Potential Pitch Mix Improvements for Free Agents (Part 2)

Last week, I started digging through the free agent pitchers and found those arms who could improve on their pitch mix. Three prime candidates, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Harvey, and Derek Holland, stood out. This installment includes the older pitchers from MLBtraderumors free-agent starter list while still ignoring those who may or may not become free agents. I’ll look into them once it’s official they are a free agent.

As I said in the previous article:

I’m just going to focus on the each of the 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 pitcher to improve is to drop a horrible pitch or drop their fastball usage. These changes don’t guarantee an improvement but for now, the focus is on pitchers with upside beyond their projection.
After going through the pitchers, I found they fit into three main groups depending on if changing their mix could help. This ranking 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

Clay Buchholz

I’ve never been a fan Buchholz and I didn’t buy into his results in Arizona. After diving in, the results are reasonable and there is room for growth. Buchholz is unique in that he throws five distinct pitches between 17% and 25% of the time. Here is how they performed:

Clay Buchholz 2018 Pitch Mix & Results
Pitch SwStr% GB% Throw%
Cutter 17% 36% 25%
4-Seam 2% 34% 25%
Curve 6% 38% 17%
Change 19% 40% 17%
Sinker 4% 62% 17%

Dropping the curve would be the best move. It does nothing. The four-seam usage could head down also. While I would not project a 2.01 ERA, I would not be surprised if his ERA was under 3.50 and a K/9 nearing 9.0 with the curve gone.

Gio Gonzalez

Damn you Brewers, you stole my thunder. Gonzalez’s sinker was dragging him down (5% SwStr%, 51% GB%) while his pop-up inducing fastball was putting up elite results (11% SwStr%, 26% GB%). With the Nationals, he threw his sinker 28% of the time and the 4-seamer 26% of the time. With the Brewers, it was 40% four-seamer and 19% sinker. His ERA was 4.57 with the Nationals and only 2.13 with the Brewers. Going forward, he just needs to drop the sinker and go with his other pitches.

CC Sabathia

It’s tough to guess if the 38-year-old is willing to mess with his pitch mix but he could throw his change more than 10%. It has the highest swinging-strike rate (18.5%) of any of his pitches. He should be using it instead of his slider (31% usage, 11 SwStr%) to finish off hitters. His slider used to get swinging strikes over 20% but those days are long gone.

Some improvement possible

Francisco Liriano

First, no pitch-mix change is going to help a 4.9 BB/9 but my proposal may some. He needs to drop his sinker and just go with his four-seamer. His change and slider are elite but he needs to a pitch to throw for strikes. Here are the 2018 results on the two fastballs.

Francisco Liriano’s 2018 Fastballs
Pitch SwStr% GB% Zone% Throw%
Sinker 3% 49% 43% 43%
4-Seam 2% 36% 52% 4%

Neither one misses bats or has a plus batted ball profile but at least he can throw the 4-seamer for strikes. With two breaking pitches having a 16% SwStr%, he is an OK fastball away from improving a ton.

Anibal Sanchez

The 34-year-old righty was a target for improvement last season and a new mixed helped him. By decreasing the usage of his sinker and slider, he could throw his effective pitches more often. Going forward, he could just drop the slider and sinker since he still threw them over 5% of the time.

Edwin Jackson

I have no idea how Jackson posted a 3.33 ERA All of his peripherals point to an ERA closer to 5.00. Sadly, he was using a near perfect pitch mix to get his production. The one change he could implement is throwing his sinker (46% GB%, 3% SwStr%) less (15% last season).

Wade Miley

The Brewers are on a roll. The 2017 version of Miley screamed for a pitch mix adjustment and the Brewers pulled it off. They had him throw his sinker (5% SwStr%) and four-seam (5% SwStr%) less and go with his cutter (12% SwStr%).

The only possibility for growth is completely dropping the sinker and four-seamer

No Improvement Here

Charlie Morton

The Astros had Morton about maxed out on his pitch mix potential but then he developed a cutter with a 58% GB% and 17% SwStr% to go with his four-seam, sinker, and curve. He dropped its usage as the season progressed as it got hit around (.364 BABIP). In all fairness, he has three above-average pitches and if he sticks with them, he’ll be just fine.

Josh Tomlin

A lot was going on with Tomlin, especially setting the all-time high in HR/9 (min 50 IP) at 3.2. Also, his 1.5 BB/9 was the 7th lowest in the league (min 50 IP). It seems like he was getting too much of the plate. He only has three pitches (cutter, four-seam, and change) and each one had a HR/FB% over 20%. He has other issues to worry about than his pitch mix.

Marco Estrada

He may be at the point of diminishing returns with his changeup. He’s increased his usage over the past three seasons from 29% to 37% while its swinging strike rate has dropped from 22% to 16%. Also, his fastball velocity continuing to drop off. The combination has just made him too easy to square up and he posted a 1.8 HR/9 last season.

With all that said, his limit arsenal has him maxed out on talent.

Yovani Gallardo

With the five pitches he throws between 12% and 30%, I figured there must be some combination to improve on. The problem is that each one is horrible. His change posted the best swinging strike rate but it’s under 10%. In all fairness, he doesn’t belong pitching in the majors.

Tyson Ross

I believe his pitch mix (slider, four-seam, and cutter) has his production maxed out. The problem with Ross is his fastball velocity is down 3 mph from his peak levels and his slider’s swinging strike rate is only at 14% while it was from 22% to 30% at its peak.

Tommy Milone

In his short time in the major, the heavy flyball pitcher utilized a nice mix of pitches. The Nationals brought him up in the middle of summer when flyballs will travel the furthest. As a result, he gave up too many home runs (2.4 HR/9). With an ERA near 6.00, he’ll be on no one’s radar but could be a nice arm to pick up in a draft and hold league especially if he goes to a team with a home run suppressing home park.

J.A. Happ

He maxed out the potential on his pitch mix and had his best season ever.

Bartolo Colon

It’s impossible to improve a one-pitch mix.

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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