Once again, the Star Tribune's Pat Reusse writes an unresearched, speculation-laden article presented as fact, this time analyzing Boston phenom Clay Buchholz in a piece entitled, "What Good is a Live Fastball if you Don't Use it?" Interesting premise, but let's look deeper and see if, as usual, we can uncover Reusse's time tested reporting technique of "guessing and making stuff up" from the Stephen Glass school of journalism.
Naturally he starts off with five paragraphs of rambling nonsense that would make an alzheimer's ridden grandparent proud, but eventually gets to the point of his article, which is that Buchholz only threw 37 fastballs among his 90 pitches against the Twins on May 12th. According to Pat, Buchholz - and every other pitcher - need to rely on their fastball in order to be an effective pitcher. Obviously, this is false, and the headline and premise alone got me worked up enough to do the research on this he obviously didn't. Let's look, and make sure you put on your nerd glasses, it's going to get all geeky up in here.
First off, despite the fact that the box score says Buchholz threw 90 pitches, the pitch f/x data only comes up with 84. I am just learning how to use the pitch f/x, so I don't know why or how this happens, but I can only go off the 84 pitches that were tracked - 35 of which were fastballs. This comes out to 41.7% fastballs, compared to the 41% Reusse gives us. This is good. He's actually pretty much right on with his stats, which is a first. So we can pass him on that. But what about the main premise of his article - let's go further.
First I want to figure out what "relying on your fastball" really means, and second, is this necessary to be a great pitcher. Well, we need to figure out how often an average pitcher throws his fastball. We'll just look at starters, since relievers are often one trick ponies who basically rely on only one pitch, like Mariano Rivera and his cutter or Brian Bass and his give-up-a-homer pitch. According to fangraphs.com, their are 103 pitchers this season who qualify as "starters." Since there are a couple of weird outliers like Tim Wakefield (15.9% fastballs) and Daniel Cabrera (85.9%), we'll use the median instead of the mean, and call our "average" the fastball % for the 51st pitcher, Ben Sheets at 60.3%. Actually, I just now calculated the absolute average, and it comes out to 59.6% percent, so we'll just use 60% as our average.
Clay Buchholz has thrown his fastball 44% of the time this season, down from 53% last year. This 44% puts him eleventh in terms of fastball scarcity, so clearly Buchholz doesn't throw a lot of fastballs. However, the standard deviation of the numbers is 11.8, which means he is within two standard deviations of the mean, and nearly within one, which puts him in the "normal" category. So although he throws less fastballs than the majority of starting pitchers, he is by no means abnormal.
Another consideration is that Buchholz has three high quality pitches, and throws his curve 21% of the time (Reusse's describes it as Blyleven-like) and his changeup 27% of the time (described by Pat as "wonderful"). There isn't a single pitcher who throws his fastball greater than the average percentage that has two other pitches he throws at least 20% of the time. In fact, only Odalis Perez, Carlos Villanueva, Roy Halladay, Gregory Smith, and Dan Haren throw three pitches more than 20% of the time. Perez, Villanueva, and Smith are junkballers and don't have the velocity Buchholz has, but if you compare him to Halladay and Haren who have similar profiles, well, that's pretty good company.
It's pretty clear if you have good velocity, it doesn't mean you have to rely on your fastball. Johan throws 91mph but uses his fastball only 58% of the time, Jake Peavy throws 92mph but only throws it 55% of the time, and the aforementioned Halladay averages 93mph on his fastball but only brings it 42% of the time, and those might be the three best pitchers in major league baseball.
Now, let's look at that game against the Twins and see why Buchholz might have shied away from his fastball. Of the 35 fastballs he threw, just 14 went for strikes (including balls in play). Of his 8 hits allowed, four of them came on fastballs and no fastball put into play went for an out. Additionally, only one fastball was missed when swung at, and there were just four called strikes.
Now, if you look at his curveball and change combined, he threw them for a strike 22 out of 32 times. The Twins swung and missed four times, and their were 8 called strikes, and were 3-7 on balls put in play - still high, but much better than the fastball numbers. Add to this the fact that every scouting report on Buchholz calls out his fastball as his third best pitch, and once again it becomes apparent Reusse has no idea what he's talking about.
Essentially, Buchholz is one of the top pitching prospects in the game, maybe #1. He mixes a good fastball with an outstanding curve and changeup, and has struggled this year after being pretty lights out last season. One thing I can guarantee, it's not because he's not throwing his fastball enough.
Last bit, this from Reusse:
And those things don't change the fact that like every other starter on the planet -- like Santana, Brandon Webb, Greg Maddux -- Buchholz will have to work off his fastball if he plans to start fulfilling his potential sooner than later.
Well, Santana throws his fastball just 58% of the time, less than the average, and throws his change 27% - top five in the league. Maddux was throwing his change around 27% of the time back when he was in his prime as well, and has only come to rely on his fastball more as he's aged. I guess he's got me on Webb, although he mixes his three pitches very well (70% fastball, 13% curve, 16% change).
This is example number 8 million of why Reusse is a horrible journalist. Basically, he saw Buchholz get lit up by the Twins, and somehow, someway, accidentally saw the stats which showed a smaller percentage of fastballs thrown than Livan Hernandez in that game. Rather than do any research whatsoever, at the very least getting a scouting report on the kid, he ran off to write up his article. Again. The same thing he's been doing over and over and over again.
It's got to stop.
[NOTE: I wrote this start and stop style in between feeding the kid and watching The Office with the wife, so I apologize if it has no flow. The reasoning is still sound, which is more than I can say for Pat.]