Sliders, Cutters, & Two-Seamers: The Evolution of Jason Motte

ST. LOUIS - JUNE 14: Relief pitcher Jason Motte #30 of the St. Louis Cardinals throws a four-month late Valentine's Day four-seamer to a Seattle Mariner at Busch Stadium on June 14, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Mariners 9-3. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

It is baseball season. Even though there is not even a hint of green in the landscape stiffled by below-freezing temperatures outside my window as I write this, it is spring. A groundhog's shadow has no bearing whatsoever on the changing of the seasons to we the devout fans of our National Pastime. Every year the season changes from winter to spring with one event: pitchers and catchers reporting. The mitts of major-leaguers are popping in Jupiter today and it makes me giddy to think about it. One mitt is popping particularly loudly and that is the mitt absorbing a Jason Motte speedball.

The intrigue of Spring Training 2009 was Closer Idol between the live-armed young pitchers Chris Perez and Jason Motte, a competition that was thought to have been won by Motte when, on Opening Day, Tony LaRussa handed him the ball with a 4-2 lead and three outs left between the club and a 1-0 record. The Pirates greeted Motte rudely upon his entry into the game by apple-jacking his offerings to the tune of 4 runs off of 4 hits. Improbably, Matt Capps got the save that cold and dreary April day in the Gateway City while, in the heightened glare of the Opening Day spotlight, Motte recorded a pair of inevitable but no less bruising major-league firsts:  pitching "loss" and blow save. After recording the third and final out of the top of the ninth inning on the eighth batter he faced, Motte had an ERA of 36.00 and his WPA was -0.838. 

With the daily reminder of Rick Ankiel playing outfield perhaps as his motivation, LaRussa seemed to shield Motte for the 161 games that followed. LaRussa did not allow Motte to get back on the horse and settled on Ryan Franklin as his closer. It is of no surprise then that Franklin led the club in Average Leverage Index (aLI) in 2009 or that his set-up man, Kyle McClellan, was second. Motte came in third in aLI, but, at 1.010, his aLI was actually below the league average. The 3.36 Leverage Index of Motte's Opening Day appearance would be equaled or surpassed only once and not until July 3 in a 7-4 win over the Reds when LaRussa turned to Motte in the bottom of the eighth with runners on second and third and a one-run lead. Motte surrendered a sacrifice fly which tied the game but then recorded a strikeout to end the inning and received the pitching "win" when the Cardinal offense rallied in its half of the ninth. His season stats reflect a player in development, struggling to become effective at the big-league level and not yet ready for the ninth-inning role he was thrust into on the season's first day.

IP

ERA

FIP

WHIP

K/9

BB/9

WPA

aLI

BAA

SLGA

OPSA

56.2

4.76

4.81

1.412

8.6

3.7

-0.2

1.010

.269

.464

.804

Clearly, this is not the 2009 line that the manager had expected when choosing Motte to close on Opening Day. Nor is it what the followers of future Cardinals had hoped for from one of the more interesting prospects to graduate from the minors to St. Louis. But, it was a result that was not surprising given the fact that Motte had not yet developed even a mediocre second pitch. The deployment of the converted catcher by LaRussa was fitting for a reliever searching for a serviceable second offering--something, anything to keep opposing batsmen from sitting on his sometime triple-digit four-seamer. The well-documented throw-everything-at-the-plate-and-see-what-sticks experiment was most recently chronicled in the Cardinals' team magazine in mid-2010:

Motte auditioned virtually every delivery in the pitching encyclopedia in '09 -- "slider, curve, cutter, whatever," Motte said. Even a changeup and split-fingered fastball were in the mix.

"At one time, because he had played around with a split-finger pitch in the minor leagues, we actually played with that some, to see if it was the type of pitch he could develop consistent control with," Duncan said. "But we have since scrapped it and gone to other things because it wasn't developing. 

"And his slider is really starting to develop and looks like it's going to be a pitch that can complement his fastball."

Motte finished the season with an encouraging stretch, allowing just one earned run in his last 13 outings to lower his final ERA to 4.76. Improved location was one factor, but Motte also was heartened by a slider and cutter that had begun to show life.

He paid particular attention to the two pitches during the offseason, first in light throwing sessions in December, then in side sessions in January. The process of trial and error meant that by the time Motte arrived in camp [in 2010], he was becoming more confident that he could arm himself with something besides his fastball.

