Mixing It Up for Fantasy Baseball: Luis Gil and Taj Bradley have new cutters, plus Matt Manning's sweeper

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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Taj Bradley returned from an injury to make his season debut against the Yankees on Friday, and he looked pretty good doing it. Bradley allowed just one run on four hits over six innings while striking out seven and walking two. While his four-seam fastball velocity was up in the debut, averaging 97.3 mph, what really stood out were two changes he made: throwing a harder cutter and changing his changeup into more of a split-change.

Before we dive into those changes, we have to address what the issues were with Bradley last year.

Taj Bradley headshot
Taj Bradley
SP - TB - #45
2024 - false season

Bradley looked solid in his first three starts of the year last year, allowing six runs on 12 hits in 15.1 innings against the Red Sox, Reds and Astros while striking out 23 and walking just two. However, things went a little sideways from there. On the year, he gave up a decent amount of hard contact with a 43.3% Ideal Contact Rate (ICR) and 10.3% barrel rate which led to inflated HR/FB rates. He also really struggled against righties, allowing a .282/.343/.603 slash line compared to .227/.291/.386 against lefties.

That's, like, a pretty major difference.

In reality, every single pitch in his arsenal was worse to righties last year, which you can see in this graphic from Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard.

Taj Bradley's Arsenal. (Chart by Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard)
Taj Bradley's Arsenal. (Chart by Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard)

He had a worse swinging strike rate (SwStr%) on every pitch other than the curveball, and he gave up almost double the barrel rate to righties, with a 13.5% mark compared to a 7.4% mark to lefties. The four-seam got hit harder and missed fewer bats, and he went to a cutter and his second most-used pitch to righties, but it was not a good offering for him. So when we're looking at the changes Bradley made in his one start this year, we need to be focusing on whether or not he can fix these reverse-splits issues.

First, it's worth noting that Bradley appeared to have slightly more extension and more Induced Vertical Break (iVB) on his four-seam fastball. With a height-adjusted VAA of 1.0, it's a pretty flat fastball, so it was nice to see him use it up in the zone 76% of the time in his debut, compared to 53% last year. However, when you look at his strike zone plot from the start, you can see that a good chunk of those high fastballs were not competitive pitches.

Taj Bradley's 4-seam.
Taj Bradley's 4-seam.

Is it good for him to be trying to throw upstairs? Absolutely, but a 45% zone rate and 4.5% SwStr% to righties isn't going to do anything for us, so he'll need to get that command in check.

So let's get to the cutter.

In his debut, Bradley showcased a cutter that was 2.4 mph harder than last year (averaging 91.3 mph) with more horizontal movement and less vertical movement. He also used it low in the zone 63% of the time on Friday, compared to just 42% last year, so it seems almost like he's trying to use it more as a slider than a typical cutter. He did tend to throw it down the middle often in that first start with a 10% middle-middle performance against righties and 38% of cutters to righties located middle on the x-axis, so not inside or outside. To me, that's simply too many and might be part of the reason the pitch had just a 9.5% SwStr%.

However, thanks to the awesome data Kyle Bland gave me, I can see that the cutter is an early strike pitch for Tampa Bay. They throw cutters early in the count over 5% more than league average but are below league average in terms of cutter usage in two-strike counts or when they're behind in the count. Bradley threw his cutter to righties early in the count 67% of the time in his debut, so that jives. Considering it had just a 33% ICR allowed and a 71% zone rate to righties, this could be the soft-contact, high-zone-rate pitch that he needs. When you pair that with a fastball that he's trying to locate upstairs, you can start to see a picture of how this can all work.

Yet, Bradley made another modification, turning his 89.7 mph changeup with 6.4 inches of drop and 8 inches of arm-side run into a splitter that he threw at 91.5 mph with just three inches of drop but 10.2 inches of arm-side run. As you might expect with that kind of arm-side run, he used the pitch far more against lefties in his debut, registering a 30% SwStr% but also a 50% ICR. Tampa Bay loves a two-strike splitter, using them nearly 8% more than the league average in such counts, so it's interesting that Bradley threw it early in the count to lefties 70% of the time in the debut. It showed some potential as a putaway pitch, which could be useful because he doesn't like to throw the curve as a two-strike offering to lefties and the cutter doesn't seem like a good option there either given it would attack low-and-in, where lefties love to hunt.

