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Mixing It Up for Fantasy Baseball: A key pair of Astros are making some intriguing changes

Even though spring training has wrapped up, that's no reason for us to stop looking into pitchers who are throwing new pitches. In fact, this is when the fun begins. Many pitchers will test new pitches in the spring but abandon them when the regular season starts. It can often be more informative to see which pitchers have drastically changed their pitch mix or pitch shape after a few starts in the regular season.

With that in mind, we will continue with the premise of the series I had called Pitchers with New Pitches (and Should We Care) by breaking down notable changes in a pitcher's pitch mix (hence "Mixing" it up). We'll look at pitchers who are throwing a new pitch, have eliminated a pitch or are showcasing a different shape/velocity on a pitch.

I'll continue my analysis with the simple premise that not every new pitch should be greeted with praise. A new pitch, like a shiny new toy, might be exciting on its own, but it also needs to complement what a pitcher already has and fill a meaningful void in his current pitch mix. We want to check and see if he has any splits issues. We want to see what his best pitch(es) is and see if this new pitch would complement that. Then we want to see what this new pitch type is generally used for (control, called strikes, etc.) and see if that is something this pitcher needs help with. We can also now see the pitch in action to look at the shape and command and see if it's actually any good. Once we've done all that, we can decide if the pitch is a good addition or not.

If you missed any of the previous editions of this series, you can click this link here to be taken to the tracker, which I'll update as the season goes on. It will also include links to the original articles so you can read them in full if you'd like.

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I was a big fan of Hunter Brown's last year. I had fully bought in on the raw talent and the Astros' previous success in developing pitching and felt like we were due to see a breakout, but a really rough second half of the season had me concerned. The young right-hander was changing his pitch mix seemingly every start, and it had me concerned that he didn't know what type of pitcher he wanted to be.

In my pre-season starting pitcher ranks, I had him down near 50th and said, "Which version of Brown will show up? If he can command his secondaries and doesn’t need to rely on the fastball so much, then he’s the low-to-mid 3.00 ERA arm we saw in the first half of the year, but if he can’t harness his breaking balls then he’s at risk of imploding again. I want to believe in the talent, but it’s also scary."

Well, the first part of the season was certainly scary, but there's a chance that Brown is BOTH improving his secondaries and relying less on his four-seam. We'll tackle the four-seam first since it's the change everybody is talking about. The main way that Brown decided to cut back on his four-seam usage was to add in a sinker primarily for righties.

Now, this chart from Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard is using just one start in June, so we need to keep that in mind when we look at the pitch usage, but the change from April to May is clear, as is the continued move away from the four-seam fastball in June.

Hunter Brown headshot
Hunter Brown
SP - HOU - #58
2024 - false season
68.1
IP
5
ERA
1.43
WHIP
76
K
29
BB

Brown introduced the sinker in May and has used the pitch 16% of the time to righties since then. He has also thrown 69 of his total 72 sinkers to righties, so it's pretty clear how he's using the pitch. He is throwing the sinker inside to righties over 81% of the time, which is the 99th percentile and also throwing it up in the zone almost 44% of the time, which is a pretty great mix against righties. Although, his strike zone plot does look like he tried to decapitate most batters.

That tracks with the data we can see on Pitcher List, where Brown has just a 33% zone rate with the sinker, which is well below the league average of 52.8%. He does have a 64% strike rate and 11.6% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), which is well above the league average for sinkers. The pitch also allows just a 23% Ideal Contact Rate (ICR) to righties and a 69% groundball rate, so he may not have command of it, but it misses bats and doesn't give up hard contact, so we love that about it at least.

Yet, the biggest benefit of the sinker may be that it has allowed Brown to dial back the usage of his four-seam fastball, which got rocked by righties to a .511 slugging percentage and 42.6% ICR last year and .609 slugging percentage and 43.3% ICR this year. Using that pitch less to righties is a huge win in itself.

However, the four-seam hasn't been good to lefties either with a 48.5% ICR, which is why Brown introduced a cutter this year and has been leaning into it more against lefties with a 15.7% usage rate. The pitch has allowed a 43.8% ICR to left-handed hitters with just a 7.5% SwStr%, so it hasn't been much better, but location is a big part of that. Pitcher List has Brown marked for throwing 13% of his cutters to lefties "middle-middle." The league average is 7%, so you certainly don't want to be throwing that many more pitches down the pipe than the average. The idea is good here, but the execution is lacking.

