2020 Fastball Usage Decliners

The biggest trend in pitching right now is moving away from the fastball. With another 2-point drop, fastballs account for just half the pitches thrown, down from 64% back in 2002 when we started keeping the data. It slowly trickled down to 58% by 2011 and held there for five years before the current downturn that has seen at least a 1-point drop every year since 2016.

We are going to look at the pitchers with the biggest drops in usage and see what’s going on and how well it served them. Looking at 131 pitchers from 2020, just one pitcher added 10 points to his usage (Nick Margevicius 64%) while a whopping 24 shaved 10 points off from their previous season (some missed 2019 so I compared to their 2018). Six came from the Pirates (Joe Musgrove, Chad Kuhl, Derek Holland, Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, and Chris Stratton) as the departure of pitching coach Ray Searage seemed to foster a change away from heaters.

Throwing fewer fastballs doesn’t guarantee success and the Pirates group shows that in a nutshell as the SIERAs from those guys ranged from 3.50 (Musgrove and Stratton) to 5.29 (Kuhl), but five of the six did improve from their previous season. Kuhl was the lone holdout and he was returning from Tommy John surgery so perhaps it’s worth giving him some leeway.

PLAYER 2020 2019/18 Diff
Joe Musgrove 3.50 4.31 -0.81
Chris Stratton 3.50 4.04 -0.54
Derek Holland 4.13 4.98 -0.85
Trevor Williams 4.84 5.08 -0.24
Steven Brault 5.07 5.10 -0.03
Chad Kuhl 5.29 4.38 0.91

The group as a whole dropped their SIERA by an average of 0.34 with 18 of the 24 showing an improvement (although two guys were essentially even at -0.01 and -0.03) while only 4 saw a significant jump (0.50 or more) as the aforementioned Kuhl was joined by Taijuan Walker (+0.50), Randy Dobnak (+0.64), and Mike Clevinger (+1.05). The group also saw 2-point jump in strikeout rate while the walk and swinging strike rates saw small boosts on average (+0.4 each).

Here is the group of 24 with their FB% drops in 2020:

FB% Decliners
Corbin Burnes -21%
Dallas Keuchel -19%
Taijuan Walker -19%
Kyle Freeland -18%
Trevor Williams -16%
Derek Holland -15%
Chad Kuhl -15%
Zach Davies -14%
Steven Brault -14%
Zach Plesac -13%
Kenta Maeda -12%
Yusei Kikuchi -11%
Josh Tomlin -11%
Mike Clevinger -11%
Tyler Alexander -11%
Randy Dobnak -11%
Chris Bassitt -11%
Joe Musgrove -10%
Zac Gallen -10%
Chris Stratton -10%
Chase Anderson -10%
Yu Darvish -10%
Sean Manaea -10%
Daniel Ponce de Leon -10%

I have some thoughts on a few of the guys and their 2021 outlook:

Burnes had the biggest drops as he completely reworked his arsenal following a disastrous 2019 that included some bad luck, too. He developed a cutter (31% usage) that replaced his slider as his best secondary while his fastball usage focused on a new sinker (32%) and he threw his four-seamer just 7% of the time. He also took his changeup from a show-me offering (4%) to actual pitch that hitters had to keep in mind (11%). The changes fueled one of the best breakouts of the shortened season and have him going among the top 20 starters in winter drafts.

SIERA actually had Keuchel worse in 2020 despite a 1.76-point drop in ERA to 1.99. He favored his cutter over the two-seamer/sinker to stunning results including a full 1.0 drop in HR rate to an MLB-best 0.28 (5% HR/FB isn’t sustainable at all) and a .255 BABIP that was reminiscent of his 2017 Cy Young season. I’d pay for a high-3.00s/low-4.00s ERA with a low-1.30s WHIP and expect his usual unimpressive strikeout rate meaning he’s a firm pass as a top-200 pick (currently going around 193).

Davies was kind of in the Keuchel class (from the right side) prior to 2020 as a soft-tossing control artist with decent ERAs, mediocre WHIPs, and a paltry K%. We saw his first big jump in changeup usage from 2018 to 2019 when he added 19 points to 31% which helped him to a career-best 3.55 ERA and he took it up another level this year with his fastball drop funneling into even more changeups (+10 pts to 41%) and cutters (+5 pts to 17%).

An unsustainable .249 BABIP helped drive his ERA down to 2.73, but let’s not overlook the 8-point surge in strikeout rate to a career-best 23% mark. Just because he’s unlikely to put up another 2.73 ERA/1.07 WHIP doesn’t mean he won’t hold some of the improvements in 2021 and become a more reliable version of what we saw prior to 2020. His career 3.79 ERA/1.28 WHIP combo is about the best I’d expect in a full season, but if it comes with a 21-23% K%, then he’s rosterable in a lot more leagues than before. That said, his 231 ADP is a bit rich for my blood and seems include a hefty 2020 tax, though his huge 191-pick split between min (132) and max (323) suggests the room you’re in will play a big role in his draft day price.

A decent 2019 earned Plesac a modicum of interest, but even his biggest proponents didn’t see this coming as he leveraged an incredible slider en route to a 2.28 ERA/0.80 WHIP combo. He would’ve had more than his 55.3 IP if he was a better decision-maker off the field, but there was a lot to like on the field. He upped his swinging strike rate 5 points driving a 10-point jump in his K% thanks to that slider. Of course, the 92% LOB and .224 BABIP are comically unsustainable going forward, but there is still reason to believe in some of the core skill gains here. If anything is giving me pause about buying in as the 20th SP off the board (top 60 overall pick), it’s the HR rate (1.3 in ’20, 1.4 career).

Ponce de Leon didn’t lit it up performance-wise with just a 4.96 ERA and 1.32 WHIP thanks in part to a 2.2 HR/9 (allowed 1 HR in all 8 of his starts), but he really dialed up the curveball usage to push his strikeout rate to 32%. He put up a really impressive 3.15 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in four Septembers starts with 28 strikeouts in 20 IP. However, he pitched the backend of a doubleheader in all four outings which takes a little punch out of the performance.

Especially when you also consider that the Central was already the easiest of the three mega divisions by far. He is incredibly affordable, though, so even with his flaws you can feel comfortable taking the dart throw in the 400s. He’s currently carrying a 440 ADP and even his peak of 341 isn’t terribly expensive. Nick Pollack was the one who put him on my radar and now I’ve got a little star next to the 29-year old righty who might be on the verge of a breakout in 2021.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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What about FB velo? If a pitcher drops FB usage while maintaining or increasing FB velo, it might be a good sign. OTOH, a lower FB usage combined with a drop in FB velo may, not so much.