Success has an uncanny knack for finding folks that identify trends and exploit them to reach desired outcomes. Analysis such as this is at the root of the analytics explosion in sports over the last couple decades. Most notably, we can point to Billy Beane’s affinity for on-base percentage or Daryl Morey’s proclivity for pinpointing the perfect blend of qualitative and quantitative information. To a lesser degree, the Cleveland Indians’ organization has honed in on a piece of data which has led them to indisputable success on the starting pitching forefront.
The informative ignition source for their quest to exploit a market inefficiency relies on the notion that hitters are not as effective against breaking balls in relation to other pitches. Particularly, hitters tend to know exactly what to do with fastballs while being stifled by hooks. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but they merely serve the purpose of proving the rule.
The data does the talking. When using weighted on-base average (wOBA) as a measuring stick due to its proper weighting of both walks and extra base hits, hitters have had a field day with heaters. Since the inception of Statcast’s publicly available data in 2015, hitters have enjoyed a 0.349 wOBA against fastballs compared to a 0.263 mark against curves and sliders. A margin such as that is significant enough to cause whiplash in the front office of a forwarded-minded club.
Thanks to baseball’s data revolution, we can also calculate expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) through a combination of how hard the ball was hit and the angle in which it left the bat. This gives us an even more reasonable picture on the outlook of any given plate appearance, as measured by the inputs of the hitter and pitcher. Incredibly, the gap between fastballs and curves is even wider using this criteria.
Beyond concrete data, the concept of upping the ante on the usage of these pitches makes theoretical sense given today’s baseball climate. With hitters doing everything they can to lift the ball — including altering swing paths — the movement of curves and sliders counters the intended uppercut swing nicely.
Armed with this wealth of information, the Cleveland Indians starting pitchers have continuously leveraged their use of breaking balls to maximize their effectiveness. The graphic below demonstrates the staggering usage portfolio. Year after year, Indians starters continue to count on their best benders to mow hitters down.
Each year over the past decade, the Indians have employed fastballs, sliders, and curves at somewhere between a 70 and 80 percent rate. Beginning in 2017, they really started hammering the benders, deviating from the previously steady rate of 18 to 20 percent. 2017 featured 28.6 percent breaking balls and 2018 crept over the one-third line. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks tossed a higher concentration of breakers.
The Indians are not alone in this venture. Joining the Indians and Dodgers and Diamondbacks on this front are the Houston Astros, a club that is today’s posterchild for baseball’s data landscape. The company of such progressive franchises does not detract from the Indians quest. In fact, the success of this grouping of clubs over the past few years speaks volumes towards the effectiveness of the venture.
Utilizing team ERA- and FIP- offers insight into how well a club has pitched. The initial metric, ERA-, is merely a park and league adjusted version of earned run average. The latter metric, FIP-, is a weighting that gauges how well a pitcher controls their own inputs by removing the factors beyond their control — such as luck, defense, and sequencing. It is no coincidence that the Indians starters lead all of baseball in each of these statistics over the last three years.
Of course, the success of a staff is primarily dependent upon the strength of each one of its arms, which heavily favors a staff that consists of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer. However, isolating how much of that success is due to increased dependence on breaking balls is nearly impossible. Though we can conclude that it has helped each one of these pitchers in their own respective manners.
Another point of contention to the thesis of this article may be that the Indians just happen to have guys that heavily depend on sliders and curves. That it is merely coincidence can be debunked by a cursory look at a few data points.
Carlos Carrasco threw curves and sliders 18.6 percent of the time in 2013. Five years later, that figure ballooned to 39 percent.
Corey Kluber opted for benders at a 13.3 percent clip in 2013. Over the course of 2017 and 2018, he’s gone to that well for approximately 25 percent of his offerings.
Trevor Bauer, the man on a never-ending quest for information about his craft, was already hook heavy at 25.2 percent in 2013. Last year, that number teetered over the 40 percent plateau.
Even staff newbies Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber have joined the movement. Clevinger has increased his breaking ball usage by nearly 50 percent since arriving at the big league level in 2016. Bieber seemed to experience a usage revitalization early in his major league stay, as both his slider and curve usage trended immediately upward simultaneously as he settled into his role as dependable back end starter.
The Indians organization has made one thing clear — they value the effect of dramatically increasing their breaking ball usage, especially among their starting arms. This affinity for the arcing offering, be it a curve or a slider, has led to a staff that is arguably at the top of their class. Though some salary shifting due to market constraints has lessened the intimidation of their lineup card, the starting staff comprised of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber will give opposing hitters fits with an onslaught of breaking balls.