At the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a flurry of small moves that, on their face, didn't provide the impact talent local fans clamored for. However, between the acquisitions of pitchers Joakim Soria, Joe Blanton, and J.A. Happ, as well as first baseman Michael Morse, the group has contributed 2.1 fWAR to the team in the last month and change.
While it certainly wouldn't be wise to draw talent-based conclusions on such small samples (particularly Morse's sparse 41 plate appearances), it is fair to wonder if the Pirates saw opportunities within the pitchers to emphasize skills already being demonstrated to improve their results. Of particular interest are Blanton and Happ, two lower-profile veteran starters acquired for relatively low cost (in Blanton's case, a literal dollar amount). It appears that changes in their performance may be reflecting changes in the usage of certain pitches.
After spending parts of his first eight seasons between the Phillies, Astros, and Blue Jays, J.A. Happ was traded this past off-season to the Seattle Mariners. He performed as a decent back-end starter for the first two-thirds of the season, was traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline, and has been lights-out since.
Happ is suddenly striking out more batters, walking fewer, and generating a couple more ground balls. The key difference between his time with Seattle and his time with Pittsburgh? A lot more four-seam fastballs are being called.
Since joining the Pirates, Happ has thrown more fastballs with almost every start. Per Brooks Baseball, he's gone from averaging 49.1 percent four-seam fastball use to 64.1 percent since joining the Pirates, and for good reason. Based on Jeff Zimmerman and Eno Sarris' pitch benchmarks for ground ball and swinging strike rates, it's an above average pitch, with 38.7 percent ground balls and 7.1 percent whiffs.
As it averages 92.8 MPH, it isn't your typical blow-them-away fastball. What it does have, among qualifying lefties, is the seventh-most horizontal movement of four-seam fastballs. In fact, the only southpaws with a better combination of velocity and movement are Gio Gonzalez and David Price. The Pirates took a pitch that was very good, and decided it would be good to focus on that for the time being.
An interesting trend to review with a larger future sample size is the increased spin on the ball Happ has experienced since changing uniforms. According to Baseball Savant, the pitch has increased from averaging 2162 RPM to 2421 RPM, and has experienced an increase in horizontal movement as well, from 5.7 inches to 7.2 inches.
This pitch has also gained the ability to make Jason Heyward curse on live television.
Facing suddenly diminished velocity, Joe Blanton had actually retired from baseball shortly into the 2014 season. He returned with renewed velocity and signed a minor league deal with the Royals this season.
He performed well enough, but with a solid bullpen and the arrivals of Johnny Cueto and Kris Medlen, was traded for cash considerations to the Pirates on July 31. Opponents have scored only two runs on Blanton since he joined the team, and he has struck out a large number of batters.
Not a lot has changed with regard to his stuff, or movement, so this hot streak should be easy enough to dismiss. However, much like with Happ, his pitch usage has changed significantly since joining the Pirates.
Beginning August 1, Joe Blanton began throwing his slider more frequently than any other pitch, specifically 39.0 percent of the time versus the 26.7 percent of the time he threw it as a Royal. It has been a strong pitch this year, allowing only a 12 wRC+ against with a 47.1 percent strikeout rate.
PITCHf/x reports that the slider features an average of -1.2 inches of vertical drop, with only moderate horizontal movement. That ranks him 19th out of 144 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched this season, in terms of slider drop. It acts almost like a hard curve ball, and he often throws it in the dirt to generate whiffs.
The use of the sinker has also crept up, and it is now his most-used fastball. Given how low he works with the slider, it makes sense that those could interact well together. Specifically, it seems that Blanton is now using the slider more when batters are ahead, and the sinker more with a favorable count, which is a bit counter-intuitive. It potentially catches batters off-guard.
The Pirates have a history of making a large impact with unconventional deals in recent seasons. Whether it be the Francisco Liriano gamble, or the pipeline they've set up with Yankees catching, Pittsburgh is an analytical organization that knows how to identify and emphasize positive skills in players. With the latest crop of 2015 trade deadline acquisitions, the early returns provide more evidence for that statement.
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Spencer Bingol is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.