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Pitchers with new pitches and should we care? Spencer Strider, Grayson Rodriguez, and more

Greene has pedigree for a potential breakout year
Eric Samulski and Scott Pianowski discuss the fantasy potential of Detroit Tigers outfielder Riley Greene, analyzing why the pedigree is there for a potential breakout season in 2024.

Spring Training is underway, and we’re already inundated with stories about pitchers who have come to camp with new pitches, which means it’s time for another season of the FSWA-award-winning series Pitchers with New Pitches (and Should We Care). In this series, I take the simple premise that not every new pitch should be greeted with praise. A new pitch, like a shiny new toy, might be exciting on its own, but it also needs to complement what a pitcher already has and fill a meaningful void in his current pitch mix.

Instead of just celebrating that some pitchers are throwing new pitches, we want to look at what the pitcher already does well and what his pitch mix is missing. We want to check and see if he has any splits issues. We want to see what his best pitch(es) is and see if this new pitch would complement that. Then we want to see what this new pitch type is generally used for (control, called strikes, etc.) and see if that is something this pitcher needs help with. When we can also see the pitch in action, then we want to look at the shape and command and see if it’s actually any good. Once we’ve done all that, we can actually decide if the pitch is a good addition or not.

Luckily for you, I’ve done all that work already. After some brief analysis of the pitcher and what role this new pitch might play, I’ll give you a simple verdict as to whether or not we should care about this new toy or not. You can check out Part One here if you missed that.

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This is my fourth season doing this series, and it’s one of my favorite things to write. I hope that you enjoy it. It’s also important to note that this is the first time many of these pitchers have thrown these new pitches in a meaningful game, so the overall quality and consistency may get better over time. I’ve tried to take that into account in my analysis. We should also note (for this article) that I will be including pitchers who have reworked or revamped a pitch to make it “new” even if it was technically a pitch they already threw.

Just a special shoutout here to Alex Tran, who has been putting together a list of pitch mix changes that he shared in the Pitcher List discord channel. Having one document with all the projected changes is a massive help.

Spencer Strider - Curveball

I’m not sure if you heard, but Spencer Strider is throwing a new curveball. I’m kidding, I know you’ve heard about it because quite possibly everybody is talking about it. In some respects it makes sense. If one of the best pitchers in baseball adds a new weapon, you could theoretically be looking at another level of success and that excites people. However, just like we’ve done for every pitcher, regardless of how good they are, we need to see if the new pitch will actually improve any weaknesses in Strider’s game.

So what are his weaknesses? Well, not many. The two ones that jump out the most are that Strider throws his four-seam and slider a combined 93% of the time (as shown below in the graphic from Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard), and he also gives up a fair amount of hard contact, with a 41% Ideal Contact Rate (ICR - which measures barrels + solid contact + hard groundballs divided by batted ball events).

Strider Pitch Mix

Now, it’s no surprise that Strider gives up below league-average hard contact given that he has just two pitches. Hitters are able to sit on one pitch in their at-bats, and while that certainly doesn’t help them all the time since Strider gets so many whiffs, when hitters do make contact, it tends to be much harder contact than they make off lesser pitchers because they’ve gotten the exact pitch they’re looking for. The hard contact also isn’t isolated to just one pitch, with a 42% ICR on his four-seam and a 44% mark on his slider, both well above league average marks. When it comes to barrels alone, righties seem to hit Strider’s four-seam much harder, with an 11.3% barrel rate allowed, compared to a 7% barrel rate to lefties on the pitch.

The reverse is true of the slider, which gives up a 2.7% barrel rate to righties and a 13.2% barrel rate to lefties. Yikes. Now, the pitch does also have a ridiculous 25.4% swinging strike rate (SwStr%) to lefties, so the issue isn’t missing bats; it’s reducing hard contact when hitters do connect.

So Strider seems to need a strike pitch to lefties that can help prevent hard contact on the slider but also could use a pitch for righties to prevent hard contact on his four-seam. Can the curveball do both?

Well, in his first outing this past weekend, Strider threw three curveballs but they were all to left-handed hitters. According to Lance Brozdowski’s metrics, the shape averaged out to 9” vertical break with 14” sweep at 80 mph, which is similar to Jameson Taillon’s curveball but with more sweep.

Taillon does have a 72nd-percentile strike rate on his curveball with an 87th percentile zone rate and just a 31st-percentile SwStr%, so that movement profile could be the strike pitch that Strider is looking for. The added sweep could also be a good thing because it may allow Strider’s curve to mirror his slider more. This could create more deception between those two pitches, which would lessen some of the hard contact the slider gives up. We obviously need to see if Strider can command the pitch for a strike, and also if he’ll use it more than the 7% of the time he used his change-up last year, but the curveball isn’t a bad addition for him. However, it does seem like he may only use it against lefties, which still leaves the issue of his hard contact issue on the four-seam to righties.

