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Phillies pitchers attempting something new this year

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It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work

Atlanta Braves v. Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Pitching philosophies are constantly changing it seems. We’re all well aware of how much the Pittsburgh Pirates loved to use the sinker during their playoff runs of the early 2010’s. We’re now seeing how much spin and the ability to measure it has led to teams adopting a certain thinking about how pitching should be done. Part of the previous coaching regime’s philosophy when it comes to pitching was that the higher the spin rate, the better. High spin rate is en vogue these days, meaning that part of what Gabe Kapler and Chris Young loved so much was to throw those four seam fastballs at, or near, the top of the zone, then follow with high spin curveballs down to either grab the bottom or cause batters to chase the pitch out of the strike zone. While that type of philosophy might be sound in its logic, there is also the idea that you need those types of pitchers in order to fully implement that thinking into the gameplanning.

Zach Eflin might have something to say about that.

Last year, Joe Girardi and Bryan Price came in and tried to teach to do what you do best. For someone like Eflin, that meant leaning into his best pitches more often, which explains the huge spike in sinker usage in 2020. It’s something so simple (use your best pitches more) that it makes one wonder why teams need to continue reinventing the game. Unfortunately, with Price’s departure, there may have been a fear that whoever was going to replace him would get away from that line of thinking.

With Caleb Cotham coming in, the team looked like on the surface that they were leaning into the concepts of pitch design a little more since Cotham is a well known devotee to the methods and teaching of Driveline Baseball. It’s not as though Kapler and Young were not disciples of that group as well, but it felt that they were so devoted to one line of thinking, they were going to force their pitchers to adopt the “high four seam/high spin curveball” thinking whether they were going to be successful or not. Where we can already see a difference in them and in Cotham is in an idea so simple, so obvious, it’s sometime easy to forget, yet has led to success through their first four games (yes, yes, yes small sample size).

Throw strikes! Throw them early and throw them often!

Weird, right?

This type of thinking, the basic tenet of pitching is something that has eluded the team for these past few years, but so far in the early going looks like it is manifesting itself in the games.

Untitled

Year Strike% LgAvg Strike% 1st Strike% LgAvg 1st Strike%
Year Strike% LgAvg Strike% 1st Strike% LgAvg 1st Strike%
2021 67.0% 62.8% 67.9% 58.4%
2020 64.2% 63.0% 60.8% 59.8%
2019 63.8% 63.7% 61.3% 60.8%
2018 64.9% 63.7% 62.0% 60.5%
2017 64.1% 63.5% 60.1% 60.2%

It’s early. Yes, that’s the caveat - we know it’s only four games, but it’s never too early to look for trends. But this is a trend that was mentioned repeatedly during the broadcasts of the games, that the team is throwing more strikes than in the past.

You can see from the early data that they are throwing strikes almost 5% more than league average overall, and specifically, they are throwing first pitch strikes over 8% more than league average. It’s an admirable quality, throwing strikes.

Now, this was obviously helped by the fact that Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are your top two starters, two pitchers who are notorious strike throwers. Having Eflin throw as he did will also skew the averages toward what they are now, as he is still sometimes prone to having an outing where he struggles in zone. But the new Eflin we saw last year, the one that saw him have upticks in most of his strike throwing rates.

Again, it’s early. This we know. After having to suffer through some of the outings we had to last season when Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta and others with an allergy to the strike zone were making starts, it’s nice to see a philosophy taking root in the pitching staff.