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Problematic pitches: the rookies edition

There’s work to be done this spring.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at San Francisco Giants Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports

I like to think that there are no bad pitches, just problematic ones. A linguistic massage, sure, but for good reason. Bad implies rotten, throw it out, while problems imply the possibility of solutions. That 0-2 fastball may have not ended up in the right-field bleachers if he had thrown it six inches higher. It’s not that it was impossible to throw it at the top of the zone, it’s that he just didn’t. Execution, conviction, feel. Pitchers don’t pitch pitches, they feel them.

A trio of San Francisco Giants rookies debuted in 2023 and threw a plethora of problematic pitches. Little feel was exhibited. We’ve winced through winter as we revisited them—you threw that fastball to Freddie Freeman where? They were green, mere rookies! Slack has been cut. Grace abounds. They haven’t been around long enough for their weaknesses to be weaknesses. Call them areas of growth. But rubber meets road in a week’s time when pitchers and catchers report to camp. The new season shines with promise, but baggage still lingers from the old, as cumbersome as a monkey and as exact as said primate sticking them with a pin repeatedly in the spine. No time like the present to rehash the past and hope for a better future.

Tristan Beck

There is little digging required to uncover that Beck’s breaking pitches were a problem in 2023.

Over his 30 long relief outings and 3 starts, the rookie right-hander struggled to extend himself through at-bats and lineups with only a slightly above average slider, an inconsistent sweeper and curveball that were often mistaken for one another. These secondary pitchers were especially lacking in comparison to the success of his mid-90s four-seamer. Beck’s fastball had a Run Value of 13, putting him in the 92nd percentile of all MLB heaters while he nearly bottomed out in the 9th percentile of breaking pitches with a -7 Run Value.

Hitters are wild animals, carnivores, middle schoolers. They can smell fear, identify insecurities and exploit them. They dug into the box blind to the heater, searching only for the breaking ball, and often Beck would oblige. Maybe in his freshman year he felt he had to prove himself and fight offensive power with a hard slider, often throwing through its natural break and leaving it in the zone. Maybe there was pressure to deal the in-vogue sweeper, while forsaking his more typical curve, and ultimately not completely understanding the difference between the two.

The good news is that Beck’s problematic pitches have good bones. They’re an easy flip. Yeah, some dead doves were served up last season, but hopefully Beck has internalized the truth from his coaches: your stuff is good, trust your stuff. Beck definitely has good stuff. His fastball rides, and he gets above average movement on his breaking balls. He recorded nearly half of his strikeouts with the sweeper while earning a 31% swing-and-miss rate on the pitch.

I think part of the reason Beck’s breaking balls struggled last year was he didn’t believe in his secondary pitches, nor treat them as distinct from one another. This started to change towards the end of the season when he started using the slider-sweeper-curve more evenly, During his final two games against the Dodgers in which he gave up 3-runs over 10.1 innings, he upped his curveball usage and worked with a 40% fastball, and almost even slider, sweeper, curve, 20%-20%-20% mix.

Beck wasn’t predictable or over-reliant on one or the other. The interchangeable nature boasted a greater comfort in his arsenal while keeping the batters guessing. It’s a solid blueprint for future starts.

Keaton Winn

In terms of Run Value, Winn’s 4-seam fastball and its -3 R.V. was his worst pitch. Perhaps it’s most fair to say it was “improperly handled.” To the eye, Winn’s fastball is actually pretty dang exciting considering its horizontal run and how it do-si-dos with his split-finger fastball as they work the letters and knees of the batter’s zone.

The four-seamer got knocked around a bit because it’s a hammer-and-nail world. Welcome. In this world, nails get hammered. Subtlety is dead. Power bludgeons power. The pitch generated 30% Whiffs on swings but opposing hitters also posted a .741 slugging percentage against it, with a 55.6% Hard-Hit rate. Location, location, location. If Winn got it up in the zone and above the letters, all gravy. If not, well…

His splitter had a Run Value of 1. Better than average but only by definition, not in spirit. It did its job for the most part, fetching a near 60% ground-ball rate, but with a temperamental pitch and a young arm that might be overzealous with it (55% usage), the pitch wasn’t immune to wallops.