After getting tagged with a walk-off homer by Jonny Gomes in the 2010 season-opening series at Cincinnati, Motte reeled off 10 straight scoreless appearances. Helping him along the way were a cut fastball that averages in the 87-to-92-mph range, and a slider that generally ranges from 82 to 85. 

Here are the Fangraphs percentage shares of Motte's pitches thrown:

 

Year

Fastball

Slider

Cutter

Curve

Change

Splitter*

2009

75.3%

13.9%

7.2%

0.8%

0.3%

2.6%

2010

81.9%

0.0%

12.4%

5.7%

0.0%

0.0%

Difference

+6.6%

-13.9%

+5.4%

+4.9%

-0.3%

-2.6%

 

*The Fangraphs label has this as a "sinking fastball," but I have called it a "splitter" in my chart.

While there are differences in pitch classifications from Bill James Online (subscription required) and Fangraphs, in their classifications of Motte's spinball, both Bill James Online and Fangraphs have Motte completely ditching his slider in 2010 in favor of a cut fastball. However, Dave Duncan refutes this in his discussion of Motte's repertoire and I am going to take Duncan's word over the spreadsheet. What Duncan left out--perhaps due to his awareness of a VEB meme--is that Motte is also throwing more two-seam fastballs. According to Fangraphs, last season 68% of Motte's pitches were four-seamers and 13.1% were two-seamers. In the year before, 76.9% of Motte's pitches were four-seamers and just 1.0% were two-seamers. Motte's four-seam fastball has an average velocity of just under 96 mph and his two-seamer sits at about 93.7 mph, making it a nice weapon for Motte to wield. The emergence of the two-seam fastball along with the refining of his cutter and slider have helped increase the value of Motte's fastball. In 2009, his fastball had a value of -4.2; in 2010, it was 11.7, a dramatic improvement. This evolution is reflected in Motte's results, as well:

 

YR

IP

ERA

FIP

WHIP

K/9

BB/9

WPA

aLI

BAA

SLGA

OPSA

2009

56.2

4.76

4.81

1.412

8.6

3.7

-0.2

1.010

.269

.464

.804

2010

52.1

2.24

3.29

1.127

9.29

3.10

1.4

1.28

.220

.333

.618

 DIFF

-4.1

-2.52

-1.52

-0.285

+0.66

-0.60

+1.6

+0.18

-.049

  -.131

 -.186

 

Whereas in 2009, when batters hit off of Motte, they slugged off of him, in 2010, they did not much hit and slugged even less. His extra-base hit percentage (XBH%), which was the worst on the club in 2009 at 9.8%, plummeted to just 5.3% in 2010, which was the second-lowest on the staff behind Jaime Garcia.* The change between Motte's 2009 and 2010 seasons is easy to categorize with a sweeping generalization. Every stat that one would hope to fall did and every stat that one would hope to rise did, as well. Even the fact that the BABIP against him fell from .303 to .275 is not too much of a cause for concern given the corresponding drop in the line drive rate for opposing hitters from 16.7% to 13.4%.  Another development of which to take note is that, in 2010, Motte supplanted McClellan--long an example of the LaRussan penchant for proveyness--as the pitcher second in aLI on the staff. LaRussa was more apt to use Motte in high-leverage situations than late-inning stalwart McClellan. In 2010, Motte earned the trust of his manager and deservedly so.

*I feel obliged to point out that the second-worst XBH% on the Cardinals in 2009 was Kyle Lohse at 9.4%. In 2010, Lohse put up the worst XBH% on the staff at 10.9%. Hopefully the surgery that resulted in the scars which were the motivating factor for his new baseball gargoyle tattoo helps to lower the extra-base hit rate for Lohse.

Last year there was some handwringing over the bullpen heading into the reporting of pitchers and catchers, but Mozeliak stood pat and allowed the 'pen to be staffed on the righthand side largely by the low-cost harvest of the farm system. The development of Motte as well as Mitchell Boggs--both of whom have been touted as potential future closers by Duncan--justified this roster decision. Even with the usual caveats regarding the volatility of reliever performance, there is no reason for LaRussa or we the fans not to have the utmost confidence in Motte in the late innings when the game hangs in the balance. Motte's repertoire is developing and the results show it.

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