Try to Hit My Slider: A Unique Approach to Pitching

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.

Matt Wisler’s slider percentage has greatly increased over the past 5 seasons. Via Baseball Savant

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.

Matt Wisler strikes out DJ Stewart with a slider via Baseball Savant

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)

The Intriguing Idea Guiding Tampa Bay Ray’s Pitching

The Tampa Bay Rays continue to redefine conventional pitching roles.

One of the many wonders of the past few years has been the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have made the playoffs the last 3 years, including a World Series appearance in 2020 and finishing with the best record in the American League in 2021. They have managed all this success while playing in a tough division. The thing that makes them so hard to explain is their lack of star power.

When looking at other teams that have reached the Ray’s success in the past few years, you find the Dodgers with players like Betts, Seager (now Turner), and Muncy just to name a few. These are players that have had seasons where they end up in the MVP discussion. Similarly, the Astros have seen great success with players like Altuve, Bregman, Brantley, Tucker, and Alvarez. All of them are feared hitters that have added massive value to the offense. The Rays, on the other hand, only have a few players that have produced amazing offensive numbers over the course of a season.

Instead of using sheer star power to overwhelm opponents, the Rays seem to find untapped potential in average relievers and make the most of all their appearances. Their winning formula often includes close games controlled by multiple relievers.

The Winning Formula

Last year, the Rays had 58 wins in relief. This was 9 more than the next closest team, the San Francisco Giants. Rays relievers were also tasked with getting more outs than any other team’s relievers. The team started 37 games with pitchers that worked largely in relief throughout the year. The Rays were the first team to really lean into this idea of pitcher versatility. Openers, which the Rays were the first to begin using heavily, often pitch the first inning or two to face the most difficult hitters in a lineup before handing it off to someone else who may go through the entire order the second time around. Ray’s pitchers averaged 4.6 innings per start. Every other playoff team was at least 5 innings.

The Rays use of the bullpen may be where the future is headed but they remain ahead of the pack at the present moment. Many teams have moved toward more bullpen innings to allow starting pitchers more rest and hopefully prevent injuries. The difference is many teams still covet their starters as their best pitchers and the starters are the ones that must set up the team for a win. In short, the starting pitchers are the main attraction. Meanwhile, the Rays seem to be moving toward no pitching stars at all, opting for a group of unknown but effective relief arms instead.

Some of the Rays Roster Moves Do Not Make Sense

Perhaps the best display of the Rays reliance on their bullpen can be seen in last year’s trade deadline. Tyler Glasnow was supposed to be a huge part of the Ray’s success. When he was lost for the season, Rich Hill became the guy that seemed poised to fill that spot. The Rays decided, instead, to trade away Rich Hill without getting a different key starter in return. In only half a season, Hill accumulated the fifth most innings for the Rays. Tyler Glasnow ended the season just behind him.

So, how did the Rays fill this hole in their pitching? They doubled down on their practice of versatile pitching roles.

Another trade made before the deadline had sent away shortstop Willy Adames and reliever Trevor Richards. In return, the Rays received relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen. Both would play important roles for the team. Rasmussen came in with a 4.24 ERA in 17 innings. He had not started a game since he was last in the minor leagues in 2019. Yet, he ended up starting 10 games with the Rays and making 10 more appearances from the bullpen with a 2.44 ERA. September was particularly productive for Rasmussen as he threw 24 innings and only gave up 4 runs. Feyereisen made 36 appearances of his own, lowering his ERA as well. They also resorted to other pitchers for innings like Collin McHugh who had only recently switched from starter to reliever. The Rays had 31 pitchers throw less than 50 innings for the team over the course of the season.

When it comes to utilizing pitchers effectively, the Rays consistently seem to find the right mix of pitchers to get effective innings.

The Tampa Bay Rays Have Placed Themselves at the Forefront of Baseball Innovation

It’s not surprising the Rays have led this new line of thinking about pitching. Their situation actually supports this fluidity quite well. For starters, they are a lower-budget team that has always been willing to try new tactics that seem promising. There also seems to be a sense of trust that they can develop pitchers to perform excellently in the majors. We can see this trust on display in trades that have sent away proven MLB talent for prospects and journeymen. Most teams would be hesitant to make these trades but the Rays never shy away from the opportunity and the players they receive in return always seem to play an important role in the team’s success. They have also built one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. With outfielders that cover a lot of ground, the Rays may have more flexibility in the type of pitchers that can be successful.

The Tampa Bay Rays are truly an interesting team. They never support a star-studded roster that fans look at and see World Series Champions. Yet, the results the last few years have shown them to be very close. I think much of the baseball world will have their eyes on the Rays these next few years. They will be watching to see if the team can get that first title and to see what new ideas they will come up with.

Data via Rays Team Pitching page at baseballreference.com.