VERDICT: POTENTIALLY IMPACTFUL. We don't want to overreact to one start, but I do love the idea of this new cutter low and away to righties as a strike pitch with a fastball being used up in the zone. He can then incorporate his curve to add a solid third pitch and you can start to see a pitch mix that could really negate these reverse splits from last year. However, the command of the pitches needs to be better, and that was an issue for him last year. I'm optimistic but there is still work to be done.

I was really high on Manning coming into the year due to a few changes I saw him making in spring training, but then he didn't land a spot in the rotation out of camp. Bummer. However, Kenta Maeda has suffered a recent illness and has also been pretty bad to start this year, so Manning could get a chance to claim a rotation spot.

While he doesn't seem entirely interesting on the surface, Manning has posted a 3.43 and 3.58 ERA over the last two admittedly abbreviated seasons and also had a 1.17 and 1.04 WHIP in those seasons as well. Those are pretty solid ratios for a one-time well-regarded pitching prospect, so if he could ever find some strikeouts to go with it, we might be onto something. Well, that's where some of these changes come into play.

Matt Manning headshot
Matt Manning
SP - DET - #25
2024 - false season

Manning had a fine but not great 11.1% SwStr% in 2022 and just a 6.2% barrel create allowed but that regressed last year to an 8.8% SwStr% and a 10.9% barrel rate allowed. Part of that was because his four-seam fastball got hit much harder last season, as did his curveball. His slider was also almost two mph slower last year, averaging 81.9 mph, but posted a 12.9% SwStr% after having a 17.2% mark in 2022. That's a step back with all three pitches.

So heading into 2024, Manning needed to figure out how to reduce hard contact on his fastball and get more swing and miss back into his arsenal. It seems clear that he tried to do both of those things.

For starters, his four-seam fastball is slightly faster in 2024, averaging 93.8 mph, but he also increased the iVB on the pitch from 15.4 inches to 16.7 inches. With an extension of 6.8 feet, his fastball can get on hitters quicker than average and the shape of the pitch, being pretty flat, suggests that it could succeed well up in the zone. Alex Chamberlain’s research has shown that "a flat four-seamer can find whiffs throughout the strike zone, especially at the top." Flatter four-seamers induce more swings up because there is less sink on them so it may appear to a hitter that the pitch will catch the top part of the zone, but a flat fastball appears to "rise" and remain above the strike zone.

So where does Manning throw it? So far, he's thrown it up just 38.2% of the time and kept it low at 33.5%, which is well above the league average.

Matt Manning's 4-seamer. (Chart by Pitcher List).
Matt Manning's 4-seamer. (Chart by Pitcher List).

As an organization, the Tigers throw four-seam fastballs up in the zone over 4% less than league average and throw them low in the zone 4% more than average. Considering they use four-seamers more early in the count than behind or with two strikes, it seems like the organization views it as a strike pitch and not a putaway pitch. This leads to another point Alex makes in his article: "Because flat four-seamers tend to lure hitters’ eyes up, flat four-seamers can also get away with chasing called strikes low in the zone." This seems to be what Detroit is going for.

Yet, a 17% called strike rate on Manning's four-seam is actually below average and the 12.4% SwStr% on the pitch is above average, so perhaps they should recalibrate the usage of the pitch. I think it has the makings of a solid offering for Manning, and one that could both help him with whiffs and reduce hard contact, but the approach with it needs to change.

Another major change for Manning this year was modifying his slider into more of a sweeper and then keeping a harder slider to pair with it.

Last year, Manning threw his slider 81.9 mph with 10.2 inches of horizontal break and 6.6 inches of drop. This year, the sweeper is 83.9 mph with 8.5 inches of horizontal movement and 8.7 inches of drop. That's almost the same velocity as his better 2022 slider but with far more drop. The pitch has a 15% SwStr% right now and a troubling 47.6% ICR but that might have to do with location since Manning throws the pitch high in the zone 33% of the time. Dude, why are we using our pitches so weird?

