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Pitchers With New Pitches - Should We Care For Fantasy Baseball? Part Two

paul blackburn fantasy baseball rankings draft sleepers starting pitchers waiver wire

The new pitch, like the shiny new toy, might be exciting on its own, but it also needs to be a complement to what a pitcher already has. Much like a toy that's the exact same as a toy we already have makes us forget the older toy.

So instead of just celebrating that some pitchers are throwing new pitches, I went back to watch the pitch in action, checked in on its performance, and looked at the Statcast Spin Direction graphics to see if it might actually make the pitcher any more effective. From there, I tried to give you a simple verdict as to whether or not we should care about this new toy or not.

It's also important to note that for many of these pitchers, this is the first time they've thrown these new pitches in a game situation, so the overall quality and consistency may get better over time, and I've tried to take that into account in my analysis. We should also note that, for the purposes of this article, I will also be including pitchers that have re-worked or revamped a pitch to make it "new" even if it wasn't technically a pitch they already threw, like Tyler Mahle's slider a couple of years ago. Be sure to also check out the rest of my articles in this "Pitchers With New Pitches" series for analysis and deep dives on more starting pitchers.

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Andrew Heaney, Los Angeles Dodgers - Slider

I know, I know, we've been here before. It seems like every year we talk about how Heaney's plus raw stuff is finally going to lead to a breakout. Yet, the left-hander is now 30-years-old and has thrown 644.2 major league innings with a 4.65 ERA and 17.8 K-BB%. Not exactly earth-shattering numbers.

Yet, Heaney signed with the Dodgers this offseason and there was immediate talk about Andrew Heaney being this year's Robbie Ray. It was a conversation that, I will admit, I immediately poo-pooed.

So far through two starts, I may have been wrong to do so. Heaney has thrown just 10.1 innings, but he has yet to allow a run and has an impressive 40% strikeout rate, 32.5 K-BB%, and 20.5 SwStr%. A large component of that is because of Heaney's re-shape breaking ball, which he transitioned from a curve to a slider.

In 2021, Heaney threw a curve at 79.4 mph with 46.8 inches of drop and 7 inches of horizontal run. In 2022, he has re-shaped that into a sweeping slider that he throws at 81.9 mph with just 39.9 inches of drop and 5.6 inches of horizontal break.

Wait. Isn't that less horizontal movement? How is that a sweeping slider? The simple answer is that, although Heaney's pitch gets less horizontal movement overall than the curve, it gets more horizontal movement relative to its vertical drop. So, since it drops less, the pitch actually appears to "sweep" more, which is amplified by his new release point.

You can see the difference between the movement on the slider and his old curve in the video below:

The slider is now a near-perfect mirror of his four-seam, while the minimally-used changeup also shares a similar trajectory to the four-seam, as you can see in the Spin Direction graphics.

Obviously, the results have been tremendous so far. Heaney has a 30.7 SwStr% on his slider alone with a -0.82 deserved ERA (dERA) on the pitch and a 37.3% CSW. However, the real key may be how the shape of the slider improves the four-seam. We already discussed how the two pitches mirror each other, which could lead to more deception in the four-seam. So far on the season, the four-seam has a 2.20 dERA and a 38.2% CSW despite having just a 10.5 SwStr%. That means a MASSIVE portion of the effectiveness of the four-seam has been on called strikes. Can that continue is the big question?

VERDICT: POTENTIALLY IMPACTFUL. Sure, maybe I'm pouring cold water on the party here, but I'm just not ready to say this is a brand new Heaney. Remember that his curve wasn't a bad pitch last year. It was his best pitch by SwStr% (15.5%) and by dERA (2.76). Heaney wasn't great because his fastball gave up a 9% barrel rate and his change wasn't that effective. So far, the slider has been amazing and appears to be allowing his fastball to play up. It has also just been two starts. He should absolutely be rostered in all leagues given the upside if this change is real, but I'm not yet ready to say the breakout is here until we see if the gains with the four-seam fastball are real. 

UPDATE: After submitting this article, Andrew Heaney was placed on the 10-day IL with a left shoulder injury. We don't yet know how long he will be out. 


