As previously reported on BSR, Baltimore Orioles pitching coach Mark Connor resigned for personal reasons on June 14th and was replaced by bullpen coach Rick Adair. Like Connor, Adair joined the Orioles staff at the beginning of this season. Most recently Adair was the pitching coach with the Mariners. In 2009, under his watch the Mariners’ posted an AL-best 3.87 ERA and a less impressive, but still good, 4.39 FIP (ninth best in the AL). In 2010 despite the pitching staff posting a 3.95 ERA (fourth in the AL) and 4.19 FIP (ninth best in the AL), Adair was fired. The company line during the Orioles transition from Connor to Adair can summed up by the phrase, “expect more of the same.” Here are excerpts taken from pieces on Adair or quotes from Showalter himself regarding the transition.
This week in By the Numbers we’ll look at one trend throughout Adair’s tenure with the Mariners and thus far with the Orioles – lots of fastballs. We’ll only focus on starters due to the larger quiver of pitches they have at their disposal compared to relievers. Relievers tend not to use more than two or three pitches and often use one pitch almost exclusively. In contrast most starters throw at least four pitches offering more opportunities for a pitching coach to influence pitch selection. For example, Jim Johnson’s is not going to abandon throwing his 95 mph fastball because he gets a new pitching coach but Brian Matusz may begin to use his curveball and change-up more if a pitching coach encourages him to.
The O’s threw more fastballs in 2011 under Mark Connor than they did under Rick Kranitz in 2010, upping their rate from 63% to 64.5%. Since Connor’s departure and Adair’s promotion this trend has gained even more momentum with the Orioles starting pitchers using their fastball 66% of the time. To put these numbers in perspective as of June 22nd the Orioles were tied for the MLB lead in fastball usage rate. For Adair-o-philes this is unsurprising. In 2009 the Mariners’ starting staff was 3rd in MLB, throwing fastballs 63.2% of the time. In 2010, while Adair was still the pitching coach the Mariners’ starters upped their rate to 63.6% and led MLB in fastball usage rate. However, upon Adair’s departure in August of 2010, the Mariners took a step back from their fastball-first ways and finished the year outside of the ten. This data clearly shows us that Rick Adair believes pitchers should throw their fastball often. What isn’t clear is why. Obviously, only Adair can answer this question and its a fool’s errand to attempt to read his mind, but that is exactly what we are going to try to do.
One possibility is that the Adair thinks fastballs leave the ballpark at a lower rate than other pitches and are easier for starting pitchers to throw for strikes. His goal behind this strategy is to put less importance on strikeouts, cut down on walks and get more balls in play. The argument for such a strategy is that if you don’t walk anyone and don’t yield home runs (the Mariners’ pitching staff yielded few of either under Adair) then you’ll be successful. Intuitively this makes sense and under Mark Connor the Orioles pitching staff increased their fastball usage and improved their ability to keep fly balls in the park (8.2% of flyballs have become HRs in 2011 vs. 9.7% flyballs in 2010). However, it runs counter to the sabermetric belief that pitchers don’t have a lot of control over the rate at which fly balls turn into home runs. Now if Adair is correct it would be be a fascinating result, especially given the amount of data we have on variability of the rate at which fly balls become home runs. Currently, I’m not aware of any studies that pair pitch type with the rate at which fly balls become home runs. My intuition is that our current mechanisms to gather pitch type data are not precise enough to support such exploration, forcing the question to remain open and interesting.
While its fun to track trends in Adair’s coaching career and speculate on his motives, it is mainly just advanced metric fodder. Overall, there’s insufficient evidence that pitching coaches can improve a pitching staff’s performance. Coaches may have a very strong influence on one or two pitchers, but it’s impossible to determine if Adair will have any positive or negative impact on the Orioles staff as a whole. That won’t keep media outlets from trying, but beware of pundits (here or otherwise) claiming that this move has a significant overall affect.