VERDICT: MINIMALLY IMPACTFUL. Look, anything that Strider adds isn’t going to have a massive impact on his value because he’s already one of the top, if not THE top, starter for fantasy baseball. The curve looks like it could be a good pitch for lefties, but we have no idea how often he’ll throw it. It may help with ratios, but, again, only versus lefties. It would be nice for him to also add something that prevents righties from sitting on his four-seam, which they seem to do given the high barrel rates it allows. A sinker would be the logical choice there since it would conceivably tunnel well with the four-seam and disrupt a hitter’s timing by fractions, which is all you need to do to prevent hard contact.

Lucas Giolito - Slider (plus fastball velocity)

When I wrote in my Top 100 Starting Pitcher rankings about being in on Giolito this year, relatively speaking, I mentioned that his struggles last year were being overblown and that he was actually a solid pitcher before being traded and going through some off-field issues. I also mentioned that the Red Sox and new pitching coach Andrew Bailey had identified mechanical issues they believed were at the heart of Giolito’s struggles and had already begun implementing the changes as soon as he signed in Boston.

Well, we saw two very clear results in his first start of spring training. For starters his four-seam velocity sat around 95 mph in his two innings, but he averaged just 93.3 mph on the pitch last year and 92.7 in 2022. Granted, it was only one start, but pitchers tend to INCREASE velocity as spring goes on, so Giolito sitting at 95 mph out of the gate is an interesting development. The last time he average 94 mph or higher on his fastball was a three year stretch from 2019-2021 that saw him pitch to a 3.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 30.7% strikeout rate in 427.2 innings. Giolito also gets solid extension and good induced vertical break (iVB) on his four-seam, so if he now adds velocity and can keep it at the top of the zone, it can be a huge pitch for him since he tends to go as his fastball goes.

However, the other change was that the Red Sox appear to have revised his slider as well. Back in 2021, Giolito’s slider averaged 85.6 mph with more than 4.7 inches of vertical movement and 2.7 inches of horizontal movement. The pitch had a 20.3% SwStr%, allowed just a 33% ICR, and had a .167 batting average against. By 2023, he was throwing the pitch almost two mph slower and with more curveball shape. The SwStr% on the pitch fell to 15.9% with a 40.5% ICR and a .236 batting average allowed (graphic courtesy of Pitcher List).

Giolito Slider

Back in 2021, the slider had been just as good as Giolito’s change-up when it came to missing bats, but it took a major step back over the last two years. In particular, the slower more curveball-shaped slider was far less effective against lefties. In 2021, his slider had a 21% SwStr% versus lefties but that fell to 11% in 2023. He also seemed less able to command it, throwing it for fewer strikes against lefties last year and allowing a 16.7% barrel rate on the pitch to left-handed hitters. In 2021, not only did the slider miss more bats against lefties, but Giolito was able to command it better and gave up less hard contact.

Giolito said after his first spring start that the Red Sox team identified an issue in the offseason and had a plan to modify the pitch as soon as Giolito arrived. “Coming into camp, the whole pitching team, they were showing me some data about it, how it was getting a little bit too slow, a little bit too curveball-ish, so we switched up the grip. About a week ago, I started working on that, and I was pleased with how it was coming out. Still continuing to hone that in, but throwing the slider in like the mid-to-high 80s I think is a better move for me.”

VERDICT: IMMENSELY IMPACTFUL. We’re talking about the difference between a 3.50 ERA pitcher with a 27% strikeout rate and a 4.80 ERA pitcher with a 25% strikeout rate. The gap between those is massive. If Giolito is just able to fix either of his slider or fastball pitches, he would likely rebound to be a low 4.00-ERA pitcher with a solid strikeout rate, but if he’s able to get both pitches back to their previous levels, we could actually see him come close to the 2021 season where he had a 3.53 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with 200 strikeouts in 179 innings. He’s 29 years old, so he’s not at the end of his leash yet, but we still need to see these results play out over more starts.

Grayson Rodriguez - Two-Seam Fastball/Sinker

When talking about Grayson Rodriguez, you have to differentiate between before and after he was sent to the minors in late spring. Upon his return to the big leagues, Rodriguez was throwing his four-seam fastball more, and higher in the zone, and also throwing both his change-up and slider harder. In fact, he had completely ditched his cutter and was using his harder slider to miss more bats. That all led to a 2.58 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 24% strikeout rate across his final 76.2 IP.

That increased four-seam approach is something Rodriguez talked about being a conscious plan and, by September, Rodriguez was throwing his fastball 56.7% of the time, which was a 12.2-percentage point increase from May. But here’s the thing. It’s a solid but not great fastball. He gets elite extension on the pitch, but it has subpar iVB and gets hit incredibly hard. Last season, Rodriguez allowed a 54% ICR on his four-seam. That’s fourth-percentile in all of baseball. That’s not ideal for a pitch you’re relying on more and more.

