Rise of the Breaking Ball

When the Houston Astros do something, you should probably copy whatever they are doing. The Astros, one of the smartest teams in baseball (their analytics department is called the “Nerd Cave“), have essentially been telling pitchers to stop using the fastball so much.

Over the offseason, the Astros dealt for Pirates pitcher, Gerrit Cole. Cole was always a hard thrower but his career best ERA+ was 149 and his career best FIP was 2.66. Both of those are fantastic numbers, but for someone with his talent, it does not seem good enough.

For example, Matt Harvey before his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome had similar stuff to Cole. Harvey’s career best in ERA+ was 157 and his career best in FIP was 2.01. Not to mention, Cole’s numbers the previous two years took a pretty big drop to the point where he was pitching around the levels of a number four starter.

Unlike Harvey, Cole wasn’t battling injuries and his stuff did not disappear. There was clearly something lacking in his game and when he was on the trade market, any team looking at Cole knew they had a project on their hands.

The Astros signed up for this project and did what they usually do, they turned him into an ace. How? It was not a mechanical adjustment, instead they just told him to throw more breaking pitches. Can’t be that simple, right?

Amazingly enough, for Gerrit Cole, it really is. Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton were told to do the same thing by the Astros and all it did was win the Game 7 of the ALCS and World Series.

Cole always had good breaking pitches. His spin rate on his slider in 2017 was 2,417 revolutions-per-minute and his spin rate on the curveball was 2,667 revolutions-per-minute. Both of those numbers are some of the better numbers in the league but he only threw them a combined 29.4% of the time. This year, he is throwing them a combined 39.7% of the time.

The results? 21 swinging strikes in his first start and 19 in his second, the most and second most he has ever gotten in a single start, respectively. Currently, his swinging strike rate sits at 19.6%, nearly 10 points above his career average and his K/9 is a blistering 14.14.

Are these numbers likely to keep up? Probably not but there is every reason to believe that he will keep generating whiffs on his breaking pitches and will subsequently keep striking out more guys than he has in his career. His career high in K/9 was previously 9, a number he should blow past.

Now this is a Mets blog, not an Astros one. How does this pertain to the Mets? The Mets have told their pitchers to do the same thing. Matt Ehalt of the Bergen Record said, “The philosophy to use more breaking balls is one the Mets are now employing with manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland running the show.”

The Mets must be taking that to heart because Seth Lugo (among others), the darling of spin rate, has been throwing his famous curveball more and more. In 2017, he threw his curveball and slider a combined 32.2% of the time. That number this year is 38.8%, a fairly significant jump even though it is not as drastic as Gerrit Cole. Robert Gsellman, another converted reliever, went from throwing his curveball and slider 27.1% of the time in 2017 to 34% of the time in 2018.

The results for both have been amazing early on. Gsellman has posted a 0.48 FIP in seven innings out of the bullpen with a 44.4% K-rate while Lugo has posted a 2.22 FIP in six innings with a 30.4% K-rate. Gsellman is getting a swing-and-miss 16% of the time as opposed 7.4% of the time last year. Meanwhile, Lugo’s swinging strike rate is 15.1% as opposed to 8.6% last year.

Zack Wheeler might be the biggest beneficiary of this changed approach. His curveball-slider usage in his career has been 30.2% but in his first start of the season, that number was 38.5%. The Marlins (okay, fine it’s the Marlins, but they still have two or three decent hitters) swung at 36.7% pitches out of the zone, Wheeler’s career high in that stat was 27.6%. There is no denying Wheeler has the stuff to be a major league starter, and maybe a new coaching staff and philosophy is what he needs.

This is what many teams are getting their pitches to do so it’s good to see the Mets joining the trend. So far, it has been working.

About Dilip Sridhar 493 Articles
I became a Mets fan in the 2008 season. Since the Alderson regime, I've embraced saber-metrics and advanced stats to back up my eye tests.