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A look at the pitch repertoires of A’s starting pitchers

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2019 AL Wild Card - Tampa Bay Rays v. Oakland Athletics
Sean Manaea signed up for the Triggs-Bradford School of Pitch Improvement last year and so far it’s working. Keep slinging ‘em sideways Baby Giraffe.
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Before I delve into this topic, a confession: I am a huge novice when it comes to pitch types. Back in the early 2000’s I could identify a Barry Zito curveball and I could tell you when Chad Bradford was pitching. Anything beyond that was a mystery for me. While watching T.V. broadcasts of games, the most sophisticated analysis I could provide was something along the lines of: “be happy if the opposing batter swings and misses, be sad if the batter hits the pitch”.

As a fan today, I’m still mostly clueless. If you ask me if that breaking pitch was a slider or a curveball, my answer will often be “I dunno”. Luckily, I don’t have to live this way forever. Beginners can learn and that’s exactly what I set out to do.

In writing this article, I wanted to learn more about the art of pitching. And I’ll tell ya, this is looking like a great season to focus on A’s pitching talent. Coming into camp, the team has assembled six good to excellent starters vying for rotation spots. To learn more about them (and about pitching in general), I decided to research the arsenals of all six rotation contenders: Mike Fiers, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas, Jesús Luzardo, A.J. Puk, and Chris Bassitt.

What’s been working? What are they tinkering with this spring? Will do my best, but if I missed something I’m excited to hear from the best baseball community on the web (you all) about anything I missed.

Before we get to it, would also like to send a shoutout to PitcherList.com. Their overview of A’s starters this year was a huge help in researching this article. I highly recommended that A’s fans go read that overview article. The site also offers GIF video examples of every pitch offering thrown by each and every MLB pitcher and I think I’m going to be visiting their site a lot this year.

Okay, enough chit-chat, onward to the actual article! Today I’m going to be looking at our collection of top-six SP’s as a whole. In future articles, I’m considering writing a report on notable pitch usage successes and failures in 2019, what pitchers are tinkering with here in 2020 Spring Training, or perhaps some in-depth articles on individual pitchers. Please stay tuned for those potential installments!

A’s Pitch Usage in 2019

Fun fact: all the players we’ll be profiling today played for the A’s last year. To look at what pitches our returning SP studs might use this year, we’ll start by looking at what was being thrown last season. As you probably know, I love a good, clean visual. Below you’ll find a handy chart of pitch usage as tracked by Fangraphs. It only includes data from MLB games, so the data comes from only 11.1 IP for A.J. Puk and 12 IP for Jesús Luzardo, with Puk working exclusively out of the bullpen in the majors last season.

One frustration to talk about - the original version of the data I used didn’t distinguish between certain fastball types. And it was only after I made the pretty version of the graph that I figured this out. So, below, you’ll also find a table with exact percentage breakdowns for more specific pitch types.

For those (like me!) who aren’t well-versed on fastball types, they come in three main flavors: four-seam, two-seam (sinker), and cutter. Four-seam is your highest-velocity pitch. Has less movement to it and you’re hoping that pure velocity will blow the ball past the hitter. Other grips such two-seam and cutter fastball varieties are also thrown fast. But they also try to add a little deceptive movement onto the pitch, whereas the four-seam fastball comes at a hitter straight-on. Note that there’s debate on whether “two-seam” and “sinker” are synonymous terms: Players’ View: Are Two-Seamers and Sinkers the Same Pitch?

Taylor Geomatics

Trends in the Oakland Rotation Pitch Arsenal

Looking over the group as a whole, one pattern that stands out is something we’re seeing across MLB: slider usage is trending upward league-wide. The A’s have clearly bought into this trend, with four A’s starting pitchers using the slider as a main secondary pitch offering. It’s likely not a coincidence that the newfound love of sliders is especially showing up in an SP core full of young pitchers. Developing minor leaguers are the group least set in their ways and likely the most willing to emulate the latest “what’s great” MLB trends. I say that with the caveat that many MLB pitchers will tinker with pitch options throughout the entirety of their career.

If sliders represent a similarity, then where do we find differences? Two A’s pitchers boast unique offerings.

Chris Bassitt is the only pitcher with a cutter. Cutters are another up-and-coming pitch, with usage increasing six-fold over the past decade. Like all stats, that sounds more impressive than it actually is. League usage of the cutter was just 6% last year, meaning that cutters have only increased from “incredibly rare” to “seen on limited occasion”.

Frankie Montas is the pitcher with a splitter. The splitter is trending the opposite way. It was all the rage in the 80’s but has more recently fallen out of favor, largely due to concerns over increased risk of injury*. This pitch represents arguably the biggest pitch use storyline of 2019 for Oakland. The splitter was new for Frankie in 2019, and his incredible success with it is what catapulted Montas into a Cy Young contender status before his suspension.

*I did find a recent Beyond the Boxscore post that questioned whether splitters still cause excessive injury risk (or ever did).

Digging deeper into pitch repertoire differences, below is the promised table which breaks out all fastballs by fastball type and shows “exact” percentages of pitch use. It bears mentioning that these numbers are estimates. They are generated from the PITCHf/x pitch tracking system and a computer model is needed to convert raw tracking data into pitch type classifications. Errors can and do occur but overall the system is trusted and does a fantastic job of things.

2019 Velocity Report

You’re probably also wondering about fastball velocity. Below I’ve listed where our top six starters were sitting with their fastballs on average in 2019, again courtesy of Fangraphs.

And it’s here where we must highlight another important storyline - the Sean Manaea fastball. Manaea came out of the draft in college throwing as high as 97 mph. As a prospect he settled into the 93-94 mph range for typical game day outings. More recently, due to injuries, he’s gone as low as 89 mph. And yet, ironically, he’s found heightened success during an early stretch of 2018 and at the tail end of 2019 with a slower fastball velocity. He’s back up to 93+ mph in camp this spring and what speed he’s throwing is sure to be an ongoing story for the A’s in 2020.

A.J. Puk: 97.1

Frankie Montas: 96.6

Jesús Luzardo: 96.4

Chris Bassitt: 93.5

Mike Fiers: 90.4

Sean Manaea: 89.8

Final Thoughts

I had a lot of fun researching this topic. Can be tough to admit when you have no knowledge of a subject, especially when you’re trying to write about it! Was a great chance to remind myself that we’re all lifelong learners. It’s okay to not know something. Ask questions. Listen to multiple perspectives. Remember that there’s less universal truth that we think. Pluto was a planet, then it wasn’t. Bobby Crosby was an MVP hopeful, then he wasn’t. Classification is an inexact science that sounds exact, but in reality is just another model. And that’s okay too - all models are wrong but many are useful. Dare to be good enough and not perfect, because perfect doesn’t always exist.

Looking forward to continued learning, improvement, and imperfection with you here on AN in 2020. Go A’s!

Bonus Pitching Nerd Content: Jesus Lizard Highlight Reel!

Featuring all three of his main offerings. Can you spot which breaking pitch is which?