Succeeding with secondary pitches

The fastball is (and always has been) the predominant pitch; other pitches, however, are still important. How common is it for a pitcher to experience difficulty with his fastball while succeeding with another pitch? I set out to investigate.

This post does not concern the best secondary pitches; BtBS has already covered the best pitches in MLB. This post is about the best secondary pitches, when those pitches are compared to the primary pitch. Allow me to elaborate.

Let's establish some facts about pitchers. We've got pitch information going back to 2002. Over that span, 1,708 pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings in a season. Of them, 1,465 (85.8%) have thrown a majority of fastballs, and 1,677 (98.2%) have thrown a plurality of fastballs*. This probably confirms what you already knew—pitchers rely heavily on fastballs.

There are still other pitches. Indeed, of the 1,708-man sample, the average fastball rate was 59.1% — more than four out of every ten pitches wasn't a heater. Sliders, cutters, curveballs, changeups, splitters — all of them are important and all of them compliment the main pitch: the fastball. But what about those pitchers who excel with one of these lesser pitches, but struggle with the fastball?

This is where it gets fun. See, FanGraphs has pitch type linear weights. In a nutshell, every pitch is given a run expectancy per pitch; you can view the aggregate values for any particular pitch on the leaderboards. As is noted on the FanGraphs page for the linear weights, these stats aren't particularly predictive — they'll tell you how well the pitch did, but not how well the pitch is going to do. Regardless, it's still interesting, at least for me.

What I wanted to do was compare each of the secondary pitches to the fastball; since these are raw totals, though, that would be difficult, as the fastball dwarfs them in usage. Luckily, FanGraphs also provides a rate stat (putting each value on a per-100-pitch scale), which would allow for a much easier comparison.

Now, as with all rate statistics, we need to be wary of small sample sizes. While setting minimum innings pitched at 100, I still needed to set a threshold for pitch usage. I settled at 10%, a bar that should ensure at least 100 of the pitch in a season.

After this, I brought my 1,708 pitchers into a spreadsheet and found the differences between their fastballs and their other pitches. Being the creative person that I am, I dubbed the new stat "[Secondary Pitch]-FB Diff". I then sorted them by the highest differentials; the top 10 results for each are below.

The top 10 tables for: sliders...

Player Season SL% wSL/C FB% wFB/C SL-FB Diff
Mike Wood 2005 12.3% 3.52 57.6% -1.44 4.96
Dennys Reyes 2004 28.2% 2.57 55.7% -2.22 4.79
Terry Mulholland 2004 13.5% 3.48 65.1% -1.22 4.7
Sean Marshall 2007 20.1% 2.59 43.6% -2.06 4.65
Ramon Ortiz 2007 31.0% 2.7 53.1% -1.87 4.57
Jose Fernandez 2013 12.7% 5.4 57.3% 0.93 4.47
Justin Miller 2002 24.6% 2.2 62.6% -2.05 4.25
Sean West 2009 20.1% 2.79 67.0% -1.39 4.18
Jeff Weaver 2007 19.5% 1.11 49.6% -2.85 3.96
Jerome Williams 2003 12.5% 3.64 64.1% -0.27 3.91

...cutters...

Player Season CT% wCT/C FB% wFB/C CT-FB Diff
Odalis Perez 2006 10.7% 3.24 38.8% -1.5 4.74
Corey Kluber 2013 23.6% 2.45 53.3% -1.39 3.84
John Danks 2009 22.3% 2.64 52.5% -0.66 3.3
Jesse Litsch 2007 40.6% 0.01 18.9% -3.13 3.14
Shaun Marcum 2007 15.2% 2.09 40.3% -0.9 2.99
Chris Carpenter 2006 18.7% 3.58 48.4% 0.61 2.97
Luke Hochevar 2012 10% 1.7 53.5% -1.09 2.79
Scott Feldman 2009 35.9% 2.07 41.1% -0.62 2.69
Andy Sonnanstine 2008 30.3% 1.59 32.7% -1.09 2.68
Andy Pettitte 2007 18.2% 1.88 53.3% -0.67 2.55

...curveballs...

Player Season CB% wCB/C FB% wFB/C CB-FB Diff
Brandon Backe 2005 14.3% 2.56 56.6% -1.69 4.25
Bronson Arroyo 2009 12.1% 2.95 44.9% -1.19 4.14
Jason Hammel 2009 15.6% 3.31 59.9% -0.79 4.1
Tommy Hunter 2009 24.7% 2.18 38.9% -1.91 4.09
Kelvim Escobar 2003 11.6% 2.4 59.9% -1.67 4.07
Jesse Litsch 2007 16.3% 0.57 18.9% -3.13 3.7
Sean Marshall 2007 18.2% 1.54 43.6% -2.06 3.6
Brett Myers 2008 23.3% 2.2 48.2% -1.25 3.45
Tom Koehler 2013 27.1% 2.13 56.4% -1.16 3.29
Livan Hernandez 2011 15.3% 2.36 48.2% -0.92 3.28

...changeups...

Player Season CH% wCH/C FB% wFB/C CH-FB Diff
Jesse Litsch 2007 13.2% 2.55 18.9% -3.13 5.68
Russ Ortiz 2004 16% 3.49 67.6% -0.88 4.37
Guillermo Mota 2003 26.7% 4.46 53.4% 0.15 4.31
Odalis Perez 2004 29.2% 4.08 43.6% -0.21 4.29
Pedro Martinez 2008 19% 2.27 56.1% -1.99 4.26
Chris Reitsma 2002 22.9% 2.98 57.9% -1.21 4.19
Joel Piniero 2006 12.2% 2.79 55.8% -1.39 4.18
Kyle Lohse 2007 18.1% 2.77 52.6% -1.38 4.15
Tim Lincecum 2009 21.6% 4.62 55.9% 0.5 4.12
Manny Parra 2008 13% 2.45 56.3% -1.58 4.03

...and splitters.

Player Season SF% wSF/C FB% wFB/C SF-FB Diff
Cory Lidle 2006 13.7% 3.87 53.4% -1.42 5.29
Kelvim Escobar 2003 15% 3.6 59.9% -1.67 5.27
Adam Bernero 2003 10.7% 3.07 55.4% -1.8 4.87
Freddy Garcia 2006 12.2% 3.4 48.5% -1.45 4.85
Kelvim Escobar 2004 15.3% 3.82 53.6% -0.68 4.5
Dan Haren 2006 19.5% 3.37 55.9% -0.74 4.11
Manny Parra 2010 15.8% 1.58 56.6% -1.87 3.45
Tim Hudson 2003 14.7% 4.31 58.8% 0.94 3.37
Manny Parra 2008 11.2% 1.61 56.3% -1.58 3.19
Chuck Finley 2002 19.5% 2.44 55.6% -0.58 3.02

That's all I've got, at least for the time being. Now that I've fallen down the pitch type linear weights rabbit-hole, though, I'll probably investigate this further at some point in the future.

*In case you'd like to know, here's a chart with the plurality pitch usages and the pitchers who used them:

Cutter Slider Knuckleball Fastball
Roy Halladay 2009, 2011-12 Freddy Garcia 2012 R.A. Dickey 2008, 2010-13 Literally
Jesse Litsch 2007-08 Jorge Sosa 2007 Steve Sparks 2002-04 Every
Brian Bannister 2009-10 Tim Wakefield 2002-11 Other
Doug Davis 2008-09 Pitcher
Dan Haren 2011 Season
Brandon McCarthy 2012 (from 2002 to 2013)

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports and live tweeting about Community, Thursdays at 8/7c on NBC. Cool. Coolcoolcool.

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