Baseball seems so simple if you’re not looking closely, but I’d beg to differ. Every baseball play starts with the pitcher, and pitchers are always seeking to improve their odds of defeating the batter in the box. Their weapons to do so are contained in an arsenal of pitches that they have at their disposal. But here’s the thing: for most hurlers, their pitches are not equally effective. They may have one pitch that is vastly superior to their other options. And to make matters more interesting, the effectiveness of pitches can wax and wane over time as the feel for a changeup grows or, perhaps, the velocity on a fastball declines. In essence, it’s always changing.
The Diamondbacks’ pitching staff isn’t immune to this simple case of give and take. A couple of notable Arizona pitchers made significant repertoire adjustments in 2014, and not all of them resulted in positive changes. In the game of pitching, the line between success and failure is often razor-thin. A change in how an arsenal of pitches is deployed can push one either way, but it’s safe to say that pitchers generally make changes that they think will produce better results. As you’ll see below, any alteration can be a risky proposition.
More sliders, fewer fastballs
Miley threw 200+ innings for the second straight year in 2014. Most of those innings were also pretty bland for the second time in as many years. But despite the pedestrian stats in the ERA and FIP departments, one doesn’t have to look very closely to realize that Miley struck out the most batters of his career last season. He also walked his highest total and set a career high in homers allowed, but that’s not the point. The strikeouts came from somewhere, and part of that may have been due to an increased number of slider at the expense of some of Wade’s fastballs. Due to an average fastball velocity right around 91mph, Miley’s heat has never rated highly, 2014 included. So, he went away from it and supplemented with more sliders, a more valuable pitch for him last season. Wade Miley may not be a tremendous pitcher, but he is solid, and this change appears to have been made for the better.
More fastballs, more curveballs, far fewer cutters
This story got a lot of press the moment Brandon McCarthy was shipped out of the desert into the belly of the beast in New York. Apparently Arizona had asked McCarthy to back off the use of his cutter and he did so, throwing more four-seam fastballs and curveballs. The strange part is that his cutter had been his best pitch in 2013, so the decision to move him away from it the following season defies logic. He did as instructed, however, and pitched his way right out of Arizona. The Yankees flipped the script and allowed McCarthy to go back to his more familiar ways, leading to success that the pitcher directly attributed to the reintroduction of his cutter. It’s hard to guarantee the accuracy here, but chances are, the Diamondbacks did poorly to take away McCarthy’s best weapon and his immediate success in New York backs this up. This was not a good decision.
More curveballs/sliders, fewer fastballs
We’ve covered Brad Ziegler a time or two here at Inside the ‘Zona in the past as we’ve seen him as a rare type of baseball asset since this site began. And even prior to becoming a Diamondback, Brad Ziegler’s best pitch has been his curveball/slider. Why the slash? Some classify Ziegler’s breaking pitch as a slider, but PITCHf/x sees it as a curve. Coming from a sidearmed pitcher, the pitch can have some pretty funky movement (that’s hard to fit into a designated “pitch box”) and be incredibly tough to hit for batters, as was the case once again in 2014. Given the trouble that batters have with Ziegler’s curve, coupled with his long track record of dominating with the pitch, it only makes sense that he’d throw it more often. Well, he did so and his strikeout rate reached a new pinnacle in 2014. Strikeout are always a good thing for pitchers (of course, so are well-timed double play grounders, something Ziegler is also adept at generating) and this move appears to have paid off for the most part.
More sinkers, more curveballs, fewer sliders
Cahill had another rough season for the Diamondbacks. The changes to his repertoire are perhaps partly due to coaching (throw more sinkers, command the zone, throw more strikes) and partly due to him seeing considerable time in the bullpen (where he was more of a two or three-pitch guy). Without knowing the exact underlying cause, we can say that he almost completely scrapped his slider, a pitch that simply did not work for him last season. He shifted his usage to his sinking fastball, which he struggled to throw for strikes, and his curveball, which was somewhat effective. Interestingly enough, the sliders that he did throw in 2014 were incredibly effective, but that’s likely do the relative infrequency of its use, not necessarily the raw quality of the pitch. In the end, these changes seem not to have mattered a whole lot for Cahill as his issues are deeper than pitch selection and it doesn’t really matter which pitches you choose to throw if you can’t throw any of them for strikes consistently.
In the above four cases, we have two instances where there are some positive signs (Miley and Ziegler), one that simply didn’t work out well (McCarthy), and one that mattered very little (Cahill). Will we see further adjustments next season? I think it’s a safe bet to suggest that some Diamondback is will alter his stuff significantly in 2015 as pitchers are always tweaking their repertoires in an attempt to maximize their pitches. Maybe a healthy Patrick Corbin will throw his slider less? Perhaps Cahill will use is four-seamer more often just to try to locate and steal some strikes. Chase Anderson could throw his changeup even more often than he does already. These are all story lines we can examine as we move into the new year and the next baseball campaign is upon us.
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