Adrian Houser, Milwaukee Brewers - Change-up and Slider

Unlike Andrew Heaney, Adrian Houser has been throwing new pitches this season without much success. Both Houser and Brewers' manager Craig Counsell mentioned in the offseason that Houser was focusing on his offspeed pitches in the effort to miss more bats.

In 2021, Houser threw his sinker 54% of the time, but he also threw it 48% of the time in two-strike counts despite it only having a 6.5% swinging-strike rate. That is, well, not a recipe for getting strikeouts. The issue is that Houser's curve had such an 8.9 SwStr% and his slider had a 12.7 SwStr%, but he threw the pitch just 7% of the time.

Even without good offspeed pitches, Houser has a 3.71 career ERA in 334.2 major league innings. He pitches to a 3.22 ERA last year and won 10 games for the Brewers, so he has been a boring but solid pitcher even without alterations. However, as you can see from the numbers above, improving his offspeed pitches was certainly a priority. In the video below you can see my breakdown of the changes that Houser wound up making:

Adding four inches of drop on the curve and almost five inches of break on the slider is not a small thing. Especially because you can see from the video about the way that would give Houser more weapons to attack all sides of the plate. The pitches themselves also look good, but Houser has not been able to command them. The curve has just a 23.1% zone rate, while the slider is only slightly better with a 35.3% zone rate. Without being able to trust either pitch, Houser is still throwing a sinker of four-seam 71% of the time.

What I do like to see is that Houser has upped his two-strike curve usage to 29% after throwing it just 15% of the time in two-strike counts last year. While the pitch has not performed well so far this year, I think that has to do with Houser still struggling to get a feel for the command, but the intention to use it as more of an out pitch is one I can get behind.

VERDICT: POTENTIALLY IMPACTFUL. I like what Houser is doing. The execution is not there yet, but both the curve and the slider have the makings of solid pitches, and Houser's desire to miss more bats and utilize the offspeed for strikeouts is one that fantasy managers should want to hear. If even he can begin to trust even more of these pitches to complement his two fastballs, you could see him unlock another level. If he can get both working, you could see a full-on breakout. It's not there yet, so you don't need to run out and add Houser, but keep an eye on his off-speed usage and zone rate because if these pitches start to click, you're going to want him on your team. 


Paul Blackburn, Oakland Athletics - Curve (new grip)

When you see a 28-year-old pitcher with a career 5.47 major league ERA who has never thrown more than 59 innings in any one season at the MLB level, it's natural to have a healthy dose of skepticism. In truth, even Blackburn's minor league numbers haven't been great, pitching to a 4.97 ERA in 88.2 innings last year in Triple-A.

However, like Chad Pinder, Seth Brown, and Kevin Smith on the offensive end, some unheralded Oakland Athletics are getting fantasy attention this year because of the long leash they are likely to see on a rebuilding team.

So far through two starts against the Blue Jays and Rays, Blackburn has a 1.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 23.7 K-BB% thanks, in large part, to re-working his curveball grip in the offseason. Blackburn admitted to trying new grips in search of giving him better action through the strike zone. “It was grip and more just belief throughout. Just step on it 100% when I throw it. I was happy with how it was tonight."

Last year, Blackburn's curve was his best swing-and-miss pitch, with a 45.9% whiff rate, but it allowed a .292 average against and .542 slugging percentage, and Blackburn threw the pitch just 12.2% of the time. So, in search of more effectiveness, Blackburn toyed with the grip to more horizontal movement to his curveball.

In 2021, he threw the curveball 79 mph with 59 inches of vertical drop and 7 inches of horizontal run. This year, through two starts, he's throwing the curve 80.2 mph with 57.7 inches of drop, but way more horizontal movement at 12 inches of run across the plate. I demonstrated this in an overlay here:

So far, the curve has been incredibly effective, with a .091 average against, .182 slugging percentage allowed, and 42.9% whiff rate. Blackburn is also throwing the pitch more - 21.5% – and using it more in two-strike counts, throwing the pitch 39% of the time in those situations after using it just 22% in two-strike counts last year.

