If you look around baseball, you will inevitably find some pitching anomalies. Sean Hjelle recently made his pitching debut for the Giants. He is 6 feet and 11 inches tall, tying him for the tallest player to ever play in Major League Baseball. He is a baseball anomaly.
Another interesting anomaly can be found in Tampa Bay. The Rays being the source of a pitching anomaly? Pretty shocking, right?
Path to the Majors
The source of this particular anomaly is a man known as Matt Wisler. Wisler was a seventh-round draft pick in the 2011 draft. This meant he had to prove himself in the minor leagues and get the attention of the Padres organization. That is exactly what he did. In 2012, he pitched to a 2.53 ERA in 114 innings of A ball. He followed that up with a stellar 2013 season that included a 3.00 ERA in 105 innings of AA baseball. Heading into 2014, Wisler was ranked within the top 100 prospects according to Baseball America, Major League Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Wisler had performed well enough that struggles in AAA in 2014 (Padres Organization) and 2015 (Braves Organization) would not hold him back from making his debut in 2015. He had not yet become the anomaly that he is today.
Revolutionizing Pitch Selection
Wisler began his career in 2015. Luckily for us, Statcast began tracking pitches that same year. Like many well-developed starting pitchers, Wisler had quite the arsenal to work with. He began his career throwing a 4-seam fastball, sinker, slider, changeup, and curveball.
In 2017, Wisler transitioned to the bullpen. This likely allowed him to focus on the pitches that worked best for him. By 2019, he had stopped throwing the changeup. He stopped throwing the sinker and curveball the following year. In 5 years, he transformed from a 5-pitch pitcher to a 2-pitch pitcher.
Wisler has taken this transformation a step further though. If you look at his use percentages for each pitch, you can see that 92.1% of his pitches this year have been sliders. If you were to see 25 pitches against him, you could expect 23 to be sliders and 2 to be fastballs.
Challenging Pitching Logic
Wisler’s slider usage is an open challenge to prior pitching logic. He throws the slider so much that hitters can just sit on it. You really do not have to think about the fastball early in the count since you are unlikely to see more than one in your at-bat. Usually, this would be terrible for a pitcher. One of the biggest benefits of being a pitcher is being in control of all the variables. If you do this well, the hitter does not know what to expect on any pitch. Wisler is effectively showing his cards before playing them and somehow he is having success.
Leading the Pack
Wisler’s usage percentage outpaces everyone else. He is the only pitcher with at least 250 pitches thrown this year to use a single pitch for more than 90% of those pitches. There are a few pitchers not too far behind though. Jake McGee and Ian Kennedy both throw 4-seam fastballs over 80% of the time. Clay Holmes is having a stellar season this year, throwing his sinker just over 80% of the time. Alex Colome is the closest to Wisler with his cutter usage at 87.6%.
These pitchers find themselves on the extreme end of evolving pitching philosophy. One of the bigger changes over the past decade seems to be a philosophy of throwing your best pitch more often. For some guys, this means using more sharp breaking balls and offspeed pitches to get ahead in the count.
Wisler’s slider usage is particularly emblematic of the current trends in baseball. The percentage of pitches league-wide that are breaking balls has risen every year since 2016. Ten years ago, about a quarter of all pitches were breaking balls. So far this year, almost a third of all pitches have been breaking balls. Pitchers, like Wisler, are using breaking balls more in all counts. (The reasoning? Hitters are hitting fastballs far better than offspeed pitches and breaking balls.)
At the same time, Wisler’s reliance on his slider is ahead of the rest of the league by a good margin. Only 29 pitchers throw sliders for at least half of their pitches. The second-highest slider percentage belongs to Steven Okert, who throws a slider on 72% of his pitches. This is a 20% gap. Only Robbie Ray has thrown more sliders than Wisler this year (3 more to be exact) and he has thrown almost 3 times as many innings as Wisler has. Breaking balls are being thrown more throughout Major League Baseball, yet no one comes close to Wisler’s slider usage.
Succeeding With The Slider
Wisler’s crazy slider usage has not seemed to negatively impact his performance in any way. This is even more surprising considering the analytics often used to measure a slider’s effectiveness do not really show his slider as one of the top sliders in baseball. Wisler’s slider averages 83.5 miles per hour. This is seven miles per hour slower than the top sliders and a little below league average. He is 156th in slider spin rate and only about 26.1% of that spin ends up being active spin that contributes to horizontal movement. As a result, Wisler’s slider breaks 2 inches less than the average slider. He does get about an inch of drop on the pitch that the average slider does not get, but this hardly seems like enough to make the pitch as effective as it has been.
Many of the more advanced pitching measurements do not show Wisler’s slider as one of the best sliders in baseball. Yet, the Rays trust the pitch enough to let him almost solely rely on it. Maybe they know something we do not? Whatever the reasoning is for him throwing it so much, it is working. The pitch has a negative 5 run value so far in 2022 (tied for the 102nd best run value of any pitch). Hitters can sit slider the whole at-bat and they are still whiffing on nearly a quarter of their swings. Batter’s batting average against the slider is only .189 for the season. There is obviously something that is fooling them.
Pitching With Less
I have been able to see Wisler pitch a few times now and I think there is a sort of beauty in the way he pitches. He does not follow the status quo in a lot of ways. Many pitchers in today’s game wish to create different types and directions of movement on their pitches. This often means experimenting with new pitches and using tools such as Rapsodo until they have created a new monster pitch. I’m sure Wisler uses these tools as well but he has not added any pitches since he entered Major League Baseball. Instead, he just seems to get more and more slider-focused each year. While many pitchers attempt to maximize the complexity of their pitches, Wisler simplifies his pitches.
In baseball, one pitch can make or break a career. Some guys find that pitch and go on to make multiple All-Star teams while others get hit hard. I recommend this video from Foolish Baseball that focuses on Corbin Burnes’ cutter and how it may have altered the trajectory of his career. Who knows where Wisler would be without his slider. His own numbers have improved since he started throwing more sliders.
Finally, I want to briefly mention how the Rays might aid Wisler’s success. Wisler is just one of many players that have had some of their greatest successes with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays always seem to put players in situations that will allow them to succeed. For a guy like Wisler, this could include good scouting reports on hitters and not facing the same players twice, among other things. I think Wisler would still be successful on a different team but being on the Rays certainly doesn’t hurt.
To read about the Rays pitching philosophy: The Intriguing Idea Guiding Tampa Bay Ray’s Pitching – Baseball: Past and Present (baseball-past-and-present.com)