If someone had told me that David Hernandez was going to be part of a 3-headed monster at the back end of the bullpen that also featured the likes of GOAT Richard Blake Parker and failed-starter-turned-closer Bud Norris, I’d have laughed them out the door. Yet, here we are, almost halfway through May and with a collective 2 fWAR between the 3 of them. To take that even further, the Angels’ top five relievers have a higher combined fWAR than any other team’s top five at 3. Four of those five weren’t even on the team last year and were also organization castoffs. How could Billy Eppler have possibly scored on that many throwaway relievers? It just might have less to do with the arms and more to do with the staff.
One of the earliest turnarounds under the Eppler-Nagy Regime was the May call-up of Matt Shoemaker. It was miraculous to behold Shoemaker’s ERA drop from a 9 to a 3.88 by the end of the season. It was also pretty well-circulated that the reason for the success was due to the increased use of his above average split-change. At the same time, his fastball usage dropped from 56.2% in 2015 to 49.1% in 2016, a new career low. Since the start of the 2017 season, his fastball rate sits at an even lower 47.9%.
This is not an isolated case, however. Two other notable rises to power have been cited due to simultaneous increases in secondary pitch utilization and decreases in primary pitch utilization, typically four-seam fastballs.
J.C. Ramirez is fresh in our minds as the success story of 2017 so far (despite a poor first two innings from him on the eleventh) with a severe uptick in slider usage (from about 25% to about 43%) and an even more extreme decrease in fastball usage (from about 73% to about 42%). PitchF/X says that only 4.3% of J.C. Ramirez’s pitches are four-seam fastballs this year while it had been hanging out around 60-65% his whole career!
Just three days ago, Bud Norris was hailed by Beyond the Box Score as “lethal in relief,” a far cry from what Braves and Dodgers fans were probably calling him just last year. His cutter is quoted as being “one of the best in baseball. In fact, in terms of pitch weights, the pitch ranks 8th in the Majors amongst pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings, according to FanGraphs.” His four and two-seam fastball percentage has also dropped below 50% for the first time in his life to 44.3%.
What is only just now becoming apparent to me is how many of the pitchers experiencing new-found success or rebirth are following a similar pattern. David Hernandez has cut the usage of his four-seam fastball to its lowest levels since he was a dominant Diamondback and has almost eliminated his two-seamer while ramping up a slider that he hasn’t had since 2009 to almost 30% of his pitches. Yusmeiro Petit has also dropped his fastball usage to the lowest level of his career while throwing his changeup more than ever before and getting the same success out of it that he had in 2014 with the Giants World Series team.
Even Cam Bedrosian in 2016 started decreasing the use of his fastball and increasing the use of his slider and started finding his stride. Before he went down this year, his two main pitches were coming out at almost an even rate, making each pitch a spin of the roulette. Black or red?
Since 2002, when this kind of data started being tracked, 2017 is the lowest percentage of fastballs used in a season by almost 4 percentage points. 2016, Eppler’s first year, was the second lowest: 2 percentage points below third place. This is not an accident; it’s a full-fledged war that Eppler is waging on fastballs.
Or maybe it’s Charles Nagy. Eppler could be finding the talent and Nagy could just be shaping the higher upside pieces using their best pitches to get them where they need to be. It remains to be seen who exactly is teaching it, but the “Rich Hill” treatment as people like to call it, seems to be finding some degree of success with the team. If it can continue to show results and the comebacks/breakouts are for real, then we could possibly see the fall of the fastball.