– The K Zone –
January 25th, 2017
The Secret of Ray Searage, by Ian Joffe
Some call him the pitch whisperer. Others say he’s just fun to hang out with. Either way, Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has turned around countless pitching careers, and I am set out to figure out why. While Searage is not the biggest fan of the term, many call his various turnarounds “reclamation projects,” and while they don’t always work out (just ask Ryan Vogelsong and his 5.00 FIP), they tend to be a relatively safe bet. Pitchers who get traded to Pittsburgh warrant at a least watch list add in fantasy, or a weekly stat check on Baseball Reference. In the past six seasons, some some of the biggest reclamation projects have been Francisco Liriano (2013), reliever Mark Melancon (2013), Edinson Volquez (2014), J.A. Happ (traded at the 2015 deadline), Ivan Nova (from the 2016 deadline) and A.J. Burnett (twice, in 2012 and 2015). Those are the seven cases which I will use in my study.
My first attempt at the cracking the Searage code was to look through interviews. I had no luck – turns out that Ray guards his secrets pretty closely. Jared Hughes even joked about his organization’s secrecy with Sports Illustrated when they tried to talk to him, from “Uncle Ray” to his high-beets diet. In a 2013 interview with MLB.com, Liriano was asked why he was having so much success in his new ballpark. He starts “I don’t know, I don’t know what to say.” He continues to say that he feels under control and needs to not make mistakes. I never would have guessed. On the topic of Searage, Nova vaguely states to nj.com that “he’s a good pitching coach. He’s been a good pitching coach forever. He has a lot of guys who have pitched great games for him.” Nova goes on to suggest that perhaps people are just very comfortable with him, leading them pitch better. J.A. Happ and Jason Grilli add to this, telling USA Today that it’s all about trust, and that people trust Searage because of his enthusiasm and the level of research he puts into every game. Nova also tries to take a little credit off of Searage’s back. “It’s not all the time about the pitching coach.” Melancon also claims that catcher Russel Martin had the biggest influence on him. After all, both Martin and Melancon were once on a team with Mariano Rivera, to whom Melancon credits his cutter. The players are not lying; there is more that goes into a pitcher’s game than just advice from the pitching coach (from beets to former assistant pitching coach Jim Benedcit’s advice), but the wide array of reporting on Searage and his high count of success stories no matter who else is on the team to co-inform at the moment don’t lie either. There is something going on in Ray’s mind and the Pirates organization, so as I so often do, I turned to Brooks Baseball to find out.
For those who are unfamiliar with Brooks, brooksbaseball.net has the most comprehensive pitch tracking data on the internet. It was difficult to find any pattern among my pitcher sample, but eventually I reached something. In 6 out of the 7 cases, after being acquired by Pittsburgh, the pitchers threw far fewer classic four-seam fastballs than before, replacing them with moving fastballs such as sinkers and cutters. In some cases, like Liriano’s the pitcher eliminated the four-seamer from their arsenal altogether. The one exception to this rule is J.A. Happ, who actually threw more fastballs than ever after joining the Pirates. However, according to Fangraphs, Happ’s regular fastball actually moves a lot, the 11th most in baseball and just as much as any of Happ’s other pitches. So, one could say that Happ’s straight fastball is more like another pitcher’s moving fastball.
For as long as baseball has been played, the four-seam fastball has the been the most important pitch. It’s the first pitch kids are taught (which, I understand, is for health reasons, not necessarily for skill-building reasons) and the first pitch scouts will look for. A pitcher that throws more of another pitch than a fastball is a rare occurrence, especially for starters. But baseball is in an era of change. Perhaps Ray Searage is trying to pioneer a change of his own, which, when you really think about it, makes perfect sense. According to The Hardball Times, the straight fastball allows for the most flyballs (32%), the most line drives (19%), and the fewest grounders (39%) of any pitch type. Moving fastballs, on the other hand, lead to the least flyballs (19%), the least line drives (17%), and the most grounders (59%). An emphasis on keeping the ball on the ground is especially important, and its merits are more proven than ever, in this Statcast era, where hitters are focusing on launch angle and fly balls (or, as Daniel Murphy likes to put it, “high line drives”) more than ever.
Four-seam fastballs are important for command and speed differentiation. But, moving fastballs are only a few miles per hour slower, and exhibit much better results. Perhaps it’s time to take advice from Searage and start to question the value of the fastball as the primary MLB pitch. It could be far more advantageous as a secondary option, to blow a hitter away once they’re used to timing breaking pitches, or waiting for the cutter, sinker, or even splitter to move last-second. I’m not the very first to suggest this; Sports Illustrated first pointed out that the Yankees took a similar approach to a decrease in fastball use this year (although hopefully I’m near the front of the S-curve). They quote Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who is far more open than the Pirates have been. “Fastballs get hit,” he says bluntly, especially if they are not commanded well. The addition of the Pirates to this anti-fastball revolution (shall we call it #ForgetTheFastball?), however, certainly adds credibility to the idea that this could work for many types of pitchers on many different teams. Searage definitely does more than make pitchers throw fewer fastballs; what I have discovered is probably less than 10% of his plan for each pitcher. He works on mechanics, makes each pitch better, and has different game plans every day. This is especially notable in the case of Edinson Volquez, who did throw fewer fastballs after joining Pittsburgh, but saw his biggest drop in four-seam use the year before his signing. But, in this post-Moneyball decade, with teams looking to question everything to gain any slight advantage, Ray Searage has shown us that combating the hitter-friendly fly ball trend through a decline in straight fastball use could be a secret to pitching success.
Images attributed to The Associated Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette