After making his Spring Training debut yesterday Ross Detwiler was asked what he wanted to improve upon in 2013 and his answer was first pitch strikes. Detwiler said this, but he isn't a non-strike thrower. He is around league average in that category with 62% first pitch strikes compared to a league average of 60% and an overall strike percentage of 64% compared to a league average of 63%. As a strike thrower Detwiler is right around league average, but if Detwiler has a flaw it is that he doesn't strike many batters out.
For his career Detwiler strikes out 14.4% of the batters he faces and has walked 8.3%. Both of those numbers improved in 2012 as his strikeout percentage rose to 15.3% and walk percentage fell to 7.6%, but Detwiler would like to improve that even further and getting ahead of hitters is one easy way to do that. Detwiler was around league average in most control categories, but he is a below average strikeout pitcher. He is an above average ground ball pitcher with 50.8% ground ball rate in 2012. This number is up from his overall career average and the reason for that is Detwiler has started to rely on his sinker.
Detwiler throws almost exclusively fastballs and rarely works in a breaking ball or change-up. His main secondary pitch is his sinker having thrown it 849 times in 2012 and the fastball 1195 times. The next closest pitch to those two is his slider that he threw 319 times. Detwiler is trying to attack the zone and make the batter put his sinker into play. Detwiler's overall contact percentage on his sinker in 2012 was 88.9%. Compare that to his overall contact percentage of 83% and the 2012 league average of 78% and it is clear what Detwiler's plan is.
If Detwiler is going to be this type of pitcher the key to success is partly first pitch strikes, but even more important than that is limiting walks. If a pitcher isn't a strikeout pitcher they can still be successful by not walking batters and by limiting hard contact. If we look at pitchers through the spectrum of the three true outcomes then a pitcher that doesn't manufacture their own outs via the strikeout cannot have a high walk total and definitely cannot give up a lot of homeruns.
The best control pitcher in baseball is Cliff Lee. He is tops in most control categories but he is also a strikeout pitcher and not a sinker ball pitcher like Detwiler. The most successful recent sinker ball pitcher is Tim Hudson who has a career strikeout percentage of 16.1% and walk percentage of 7.3%. Detwiler was close to those numbers in 2012. Time Hudson has been better for his career at limiting homeruns than Detwiler, but if Detwiler can control the rest of his game in attacking the zone with his sinker then his overall homerun rate will fall.
The important issue for Detwiler is to not just be league average in his control stats, because if he wants to be a ground ball control pitcher he needs to be better than league average in keeping the ball in the zone. Detwiler's teammate, Jordan Zimmermann, is not a sinker ball pitcher, but he is a below average strikeout pitcher. Zimmermann makes up for this by limiting walks and being one of the best control pitchers in baseball. Zimmermann throws 68% of his pitches for strikes and 69% first pitch strikes. In order for Detwiler to improve as the type of pitcher he is he is going to have to attack the zone the way Zimmermann does.
Neither Zimmermann or Detwiler have the safety net of the strikeouts like Gio Gonzalez or Stephen Strasburg. If they walk a batter there is a strong possibility that they can get around 25% of the batters they face to make an out without a ball in play. Both Detwiler and Zimmermann do not have that luxury, and while Detwiler is right in saying first pitch strikes are important more important is avoiding balls 1-4. An important difference between Detwiler in 2012 and Zimmermann was that Detwiler was third in the NL with 17 four pitch walks while Jordan Zimmermann only had four. If Detwiler is going to have a successful career as a non-strikeout pitcher then limiting walks is the easiest path to success.