Examining the Reds’ top pitches according to the Pitching+ model

Examining the Reds’ top pitches according to the Pitching+ model

Last week, we broke down the Pitching+ model created and examined how Reds pitchers are graded in each component — including Stuff+ and Location+. If you missed it and need an overview, you can check it out here!

This week, we’re going to take a closer look at Stuff+ and Pitching+ for individual pitch types. How good is Hunter Greene’s fastball? Or Nick Lodolo’s curveball? How about Graham Ashcraft’s cutter? Let’s find the answers!

Setting a baseline

First, a reminder on what Stuff+ and Pitching+ are, as well as what they measure:

  • Stuff+ measures the physical makeup of a pitch, including velocity, spin rate, spin axis, vertical and horizontal movement, and release point. The most valuable traits are, unsurprisingly, velocity and movement. For secondary offerings, the model takes into account how the pitch plays off the pitcher’s fastball (e.g., the differences in velocity and movement).
  • Location+ pitcher’s ability to throw a certain pitch in the ideal place, depending on the ball-strike count.
  • Pitching+ takes the elements of Stuff+ and Location+ to “grade” a pitcher’s overall quality. That is, it assesses all the parts of a pitcher’s process and computes a score on their overall effectiveness. Note that it is not just the average of Stuff+ and Location+, as it also includes elements such as batter handedness.

Much like wRC+ or OPS+, the league average for Pitching+ metrics is set at 100; a number above that indicates the pitcher has above-average stuff, and a number below that indicates below-average stuff. For individual pitches, however, the average isn’t always 100. Why? Because some pitch types are more effective than others. Breaking pitches typically get better results than fastballs, for example.

Here are the Stuff+ averages for each type of pitch, according to FanGraphs:

  • Four-seam fastball: 99.2
  • Sinker: 92.5
  • Cutter: 102.1
  • Changeup: 87.2
  • Slider: 110.8
  • Curveball: 105.5
  • Knucklecurve: 110.3
  • Splitter: 109.6

Here are the Pitching+ averages for each type of pitch:

  • Four-seam fastball: 98.5
  • Sinker: 95.4
  • Cutter: 98.6
  • Changeup: 98.1
  • Slider: 106.0
  • Curveball: 103.9
  • Knucklecurve: 104.5
  • Splitter: 107.6

The average Location+ for each pitch type is 100.

With that context in mind, let’s jump to how Reds pitchers rank.

Reds pitches by Pitching+

Some important notes before looking at the charts:

  • The data goes back to 2021. This gives a larger sample size, but may not reflect recent changes in a pitcher’s abilities (e.g., loss of velocity or increased movement) or role (e.g., moving from starting to relieving or vice versa).
  • Stuff+ takes about 80 pitches to stabilize, although this can vary between pitch types (e.g., fastball Stuff+ stabilizes more quickly). Pitches thrown 20+ times are included; pitches thrown fewer than 80 times will be in bold, italic font to indicate we should take them with a grain of salt.
  • Location+ and Pitching+ take about 400 pitches to stabilize or become reliable. For the sake of comparison to Stuff+, pitches thrown 100+ times are included; however, pitches thrown fewer than 400 times will be in bold, italic font.
  • Green indicates an above-average pitch in the given category; red is below average. Lighter shades indicate the pitch is roughly average.

First up, the fastballs:

For four-seamers, the clear standout — to no one’s surprise — is the newly extended Hunter Greene. He generally locates his fastball well, and he throws it harder than 99% of the league, gets above-average spin, and generates strong horizontal movement (3.9 inches above average).

The other unsurprising standout is Alexis Diaz, who throws a highly unique fastball. His heater gets elite spin (100th percentile), and his extension (100th) paired with a funky arm angle and high velocity (81st) helps his fastball play up even more. It also helps him overcome below-average command, because it’s a tough pitch to square up if he throws it over the plate. It’s possible that the model doesn’t even fully account for how good Diaz’s stuff is because it doesn’t have another pitcher to compare him to aside from his brother. The model works by comparing pitches from one player to similar pitches from the rest of the league, and its job gets harder when a pitcher is very different from others.

Ian Gibaut, who also gets above-average extension and fastball velocity, also ranks above average in all three categories.

Nick Lodolo is above-average in both Stuff+ and Location+, which makes his mediocre Pitching+ grade tough to figure out. Lodolo may also suffer from the Diaz problem in that his arm angle and movement are so unique that it’s tough to compare him to other pitchers. It should be noted, though, that he’s improved in all three metrics with his four-seam fastball early in 2023, particularly in Location+, where he ranks 13th among all qualified pitchers.

A shout-out to Casey Legumina as well, whose Stuff+ on his fastball certainly grabs your attention after just 4.1 innings in the big leagues.

Meanwhile, Luis Cessa’s subpar four-seamer has contributed to his struggles in adapting to a starting role.

