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What is a putaway pitch, and why can’t we have one, too?

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More thoughts on the Orioles’ trouble getting hitters out. 

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MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I talked about the pitch count, and why Orioles’ starters are having trouble making outs.

This week, it seems like some MASN reporter was reading my mind because Brandon Hyde got asked that very question. His answer: “To go through veteran lineups, you’ve gotta get them out in the strike zone. They do not expand. A lot of our guys are predictable … you gotta have swing-in-the-zone stuff. They are not going to chase on you.”

That was way harsh, Tai.

Let me be clear: I love how Brandon Hyde doesn’t sugarcoat things, especially when it comes to correctable errors: baserunning lapses, or sloppy play in the field. After that disastrous game where the bullpen almost coughed up a seven-run lead to Texas in the ninth, Hyde had pitching coach Doug Brocail and bullpen coach John Wasdin call a batting-practice meeting that seemed—for some time, at least—to have a lit a fire under the bullpen’s collective asses.

But I’m not sure that blaming a lack of stuff for the failure to get hitters out is 100% right. We know Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro (and Tanner Scott and Branden Kline, for that matter) have swing-and-miss stuff. Just try telling that to the hitters knocking them around. Miss the plate, and no one will chase, no matter how “deceptive” your offerings are (Hyde knows this). The point of this point is the importance of context.

What is a putaway pitch? A pet peeve I have with a lot of baseball writing (sports writing, really) is that it can be circular or wishy-washy: “Pitcher so-and-so got better this season by striking out more guys.” Neato; how? “A putaway pitch is a pitch you throw with two strikes.” Why not at 0-1? “A putaway pitch is a pitch that generates swings and misses.” OK, but because of what?

Here’s a definition I completely made up: A putaway pitch is a pitch thrown with two strikes that is hard to make contact on or otherwise deceptive. Not the prettiest thing ever written, but bear with me.

First, what’s so special about two strikes? Well, there’s significant evidence that a batter’s swing changes with two strikes: hitting coaches tell players to “protect the plate,” “go short and tight to the ball,” or “spread out your stance.” Ballplayers in the coke-and-machismo-fueled ‘70s and ‘80s used to dismissively call this “Judy hitting” (I won’t tell you what Ted Williams used to call it).

Baseball is a cat-and-mouse game, as we know, and defensive hitting is more important than ever. Since the homer-happy ’90s, strikeouts per game have ticked up consistently across the league. When Moneyball came onto the scene, one of its hitting prescriptions was that if you don’t swing before two strikes, you can’t make an out. In other words, respect OBP and the walk. Pitchers seem to have adjusted to this by throwing more first-pitch strikes. For instance, in his first year with the Cardinals, Paul Goldschmidt is putting up some his worst offensive numbers, and coaches think it might have to do with controlling the count: before 2019, Goldschmidt had seen first-pitch strikes 57.7% of the time; this year it’s up to 65.6%. Pitchers are also throwing fewer and fewer fastballs. So hitters’ next adaptation was working the count. As I mentioned last week, there’s significant evidence of this, too: historic numbers of foul balls, and 3-2 counts, too. Whether they’re deliberately trying to drive up the pitch count or not, the point is, fewer and fewer batters are getting fooled on two strikes.

Back to the definition. A putaway pitch is one thrown with two strikes, but it’s obviously not a putaway pitch if it’s not effective. So what makes a pitch effective? I think there’s two parts to it: either a pitch is physically hard to hit or it’s deceptive. The Aroldis Chapman 100-mph high fastball is hard to hit (but importantly for non-Aroldians, the concept of “effective velocity” tells us that how fast a pitch feels for the hitter isn’t the same as its velocity: a 91-mph pitch with spin located low-and-inside feels faster than a flatter 95 letter-high and outside). A pitch that’s deceptive is one that has a lot of movement on it, or—and I think this is crucial—resembles something else that’s been thrown already.

Here’s an example of the first one (absolutely deadly):

Here’s the second (oh, the days):

And here’s the third:

My point is, it’s great if you have a guy who’s got a single pitch that can blow past batters (Aroldis) or make them look stupid (Britton). We don’t. (Like I said about command and guys like Tanner Scott, the more you miss your spots, the less deceptive your strikes themselves will be. A 2-0 fastball that follows two sliders off the plate looks extra juicy to a hitter.)

But the putaway pitch is also about changing the batter’s optics. This is where I think coaching can take mediocre (mind you, I didn’t say crappy) stuff to plus. The secret to John Means’ changeup: selling it as a fastball with a different arm slot. (Upping the fastball velocity didn’t hurt, but you get my point.) Dylan Bundy’s greatest gift on the mound, I think, is his competitive mindset and smart pitch sequencing. I also think with the putaway pitch, we tend to fetishize the swing-and-miss. But drawing weak contact gets guys out, too: the league’s top pitchers in terms of WAR don’t line up neatly in terms of swinging strike rates, but many do rank in the top-10 in groundball-to-flyball ratio.

Bottom line: none of the above is meant to deny the obvious facts that the Orioles have a glaring talent drought, and enough of their hurlers are missing their spots that it’d be insane to blame the coaches for all the results. But the fact is, with fastball usage down over the whole league, getting hitters out is a little more than just a matter of dominant stuff; it’s about smartly executing the pitches you have.