home about and Manning also gives up a lot of barrels, but it’s clear that the increased use of his slider is a positive change (as was scrapping a bad sinker). If he can tweak the curve or find another pitch that can help him miss some bats, Manning could be an intriguing deep sleeper next season.

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David Peterson - New York Mets

Although David Peterson had seemed to settle into his role as a multi-inning reliever, the Mets were forced to move him back to the rotation after the trade deadline. While it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, Peterson hasn’t been bad as a starter, posting a 4.22 ERA and 24.6% strikeout rate in 32 innings. However, that has come with a 1.56 WHIP and 10.3% barrel rate.

So can we use Peterson as a streamer down the stretch?

In order to answer that, we need to look at how Peterson has had to adjust his arsenal in August now that he’s back in the rotation.

Peterson Mix

His fastball is his worst pitch by Stuff+ with an 83 grade, while his slider is far-and-away his best pitch with a 110 Stuff+. That seems to be supported by the metrics since the four-seam has a 6.20 dERA and a 10.5% SwStr% while the slider has a poor 6.63 dERA but a 20.2% SwStr%, which is easily the highest of all Peterson’s pitches.

The truth is none of Peterson’s pitches are really “plus” and his best performing pitch is a curveball that he’s slowly been using more. In the second half of the season, Peterson has thrown the curve 11% of the time, and it has a -2.32 dERA with a 14.6% SwStr% and no barrels allowed. That’s pretty damn good. Since his slider has also posted a 21% SwStr% in the second half, the pair of pitches gives Peterson to foundation to be a high strikeout starter.

The issue is both is four-seam and sinker continue to remain poor pitches and, as a lefty, his sinker is much worse against right-handed hitters, which is why you see him drop the usage of it drastically since has become a starter again.

The change to a more four-seam heavy approach makes sense for Peterson as a starter, but I don’t believe it’s one that helps him overall. I would love to see him focus more on the slider, curve, change-up mix that could be decent for him while using the fastball to keep hitters honest. However, until he can sort out his fastball issues, Peterson remains a strikeout-focused streamer who could hurt your ratios.

Connor Phillips - Cincinnati Reds

I don’t usually cover debuts in this article since it’s not really relevant to pitch mix changes, but I wanted to discuss Phillips for a second since I’ve been eagerly anticipating his arrival thanks to the great work of Chris Clegg. Chris has been pumping Phillips on Twitter for a few months now, highlighting the tremendous swing-and-miss results in the minors, so I was excited to see him on the big stage.

Phillips debuted against the Mariners last Tuesday, allowing five runs on six hits, including two home runs, in 4.2 innings. However, he did strike out seven hitters while posting a 29% whiff rate and 28% CSW.

Connor Phillips

So what did I see?

Phillips definitely leans on the fastball, which sits 96-98 with slightly above average release. However, he struggled with the command of it on Tuesday. He went up and in often against lefties, even painting the black on his first strikeout against J.P. Crawford. Yet, both of his home runs were to righties where he tried to get to fastball away and had it run over the heart of the plate. For some reason, he didn’t seem to want to come inside much against righties, which might be a nerves issue in his first start. Since he gave up just one home run in 40.1 innings at Triple-A, I’m not overly concerned about the early home run issues.

Phillips’ sweeper is his primary out pitch and did its job on Tuesday with a 70% whiff rate. He uses the curve more often to lefties, but it seemed to be an inconsistent pitch for him and then the commentators mentioned that he’s been actively working to polish up the change-up to round out the arsenal and create differential from his fastball.

I love the profile for the future, especially if that change-up continues to improve, and I think the home runs will settle as Phillips gets the confidence to challenge righties inside. However, like all Reds’ pitchers, he pitches in a bad home park that will amplify his rookie ups-and-downs, so he’s best used as a deep league streamer to finish 2023.