These pitches become their most problematic against lefties. Check out that 4-seamer to Freeman again. The horizontal run that Winn would use to graze the outside corner against righties means it hovers in a lefty’s power corridor. The ball drawn to the bat barrel like a moth to a flame. Here’s another to Mike Ford against the Mariners.

If that pitch is to be effective, it’s got to start further in, and it can’t leak out over the middle of the plate. We know Winn can work that plate corner—we’ve seen it against righties—it just takes a certain level of veteran gumption when there’s someone standing where you want to throw it.

His splitter also had a nasty habit of staying over the middle of the plate. A good off-speed option is a necessity for a right-hander facing a lefty. Ideally, as it drops, the pitch lilts away from the batter too, eliciting a more lunge-y, arm driven swing sapped of typical power. Alex Cobb’s split-finger is zeroed in on that low-and-away corner. Whether it is control, feel, or just the type of movement it has, Winn’s split tended to wander, not only from that low-and-away happy place but up from the bottom of the zone as well.

What’s funny is that Winn doubled down on these pitches when facing LHB. He relied on the splitter 60% of the time and the four-seamer usage jumped from 26% to 40% usage. Out of 259 pitches to lefties last season, he threw just 4 sinkers—all else splitters and four-seam. Lefties hit .273/.314/.470 (70 batters).

On the other hand (nice), righties slashed .200/.270/.378 (102 batters). Winn threw his split about 52% of the time against these same-side bats while incorporating more sinkers (24%) than four-seamers (16%) and an occasional slider.

It’s clear something else has got to be tossed into the salad bowl. Cobb-like control over the split, always a plus, but maybe feathering in the sinker more just to give them something else to look at? A breaking ball would be cool? Cobb doesn’t like to throw his slider to lefties but uses his curve… Go talk to Alex, Keaton! Alex P. Keaton. Family Ties. Moving on.

Family Ties

Kyle Harrison

The slurve (or clider, if you prefer) was problematic for Harrison from the first inning he pitched last year.

Two outs and a runner on second, Bryce Harper lifted a lazy breaking-ball to right-center for a Major League welcome and a phat Philly F-you, rook. Harrison would throw the pitch about a 150 more times in the season and opposing batters slugged .606 against it, earning the pitch a RV of -3.

Against righties, the slurve ideally looks impossibly outside out of the hand before breaking towards the plate and catching an edge. Against lefties, it should start behind their back and frisbee across the plate towards the opposite box. The end result is coaxing a flailing swing at a pitch nowhere near the zone. It’s a better pitch against lefties. The low-release point and good extension makes it especially tricky. It can be a plus- secondary pitch, a nice palate cleanser for his fastball, as well as a finishing pitch. Imagine gearing up for a mid-90’s fastball letter high then getting spun something that slippery 15 clicks slower.

But Harrison had trouble getting the pitch to finish its shape. It’d slur- without ve-ing, straightening as it reached the plate like it did to Harper instead of shooting further away from the reach of the barrel.

It’s maybe the reason for the southpaw’s odd splits against lefties. In theory, Harrison, with his pitch arsenal and distinct delivery, should be a headache. Instead, they hit .333/.429/.639 (42 batters) and struck out only twice. Harrison didn’t K a lefty until his 6th start: Freddie Freeman with a change-up, and he didn’t K a lefty with his slurve until his next (and last start): Max Muncy on October 1st.

That’s what the pitch should look like, and I’m sure Harrison has spent the past four months reliving that moment in his mind, itching to throw another one like it.

Overall, Harrison threw the slurve 26% of the time, while upping the usage to around 31% against lefties. That feels about right if you think about a three pitch strikeout. The classic, Little League K-O: fastball, fastball, breaking ball. Maybe play with the order, or drop a change-up or a hard slider in on occasion, but with Harrison’s stuff, it’s probably best not to overthink it. But of course, the whole mix goes awry if Harrison can’t locate the slurve against the bats he naturally has an advantage over.