Doesn't it always seem like Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph are ALWAYS CALLING FASTBALLS?
I've tweeted on the issue quite a bit, because it's been my biggest pet peeve with what has been one of baseball's most disappointing starting rotations.
No one enjoys throwing more middle middle two-strike fastballs than the #Orioles pitchers.— Nick Cicere (@Swissere) July 31, 2015
SO MANY 2-STRIKE FASTBALLS! HOORAY! #Orioles— Nick Cicere (@Swissere) July 17, 2015
Yet again an awful fastball with two strikes. #Orioles— Nick Cicere (@Swissere) June 14, 2015
Naturally, it's a high-risk, high-reward plan of attack. The first step in becoming a major league caliber hitter is having the ability to hit a well-located, 90-something MPH fastball, and more often than not, a fastball is the favorite pitch to hit. A flat four-seam fastball presents the most limited challenge for any hitter because it is indeed flat, giving the ole Louisville Slugger the best chance to square up a round ball on a round bat.
As for a pitcher, the fastball, among many things, limits the timing of a hitter given the presented boost in velocity, and in my mind, there is no tougher pitch to hit than a perfectly-placed heater.
The Orioles' starting staff was successful in the over-abundance of fastballs in 2014, but this year's rotation was unable to repeat the formula from a season ago.
Orioles Pitch Selection/Weighted Runs
|2014||63.0% (4th)||-9.7 (18th)||12.2% (22nd)||7.5% (28th)||-9.8 (26th)||13.8% (10th)||13.1 (6th)||7.6% (27th)||-14.0 (27th)|
|2015||63.7% (3rd)||-21.4 (20th)||16.7% (12th)||6.7% (30th)||-18.1 (28th)||14.1% (13th)||-3.0 (22nd)||7.4% (26th)||-18.4 (30th)|
*() denotes MLB rank
Though the numbers look scary at first (small W's and negative numbers are my nightmare), there is an answer hidden somewhere in this table.
As they did a year ago, the Orioles pummeled PITCHF/x trackers with a high rate of fastballs, even jumping up just a tad from 63.0% in '14 to 63.7% in '15. The most notable difference is the effectiveness of the fastball, escalating downwards in weighted run value. As I attempted to gauge Fangraphs' description of wFB (I'm still learning to maneuver the site like a Dave Cameron clone, so bear with me), I came to the simple conclusion that as it is with all weighted pitch values, the number gauges the good and the bad that come with the pitch. Whether that be a groundout or home run, the weighted value of the pitch gives us a clue as to how effective it's been, with 0.0 being the average.
In 2014, the Orioles' starting staff, though still below league average in fastball efficiency, likely had it's number blown up due to the high volume of fastballs being thrown, as well as not having the same kind of talent the Mets, Cardinals and Pirates had on the mound, other top-five finishers in FB% a season ago. Even still, the Orioles were right around the middle of the league in terms of fastball effectiveness, one of the reasons the O's staff performed as well as they did.
The massive 11.7 point wFB drop from 2014 to now, to me, shows that there is still a concerted game plan in mind, yet the execution has been less than ideal. Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez don't have the Matt Harvey-type fastball that can miss out over the plate and not be followed with a trip around the bases. There isn't that presence of pure power in their heat, making location and avoidance of the belt-high mistake that much more important. The eye-test tells me that's been an issue, as do the numbers.
As the year has progressed downwards, the Orioles have continually opted not for a two-strike slider down and away or a changeup in the dirt, but instead trying to bust hitters up and in, middle-in or middle-away with fastballs. Too many times have the likes of Gonzalez, Chen and others missed over the plate when hitters are at their most defensive, turning should-be outs into base hits. As well, this steady dose of fastballs presents a greater opportunity for foul balls, one reason why the O's rotation is fourth in baseball in pitches per plate appearance (3.86).
With more fastballs comes less off-speed pitches, which is frustrating given the specialty pitches that Orioles starters have at their disposal. For example, when Gonzalez's splitter starts at the knees and drops to the shoelaces, it's one of the best pitches in baseball, but throwing that pitch at a 15.9% rate isn't going to create the deception needed to keep hitters off balance.
If you classify his splitter as more of a changeup, you'd like to see him throw it more around the same frequency as James Shields (both of whom have near identical average fastball-changeup/splitter velocity differential) throws his changeup, at around 20%. But again, that all falls back on fastball command. Shields throws his fastball a mere 40.5% of the time, while Gonzalez has been at a rate of 58.4%, and even more so, Gonzalez has a better wFB of -6.5 compared to Shields' -7.8.
If Gonzalez was more willing, or given more freedom to throw the splitter, it isn't out of the question the value of his fastball would be even higher, a result of more frequent change of speeds and less predictability.
Not to pick on Gonzalez, especially as he sits on the disabled list with shoulder issues, but his inconsistencies weren't a blip on the radar. This season has pointed to a franchise philosophy that just hasn't worked.
It's OK to throw an abundance of heat if you're the Mets (Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom have averaged 95.9 MPH on fastballs in 2015), because talent and execution aren't an issue. The Orioles refused to diverge from a failing plan, thus further creating more inefficiencies in the rotation.
It was fun to watch someone like Tyler Wilson work with all his pitches in all different counts, because that's what pitching should be. Keeping hitters guessing and questioning their approach is what guys like Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez do, and it's whats made them successful.
Well, that and being able to locate a fastball...