The Pirates are an organization that has been heavy into analytics and advanced metrics for many years. So when they noticed that Jordan Lyles made some adjustments to the way he was pitching last year, it wasn’t a big surprise. Anyone who logged onto Fangraphs or Brooks Baseball would have seen the basic details on that adjustment.
What surprised me was that the press release announcing the signing of Lyles broke down the changes he made to his individual pitch usage. For as much as the Pirates embrace analytics, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them reference pitch usage in a press release. That left no mystery about why they went after Lyles.
Lyles made adjustments last year to alter his pitch usage. Part of that involved throwing his curveball more than ever, and throwing his fastballs around 50% of the time. This was a departure from his 60/40 split in the past that saw him working heavily off his fastball.
These adjustments follow a trend in today’s game that has been going on for the last two or three years. With hitters hunting fastballs and adding lift to their swings, pitchers are finding success by throwing fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches that counter the new swings.
The Pirates weren’t early adopters of this new trend. They had success from the previous trend of throwing a lot of sinkers and inducing ground balls. They held to that old trend a few years too long while the early adopters of the new trend saw a lot of success the last two years.
That all changed this past year. The Pirates started adjusting their approach in late-May, with a lot of their pitchers throwing more breaking pitches and fewer fastballs. Lyles was also making the same adjustments at the same time. In a way, Lyles and the Pirates are a great pairing, with both sides trying to increase their pitching value through the same methods.
If there was any doubt about whether the Pirates have fully bought into this new trend, that was probably erased with the Lyles move, and with Neal Huntington’s comments about the changes to their approach. After the signing of Lyles, I asked Huntington what led to the Pirates embracing this new trend over the last year. His answer included a line that I have repeated on this site constantly: “It comes down to throwing your best pitches more.”
“As an industry, as it continues to evolve, as we look at pitchers and how we can help them continue to grow, we are utilizing more secondary pitches at the MLB level,” Huntington said. “We want our guys to have a quality secondary pitch. It comes down to throwing your best pitches more. But there is still the harsh reality of getting to the big leagues and having fastball command. It’s still a focus for us in development. When a guy has a riding fastball at the top of the zone or a sinking fastball at the bottom of the zone and can induce swing and misses and weak contact, that’s still a really good pitch. The ideal part of it is to have a quality secondary pitch to go along with it, and then maximizing the effectiveness of what your secondary pitch is, or what your secondary pitches are.”
The Pirates had followed the approach of throwing your best pitches more often in the past. There’s a misconception that they just added a sinker to every reclamation pitcher by default and saw success. But many of the pitchers who they saw bounce back had good sinkers and just weren’t throwing the pitch enough. The Pirates had them increase the usage of their best pitch, and that led to success. It wasn’t always a sinker, as shown by J.A. Happ, who started throwing his four-seamer more often.
The Pirates fell behind when the trend moved to throwing your best pitch more often while cutting fastball usage down to around 50%. But they’re on board now, not just in the majors, but in the minors as well.
Huntington broke down their priority in the minors of having fastball command and developing a quality secondary pitch. That’s a pretty standard development plan. You’re not going to come close to reaching the majors if you can’t command your fastball and use it as your primary offering. Even with the reduction in fastball usage, it’s still a pitch you use half the time, and more than any secondary pitch.
The Pirates have long focused fastball command in the lower levels. They started at the extreme back around 2008/2009, having their short-season pitchers throwing nothing but fastballs, and getting crushed in the process. They evolved that plan over the years, mixing in more breaking pitches, and putting a big emphasis on changeup development in the lowest levels, to the point where the focus on fastball control and changeup development almost seemed equal.
The approach has continued to evolve, with a needed focus being placed on fastball command, but with the Pirates also stressing a game plan that involves a mixing of pitches. Mitch Keller, who used his fastball to an extreme amount — even for old Pirates standards — saw his approach change this past year, using the curveball and changeup more often, rather than working extremely off his fastball.
It was the same story for a lot of other pitchers, and it wasn’t just in the upper levels. When I talked to Travis MacGregor over the summer, he said there was more of a focus this year on throwing secondary pitches than there was for him the last two years. I heard similar stories from other pitchers, noticing a bigger priority on the new approach.
The Pirates adopted the approach of throwing fewer fastballs and more of your best pitch in the majors. That really stood out, for obvious reasons. When Jameson Taillon adjusted his approach and started looking like a top of the rotation pitcher, it was hard to ignore the change. It’s also hard to ignore the change when the Pirates stake their next reclamation project — Jordan Lyles — on the same theory and approach. And with the minor league approach also changing, it looks like the Pirates will be buying into this trend going forward with their future pitchers as well. Considering the results of this approach around baseball, and the results the Pirates have seen, that’s a good sign.