The Yankees were patting themselves on the back for vaulting Jhony Brito into the fifth spot in their rotation to begin the season. Not only did he finish spring training with five perfect innings, but he allowed just one run over 10 frames in his first two regular season starts.
Yet, shortly after his second start, our Andrés Chávez predicted that Brito’s third pitch, an unpolished curveball, would be tantamount to his success going forward. The young righty’s changeup is excellent and his fastball is solid, but Andrés wrote that in order to succeed in the big leagues as essentially a two-pitch starting pitcher, you need both pitches to be top-notch or thrown with high accuracy.
We’ve seen what happens when the changeup command eludes Brito — that was the difference between his blowup against the Twins his first time against them and his ability to battle through 2.2 innings the next. But in the latter start, he could have fared a whole lot better with a legitimate out-pitch: Twins hitters fouled off 28 of Brito’s 80 pitches on the night, with 16 of those coming on just 38 two-strike pitches. His 42.1 percent two-strike foul rate was the sixth-highest single-game total of the season (minimum 25 two-strike pitches), and his 35 percent overall foul rate was the highest (minimum 50 total pitches).
This wasn’t just a one-time occurrence, either. Hitters have been making Brito work all season long: the rookie has allowed a total of 86 fouls on 366 pitches (23.5 percent), second only to the Nationals’ Trevor Williams (24.1 percent) among pitchers who’ve made at least 300 tosses. Batters have also cracked 47 of Brito’s 131 two-strike pitches foul, and his 35.9 percent foul rate there is the highest among pitchers who’ve made at least 100 throws with two strikes.
Foul balls obviously don’t do much for a pitcher on two strikes. Called strikes do, but they are fickle, dependent on the whims of the umpire. Thus, a swinging strike is the most surefire way to net a K. Alas, of the 130 pitchers with at least 300 tosses so far this season, Brito ranks 94th in swinging-strike rate, with whiffs on just 37 of his 366 offerings (10.1 percent). His fastballs — meant more for weak contact and to establish his secondaries — have just a combined 4.3 percent swinging-strike rate, but that’s to be expected. His changeup has earned whiffs 18.7 percent of the time, which is above average, but that number dips to 13.3 percent when the count moves to two strikes. Hitters will expect a pitcher’s best offering on two strikes — even if they don’t throw it 45.8 percent of the time as Brito does in those situations — and if it isn’t elite, it won’t get punch-outs.
If hitters are expecting the change, and the fastballs won’t generate the requisite swing and a miss, why isn’t Brito turning to his curve more when he gets hitters on the defensive? On the whole, the deuce has netted six whiffs on 73 offerings, a rate of 8.2 percent. That’s better than the fastballs, but certainly not elite, or even better than the two-strike changeup. To make matters worse, the curve has only gotten one whiff on 21 two-strike tosses. But there’s reason to believe it could improve.
In a phenomenon known as swing-mirroring, when the spin axes (the point around which thrown baseballs rotate) of two pitches are 180 degrees apart, the batter is prone to misidentify the direction of the spin entirely. In other words, when two pitches spin in exactly the opposite direction, they tend to look the same. And what do you know, Brito’s four-seamer and curve have an ideal 180-degree spin-axis differential:
The best way to utilize this kind of combo is to follow up a high heater with a low curveball, or vice versa. But Brito hasn’t even been following up his heaters with any kind of curveball: he’s only followed up his four-seamer with a deuce six times, out of 58 heaters that didn’t end an at-bat. He’s followed 20 sinkers with benders out of 73 sinkers that didn’t end an at-bat, but the mirroring effect isn’t quite as good on average for that pair. On the other hand, he’s only followed a curve with a four-seamer six times out of 45 curves that didn’t end an at-bat. Again, at least he’s followed up his benders with sinkers 18 times, but that pairing isn’t quite as good.
I understand the temptation to have the changeup work off of the fastball, but the curve needs to do so too. In fact, with its below-average movement profile given its velocity, working off of the fastball might be the only way to make the deuce an out-pitch. The changeup, on the other hand, has the potential to succeed on its own given its above-average arm-side run. Thus, pairing his four-seamer with his bender more often is a worthwhile experiment as long as Brito continues to struggle to get deep into games.