More than a new winter workout plan and at least as much as a revamped swing, a new pitch makes us contemplate the possibilities of an incipient season. Pitchers succeed based on how hard they throw, how accurately they throw, and the movement they get on their pitches. The first two qualities aren’t easy to observe with the naked eye; from the stands or the center-field camera, 96 looks like 94, and a miss by eight inches looks like a miss by five. But a pitch that slides or dives in a different direction instantly signals that something is new.
It’s exceedingly rare for a soft-tosser to become a hard thrower after making the majors, but it’s not unheard of for an unspectacular starter to become a Cy Young candidate after learning to throw a new pitch. Two Aprils ago, I examined the history of pitchers who’d added a pitch to their arsenals in the previous several seasons. I found that throwing a new pitch at least 5 percent of the time helped starters beat their projections by half a win, on average, over the length of a full season. Pitchers who threw their new offering at least 10 percent of the time did even better.
Those are just the typical improvements; for certain pitchers, the right new pitch at the right time can be truly transformative. Remember Mike Scott and his splitter in 1986, or Esteban Loaiza and his cutter in 2003; in each case, a pitcher who was no better than average temporarily turned into an ace by slightly reorienting his fingers, astonishing even himself with his newfound abilities.
So let’s take a look at this season’s crop of new pitches as classified by Pitch Info, with a focus on five pitchers of particular interest. For each new pitch, I’ve included the most similar pitch of the same type thrown by another pitcher this season, using speed, horizontal movement, and vertical movement as the bases of comparison. Keep in mind that the most common additions by big league pitchers are cutters, sinkers, and sliders, which are closer to tweaks of existing pitches than distinct entities that have to be learned from scratch. Those three pitch types accounted for more than three-quarters of the new pitches in my earlier study.
Dylan Bundy, Orioles (Slider; 25.4 Percent Usage)
Closest slider: Matt Cain’s
Just before his first start of the season, Bundy told MASN’s Steve Melewski that his new slider was an inconsistent "work in progress," that "hitters will let me know how well it works," and that he’d "throw it and see what happens and go from there." Bundy had allowed 15 runs in 17 innings in spring training while experimenting with the slider, recording only nine strikeouts, so it seemed possible that the new pitch wouldn’t last long.
As soon as the regular season started, though, hitters told Bundy that the new pitch was working. In the top of the first inning of his first start of the season, Bundy followed a first-pitch-fastball called strike with an outside slider that Toronto’s Josh Donaldson swung through.
On the next pitch, he went back to the slider, a little lower and bendier, and got Donaldson to launch his bat all the way out to shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Among 96 pitchers who’ve thrown their sliders at least 50 times this season, only six have gotten swings more often than Bundy, and only seven have gotten a higher percentage of whiffs per swing. Bundy’s extra sliders have come at the expense of his four-seamer, which he’s throwing much slower this season, either because he’s simply lost velocity or because he’s intentionally trying to save his strength. Bundy faded down the stretch last season and has never stayed healthy enough in any one season to throw more than the 109.2 innings he totaled in 2016. Maybe the combination of a less strenuous fastball and a bat-missing slider will help him stay on the mound while still logging enough strikeouts to thrive.
Bundy’s teammate Kevin Gausman has also gone slider-heavy this season, bringing back the breaking ball he threw in college to complement his curve. But unlike Bundy, he’s off to a miserable start, walking 15 and striking out only 17 in 24 innings over his first five outings.
Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks (Cutter; 13.6 Percent Usage)
Closest cutter: David Phelps’s
Two years after he last ranked among the top 20 prospects in baseball, and a year after an ineffective performance as a starting pitcher, Bradley has become a multi-inning weapon for Arizona, entering in the fifth, sixth, or seventh and recording anywhere from four outs to 10. Out of the bullpen, the righty has picked up 3 miles per hour in average fastball speed, topping out at 99. That extra four-seamer speed is only one aspect of Bradley’s new look; he’s also added a cutter.
The cutter’s modest side-to-side movement makes it more of a weak-contact inducer than a true swing-and-miss pitch, but it can be both, as the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal learned on April 16.
It’s not clear why it took this long for Bradley to incorporate the cutter, which he threw with some success in 2014 in the Arizona Fall League, into his big league arsenal. In March, he told MLB.com beat writer Steve Gilbert that "he’s not sure why he stopped throwing it." An effective cutter could be a big asset against lefties, who crushed Bradley to the tune of a .318/.412/.523 slash line last year. Cutters tend to have neutral platoon splits, which means they’re effective against both left- and right-handed hitters. Changeups tend to be good against opposite-handed hitters, too, but Bradley’s was never his strong suit, and he’s ditched it entirely thus far this season. The new, cutter-equipped Bradley has faced 27 lefties, and they’ve gone 3-for-24 with two walks and six strikeouts.
Michael Wacha, Cardinals (Sinker; 7.5 Percent Usage)
Closest sinker: Tyler Chatwood’s
In February, Cardinals top prospect Alex Reyes’s torn ulnar collateral ligament secured a spot in the St. Louis rotation for Wacha, who’d missed time with shoulder problems in 2014 and 2016 and entered this spring as more of a cipher than Reyes. In the wake of Wacha’s injuries, the most encouraging development for the 25-year-old wasn’t which pitches he was throwing, but that he was throwing at all. Better yet, he was throwing hard: Through three regular-season starts, Wacha’s four-seamer has averaged 95.7, up almost 2 miles per hour compared with last season’s, and its speed has peaked near 99.
