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Pitching (and hitting) backwards in 2014

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Before last season, we looked at which pitchers threw the most first-pitch breaking balls and offspeed pitches, and which hitters faced the most, in 2013. Who topped those lists change in 2014?

Josh Hamilton saw the highest percentage of first-pitch breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2013 and 2014.
Josh Hamilton saw the highest percentage of first-pitch breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2013 and 2014.
Harry How/Getty Images

Last March, I listed the starters that pitched backwards the most during the 2013 season. Pitching backwards usually refers to throwing breaking balls or offspeed pitches on fastball counts, but to narrow things down, I specifically looked for pitchers who throw the fewest fastballs to start an at bat. I also looked at the hitters who saw the highest percentage of breaking balls and offspeed pitches on their first pitch.

I defined offspeed and breaking pitches according to the general groupings Brooks Baseball uses. For reference, those groups are below.

Abbr. PITCHf/x Label Brooks Equivalent Brooks Group
FA fastball fastball hard
FF four-seam fastball fourseam hard
FT two-seam fastball sinker hard
FC cut fastball cutter hard
FS split-finger fastball split offspeed
FO forkball split offspeed
SI sinker sinker hard
SL slider slider breaking
CU curveball curve breaking
KC knuckle curve slow curve breaking
EP eephus slow curve breaking
CH changeup change offspeed
SC screwball screwball offspeed

Knuckleballs and other pitches not listed here were excluded; otherwise, R.A. Dickey would of course have led the majors.

Let's look at hitters first this year, including only those with at least 300 PA. The five hitters who saw the fewest fastballs on 0-0 counts in 2013 were Josh Hamilton, Pedro Alvarez, Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, and Juan Francisco. And in 2014?

Hitter PA wOBA FB wOBA Brk+Off % Brk+Off wOBA Break % Break wOBA Offspd % Off wOBA
Josh Hamilton 408 .309 .275 50.0 .343 32.1 .330 17.2 .381
Pedro Alvarez 451 .311 .337 47.8 .283 32.1 .332 15.0 .170
Wil Myers 360 .275 .233 47.8 .320 35.8 .296 9.7 .383
Juan Francisco 328 .319 .362 47.3 .271 35.4 .247 11.9 .343
Matt Joyce 498 .320 .278 46.6 .367 27.1 .368 17.3 .380
Evan Gattis 408 .349 .352 45.5 .345 39.4 .333 6.1 .421
George Springer 352 .342 .421 44.9 .246 37.2 .274 7.7 .112
Wilin Rosario 408 .310 .299 44.5 .324 33.5 .323 11.0 .329
Ryan Flaherty 337 .296 .292 44.4 .302 26.0 .339 15.4 .254
Devin Mesoraco 452 .391 .368 44.2 .421 35.4 .479 8.8 .187

...well, at least Joyce and Francisco switched places.

There is a lot of agreement between the hitters who saw a lot of offspeed stuff last year and those who saw a lot of offspeed stuff two years ago. This makes sense: If the book on, say, Josh Hamilton is that he chases breaking balls, pitchers will be more willing to throw him a breaking ball to try to get ahead of him. However, it's worth noting that, for a number of these hitters (including Hamilton), they actually have a higher wOBA in those backwards plate appearances than in those where they see a fastball first.

The list of backwards pitchers, at least, has more turnover. Like last year, I made two leaderboards. The first is sorted by percentage of non-fastball first pitches.

Pitcher PA Avg FB Velo Total wOBA FB-first wOBA Brk+Off % Brk+Off Ratio Brk+Off wOBA
Chris Capuano 429 89.3 .326 .341 60.5 1.078 .316
Jean Machi 308 92.3 .294 .288 59.7 1.011 .297
Justin Verlander 912 93.1 .333 .334 59.1 1.004 .333
Bronson Arroyo 376 85.5 .327 .320 58.5 1.057 .332
Kyle Lohse 817 89.4 .300 .270 58.0 1.067 .322
Adam Warren 333 94.1 .269 .275 56.8 0.978 .264
Ryan Vogelsong 834 90.5 .328 .328 54.1 1.055 .328
Felix Hernandez 940 92.3 .241 .238 53.1 0.944 .244
David Phelps 505 90.1 .332 .345 52.9 1.043 .321
Collin McHugh 619 91.4 .264 .283 50.4 0.857 .245

Even if the top is different, there are still several repeats, including Arroyo, Lohse, and Vogelsong. Justin Verlander is back on this list too. In 2013, his fastball averaged 94 mph and he threw 53 percent first-pitch breaking balls. In 2014, as his fastball velocity fell to around 93, Verlander went to his secondary offerings even more, increasing his backwards first-pitch percentage to 59 percent.

That's what happens to pitchers after ten years in the league: as fastball velocity declines, even the best have to transition from throwers to pitchers. For more evidence, look at the other ten-year veteran on this list, Felix Hernandez. ESPN's Jalen Rose likes to say only two things are undefeated: gravity and Father Time*.

* - Well, actually, Jamie Moyer left the game with a lead over Father Time, but the bullpen blew it and Moyer got a no-decision.

The other way to look at pitching backwards is usage ratio, which R.J. Anderson defined in his article as:

(First-pitch non-fastballs/first pitches)/(Total non-fastballs/total pitches)

From the previous table, Verlander throws a low number of fastballs on the first pitch, but throws basically an identical proportion of fastballs at other points in the counts as well, so his ratio is a hair over 1. On the other hand, Collin McHugh actually throws a lot fewer breaking pitches to start at bats — only 86 percent of what he throws the rest of the time. In McHugh's second year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him throw even more first speed breaking balls to keep hitters from learning his tendencies, especially considering the success he had when he started with his secondary stuff.

Pitcher PA Avg FB Velo Total wOBA FB-first wOBA Brk+Off % Brk+Off Ratio Brk+Off wOBA
Johnny Cueto 1004 91.5 .256 .230 34.6 1.215 .305
Lance Lynn 921 92.4 .296 .294 21.6 1.144 .304
Hector Santiago 571 90.2 .315 .298 34.4 1.143 .347
Wade Davis 344 94.6 .205 .213 20.9 1.135 .174
Yovani Gallardo 792 91.4 .303 .315 50.1 1.129 .291
Bartolo Colon 897 88.7 .308 .315 20.0 1.110 .280
David Price 1102 91.9 .280 .293 32.1 1.107 .254
Daniel Otero 352 90.0 .268 .271 29.2 1.102 .262
Wily Peralta 827 95.7 .321 .333 36.7 1.088 .301
Marco Estrada 628 88.9 .327 .338 46.8 1.085 .313

This is an eclectic mix of pitchers, and again one with a lot of the same names as last year (Davis, Estrada, and Price, for example). These are pitchers with a clear tendency on the first pitch — ten percent fewer fastballs is a substantial amount! But the same pitchers keep showing up on this list, and judging by the few wOBA numbers we see here, hitters aren't making them pay for it.

Mitchel Lichtman, author of The Book, has often argued that pitchers should randomize the pitches they throw in any given count to be effective. But these tables make it seem as if pitchers with definite tendencies can still make a living in the league, and even be pretty good. And an actual study into this effect (accounting for batter skill, game situation, and batter preferences, among other variables) would probably support Lichtman's hypothesis. Still, even if catchers are calling games suboptimally, the sheer difficulty of hitting a major league pitch probably gives batteries some wiggle room.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Retrosheet, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball-Reference. PITCHf/x data courtesy of MLB Advanced Media.

Bryan Cole is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. He has never faced a breaking ball, but is sure it would end very badly. You can follow him on Twitter at @Doctor_Bryan.