Part of the issue with the four-seam could be the shape, but the other is that Rodriguez doesn’t throw it inside with just a 15th-percentile iLoc% (inside location), according to Pitcher List metrics. In fact, Rodriguez’s iLoc% across all his pitches is just eighth-percentile in baseball. If you don’t have a pitch that hitters fear on the inside part of the plate, then they’re more apt to lean out over and look middle or middle-away from something to punish. That’s a big reason why Rodriguez allows so much hard contact, in my view.

Well, that also seems like a pretty big flaw that could be fixed by a two-seam fastball or sinker, which Rodriguez is allegedly toying with this offseason. If he can ride a two-seam fastball in on batter’s hands, that will back them off the plate a bit, but it will also create a different movement profile that could make the velocity of the four-seam play up more, especially if he gets it up in the zone.

However, Rodriguez’s four-seam actually sometimes operates like a two-seam fastball when he throws it too hard. As a result, Rodriguez actually gets above average horizontal break on the pitch. That concerns me a little bit when I hear he’s learning a two-seam because I’m not sure how that will impact his grip or movement on his four-seam. Will the two pitches be substantially different? We’ve also heard the pitch Rodriguez is working on referred to as a sinker, which could have a different movement profile if it operates like a Garrett Whitlock sinker that has lots of run and dive and works down in the zone. Rodriguez is also just eighth-percentile in all of baseball in low location, so having a pitch that he can throw low and in to righties could also have the same impact in backing them off the plate and allowing the four-seam to play up.

Since he has elite swinging strike rates already and 78th-percentile chase rates, we don’t really need another swing-and-miss pitch from Rodriguez, but something he can pound the zone in on righties with would be ideal. I just don’t know how much we actually see this in action.

“It’s not something we’re going to rely on a whole bunch,” Rodriguez said before arriving at Spring Training. “Just more something of a trial and error here during the offseason and maybe carry it into spring training, see how we are before the games that really count take place. Just kind of giving us something to toy around with a little bit.”

VERDICT: MINIMALLY IMPACTFUL. I’d like to see Rodriguez with a version of a two-seamer so long as he can differentiate it from his four-seam. I think it could reduce some hard contact and make him a more consistent pitcher. However, I’m not sure we’re really going to get meaningful usage on whatever new pitch he’s bringing in.

Cole Irvin - Sinker (but really his whole arsenal)

I honestly didn’t think I’d be writing about Cole Irvin at this point in spring training, but he has a rotation spot locked up in Baltimore and was impressive in his first start with velocity and spin rates up across the board thanks to offseason work at Tread (where Cole Ragans has been going, among others).

Coming into this season, I would have told you that Cole Irvin was a command pitcher with a large collection of below average pitches. In 2023, he threw five pitches at least 14% of the time and none of them graded out as plus pitches. However, he pounded the strike zone at almost 70% but registered just a 10.5% SwStr% and also gave up a lot of contact and also a lot of hard contact with a 43.3% ICR allowed and a 9.7% barrel rate.

The two biggest issues for Irvin appear to be that he doesn’t miss bats and right-handed hitters hit him very hard. Oh, is that all?

In his limited sample size last year, he gave up a higher batting average to lefties, but the contact wasn’t as damaging, while he gave up a 12.7% barrel rate to righties. The big issues appear to be that his collection of fastballs (four-seam, sinker, cutter) are all subpar and the change-up that should be a weapon against righties allows lots of hard contact while not missing many bats.

The news coming into the offseason was that Irvin had modified his sinker to add more horizontal break. That would add more run on the pitch and allow him to get it inside to lefties, which would certainly be a good thing, but it’s not a swing and miss pitch and also not a pitch to help against righties. So, I’m not sure that’s what we’re looking for.

Yet, after his first outing, we saw his velocity up all across the board.

Cole Irvin Statcast

Velocity can certainly be good for added swing-and-miss, so we love to see that but, in particular, we love the added velocity on his cutter. In his first spring outing, he was averaging 88 mph on the pitch (in just seven pitches), which was up almost three mph from last year. The added velocity helped to increase iVB because it came from added backspin. Considering the cutter would - likely - be used to get in on the hands of righties, this is a pitch we really like to see improve from Irvin. While it may not miss bats, it could theoretically reduce some of the damaging contact he allows to opposite handed hitters, especially if he also maintains the velocity gains on his four-seam to keep this 6 mph gap between the two pitches.

Also, if he chooses to keep both the sinker and the cutter up in the zone, he could potentially add swing-and-miss that way by creating more tunneling and having hitters not know which fastball is coming. Since both pitches have added break, they would either ride in or run away from righties enough to create deception.

VERDICT: MARGINALLY IMPACTFUL. It’s great to see Irvin put in this kind of work and velocity gains like this can’t be overstated, especially in a pitcher who has shown plus command in the past. However, for me, after just one start, it seems like this will help Irvin become a more reliable ratio starter (especially given his home park) but not do much to add more strikeout upside to his game. That could make him a more reliable streamer, but not likely somebody you want to roster full time. We could see more changes in his next few outings, so I reserve the right to change my mind in any direction after that.