Taylor Rogers has changed nothing
Fangraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball all agree Twins reliever Taylor Rogers changed his pitch mix dramatically. Last season, the right-hander maintained a 2.33 FIP over 68 1/3 innings using his curveball 33% of the time and his slider around 12% of the time. He pitched in high-leverage spots last season but didn’t catch the public eye due to his modest two converted saves in four chances. His save total has jumped to 18 this season and his strikeout rate has ballooned to 31%. A surface-level look at his pitch mix shows a flip — only 4% curveballs and 44% sliders this season, according to Fangraphs.
I walked into the Twins clubhouse on June 29 with intentions of talking at length about Rogers’ reasoning for the changes in mix I presume he made. My first encounter was short:
“I noticed you flipped from throwing curveballs and sliders to primarily just sliders, is that correct?” I said.
“No,” Rogers said.
“Hmm… my mistake then. Did you change anything with your pitch mix? It seems like public stats outlets say you’re throwing more sliders this year than curveballs?” I said.
“I haven’t noticed that… I’m doing the same thing I was last year,” Rogers said.
I have been conditioned to believe most of the statistics and metrics I see online are those a hitter or pitcher will acknowledge, no matter how small. Hitters like Jesse Winker have confirmed pitch usage variations around 5%. I’ve talked to pitchers about 2-4% drops in fastball usage without confusion. That’s why Rogers dismissing a 30% flip in his mix was jarring. My follow-ups resulted in little clarification, but I had a chance to regroup and initiate another conversation with Rogers on July 25. The main piece of information I presented to him was the visual below.
Focus on the yellow and blue circles. The position on the chart shows each pitch’s average movement in 2018 and 2019. The brightness of the color shows the pitch’s usage (dull is less usage, higher contrast is more).
Maybe sites like Baseball Savant and Fangraphs started blending together Rogers’ curveball and slider into one pitch because his slider started gaining more horizontal and vertical movement in 2019? Or maybe a change in grips muddied the pitches together for pitch tracking devices? Rogers provided no ground-breaking answer, but his response unwrapped the mystery.
“When you go into the offseason and you don’t throw at all, and you come back, things could probably change that you don’t realize,” Rogers said. “Maybe that has something to do with what that is showing? In my brain, [I’m] the same, but maybe I just don’t notice it… You know like when you have a puppy, and you don’t think the puppy is growing, but people who don’t see it everyday think it’s growing.”
After the season ends, Rogers shuts down from throwing until December 17, the day of him and his identical twin brother Tyler’s birthday (Tyler, Taylor’s throwing partner, is currently in Triple-A with the Giants). “It’s a little birthday present,” Taylor said. Between December 17 and the start of spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, Taylor does not throw any breaking balls. Part of the reason stems from his offseason training location: Denver. “I got messed up in the previous years throwing them,” Taylor says. “I’d get down to Fort Myers and I have to re-teach myself everything… so then I was like, there’s no sense in putting all that strain on your arm in the offseason when you just have to re-learn it in Spring Training.” The thinner air in Denver has a documented effect on breaking balls that alters the amount of a pitch’s movement. For the last three off-seasons, Taylor has abided by his no breaking ball offseason policy. The first breaking ball he spins in over four months comes on a field in the Twins’ spring facilities. While it’s hard to pinpoint this tweak as the reason for his success over the past three seasons, the rationale behind his decision makes sense.
While it seems like Rogers believes any change is unintentional, pitch tracking software could still disagree with Rogers’ assessment of his curveball and slider. For one, Rogers’ curveball and slider grips are the same. The only differences are how he releases the ball—his hand comes more on the side of his slider and over the top for his curveball. This can create blending between the two pitches, especially when he throws his curveball harder or slider slower. “The feedback I was getting from catchers is that they look the same,” Rogers said. “It’s just that ones a little harder and one is a little bit slower and I was like perfect, I’ll stay right there.” He says his slider averages around 83 mph while his curveball sits a tick lower at 79-81 mph.
To add more confusion to the mix, at some point between the creation of the GIF above on July 24 and my writing of this story, Baseball Savant reclassified the majority of Taylor Rogers’ curveballs to sliders. The site now shows Rogers only throwing three total curveballs all season instead of the 4% my initial searching showed. Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball have not changed their stripes. Each year, take a look at Rogers’ two breaking balls and see if he unintentionally changed something during the offseason.