The Adjustments Of A Rookie Pitcher

Earlier this season, I defended Dinelson Lamet‘s changeup, noting that its early effectiveness was better than advertised. While the pitch didn’t have the traditional speed differential from the fastball that you’re looking for, Lamet was locating it well, and he had used it to induce plenty of whiffs, including a couple from lefty masher Michael Conforto.

As the season has progressed, a couple of things have become more clear. Lamet’s changeup has indeed revealed itself to be a work in progress; the speed differential isn’t there, but neither is the downhill, fading movement that accompanies most good changes. Further, the command that Lamet showed in his first few starts—dotting the pitch where he wanted it—has predictably ebbed and flowed, and a changeup high in the zone at 92 mph plays like a beach volleyball to any big-league hitter.

Rather than continuing to tinker with a subpar pitch at the big-league level, Lamet smushed his changeup into a discarded bottle and sent it down the San Diego River.

Note the blue line. Lamet’s changeup usage peaked at 25 against the Diamondbacks back on June 17, a start in which he allowed nine runs in three innings. In his next start against the Royals, Lamet didn’t throw a single change, per Brooks Baseball, and he’s thrown five or fewer in every start but one since then. Meanwhile, his slider rate has continued to rise; on Saturday, in Pittsburgh, Lamet threw a season-high 46 sliders, a total that surpassed his fastball tally for the first time all season.

The change in strategy has its pluses and minuses, of course. Without a changeup, Lamet loses a go-to out-pitch against left-handed hitters. While his fastball-slider combo remains tough on right handers, the slider doesn’t get nearly as many whiffs against opposite handed hitters. In general, having just two pitches can make it tough to roll through a good lineup multiple times, and Lamet has recorded an out in the seventh inning just twice in 12 starts.

On the other hand, eliminating weak pitches has worked for other pitchers. Lance McCullers is an obvious comp, as a high breaking ball right hander with good strikeout numbers, and Rich Hill revitalized his career by throwing almost exclusively fastballs and curves. The idea here is to maximize the value of one or two pitches by throwing them all the time, and to have conviction with every pitch delivered. Per Fangraphs, Lamet has one of the worst run values on his change in the league; dropping it might effect his fastball and slider some, but the adjustment might be worth it. Successful two-pitch starters are still something of a rarity, but there’s a chance Lamet is good enough to get by with just a fastball and a slider, with an occasional changeup mixed in.

Lamet has now strung together three consecutive good, solid starts, pitching 18 1/3 innings over that span with just 11 hits, six walks, 18 strikeouts, and—this is an important one—no home runs. Lamet’s early starts were often of the all or nothing variety. In arguably his best start against the Brewers, back in June, he struck out 12, walked nobody, but gave up two homers. In his first nine starts, Lamet posted great strikeout numbers but surrendered 11 home runs. While Lamet’s strikeout and walk numbers haven’t been quite as gaudy over his last few starts, he’s shown the ability to give up softer contact and avoid the home run ball. Over his last two starts, Lamet has allowed just one batted-ball hit over 100 mph, per Statcast, where he had allowed 33 such balls in play over his first 10 starts.

More positive developments:

  • Over his last two starts, Lamet has thrown 14 sliders for called strikes, which is as many as he had thrown over his previous five starts combined. If you’re only going to throw two pitches most of the time, it’s important to have small variants on those pitches. Of late, Lamet has shown the ability to throw one slider out of the zone for whiffs and another one that he’s able to command a bit more in the strike zone.
  • Lamet has allowed just two steals on two attempts all season. It’s a small thing, but he’s controlled the running game quite well, considering he’s a right-handed rookie.

Overall, despite a 5.12 ERA, Lamet’s been a bright spot this season. His cFIP (85) and his DRA (3.55) have both been well above average all season, and his Baseball Prospectus WARP is already at 1.4, a number that projects in the 4-5 win range over a full season. There are questions to answer, of course, like the ones about lacking a good changeup, command in general, and pitching deep into games. No rookie pitcher walks the earth without questions to answer. Lamet, however, has done enough question answering already to give him a good shot to stick in the rotation for a long time.

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