One of my favorite parts of Spring Training is seeing how pitchers continue to try to up their arsenals and how that plays against pro hitters. This season, I’m eager to see how three pitches in particular play: two from pitchers who are not on the 40-man roster, and one pitcher who has but didn’t quite stick in 2023.
Paul Skenes’ fastball
Skenes, the Pirates' No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has two elite pitches: his fastball and his slider. We could pick either one of them for this exercise, but I think the 80-grade fastball should be the one we watch the most.
First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way: It’s a high-velocity fastball. Extremely high velocity. But going back to the College World Series -- the last time Skenes made starts of regular length -- he also showed that the velocity can endure throughout a start.
For example, of the 123 pitches he threw vs. Tennessee in the opening round of the 2023 College World Series, 46 were clocked at 100 mph or greater. Only one pitcher in MLB has thrown more than 46 fastballs of 100 mph or more in a game, and that’s another player who entered the pros with an 80-grade fastball: Hunter Greene of the Reds, who threw 47 such fastballs on Sept. 17, 2022.
But I’m just as interested to see how the shape of the fastball plays against Major League hitters in spring camp. There was some Draft-time talk about how Skenes’ fastball shape was less than desirable because he doesn’t generate much rise despite the high heat. But two-seam fastballs have come back in a big way in MLB, in part to combat the homer-heavy hitting focus across the league. If a hitter can catch up to a quick fastball with rise, needless to say that it’s going to be lifted, and lifted hard and far.
I don’t care what the pitch shape data says: Pair velocity with movement on the fastball and more likely than not you’ve got a recipe for success. Not to mention that Skenes has some of the best command of a triple-digit fastball that we’ve seen from a prospect in years. Nothing will really surprise a veteran Major League hitter, but let’s see if Skenes’ fastball at least makes them reconsider their approaches.
Dauri Moreta’s slider
If you weren’t hip to Moreta’s funkiest pitch, there are two great primers on it that you should read. First, Justice delos Santos asked Pirates catchers and pitching coach Oscar Marin about it last season, and second, Mike Petriello included some good analysis of it in his story about under-the-radar relievers who could break out in 2024.
The Pirates acquired Moreta after the 2022 season for Kevin Newman, and they unlocked his best potential with a simple fix: Moreta threw his slider much more than any other offering last season and much more than he had in seasons past. But it’s not even really just one slider.
Moreta has a more typical slider that breaks vertically in a more expected fashion, but he also can throw it in a way that has others calling it a screwball, as it moves more to his arm side.
Some call it the wrong-way slider. I say it’s just right. And if Moreta can dial it in this spring, he should be a lock for a bullpen spot given the results it generated at his peak in 2023.
Brent Honeywell’s screwball
Honeywell is still not officially a Pirate, but our Jon Morosi was one of multiple MLB insiders to report that he has joined Pittsburgh on a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Which means we’re going to get to see one of the coolest pitches.
Honeywell’s is special and it’s been effective when he’s been healthy, including for a stretch of last season. For more casual baseball fans who may not have seen a screwball, it’s similar to a changeup, but it has a different velocity and spin and it gives the batter a different look. It often has a sharper break at the end because of that spin, as seen in the video linked below from Honeywell with the Padres last season.
Honeywell threw the pitch for 7.9% of his offerings last season, and it had the lowest expected slugging percentage of any of his pitches (.304). He is an interesting pitcher to watch regardless, but this pitch will be fun to keep tabs on.
Which screwball pitcher won the ERA title with the Pirates in 1935?
A) Bill Swift
B) Cy Blanton
C) Larry French
D) Burleigh Grimes
This newsletter marks my final of the offseason for good reason. Not only do we have a new season around the corner, we have a new Pirates beat reporter!
Alex Stumpf will take over as the Bucs’ beat reporter, and I couldn’t be more thrilled for him to get started. He’s a great reporter who takes his work seriously, and his understanding of the analytics and deeper sides of the game will be a benefit to Pirates fans. If you’ve followed the team for a while, you’re probably already more than familiar with his great work.
Alex was also a huge help to me over the years when I was the beat reporter or filling in on the beat, and his generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed. I’m thrilled he’s on our team now.
If you are on X (or as I like to call it, Twitter), give Alex a follow as he gets started here.
Blanton’s career-best 2.58 ERA was the best in the National League in 1935. He was one of the harder pitchers to hit with a mix of screwballs, curveballs and sinkers, but an elbow injury in '39 unfortunately led to the demise of his Major League pitching career.
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