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Grantland: Pitchers Who Play Poker


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Late in the seventh game of the 1925 World Series, Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris faced a season-defining decision. Starter Walter Johnson was a few weeks away from his 38th birthday, and, while he'd won Games 1 and 4, he was no longer the workhorse he?d once been. With Johnson laboring and the Senators' lead slipping, Harris could have summoned Firpo Marberry, a proto-relief ace who led the majors in appearances, games finished, and (retroactively calculated) saves in each season from 1924 to 1926. Marberry had saved Game 3 and finished Game 5, and he was rested and ready. Instead, Harris chose to stick with his starter, who allowed five runs over the final two innings to drop Game 7, and the Series, to Pittsburgh.


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You’ve probably heard broadcasters talk about the importance of “establishing the fastball early,” which supposedly gives the pitcher the freedom to mess around later, like kids who’ve done their homework and are finally free to play. This is what that looks like: The general trend is toward fewer fastballs and more breaking balls and off-speed stuff later in the game. Use of the four-seamer sinks with each repeat encounter; the sinker rate drops off initially, then rises slightly, probably because pitchers who are approaching their pitch limits try to economize by getting ground balls.

No pitcher’s pitch-mix progression is exactly the same as another’s, but “throw fewer fastballs” is close to a hard-and-fast rule. Among our 104 starters, only Rays rookie Jake Odorizzi increased his rate of four-seamers plus sinkers from his first time facing hitters to his third.

And so on.

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