The Cincinnnati Reds began a starting pitching Renaissance a few years back, something the franchise has desperately needed since, I dunno, the Roosevelt Administration. The emergence of Luis Castillo, the signing and rebuild of Sonny Gray, and the acquisition of Trevor Bauer gave the Reds a trio as formidable atop their rotation as any in baseball, and for one of the few times in my life, the Reds became a team that lived and died by its pitching, not its hitting.
Bauer, of course, is set to be a free agent once this World Series wraps, and his obliteration of MLB hitters during the course of the 2020 season might well see him take home a Cy Young Award for his efforts. That’s the kind of free agent that will command a mighty salary to retain, one the Reds - and most every team in baseball in this depressed financial state - will struggle to muster.
The question becomes at some point, however, whether bringing back the current Bauer and expecting a replication of his exploits is a more tactical decision than trying to find the next Bauer, the next key cog in a rotation for the coming years. There’s a price-point problem for the penny-pinchers in the front office, obviously, but there’s also the aspect of trying to unearth the newest star hurlers when they’re buried half-deep in front of your face.
That’s what Cleveland was up to all along, it would appear, as they managed to keep their pitching pipeline flowing after Bauer’s departure. And while Bauer’s longstanding connection to Kyle Boddy and the Driveline development crew would seem, on the surface, to be a feather in the Reds cap when it came to trying to persuade Bauer to stay, perhaps it’s the complete opposite. Perhaps the Reds signing of them to coordinate their entire franchise’s pitching approach was designed to create more Bauers, not to convince the existing one to stick around.
That’s where we’re taking our baseball minds today.
A total of 54 pitchers threw at least 80 IP during the 2019 MLB season who also employed cutters as a portion of their repertoire, and Cincinnati Reds righty Tyler Mahle was one of them. Of those 54, only Giants starter Drew Smyly fared worse on his cutter usage than Mahle, per FanGraphs, and that was probably a pretty clear indication that the young Reds righty needed to think long and hard about which pitches he chose to keep in his quiver.
Whether it was Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team behind it, or not, Mahle did just that prior to the 2020 season. While the cutter comprised a small 6.8% of his overall offerings in 2019, he abandoned it altogether during this most recent season, and while that scrapped his single worst pitch from the previous year, it was just a small portion of his overall overhaul. Some 23.1% of his pitches thrown during the 2019 season came in the form of a slurve, a curve that averaged just 80.5 mph, and Mahle sent that subpar spinner to the trash heap as well.
2020 Mahle kept leaning on a deceptive mix of his fastball and splitter, using the two in roughly similar fashions year over year. But what he added for this most recent season that he’d not used in his past was a hard slider, one he used a full 33.0% of the time this year while slinging it at an average of 86.9 mph. To be fair, Mahle had used a slider in previous seasons - not at all in 2019, however - but his 2017-2018 offerings averaged just around 83.7 mph and were decidedly not the same pitch. In fact, of the 134 MLB pitchers who logged 80 IP during the 2018 season and threw sliders, Mahle’s was valued as the 131st best of the bunch, a pretty clear indication at the time that his slider was in dire need of a rework or a one-way ticket to the scrap heap, too.
What’s obvious here is that Mahle, as so many young pitchers do, spent awhile finding not only what felt comfortable to him, but what managed to actively get hitters out. What we’ve also seen since he debuted in 2017, of course, is a serious spike in not just home runs hit, but in hitters seeking to blast dingers with increased propensity, and retiring those times of plate approaches takes a bit of different methodology than merely retiring hitters who are trying to put the ball in play. And while the type of pitch thrown plays one key part in it, where the heck pitchers throw it is beginning to make more and more of a real difference in the formula, too.
Take, for example, Mahle’s slider heat map from back in 2018. Keep in mind this is a heat map based on number of pitches thrown by location, not by average against.
That’s viewed from the catcher’s point of view, and the obvious stands out - his slider dives down and away to righties, to the back foot of lefties, and is a pitch whose primary purpose is just that - to dive.
A cursory glance at his 2020 slider heat map will show you the same obvious notion, that a slider from a right-hander is going to make his catcher move right and catch some balls in the dirt.
Yes, the most common location on the 2018 and 2020 sliders is the same, but beyond that it tells a completely different tale. Keep in mind that the velocity on his 2020 slider was up over 3 mph on average from his 2018 offering, one that saw a slower breaking ball used and abandoned in 2019. Not only was Mahle throwing his breaking pitch harder, he was using it heavily up in the zone this past season, something he rarely - if ever - did during its struggles in 2018. To me, that signals not only a change in velocity, but a distinct change in tactics, too.
Pitch up in the zone. Pitch there early, and pitch there often, even with breaking pitches.
It’s a concept you can see reflected in his trusty four-seam fastball, too, the pitch he has leaned on between 55-65% of the time in each of his big league seasons to date. First, take a look at the heat map of all of his offerings from the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined.
Middle of the zone, and certainly working the top of the zone, and the ever-so-occasional pitch in the bottom portion. Still, he used his four-seamer during the 2020 season even more at the top of the zone, and above it.
I mentioned previously that Kyle Boddy and the Driveline team might well have been the scientists behind Mahle’s change of approach. Without making a concrete assertion just yet, here is how Mahle stacked up on Statcast metrics for each of the 2018, 2019, and 2020 seasons in order.
While you can certainly have a chicken/egg argument about pitch location and the expected results on those pitches, what has become increasingly hard to argue against is the impact that spin rates have on pitch effectiveness, something that Driveline has emphasized for quite some time now. Mahle, as you can well see, figured out how to significantly increase the RPM on his pitches during the 2020 season, and that’s something that makes pitches quite literally move more than they otherwise would.
In other words, he’s not just teasing the top of the zone the way he did when he first came up, he’s doing it more often and with pitches that move with much more deception, as the spike in spin rate is having a much bigger impact on his success than any mere spike in velocity. Unsurprisingly, it came hand in hand with a 2 mph drop in his average exit velocity from 2019 to 2020 - down 2.7 mph from 2018 in total - and a concurrent drop in HR/FB% came with it, something paramount for all pitchers these days, especially those who pitch in the top of the zone.
Tyler Mahle is not going to post a 276 ERA+ next year the way Bauer did in 2020. Hell, there’s a bit part of me that hopes absolutely nothing about the 2021 MLB season is at all similar to the modified, curtailed 2020 season we just witnessed. The fact is, a return to a 162 game season will make many of the outlying record numbers we saw in the shortened 2020 campaign look increasingly odd as we put this year in the rear-view mirror.
Bauer himself will struggle to approach his lofty 2020 numbers, too. It’s a simply byproduct of the lengthier grind, and Mahle, too, will face obstacles he did not in the shortened sample of 2020. Still, there’s a lot to suggest that the Mahle we saw this year, the one who saw his own ERA+, K/9, and spin rates spike to career bests, can be more akin to 2020 Mahle going forward than the promising, yet flawed righty we saw in 2017-2019.
It would be a grand luxury and a damn applause-worthy development if the Reds opted to throw the moon at Bauer and form a Big Four for the 2021 season, but the odds of that simply seem far too steep at the moment given the current roster construction. With that in mind, it’s becoming a bit easier to rest soundly knowing the newest iteration of Mahle is around to help pick up the slack, since it sure does seem that the 2020 version we saw of him has offerings not just new and different than those from his early days, but ones that increasingly look able to retire modern hitters with aplomb.