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Not So Fast: Three Pitchers Surprisingly Building Success on Breaking Balls

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Standard operating procedure on the mound dictates that a pitcher should throw a fastball for strike one, then another fastball for strike two, and then switch to a breaking ball as his “out pitch” for strike three.

But not every pitcher is blessed with a heater that supports that sort of scheme, and the unfortunate arms that lack one have the choice of remaining constrained by their imbalanced skill sets or embracing the unorthodox by — wait for it — using their best pitch more.

As The Ringer’s Michael Baumann recently detailed, Oakland’s Rich Hill has enjoyed a late-career surge by pivoting to rely predominantly on his curveball in lieu of a fastball-oriented approach.

The veteran Hill isn’t alone in inverting his plan of attack; some younger pitchers have adopted a similarly intuitive strategy of using their best pitch as both hammer and anvil. Here are three more starters who have enjoyed an extreme shift in approach and whose breaking balls are taking them — and their strikeout totals — to new heights in 2016.

(Note: All pitch usage numbers in this piece come from Brooks Baseball.)

Lance McCullers, Astros

Considering how many headlines he generated last year, McCullers is having a rather understated sophomore season. Which is strange because the Astros’ right-hander has spent his year essentially alternating between striking out and walking every batter in sight.

Currently, both his strikeout rate (11.52 K/9) and walk rate (5.37 BB/9) are the second highest in baseball (min. 60 innings pitched). Over a full season, those figures would be unprecedented; the only pitchers in history to come close are Nolan Ryan and the hatchling versions of Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

The walk totals are skewing high because McCullers’s fastball command has abandoned him in 2016. In response, he’s scaled back his use of the four-seamer and is throwing a knuckle curve on around 50 percent of his pitches — he’s nearly flipped his fastball-to-curveball ratio from a year ago.

The knuckle curve averages more than 85 mph, making it the fastest curveball for any starter over the past decade, and opponents can’t seem to touch it. The pitch dives low and away from righties and in on lefties’ hands. That kind of placement is what makes an All-Star like Robinson Canó look like this.

Canó had no chance at this pitch the entire way. When he started his swing, the ball was already well off the plate (it’s the blurry white dot just above his knee in the below screenshot) — but thanks to McCullers’s velocity, he can mask what’s just average movement on the pitch.

Only Miami’s José Fernandez has earned more strikeouts with his curveball this season. Overall, McCullers’s opponents are hitting .136 and slugging .181 in at-bats ending in a curve; against all other pitches, those rates balloon to .422 and .606, respectively. That’s the difference between the average pitcher’s performance at the plate and the production of Ty Cobb at his peak. With that kind of split, even if McCullers can regain command of his fastball down the stretch, he might do well to stick with the curve as his primary pitch.

Aaron Nola, Phillies

Another second-year pitcher spinning curveballs for Ks, Nola spent the first two months of the season conjuring images of Roy Halladay, collecting a 2.65 ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning and avoiding walks. Even after a rough stretch before the All-Star break, Nola remains a top-10 pitcher in the NL and still projects as a top-of-the-rotation arm.

In his rookie season, Nola used a typical mix of pitches: a four-seam fastball 40 percent of the time, with a sinker, curve, and changeup rounding out the rest. But he’s dropped his fastball frequency to 15 percent this year, largely replacing his worst pitch with an improved sinker and an elite curve, which Nola tosses more than any pitcher aside from the aforementioned Hill.

All curveballs are technically breaking balls, but Nola’s is the sort for which the term “break” should be reserved — and not just because it breaks batters’ spirits. Per Baseball Prospectus’s PITCHf/x leaderboard, among starting pitchers, Nola’s breaker has the most horizontal movement of any curve or slider over the past decade.

Look at this pitch dance away from Kurt Suzuki’s bat. It seems to sit in the strike zone, inviting the Twins catcher to swing, before floating just beyond his reach.

Nola has notched strikeouts in 45 percent of the at-bats that he has ended by throwing curveballs, and even when opponents don’t swing and miss, they struggle to square up a pitch featuring such extreme movement. Batters hit Nola’s curveball about as hard as they hit Clayton Kershaw’s, which means a lot of weak grounders for the Phillies’ infield and a lot of easy outs for their budding ace.

Last year, even when he was ahead in the count, Nola threw a four-seamer more frequently than his curve; when he trailed in the count, he barely ever tossed a breaking ball. But this season, he has grown more confident with the pitch and uses a curve more than a straight fastball regardless of the ball-strike situation. And he relies on it even more with runners in scoring position; it has become his clear go-to offering.

And that’s bad news for opposing hitters.

Matt Shoemaker, Angels

Blind résumé comparisons can be a silly exercise, but in this case it’s illuminating: Which 2016 pitching line belongs to Matt Shoemaker — a pitcher with a career 101 ERA+, meaning he has been almost perfectly average — and which belongs to $217 million–man David Price?

Pitcher A: 9.19 K/9, 1.84 BB/9, 1.04 HR/9, 1.24 WHIP, 3.29 FIP in 112.2 innings

Pitcher B: 9.62 K/9, 1.99 BB/9, 1.06 HR/9, 1.28 WHIP, 3.36 FIP in 135.2 innings

The innings totals might give away that Price is the second guy, but the rest of the numbers look positively identical. Considering Shoemaker’s ERA sat above 9 until mid-May, the Angel has come a long way in the past two months — and he’s done it with a splitter whose development represents the only positive for Los Angeles’s staff all season.

In 59 career games before his start on May 16 — which came soon after he was recalled from Triple-A, where he tinkered with his pitch sequencing — Shoemaker had thrown more than 30 splitters in a contest once. In 13 starts since, he’s failed to surpass that number once; over that span, he’s posted a 2.56 ERA and the four highest-strikeout games of his career.

While the specifics of Shoemaker’s splitter are nothing special, the pitch’s subtler by-products are fueling his success. Before May 16, he rarely threw his splitter to open at-bats, but it’s been his most common pitch in a 0–0 count since, and he’s getting ahead of hitters better than any other qualified starter.

The splitter’s evolution has also allowed him to throw both his fastball and his other off-speed stuff less. Instead of attempting to fool batters with those lackluster offerings, he can throw his splitter — which fades back toward right-handers, unlike the other pitches on this list — to escape tough spots.

In at-bats ending with a Shoemaker splitter, opponents are hitting .184 and slugging .274 on the year; against all other pitches, those numbers jump to .318 and .519, respectively.

The Angels haven’t actually found right-handed David Price. But until Shoemaker’s arm falls off — between his splitter-heavy approach and the Angels’ recent luck, that date might be close — Mike Scioscia will be happy to have at least one arm in his rotation that can get batters out.