A lot has been said about how pitching has changed over the years, how there are no longer fastball counts for hitters and how pitchers attack hitters by expanding the strike zone, not with fastballs but with breaking pitches that tempt hitters to chase out of the zone.
In winning Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros made the perfect game plan to beat the New York Yankees and punch their ticket to the World Series. They started hard-throwing right-hander Charlie Morton, who mixed a mid-90s fastball with a mid-80s curveball. Morton shut out the Yankees for five innings, the Astros got the lead, then handed the ball off to right-handed starter Lance McCullers, who finished off the Yankees with a four-inning save.
McCullers flummoxed the Yankees bats, throwing 41 hard knuckle curveballs out of 54 pitches, getting 10 swinging strikes and five others looking over four shutout innings.
When the Orioles visited Houston for their only road series against the Astros this season – they were outscored 15-6 and were swept there – manager Buck Showalter mentioned how the Astros pitchers are the perfect example of the way pitching has changed. They don’t throw many fastballs and use their breaking pitches to get hitters to chase.
The Astros definitely used that to their advantage en route to the World Series, posting one of the highest percentages of swings on pitches outside the strike zone (their 31.1 O-swing percentage ranked tied for fourth in the majors) while recording one of the lowest contact percentages (73.4 percent, 29th out of 30).
Interestingly enough, the Yankees were almost equally successful in that facet of the game, but the Astros were more successful in using the breaking ball, which was the perfect formula to frustrate the Yankees looking for fastballs in a do-or-die Game 7.
Among pitchers with at least 140 innings this year, Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel threw the second lowest percentage of pitches in the strike zone at 37 percent. The only other pitcher with a lower strike percentage was Orioles left-hander Wade Miley. And those two pitchers had very different years, mainly because Miley was unable to use his breaking pitches to expand the zone, so hitters could wait for the pitch they wanted in the zone, leading to an 89.9 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone.
Keuchel does his damage with a sinker that tails out of the zone and away from bats late. No one throws curveballs as often as McCullers, who threw the pitch 47 percent of the time. Dodgers left-hander Rich Hill was second at 37.5 percent. And McCullers’ curveball ranks as the hardest in the game, averaging a league-leading 85.6 mph, which gives hitters little time to recognize it out of the hand, let along decide whether it will be a strike. It was also a perfect complement to Morton’s curveball, which is thrown at about 5 mph less velocity.
And you can’t forget about late-season trade acquisition Justin Verlander, the ALCS MVP, who has a pretty wicked curveball and slider as part of a four-pitch mix that keeps hitters off balance.
In 2017, few teams swung at a higher percentage of pitches thrown out of the strike zone than the Orioles, as shown by their 33.3 O-swing percentage (percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone), which was third highest in baseball and second highest among AL teams. In part because of that, opponents threw pitches in the strike zone just 43.9 percent of the time, which ranked 13th out of 15 AL teams and 26th out of the 30 MLB clubs. The Orioles also owned a swinging-strike percentage (the percentage of swing and misses) of 11.8 this season, which is also third highest in the majors.
The Orioles saw the most off-speed pitches in the game this season, and hit just .233 against off-speed pitches, according to BaseballSavant.com; that takes into consideration only pitches that ended an at-bat. Opponents know they don’t have to throw Orioles hitters fastballs to get them out. This is no secret.
It’s easy for an opponent to expose those flaws over the course of the season, and the Orioles chased too many pitches out of the strike zone, leading to high strikeout totals and a frustrated offense as games progressed.
And while that flaw isn’t necessarily unique to this season, it is something that’s preventing the Orioles from getting where the Astros have, to the World Series.