Blue Jays: How many different pitches does Nate Pearson need?

SURPRISE, AZ - OCTOBER 18: Nate Pearson #20 of the Surprise Saguaros and Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the 2018 Arizona Fall League on October 18, 2018 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
SURPRISE, AZ - OCTOBER 18: Nate Pearson #20 of the Surprise Saguaros and Toronto Blue Jays pitches during the 2018 Arizona Fall League on October 18, 2018 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /
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Nate Pearson, the Blue Jays’ top prospect, is working on improving his curveball to add to his repertoire. How many pitches will he need at the MLB level?

If you’ve followed the Toronto Blue Jays at all over the last year or two, then you’ve probably heard Nate Pearson‘s name at one time or another, even if he’s yet to pitch in a big league game.

That’s what happens when you’re one of the top prospects in baseball, and when you have the type of arm that can hit 104 miles per hour on the radar gun. As effective as that fastball is for Pearson, it’s not his only quality offering, which is one of the reasons he looks to be destined for his big league debut at some point in 2020.

So far he’s repeatedly impressed the Blue Jays’ coaches and players around him, and there’s little doubt that he could pitch in the big leagues to start the season. However, the Blue Jays will almost certainly start his season in Triple-A so they can control his innings limit a little better this season, as he’s only thrown 123.1 professional innings so far after losing most of 2018 to a broken arm. That extra time will also give Pearson the opportunity to work on his secondary offerings, hoping to catch them up to the level of his already elite fastball.

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Pearson is well known for his heater, but his slider has been a very effective offering for him as well. He’s thrown a change-up as his third weapon, and this past winter he focused on improving his curveball to add to the bag of tricks. According to a recent article from TSN’s Scott Mitchell, Pearson has really dedicated himself to “level it out and make all my pitches pretty elite”, recognizing that the development of his slider is ahead of his other secondary offerings.

Mitchell’s article outlines that Pearson is getting more comfortable using his curveball, and that he’s excited to try out his “fourth-best” pitch against big league hitters when he makes his spring debut later this week. I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out for the Florida native as well, however, it then led me to asking a question that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. That time was spent trying to figure out just how many pitches Pearson needs to be an elite MLB starter, and if time spent on a fourth pitch is all that important.

I’m sure I could spend the next month or two analyzing data from all sorts of angles, but I wanted to take a pretty simple approach here. In order to do, I looked at the pitch usage for what I consider to be five of the best right-handed starters in Major League Baseball, with a particular consideration for hurlers that rely on an effective fastball.

The first place my brain went was to Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young award winner who just continues to dominate into his mid-30’s. According to baseballsavant.com, Scherzer relied on a five-pitch mix last season, throwing his four-seam fastball 48.4%, a slider at 20.7%, and his change-up at 14.5%. He also added in a curveball at 8.7%, and a cutter at 7.7%. Pearson hasn’t added a cutter to his repertoire just yet, but now that Hyun-Jin Ryu is sharing his grip with his teammates, perhaps Pearson eventually mirrors what Scherzer offers to opposing hitters. That wouldn’t be a terrible role model to pursue.

The next pitcher I looked at was Justin Verlander, and while the veteran has used five different pitches throughout his career, his whittled it down to four last season. He used his fastball 49.9% of the time, with his slider at 28.7%, his curveball at 17.3%, and his change-up as a seldom used pitch at just 4.2%. If Pearson were to make his big league debut right now, you could probably flip the numbers for the curveball and the change-up, and you’d be looking at a similar mix to what Verlander used last season.

The third starter I looked at was Jacob deGrom, who was slightly different than the first two. The Mets’ right-hander also utilizes a five-pitch mix, but really only uses three of them on a regular basis. Last season he threw his fastball 48.1% of the time, followed by the slider at slider 32%, the change-up 15.9%, and then a curveball at 2.9%, and a sinker at just 1.1%.

Last but not least, I looked at the mix of pitches that Gerrit Cole will bring with him to the Yankees’ rotation this season. With the Astros last season, Cole was not all that different from the elite starters above him, mixing in five different pitches. Once again he dominated with the at 51.6%, a slider at 23.2%, his curveball at 15.4%, and then tapering off at 7.4% with a change-up, and 2.4% with the sinker.

Getting back to the original subject of how many pitches Pearson may need, I’ll also again acknowledge that I’m using a VERY limited way to answer this question. However, if we’re talking about the very best in the game, it’s clear that having at least four offerings will work to his benefit, even if they’re not all used regularly. The common thread with Scherzer, Verlander, deGrom, and Cole is that they all rely heavily on the fastball, and then two more consistent, quality pitches. They all have a fourth or even fifth option in their own bag of tricks, just as Pearson will look to do with his developing curveball, but that doesn’t mean it has to match the quality of their fastball in order to be effective either.

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If the emerging star can get to the point where his curveball is an effective pitch to use at the highest level, that just makes him that much more dangerous, and raises his already elite bar a little higher. With a scary-good fastball like his, it doesn’t have to be Verlander-level good, but adding a curveball to his plus slider and solid change-up could bump him from ‘good’ to ‘great’, and that’s the type of thing worth pursuing. There’s little doubt that he could make the jump to the big leagues with just three pitches and I’m sure he’d do just fine, but why not push for something greater? It sounds like Pearson is up to the challenge.

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