One pitch type offers unique look to ’24 Tigers staff

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Tigers selected Casey Mize with the top pick in the 2018 MLB Draft with dreams of adding a devastating splitter to their future staff. As Detroit looks to contend in ‘24, the pitch is now a key part of their arsenal, thanks to two new arrivals.

By signing starter Kenta Maeda early in the offseason, then reliever Shelby Miller last month, the Tigers added two pitchers with effective splitters. With Mize working to rejoin Detroit’s rotation this spring after nearly two years out with injuries, the moves aren’t intended to be connected. Still, as the Tigers look to leverage their pitching, the split is shaping up to be an interesting pitch to follow.

President of baseball operations Scott Harris downplayed any significance of adding splitters when asked following the Maeda signing. 

“I don’t think we were focused on specific weapons,” he said. “Splits have a lot of things going for them. They’re generally platoon-neutral pitches; they are effective against righties and lefties. A lot of the best ones have very late movement that deceive hitters. Pitchers like Kenta Maeda can vary the shape of them, can throw them for both strikes and chase pitches.

“Those are just very difficult pitches to both identify for a hitter, but also to barrel up. I think splits on a population level have performed really well in baseball.”

Maeda has thrown a splitter since 2018, according to Statcast. He told FanGraphs’ David Laurila late last season that he developed the pitch while tinkering with his changeup after struggling with a circle-change early in his MLB career. It’s a three-finger split, with his ring and middle fingers together, but it has proven effective with above-average vertical drop, and he has thrown it more and more with each season.  

Maeda threw his splitter 31.9 percent of the time last year, more than anything else in his arsenal. Opponents hit just .182 off it with a 35 percent whiff rate. 

By contrast, Miller’s splitter is more recent. He developed it last season with help from Dodgers pitching assistant Connor McGuiness to complement his fastball and combat left-handed hitters. The pitch worked so well that he started using it against hitters from both sides. 

“I picked it up and started playing catch with it, kind of got a grip we liked and the rest is history,” Miller explained. “I mean, it’s something that I felt pretty comfortable with from the beginning, and something I feel confident throwing in any count now.” 

Miller’s split has less vertical drop than Maeda’s version, and it’s below average for the league. But it has well above-average horizontal movement. 

Miller threw splitters for 26.2 percent of his pitches last year, compared with 57.6 percent fastballs. But the split drew a 30.7 percent whiff rate, an 82.1 mph average exit velocity and a .136 batting average allowed. Moreover, it set up success with his fastball, which opponents hit for a .110 average.

Left-handed hitters batted .129 (8-for-62) with 23 strikeouts off Miller in 2023, though they compensated by drawing 13 walks (two intentional).  

Mize’s splitter was a wipeout pitch in college, but became his fourth pitch in Detroit in 2020 and ‘21. Opponents hit .313 off it in ‘20 despite a 28 percent whiff rate; he improved to a .203 average off it in 2021 despite a 21.9 percent whiff rate and a 31.6 percent hard-hit rate. It had well-above-average drop plus above-average horizontal movement and an even lower spin rate (1,103 rpm in 2021) than what Maeda (1,406) or Miller (1,581) produce.

“Casey is still throwing a split,” Harris said in November. “I hope that his split is really nasty when he shows up in Lakeland this year. It certainly was when he was throwing [bullpen sessions] at the end of [last season].

“Starters all the time are whipping out baseballs and sharing grips and talking about finger pressure and talking out hand path and release point and all of that stuff. I think it’s part of most pitchers’ DNA to explore what their peers are doing and see if they can apply some of those things to their own mix. I expect Casey and Kenta to talk a lot in Spring Training, and if Casey can learn from Kenta or Kenta can learn from Casey, the Tigers are going to be better for it. It isn’t the reason we signed Kenta, but if his influence can get a little bit more out of our other pitchers, then we’re all going to benefit from that.”

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