This is another thing that might be attributed to the organization, but it's clear that Manning loves to "pitch backward."

Even with the change to the sweeper, Manning still loves to throw it early in the count, with a 68% mark that's the 87th percentile in baseball. Yet, the biggest difference is that the sweeper has more two-strike success as well while the older slider was just a strike pitch. Last year, Manning's slider had a 22% chase rate in two-strike counts and a 14% PutAway Rate, which is how often a two-strike pitch results in a strikeout. This year, the sweeper has a 15% PutAway rate, but a 56% two-strike chase rate, which is one of the best in baseball. He only throws it with two strikes 23% of the time, but if he used it more, and threw it less in the zone with two strikes, it could be an even better strikeout pitch for him.

VERDICT: MODERATELY IMPACTFUL. The pieces are here. Manning's stuff grades out better. He has a fastball that can succeed upstairs. He has a sweeper that can miss bats. He just needs to tighten up the approach to maximize the effectiveness of each pitch. I'd love to stash him on my bench to see if he can figure it out like his teammates Tarik Skubal, Jack Flaherty and Reese Olson have.

I usually don't like writing about new pitches after just one start and a super limited sample size, but I'm going to talk about Gil's two cutters in his last start because the Yankees as an organization love to throw cutters, so this feels like a deliberate change.

Gil has been a success story for the Yankees this year, posting a 2.51 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 27.4% strikeout rate. His pure stuff grades out well, and he's allowed just a 32.3% Ideal Contact Rate, which means he's not getting hit hard. However, there are some issues — well, namely one big one: command.

Luis Gil headshot
Luis Gil
SP - NYY - #81
2024 - false season

Gil has a 15% walk rate on the season but he also seems to miss his spots even when he hits the zone, getting to general areas but not pinpoint location. That has caused him to fall behind in the count 15.1% of the time. His strike rate and zone rate are both below league average, so he struggles to get into two-strike counts consistently, but when he does get into two-strike counts, he's able to finish at a high rate.

Another minor concern is that he has a bit of a splits issue, allowing a 9.8% barrel rate to lefties compared to a 1.7% mark to righties. He also gets 1.5% fewer swinging strikes to lefties, primarily because his slider is not nearly as effective against lefties. It registers a 15% SwStr% and 37.5% ICR to righties but a 7.1% SwStr% and 50% ICR to lefties. So perhaps this is where the cutter will come in?

He's only thrown two cutters this season but they were both to right-handed hitters, located up and away. The Yankees throw cutters up in the zone nearly 7% more than the league average and also use cutters when they're behind in the count more than the league average. From that, we can glean that they view it as a solid strike pitch that can confuse a hitter if the hitter is ahead in the count and expects a four-seam fastball but gets a cutter instead.

That's the part that could be most useful for Gil.

He needs a pitch that he can locate for strikes. He doesn't give up many balls in play early in counts, so while much of that has to do with not throwing as many strikes as we'd like, he's also not getting hit hard early in counts. The cutter could be useful for him if he needs to sneak a strike since his called strike rate is below league average.

However, I think the issue is bigger against lefties. Gil actually throws the fastball in the zone more against lefties and it misses more bats. However, he struggles to locate the slider and changeup to lefties, throwing both of them in the zone under 29% of the time. Against righties, they both have a zone rate above 41%. If the cutter could become a strike pitch against lefties, that could help him clean up some of his command issues and also prevent some of the hard contact he's giving up against lefties. Considering both Clarke Schmidt and Marcus Stroman have cutters they use far more often to lefties, there is precedent for the Yankees pushing for this approach.

MARGINALLY IMPACTFUL. The cutter could be a great pitch to offset some of the concerns with contact against lefties but the command issues are going to take more. It would be great to see Gil have a pitch he can consistently throw in the strike zone, but he also needs better command of his other offerings before we see him really come close to his ceiling.