While no Reds pitcher has a standout sinker, three pitchers at least have an above-average one: Lodolo, Reiver Sanmartin, and Cessa. Notably, though, Cessa’s sinker — which has excelled from a location standpoint in a relief role — has diminished in all three categories as he’s transitioned to starting this year.

Only a few Reds pitchers throw cutters, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Graham Ashcraft. The pitch has only gotten better in 2023, taking a massive jump in Stuff+ from 113 last year to 133 this season. No starting pitcher in baseball throws a harder cutter than Ashcraft (96.4 mph), and he’s added more spin and horizontal movement to the pitch in his second season.

With his four-seam and sinker being below-average pitches across the board, Derek Law developed a cutter last season. It shows some promise but is mostly still an average pitch.

Now, let’s look at the secondary pitches:

That’s a lot of green in that slider column. Greene leads the pack in Stuff+ because, well, having an 88-mph slider plays very well off a 100-mph fastball!

Ashcraft similarly throws a hard slider, adding 3 mph to the pitch from his rookie campaign. This year, he’s adapted his cutter grip to throw his slider, and it’s worked wonders so far. The pitches largely follow the same path, but the slider darts more sharply down and away or in to hitters. Just like his cutter, Ashcraft’s slider has taken a massive jump in Stuff+ from 123 to… 151! Among qualified pitchers, only Jacob deGrom has a higher Stuff+ on his slider this year.

Gibaut has the highest Pitching+ grade on his slider over the last two years, although that comes with a small(ish)-sample warning and a note that his Stuff+ is down so far in 2023. It should also be mentioned that he throws a traditional slider with downward movement as well as the newly minted sweeper, which is a slower slider that gets more horizontal (a.k.a., sweeping) movement.

Buck Farmer owes a lot of his 2022 resurgence to a revamped slider, which is reflected in the Pitching+ model. His Stuff+ was mediocre on the slider in 2021 with the Tigers (111), but it jumped to 118 last year with the Reds as he added nearly five inches of horizontal movement to the pitch.

Law should probably be throwing his slider more. It’s his best pitch by every Pitching+ metric and he has a career 41.2% whiff rate with it (league average is about 34%), but he’s used it only 11.1% of the time in 2023 and 10.2% of the time in 2022.

Cessa’s slider is his best pitch, but it has lost some of its effectiveness in a starting role, with its Stuff+ dropping to from 111 as a reliever last year to 101 this year. Diaz also has lower-than-expected numbers, although that could again trace back to him being a bit of a unicorn regarding his arm angle, spin, and extension.

When it comes to curveballs, Lodolo and Lucas Sims are the stars.

Lodolo’s curveball is nontraditional in that it gets a lot of horizontal movement (4.7 inches above average) but not a ton of drop compared to other curves (7.9 inches below average). There’s little doubt it’s an excellent pitch when he commands it, as only one pitcher (Framber Valdez) who’s thrown at least 300 curves since last year has a higher whiff rate than Lodolo (45.3%).

Sims’ curveball is a familiar pitch to Reds fans. We’ve written about it quite a few times over the years. While Sims saw a dip in Stuff+ with his curveball last year, he was pitching through injury. When healthy, Sims gets elite spin and horizontal movement on his curveball, and he commands it better than any of his other pitches. Here’s the Sims’ curveball from 2021 during his stretch of utter dominance:

With Luis Castillo now in Seattle, the Reds don’t have a pitcher with a top-tier changeup. Gibaut’s has shown flashes against left-handed hitters, but he only throws it about 10-11% of the time. Cessa and Luke Weaver don’t have nasty changeups but have commanded the pitch well over the years.

The only Reds pitcher who throws a splitter is Fernando Cruz — and the model doesn’t seem to know what to make of it. FanGraphs notes that, in general, splitters can vary wildly in their Pitching+ values. Cruz’s splitter has been effective regardless, generating a whiff rate of over 60% in his brief time in the major leagues.

Final Thoughts

Although some links are stronger than others, there’s no lack of talent among the Reds pitching staff. Some pitchers excel with their stuff, such as Greene, Sims, Diaz, and Ashcraft, while others have to rely more on command — such as Cessa, Weaver, or Sanmartin. The pitchers who can do a little of both (e.g., Greene, Lodolo, Ashcraft) are often the most effective.

Overall, the Pitching+ model provides an intriguing new way to look at a pitcher’s process and overall effectiveness. It allows us to get more granular in evaluating a pitcher and seeing what makes them tick, why they’re effective or ineffective, and how teams can make more informed personnel decisions — whether it’s confirming what their eyes already tell them or trying to identify diamonds in the rough. Is Pitching+ the end-all, be-all of pitching analysis? Of course not. Like every stat, it’s a piece of the puzzle. But it looks to be an important piece of the puzzle.

Featured photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.