That brings us to our last change, which could be the curveball. We don't want to overreact to a small sample size, but as the year has gone on, Brown has been throwing the curveball harder and with more horizontal movement and less downward bite. In April, the pitch averaged 81.4 mph with 3.6 inches of horizontal movement and 16.7 inches of downward movement, according to Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard. In May, he was throwing it 82.4 mph with 4.4 inches of horizontal movement and 15.4 inches of downward movement.

Minor changes for sure, but in his one start in June, his curveball was 83.7 mph with 5.5 inches of horizontal movement and 15.3 inches of drop. We're now talking about a pitch that is almost 2.5 mph harder with two inches more horizontal movement and 1.5 inches less vertical movement. That's a conscious choice. It should be noted that Brown's curveball had a 5.3% SwStr% in April and 17.8% SwStr% in May, so maybe it's a change that we need to take more notice of.

Brown is still not a finished product, and poor outings are going to come, but he's moving in the right direction. The test will be if he can stay in this direction and limit the urge to tweak things again and again like he did last year.

VERDICT: MEANINGFULLY IMPACTFUL. Just by dialing back the four-seam usage alone, these changes are impactful. However, the improvements to the curve — if legit — would add another level of meaning, and the sinker and cutter both have another level of improvement in them if Brown can get a better feel for their command. I'm not predicting Brown will be an ace in the second half of the season and I still think his overall pitch mix lacks major strikeout upside, but these changes are a positive step for sure. Now, they just need to maintain.

In the first five starts of the season, Verlander used the changeup over 9% of the time just once. In his last four starts, his usage has fallen below 13% just one time. It doesn't seem like a major difference, but it's the continuation of a year-over-year change that has seen Verlander go away from the slider as often, focusing a bit more on the curveball and changeup.

As you can see from the graphic taken from Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard, not only has Verlander been reducing the use of his slider, but he's been tweaking the shape too, throwing it a little bit softer with more movement overall. That has not been helping at all with the SwStr% decreasing each year, the barrel rate increasing, and the Defense Independent ERA (dERA) increasing. The slider now grades out as just slightly above average when it comes to PLV, and even though it doesn't give up a lot of hard contact, it's not missing as many bats.

Considering the slider was a big swinging-strike pitch for Verlander in the past, the ineffectiveness and decreased usage of it make me a little concerned about his strikeout upside. Maybe it has still been effective against righties and the increased changeup and curveball usage are helping him against lefties?

Justin Verlander headshot
Justin Verlander
SP - HOU - #35
2024 - false season
57
IP
3.95
ERA
1.21
WHIP
51
K
17
BB

Nope. The slider has also weirdly been worse against right-handed hitters this year, posting a 64% strike rate, 9.6% SwStr% and 33.3% ICR against right-handed hitters compared to a 75% strike rate, 15% SwStr% and 33% ICR against lefties. We can also see from the image above that Verlander has been leaning on the curveball more in recent years, but that pitch has just an 8.7% SwStr% to righties and 4% SwStr% to lefties.

So how is he missing bats, and would an increase in changeup usage actually help with that?

As one would imagine, the changeup is primarily being used to lefties, with a 12.7% usage to lefties on the year and a 5.6% mark to righties. The pitch grades out slightly above average, with a 5.08 PLV where 5.02 is the average for a change-up. It has almost two inches more vertical movement this year while sacrificing some horizontal run. Yet, Verlander also has below-average strike rates and zone rates with the changeup and has just an 11.3% SwStr% to left-handers with it while allowing a 50% ICR.

Yes, he has a .083 batting average against on the changeup to lefties despite giving up ideal contact 50% of the time. That doesn't compute. Oh, well that .100 BABIP might have something to do with it. You could also say, "Well, ICR includes hard groundballs, so maybe he's just getting hard groundouts." Nope. The changeup has induced just 20% groundballs to lefties but 40% line drives. He is also inducing a 30% pop-up rate to lefties, so hitters seem to be getting under the pitch, which is likely why the batting average is so low. However, it's hard to feel confident about a pitch that isn't missing lots of bats and is also getting hit hard often.

We've now basically gone through all of Verlander's arsenal and have not landed on one swing-and-miss pitch. If he wants to get strikeouts, he needs to keep his fastball up in the zone, which he is doing pretty well this year, posting a 65% hiLoc% (high location rate), which is the 90th percentile. However, when he misses low in the zone, he can give up hard contact, like we saw when he gave up three home runs on Monday. That's a tough tightrope to walk.

VERDICT: NOT VERY IMPACTFUL. Adding another pitch to induce weak contact would be nice if I believed in the changeup, but the contact metrics against it suggest Verlander is getting lucky. He no longer has any clear putaway pitch to rely on, and this is just simply not a profile I can bet on. I know it's weird to say about one of the better pitchers of the last decade, but if you can get a hot stretch out of him and then sell, I'd be all over that opportunity.

