Potential Pitch Mix Improvements for Free Agents (Part 1)

Earlier this month, I highlighted a couple of pitchers who improved their results by changing their pitch mix with a new team. With the positive results, I decided to apply the logic to this upcoming class of free agents. The reason I wanted to focus on free agents because I expect a pitcher’s current teams to keep the pitcher doing what he has always done. After going over 15 pitchers, four stood out with real upside.

I’m just going to focus on the each pitcher’s 2018 pitch mix. I can’t assume they’ll develop a new pitch, so I need to work with what they showed last year. The two most common ways for a pitcher to improve is to quit throwing a horrible pitch or drop their fastball usage. These changes don’t guarantee an improvement. For now, the focus is on pitchers with upside beyond their projection.

I collected the free-agent pitchers from MLBTradeRumors and took the youngest pitchers for this investigation. I didn’t include any pitcher who has any kind of option on their contract. I’ll go back and examine them once it’s known for sure who they are or aren’t a free agent.

After going through the pitchers, I found they fit into three main groups depending on if changing their mix could help. This list is in no way a ranking of pitcher talent but I’m sure someone will bring it up in the comments. These are just pitchers who I believe can improve by adjusting their current pitch mix.

Major Improvement Candidates

Jeremy Hellickson

The pitch tracking services have him with six pitches and the one he throws the most (sinker) has only a 2% SwStr%, so there’s lots of room for improvement. His sinker also didn’t sink with just a 40 GB%. His four-seamer got 5% SwStr% and was pop-up generating pitch with only a 25 GB%. His change is great with a 15% SwStr% and his curve is acceptable at 11%. If he can keep his walk rate near 2.0 BB/9 like in 2018, he’s a great sleeper depending on which team he signs with and the adjustments he makes.

Derek Holland

He has some room to improve. While he has two acceptable fastballs, he throws them 63% of the time. His two breaking balls, a slider and curve, shove with both having a 17% swinging strike rate. Additionally, he threw a horrible change 9% of the time. He needs to drop it. By being 50% or less with the fastball and throwing the breakers more (e.g. Patrick Corbin), he might become a 3.50 ERA pitcher.

Garrett Richards

Note: I totally blanked on Richards needing Tommy John surgery. He’s not in play next season.

A nice sleeper here, especially if he goes to a team that values pitcher health. The main improvement he could implement is to throw his underproducing four-seamer (5% SwStr%, 51% GB%) less and go with his sinker (7% SwStr% and 58% GB%) more to match with his elite slider. He threw the four-seamer about twice as much as the sinker.

Additionally, his curveball isn’t horrible (12% SwStr%), so he could throw it more. IF healthy, I’ll gladly gamble on him next season depending on where he signs (i.e. not the Mets).

Matt Harvey

He has some average to above average pitches with his slider being the best (14% SwStr%) but he only threw it 24% of the time. He could take off if a team had him throw his four-seamer and slider 50/50. The Full Corbin.

Some improvement possible

Jaime Garcia

Garia is another pitcher who just needs to get the fastball usage down. He threw them 67% of the time. While his sinker had a 7% SwStr%, his four-seamer was only 3%. On the other hand, his slider had an 18% SwStr% and his change had a 17% SwStr%. The changes may not matter since he continues to miss the strike zone.

Year: BB%
2014: 1.4
2015: 2.1
2016: 3.0
2017: 3.7
2018: 4.8

The strikeout potential exists if he can just throw strikes.

Hyun-Jin Ryu

While a pitcher with a 1.97 ERA and ERA estimators near 3.00 might not have room for improvement, Ryu does. While his fastballs are acceptable (four-seam and cutter), he throws them 62% of the time. Additionally, his curveball has been below average for a couple of seasons. There’s not a ton of room for improvement but there is some.

Chris Tillman

What a mess of a 2018 season and the only way to go it up. None of his pitches were average. For now, his best bet is to head to the bullpen, throw fastball/slider for a couple innings, and hope something clicks.

Nathan Eovaldi

He has some room to improve. After not pitching in in the majors last season, he came back throwing a cutter as a secondary pitch. The 9% swinging strike rate was lower than his other three pitches.

Additionally, the pitch doesn’t have any groundball or flyball tendencies so it gives up line drives. It’s .314 against was the highest of any of his pitches. The Red Sox may have noticed the cutter’s over usage and asked him to throw it less but he could drop it’s usage even more.

I need to see who he signs with and how they plan on using him to get a good idea of his value.

Dallas Keuchel

Looking over his pitches and results, some combination should work but it didn’t to an elite level in 2018. The biggest issue was his sinker “only” getting a 66% GB% instead of his normal +70% when everything is clicking.

He could throw his changeup more as it gets the highest number of swinging strikes (16%) but he only throws it 13% of the time. While his pitch mix could push up his value, I’m more interested in the infield defense for the team who signs him because of his high groundball nature.

Brett Anderson

His two worst pitches, four-seamer and curve, he throws the least. He might be able to make a small improvement by using both a little less.

No Improvement Here

Trevor Cahill

His pitch mix might be efficiently mixed. He only threw his fastball, which is the only pitch he can consistently throw for strikes, 41% of the time. All three of his breaking pitches had a swinging strike rate over 13%. He threw his changeup the most but it did post a 21% SwStr%. It’s tough to see how he could improve it.

Patrick Corbin

His pitch mix is nearly ideal since he went all slider last season. He’s likely maxed out with slider usage since he can’t throw it for strikes and must come back with his fastball when behind in the count. He gets hit around since hitters can sit on his fastball.

Drew Pomeranz

He has an elite fastball with a 9.5% SwStr% and only 20% GB%. And nothing else. All of his other pitches are junk with not one having a swinging strike rate of 7% last season. It’s not good with the only answer for improvement is to go full Bartolo Colon and throw more fastballs.

Hector Santiago

His arsenal is like Drew Pomeranz’s but worse. He can’t throw strikes (5.3 BB/9).

His best pitch is his flyball inducing (33% GB%. 9.3% SwStr%) fastball. And there is nothing else. For him, I’m interested in him if he goes to a home run suppressing park like Kansas City or SanFrancisco. And gains some control.

Drew Hutchison

When your walk rate is 5.5 BB/9, the signing team’s last worry is a new pitch mix. His breaking pitches are decent, but his fastball is pure crap. Ignore.

Lance Lynn
Lynn’s pitch mix can’t improve since he only throws fastballs.

Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won four FSWA Awards including on for his Mining the News series. He's won Tout Wars three times, LABR twice, and got his first NFBC Main Event win in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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baltic wolfmember
5 years ago

Why did you say that Lance Lynn only throws fastballs? It’s true most of his pitches were fastballs, but according to Texasleaguers.com he also threw a decent cutter and curveball.
Here are his numbers: http://pitchfx.texasleaguers.com/pitcher/458681/?batters=A&count=AA&pitches=AA&from=4%2F1%2F2018&to=10%2F1%2F2018
Slightly above average whiff rates with the cutter and the curveball. Maybe he should throw those pitches a little more.