Down in Anaheim, things aren't looking so hot. With a historically bad farm system and a major league team mostly devoid of non-fish talent yet full of expensive stars beyond their prime, there hasn't been much to cheer about. But behind Mike Trout is another great story - Matt Shoemaker's resurrection.
Shoemaker is a great story, even without his newfound success. An undrafted free agent, Shoemaker defied the odds of being passed up 1500 times in the Rule 4 draft by making the major leagues. Shoemaker had a fabulous 2014 but was roughly replacement level in 2015. His 2016 got off to a similar start, and Shoemaker looked like a candidate to be bumped from the rotation after his first six starts. Then, he made a simple and obvious yet devastating adjustment: he doubled the usage of his best pitch, his splitter.
As the season has worn on, his improvement has lasted. Shoemaker has put up Kershaw-like numbers and reached his season peak in a recent start - striking out 13 in a complete game shutout of the Chicago White Sox.
Upon observing Shoemaker's change and just how effective it has been, are there any other pitchers who can become more successful simply by upping a single pitch usage significantly?
Criteria for pulling a Matt Shoemaker
-The pitcher should be below average. Jake Arrieta's curveball is deadly and maybe he should throw it more, but there's not much he can do to improve.
-The pitch in question should work against both hands, or in the case of a pitcher with split problems, against the hand that he struggles against.
-The usage rate shouldn't be very high to begin with, as there is a limit to how often you can throw a certain pitch most of the time.
Bud Norris's cutter
Norris is having a moment, so much as Bud Norris can have a moment. While his ERA is sitting comfortably above 4.00, his FIP and xFIP are south of that 4.00 mark, and Norris has a chance to eat some innings for the thin Los Angeles Dodgers.
Platoon splits have always kept Norris from being a serviceable innings eater, and lefties have continued to demolish him in 2016. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Norris was able to quell his platoon problems in June by upping his cutter usage to nearly 30 percent. On the month, lefties hit a paltry .111 while slugging .167 against the offering. That resulted in the best month of his career and a resurgence that looked to be real.
For some reason, Norris just about halved his cutter usage in July. Lefties are once again demolishing him, doing most of their damage against other offerings as just five cutters have been put in play thus far this month. There's no telling exactly why he's cut the cutter usage, especially since he's been able to keep it in the zone, but he ought to take a chance on it again. Here's how lefties have done overall this season against Norris.
|Norris vs. LHH||Usage||Whiff %||BAA||SLG|
The cutter has been by far his only usable pitch against his biggest weakness. Time to see if he can ride it to big league success.
Clay Buchholz's changeup
Per fWAR, Buchholz has been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this season. His career has been a roller coaster to date, and just a year ago he was solidly above average. It makes sense that Buchholz hasn't made a major change to his arsenal when he's not far removed from success, but it might be time to try something new.
While his struggles haven't been limited to one side, Buchholz has struggled most mightily against left-handed hitters, who have a wOBA of .397 on the year. Here's where they've done their damage.
|Bucholz vs. LHH||Usage||Whiff %||BAA||SLG|
The change is a candidate for a usage bump, as it's been by far his best regular offering, and he doesn't seem to have trouble throwing it for strikes. It's also inducing ground balls at a higher rate than nearly all of his other offerings, an added bonus in tiny Fenway.
Another enticing option for Buchholz is his splitter, which he's thrown just about six percent of the time to lefties this season. Presumably, it's not a pitch he's totally comfortable with, especially when he's not ahead in the count. He's throwing it mostly with two strikes while ahead in the count, which has induced a large percentage of strikeouts. The problem is getting ahead, and his changeup might hold the key to doing so.
Kendall Graveman's sinker
We're cheating a bit here. Graveman has already made the change, abandoning his slider and changeup for a very Bartolo-like arsenal. At around 92 percent usage his past few starts, Graveman has gone against conventional wisdom by becoming nearly a one-pitch pitcher yet still seeing success. It's a small sample and the league is sure to adjust, but recently Graveman has looked like a very good pitcher without any element of surprise, minus the occasional cutter.
What's most interesting about Graveman's change is that before he started throwing it so often, it really wasn't all that good a pitch. Here's how it looked when he threw it about 40 percent of the time, from the start of the season until early June.
|Graveman sinker||Usage||Whiff %||BAA||SLG||GB/BIP|
From early June on, he's thrown the sinker 65 percent of the time, and that number seems to be climbing. Here's how his numbers have looked in that timeframe.
|Graveman sinker||Usage||Whiff %||BAA||SLG||GB/BIP|
His usage has skyrocketed, while production against the pitch has plummeted. He's inducing ground balls far more frequently, which is the goal of a sinker, and he's kept the ball in the yard with much more success. He's basically eliminated his changeup and curveball, sticking with a cutter that is slightly slower than his sinker and moves in the opposite direction. This has befuddled hitters and turned Graveman into a whole new pitcher.
To me, Graveman is an incredibly interesting case. The Matt Shoemaker story makes sense: throw the pitch that's having the best success more frequently. It's obvious and easy; it's entirely possible that these pitches are under-utilized compared to their game theory optimal usage. Graveman's performance-increasing adjustment involved throwing his worst pitch more, not his best, proving yet again that baseball is weird, complicated, and awesome.
Tim Eckert-Fong is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.