Another big reason for the effectiveness of the curve is the way it pairs with his sinker, which you can see here:

You can see from the spin direction graphics that the added horizontal break across the plate allows the curve to mirror better with the sinker. Since the sinker and changeup tunnel relatively well and approach the batter and near the same trajectory with similar movement and 5.2 mph difference, it adds more deception to Blackburn's overall arsenal.

VERDICT: SIGNIFICANTLY IMPACTFUL. Now, take this significant impact with a grain of salt. The significant impact is that this shift to the arsenal makes Blackburn a streaming option, which would have been unheard of coming into this year. The changeup is still struggling for him early on and has never been a great pitch, so Blackburn is only going to go as far as the sinker-curve pairing will take him. It's done well against Toronto and Tampa early on, and we can't ignore that, but we also want to keep small sample sizes in context and think about the arsenal and skillset without those early results. I think Blackburn will be useful in the right matchup, especially at home, but I don't expect this level of production to continue and would be careful continuing to use him against good offenses. 


Taylor Hearn, Texas Rangers - Cutter & Slider (re-shaped)

A 27-year-old former prospect who's battled through multiple severe injuries, Hearn has re-emerged in the fantasy landscape after pitching to a 4.66 ERA in 104.1 innings in 2021 with a 20.9% strikeout rate and 1.32 WHIP. It was an altogether mediocre season overall, but Hearn seemed to have a spot in the rotation coming out of spring and two new pitches in his arsenal.

The pitch that was getting the majority of the attention was a re-worked slider that Hearn is currently throwing more than any other pitch at 36.1%. Last year, Hearn's slider featured 34.1 inches of drop and 5.2 inches of horizontal run. This year, Hearn has removed some spin, leading to less horizontal run but more vertical drop. In fact, Hearn has added nearly seven inches of drop to his slider, which now drops 40.8 inches while breaking only 3.3 inches across the plate. (I tried to make an overlay of his arsenal but the camera feed in Texas is so bad that it's really hard to do well). 

It seems that part of the intention behind the added downward movement on the pitch is to pair it more effectively with a new cutter that Hearn was introducing. Technically, Hearn had the cutter last year, but he threw only three during the entire season and it was softer and had more break. The current iteration of the cutter is thrown 91.2 mph and features 21.3 inches of drop but just 2.8 inches of run.

It's almost intentionally manufactured to be a middle ground between Hearn's slider and his four-seam fastball. Which you can see more effectively in the Spin Direction graphics here:

As you can see the cutter approaches the batter around 12 o'clock on the pitcher POV clock, while the four-seam begins about 11 o'clock and the slider around 1 o'clock. The four-seam and the cutter both have the same amount of deviation, while the slider has way more movement down and in on righties. The goal of this, obviously, is to create deception between the three offerings.

Hearn then also adds in a sinker that he uses primarily to right-handed hitters to attack the outside part of the plate. On the surface, the move makes sense, but I have two concerns.

For starters, Hearn doesn't throw anything soft away from right-handed hitters. Righties see a 94.7 mph four-seam, a 93.8 mph sinker, and a 91.2 mph cutter. Even though the sinker moves away, it has average horizontal movement for a sinker and is still coming in at basically the same velocity. The only pitch that can keep righties off balance is the slider, which is a nice pitch, but I think the changeup would have been the better pitch to develop instead of the cutter because it would give Hearn a look that he is currently lacking: slow and away from righties.

My other concern is that, through two starts, the cutter and slider are being hit hard. It's great that the slider is GIF-able and has a 14% SwStr%, but an 18.2% barrel rate, .313 average against, and .304 xBA to go along with a .524 xSLG. The cutter has just been used 12.7% of the time, but it has a 0.0% SwSr%, 20% CSW, a .800 average against, .426 xBA and .527 xSLG. It's been a bad pitch in a very limited sample.

VERDICT: NOT IMPACTFUL. Consider me out on Taylor Hearn. Yes, the new slider is likely better than the old one, but I don't think he has a particularly good fastball and the rest of the arsenal just doesn't really play off the slider well. Righties are pounding him in this small sample size this year, but they also hit him hard last year, and I just don't see anything new in this arsenal that makes me think that will stop.  

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