It's both high praise and a big ask to say anyone should follow the lead of a pitcher the caliber of Houston Astros right-hander Lance McCullers, but in this year's playoffs, there are plenty who are doing it and the results are clear.
McCullers, who in last year's American League Championship Series threw 24 curveballs in a row to help send Houston to the World Series, was back at it again on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS against Boston, throwing primarily breaking balls and carving through the top of the Red Sox lineup, and he did it again Sunday. On the other side, Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes did it, throwing 14 curveballs on 15 pitches.
So who on the Orioles should be taking notes? Of course, the pitcher with the biggest fastball on the team: left-hander Tanner Scott.
Scott's fastball regularly averages 97-98 mph, but he's developed an incredible weapon in his slider, which this year averaged 89 mph and was a feature whenever he had a good outing in his up-and-down 2018 season. It ended with a 5.40 ERA, and he didn't have that number under 5 since June 17. But the outings that ran that number down were motivated largely by the slider the Orioles helped bring along with a unique plan to have him work as a starter in 2017.
Working out of the bullpen as a reliever exclusively in 2018, Scott had 127 swinging strikes on his slider out of 428, good for a 29.7 percent whiff rate, according to MLB’s Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com. He threw the slider 44.7 percent of the time, which was still the 14th most among any pitcher who threw at least 750 pitches last season.
Scott allowed just 16 hits on his slider last year for a .155 batting average, with six extra-base hits. Sixty-five of his 76 strikeouts came on the slider, with the rest coming on his fastball, which despite its velocity opposing batters hit .368 off and have shown an ability to time up when it's in the strike zone.
With an arm and a fastball like Scott's, it's hard to get away from the idea that that should be the primary weapon. The organization is also one that doesn't often have its pitchers work backward with primarily off-speed pitches, though there have been occasions through the years in which the secondary pitch is better than the fastball.
As the organization looks in a new direction, with perhaps a top executive who can have more control over the field level, something like this might be easier to pull off. But at its core, it's an idea that many inside the organization have already pushed, citing former Orioles reliever Andrew Miller as a prime example of how it can work.
Miller's case shows that it's not a recent thing. He made millions of dollars and dominated for the better part of this decade using his standout breaking ball to make his big fastball play up, too, and now that October baseball has become just as much about relievers as anything else, it's becoming more evident.
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Between games 1 and 2, Barnes went from an even mix to almost exclusively breaking balls, with the results still 1 1/3 scoreless innings. That shows there's more than one way to do it, but with Scott's slider showing itself to be a legitimate out pitch when it's on, he should be watching how relievers in positions he's going to aspire to rely on more than their fastball to get it done.