Fad or forever: Tigers discuss merits of latest pitch trend — sweepy slider

Detroit News

Detroit — We live in an age of baseball where explaining things in scientific terms makes old concepts and practices seem new.

Instead of saying a hitter has an upper-cut swing, for example, we define it as launch angle and can calculate the steepness of the angle, which you can throw that into a computer with exit velocity and other variables and determine how far a ball should go off the bat.

Cool stuff.

Similarly, the standard classification of pitches — fastball, sinker, curve, slider, change-up — is now very nearly archaic. With technology (Trackman, Rapsodo, Hawk-Eye) tracking velocity, spin rate, horizontal and vertical break as well as the actual shape of pitches, you now have three different types of fastballs (four-seam, two-seam and cutter) and an assortment of spin hybrids.

As if hitting a round ball with a round bat wasn’t hard enough.

“The old cliché,” Tigers catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “The best way to hit a breaking ball is to hit the fastball.”

Which one?

Pitch labs across baseball keep trying out new flavors of pitches. The one in vogue now is the sweepy slider, one with an excessive horizontal break. The Yankees, self-proclaimed, appear to be at the forefront of this trend.

As detailed in The Athletic, the Yankees are applying a theory of physics called seam-shifted wake, an aerodynamic principal using air flow and spin to create the horizontal movement on the slider.

They call it a whirly.

Whatever. Pitchers have thrown sweeping breaking balls since the turn of the century, the 20th century. But, applying the science and the data makes it cool. It’s not the coolness that Tigers manager AJ Hinch cares about.

“I wish people would like the way outs are created more so than a pitch’s metrics,” he said. “Pitch metrics are super important for an evaluation of a singular pitch. I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all if you don’t get the hitter out.

“You can throw a big sweeping slider and get 24 inches of horizontal break, but if you don’t get the hitter out, was it a good pitch or a bad pitch? Creating outs is still the No. 1 goal as a pitcher. Pitch characteristics, cool. But they don’t necessarily get hitters out.”

Although it’s becoming known as the Yankees’ slider, several Tigers pitchers throw and have thrown sweepy sliders. Right-hander Alex Lange, for example, can throw one that sweeps (almost like a sidearm curveball) and one that sinks.

Gregory Soto, when he’s not throwing upper-90s bullets, will flip a sweepy slider at 88 mph, a pitch that last year had a 43% whiff rate and limited hitters to a .138 average.

“There is a lot more infatuation with the sweep on the slider, from right-handers especially,” Hinch said. “It’s thrown similarly to a fastball now, percentage-wise. Guys are so much more comfortable throwing slider strikes than ever before.”

Hinch cited White Sox right-hander Michael Kopech, who started against the Tigers Sunday.

“He throws 100 mph and all the talk this offseason was him working on the sweep of his slider,” Hinch said. “Back in the day, you always wanted to refine your slider, but you wouldn’t necessarily change a ton. Now there is greater infatuation with the different metrics and the confidence to throw it in all counts.

“There are no fastball counts any more. It’s kind of fastball-slider counts now.”

Tigers reliever Michael Fulmer would probably look at you funny if you talked about seam-shifted wake. But he is a firm believer and practitioner of slider manipulation.

“When I was starting, I wanted to go deep into the game and the only way to do that was to catch more of the plate with pitches and make everything look like a fastball,” he said. “And then you have balls move one way or another and you get soft contact and early outs. And that transitioned with me to the bullpen.

“You try to make everything look like a fastball and go from there.”

Fulmer, of course, has the advantage of throwing a slider at 90-92 mph. But he’s learned to manipulate the pitch depending on the hitter and the situation.

“Sometimes I’ve wanted it to go straight down,” he said. “In 2018 I was trying to throw it up more under a left-hander’s hands. Now that I’m throwing it a little firmer, I can go any way I want — down, side to side, back door. That’s why I am throwing it a lot more.”

Hinch certainly sees the value in throwing a sweepy slider, especially for pitchers who have high-velocity fastballs like Soto and Fulmer.

“The ball can just disappear on a hitter,” he said. “Across the league, every pitching staff is going to have a sweepy slider in their arsenal.”

Barnhart has caught some of the best slider pitchers in the game — Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer, Amir Garrett to name a few. But each of those pitchers made the slider work for them based on their own unique style and skill.

“As much numbers and analytics that are out there now, I think guys are just figuring out what works best for them specifically,” he said. “There is no standard slider anymore. Some sweep, some resemble a curveball, some resemble a cutter. It is ever-evolving.

“Fulmer, Soto, Lange, they all have their own oddities that make them good. It really doesn’t matter what kind of slider you throw as long as it’s the best version of what you can do.”

When the concept of a “Yankees’ slider” was brought to his attention, Barnhart shook his head.

“To me, that doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “Just my opinion, but guys with lower arm slots can’t throw the same slider as a guy with a higher arm slot. Can’t do it.”

A few years back, pitch doctors came up with high-spin, elevated fastballs to neutralize the increasing launch angles hitters were using to loft balls over shifts and into seats. Now, they are shaping sliders to sweep away off the fastball plane.

Fad or forever?

“It depends on if they get outs,” Hinch said. “The industry will follow where the outs are. If hitters make the adjustment and are either able to lay off that pitch or somehow control that pitch and create damage, pitchers will adjust back to a normal slider.”

Around and around it goes.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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