When he debuted in 2013, Wacha threw four-seamers 65 percent of the time and lacked a consistent third pitch. This year, he’s thrown five pitches with some regularity, including the sinker. In a sequence from Wacha’s first start that was previously explored by Joe Schwarz of Viva El Birdos, Wacha started Arismendy Alcántara with a 94-mph sinker for a called strike …
… and then followed it with back-to-back changeups (which have similar left-to-right movement but more drop) for swinging strikes.
Wacha’s new toy drops less than all but two other sinkers thrown more than 10 times this season. As a result, it might not get many grounders: Of the first four balls put in play against the sinker, only one was on the ground. And if it doesn’t get grounders, it might not become a permanent part of Wacha’s repertoire. On April 19, the righty threw 6.2 innings of one-run ball against Pittsburgh without using a single sinker.
Tyler Glasnow, Pirates (Sinker; 19.6 Percent Usage)
Closest sinker: Jacob deGrom’s
Glasnow, who made 20 Triple-A starts with a sub-2.00 ERA in 2016, entered this season as a top-10 prospect for the second consecutive spring, according to MLB.com’s rankings. But he was far from a finished product, with the biggest strike against him being his inability to throw them. Glasnow, who at 6-foot-8 struggled to repeat his delivery and hold runners, walked 14.2 percent of the hitters he faced over two minor league levels and a seven-game stint in the majors last year, and his blurb in this year’s Baseball America prospect handbook warned that many non-Pittsburgh evaluators "believe his future lies as a reliever due to his poor control."
Another knock against Glasnow was that he didn’t have enough weapons to satisfy Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who prefers that his starters throw at least four pitches. In the big leagues last year, Glasnow barely threw three, with his developing changeup making only occasional cameos. The Pirates have been the kings of the sinker for years, with a major-league-leading 32 percent of their pitches classified by MLB Advanced Media as two-seamers or sinkers from 2013–16, but they took Glasnow’s sinker away during his climb through the minors, presumably to help him focus on his other pitches. This spring, they restored it. "It’s a good one, but he’s got to know the sequences when to use it," Searage told Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Biertempfel in February. "If he stays on top of it, it’s got angle, and then it just darts to the right."
Glasnow, who spent the winter working on his timing and trying to shorten his delivery, has thrown the sinker almost a fifth of the time in his first three starts. He’s also altered his changeup grip to a two-seam style and thrown that pitch much more often. While it’s good that Glasnow is no longer a two-pitch guy, his results are still spotty: The 23-year-old walked five in his first start and hasn’t pitched into the sixth, although he’s struck out more than a batter per inning and walked only two in each of his subsequent starts. More discouraging still, the sinker’s movement doesn’t stand out, and of the 120 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 50 sinkers so far, only five have a lower ground ball rate than Glasnow when throwing the pitch.
Alec Asher, Orioles (Cutter; 40.9 Percent Usage)
Closest cutter: Erasmo Ramírez’s
"Asher does not generate enough swinging strikes to survive in the majors," read Asher’s blurb in this year’s Baseball Prospectus annual. "The problem is not that he doesn’t throw hard — which he certainly doesn’t — but that his secondary offerings aren’t anything special."
Give Asher credit for his willingness to tinker. Although he recorded a combined 2.34 ERA across three minor league levels and a September big league call-up with Philadelphia last season, sandwiched around an 80-game PED suspension, his strikeout rates were dangerously low. This spring, the 25-year-old showed up with a cutter, a pitch that typically breaks to the pitcher’s glove side, as opposed to the arm-side movement of the typical sinker, the pitch that he used most often last season. That wasn’t enough to persuade the Phillies to keep him — allowing 13 runs in 15 spring innings couldn’t have helped — so they dealt him to the pitching-starved Orioles just before Opening Day.
Asher got one Triple-A start for the O’s before making his debut for the big club on April 15 and using the cutter to K the third batter he faced, José Bautista.
Asher has become comfortable with the cutter so quickly that it’s been by far his most frequently thrown pitch through his first two major league outings, the second of which came in relief. He’s also scrapped his slider, reduced the use of his changeup, and started throwing his curveball much more often. Last year, Asher’s 87.6 percent contact rate was tied for the ninth-worst among pitchers who threw at least 20 innings. This year, it’s down to 80 percent. That’s not great, but if his control keeps up, it’s certainly survivable.
Other New-Pitch Sightings
The pitchers listed below have thrown at least one pitch of a type that they hadn’t previously thrown in the majors, according to Pitch Info data. Each name is linked to an example of the new offering in action.
Cutter: John Lackey (Cubs), Fernando Salas (Mets), Michael Tonkin (Twins), Ross Stripling (Dodgers), Robert Stephenson (Reds), José Leclerc (Rangers), Nick Martinez (Rangers)
Sinker: Yusmeiro Petit (Angels), A.J. Griffin (Rangers), Joe Biagini (Blue Jays)
Slider: Tommy Hunter (Rays), Jarred Cosart (Padres)
Curveball: J.C. Ramírez (Angels), Josh Smoker (Mets)
Changeup: Miguel González (White Sox)
Splitter: Matt Andriese (Rays)
Four-seamer: Aaron Loup (Blue Jays)
All stats current through Sunday’s games. Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.