BRADENTON, Fla. – On May 27th of this past year, Jameson Taillon made a big adjustment to the way he was pitching. In that start, Taillon threw his new slider 35% of the time, all while sacrificing his fastball usage, dropping it down to 55%. That established a new trend going forward, where Taillon would throw fewer fastballs, getting down to around 50% between his four-seam and sinker, all while showing heavy usage with his slider and curveball.
Around that same time, the Pirates saw a few other pitchers making similar changes to their approach. This change wasn’t new. It was something that pitchers in other organizations were doing, and having success with: Throw your best pitch more often.
It’s hard to ignore that all of this started right when Joe Musgrove joined the rotation and the team. Musgrove was rehabbing early in the season last year, and didn’t make his Pirates debut until May 25th, two days before Taillon adjusted his approach. Musgrove also came from the Astros, where the “throw your best pitch more often” and “use your fastball less” approaches were common. In fact, at that point Gerrit Cole was seeing a lot of success with the new approach with the Astros.
Maybe it was just coincidence that the Pirates started making these changes when Musgrove arrived. Maybe he played a role in the change. I talked with Musgrove this afternoon at Pirate City and found that the answer was a bit of both. He didn’t feel the adjustments had a lot to do with his arrival, but he did offer his thoughts on the subject when teammates would approach him with questions.
I typically don’t do Q&A style articles with full quotes, but talking with Musgrove today was insightful on what went on last year, along with the strategy behind the approach, and how it’s not as simple as “throw fewer fastballs and throw your best pitch more often.” Here is the discussion I had with Musgrove, with some minor analysis added in for each topic.
Did His Arrival Lead to the Changes For the Rotation?
Musgrove: “We talked about it, the more you can throw your more dominant pitches, the better results you’ll have. As much as you want to throw your breaking ball, [it’s] only as effective as you can be efficient with your fastball. If you can get guys to commit and command both sides of the plate with your fastball, they have to respect that more, and that opens up your breaking ball and secondary stuff more. I don’t think it necessarily had a whole lot to do with me as much as our staff being aware of their stuff and making the adjustments that they found necessary.
“We talked about it a lot. The Pirates, and the Astros were also big on throwing the fastball. They wanted you to use your fastball, and they were big on using the fastball up in the zone. I would say that’s the biggest adjustment. I don’t know how much of it was me, or how much it was these guys being aware of it and coming over and talking more about it.”
Analysis: One thing that can’t be over-stated here is that fastballs are still the most important pitch. Even with an Astros style approach, you’re still throwing the fastball 50% of the time, and more than any other pitch. So you can throw your best pitch more often, but if you don’t have the fastball to set that up, you’re not going to magically be a successful pitcher.
More on the Impact of the Fastball
Musgrove: “The more you can bury fastballs at the top of the zone by hitters, and then you present that with a curveball that starts off at the same line, it’s all about visuals. Pitching isn’t even about throwing strikes. Strikes are good, but it’s about throwing pitches that look like strikes long enough to get the hitter to want to swing.
“If you look at Dallas Keuchel, 60-70% of his pitches were out of the zone, but he got guys to swing at pitches that weren’t strikes, because they looked like strikes and presented long enough. That was more what we were trying to do. I think you might have seen more success with the breaking ball, but I think the fastballs up are ultimately what set that up.”
Analysis: Certain pitches pair well with a specific fastball. A four seam fastball pairs better with a curveball, and a two-seam fastball pairs better with a slider, since they have complementary movements. The pitches look the same out of the hand, helping to disguise the break. As Musgrove pointed out, that combo of a fastball at the top of the zone and a curveball can make the curve more effective, since a hitter may not know whether the pitch coming in high will remain up in the zone (fastball) or break to the bottom of the zone (curve). The sinker/slider combo comes in the same, but when used effectively, has similar cutting action to opposite sides of the plate. I brought up how I noticed Pirates pitchers seemed to be pairing their pitches last year, and Musgrove expanded on the topic more.
Musgrove: “I think for any pitcher, the most successful pitchers, you look at them and often times their two best pitches go opposite directions. Whether it’s sinker/slider, you have the backspin four seam at the top of the zone and the curveball. You’ve got the cutter and the changeup. Your two best pitches are always going to be going in different directions, and you see that in common with a lot of elite pitchers nowadays.
“I think that’s something that everyone tries to replicate, and it allows you to work to the middle of the zone more. If you want to work to the edges, you can throw your pitches out over the middle of the zone, and you can have half of them breaking to one edge, and half breaking to the other edge. Then you can expand up and down, and it creates a lot of weapons for you.
“I think it allows you to be a little bit more repeatable with your delivery, and not trying to change your direction as much, or your release point as much. Ideally, a great pitcher, the Greg Madduxes and those type of guys that can just pound the zone with strikes and they can be on the edges with everything. Their pitches have so much action that they can start them in a similar area and they break to the edges.”
Note: From this point forward, we discussed Musgrove’s pitches.
Musgrove’s Slider Usage Went Down and His Cutter Went Up in 2018
Musgrove: “I started throwing the cutter. A lot of my changeups read as sliders last year. To lefties I would throw more of a fading, diving changeup, and to righties I was throwing more of a cut change. Some of them I didn’t really know what I was doing, and they started to cut, and as the year went forward it started to develop into that.
“The slider is actually my cutter. My really good sliders I’ll get up to 86-87, but usually my cutter is anywhere from that 88-89 to 92-93. That became a really good pitch for me to help get lefties out. In the development of that, I feel my slider might have gotten a little bit flatter and more sweepy. It didn’t have as much depth and bite as I wanted to.
“You’ve got five or six pitches, it’s tough to be repeatable and efficient with six pitches. But at the same time, if you’ve got the weapons, you’ve got to try to use them. With some hitters, the curveball presents better opportunity than the slider. Some guys I use one pitch more than others during the game. You try to keep them all sharp, and pick what weapons you need for that start, and spend your week sharpening those weapons.”
How Does Musgrove Decide What His Best Pitches Are When He Throws So Many?
Musgrove: “I rank my pitches everyday when I throw my bullpen before I go out to the mound. You kind of get with your catcher and talk about what feels really good that day. If my changeup is not feeling good that day, I say ‘Go to it if we need to show it, but that’s not my put away today.’ The catcher sees all of that stuff throughout the course of the game. His job is to recognize that and to learn his staff, and learn when they have their weapons, and gameplan differently. I learned that last year with Diaz and Cervy behind the dish.”
A lot of the strategies discussed are simple on the surface, and make way too much sense. Throw your best pitch more often. Have two pitches that look similar out of the hand, with different ending actions to fool hitters. Throw your pitches down the middle and let the action of the pitches carry them to the edges, rather than trying to place moving pitches in specific spots.
As we’ve seen across the game the last few years, and with the Pirates in 2018, these approaches work. I’ve been talking about some of these approaches since before the Pirates started to adopt them. I’ll be focusing on this in the next few months leading up to the season, while also revisiting some of Musgrove’s comments from this interview for a deeper dive into what changed for the Pirates.