In the offseason, I covered Sears in my article on pitchers with surprisingly good fastballs. Even though we'll be covering Sears' sinker here, it was his four-seam that caught my attention before this year began. In 2023, Sears’ four-seam averaged 93.1 mph with 6.6 feet of extension, and 13.8 inches of iVB. While that’s not great “vert,” Sears' release point means that the fastball has a height-adjusted vertical approach angle of 1.7. The larger the number when it comes to HAVAA (the acronym sucks), the flatter the fastball, and since Sears is 5'11" and has a lower release point, his fastball gets 98th percentile height adjusted VAA. That means his fastball is really flat — doesn't "sink" as much when it approaches the plate — and flat fastballs tend to perform well upstairs. Well, Sears throws his four-seam upstairs 56% of the time, so we're cooking there.

However, in many ways, the four-seam is a better pitch against right-handed hitters. Last year against lefties, Sears' four-seamer had a 43.4% ICR, a .369 batting average against and a 9.5% SwStr%. He didn't seem comfortable commanding the four-seam inside to lefties, and so he kept almost 50% of his four-seamers away to lefties while burying them inside to righties at a 39% mark, which was way above league average. As a result, the pitch has a .228 batting average against righties with a better SwStr% and ICR than when he tosses it to lefties.

In 2024, the gap has closed a bit, but the four-seamer is still better against righties, posting a higher SwStr%, a lower ICR and a significantly lower batting average.

Now, that could have to do with situations and locations. Sears has his sweeper as a primary out pitch to lefties, but we know sweepers are less successful against opposite-handed hitters. Even though Sears will go to the sweeper against righties, he uses the four-seam more as a strikeout pitch to them than he does left-handers. That's part of the reason why he throws the four-seam up in the zone 58% to righties and just 43% to lefties.

Coming into the season, I said that Sears' solid fastball "allows him to set up that sweeper, which is his best pitch. That gives him a solid foundation, even if the change-up never improves. That means, as a floor, Sears should be a low-4.00 ERA arm with an improving strikeout rate and solid walk rates that will keep the WHIP from being egregious." Well, the change-up didn't take meaningful steps forward so far, but Sears added a sinker for left-handers instead.

JP Sears headshot
JP Sears
SP - OAK - #38
2024 - false season
78.1
IP
4.02
ERA
1.15
WHIP
54
K
24
BB

Sears added the sinker this year and is throwing it 10% of the time overall but 19% of the time to lefties. He primarily keeps it low in the zone with a 96th percentile low location rate on Pitcher List. The pitch has induced a 55% groundball rate and just a 27% ICR, so even though it doesn't grade out well, he doesn't get hurt on it. However, the primary issue is that it has a 34th percentile zone rate and 40th percentile strike rate, which is not ideal for a fastball you're using as a main fastball to lefties. Sears should be able to pound the zone with that pitch and get ahead in the count, but it's not happening right now.

Even though Sears has a surprisingly good fastball, he has poor velocity on it, so hitters can take advantage when he doesn't get it up in the zone like he intends to. That's part of the reason he has a 16% HR/FB ratio, which is worse than league average. Granted, it's only been four home runs off the four-seamer this year, but all have been to righties, which means he's posted a 22% HR/FB rate on four-seamers to right-handed hitters, which is not ideal.

The sinker has helped here for sure. Sears had a 24% HR/FB rate on his four-seamer against left-handed hitters last year, so the fact that he has yet to give up one to them this season could be connected to dialing back his usage and favoring the sinker instead. Overall, bringing in the sinker has helped Sears lower his ICR allowed, lower his HR/FB rate, and lower his ERA and ERA estimators. He's still allowing hard contact in the air, but he's just allowing less of it.

The issue is he's always missing fewer bats. A 16% strikeout rate and 10% SwStr% are not inspiring at all and don't provide you much for fantasy.

And therein lies the conundrum for Sears. We love that he's not giving up as much hard contact and is allowing fewer homers, but I don't believe this is the way to fantasy success for him. He has cut his four-seam rate against righties from 48% to 33%, and while the sinker is a better fastball option against lefties and pairs better with his sweeper given the arm slot and the low location, he has no real pitch other than the four-seam to get whiffs against righties. I don't think he needs to cut it out altogether; he just needs to locate it better.

VERDICT: MINIMALLY IMPACTFUL. I do think this change makes Sears a more valuable real-life pitcher, so we can't ignore that. However, it has perhaps hurt his strikeout upside, which wasn't high to begin with, and so that is not ideal for his fantasy outlook. I'm not turning the page on him yet; I think there is a good pitcher in here.