Three Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers who have made changes

The Pirates have had some of their pitchers succeed after making some changes to their pitch arsenal.
Sep 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Hunter Stratton
Sep 29, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Hunter Stratton / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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Josh Fleming

Even if you're not a fan of Ben Cherington's work, one thing you have to admit is his ability to find soft-tossing lefty pitchers and make him effective arms for the Pirates. They've been able to do that with a few arms this year, one being Josh Fleming. The Pirates signed Fleming to a split deal, and his numbers heading into this year weren't all that impressive. He had spent the four prior seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, owning a 4.88 ERA, 4.63 FIP, and 1.42 WHIP in 223.1 innings working as an up-and-down swing man arm.

But Fleming is off to an outstanding start to the 2024 season. He's pitched 16 innings while only allowing two earned runs. He only has a 15.9% strikeout rate and a 9.5% walk rate, but the southpaw excels at limiting hard contact. He is in the 90th percentile or greater in exit velocity (84.2 MPH), barrel rate (2.2%), and hard-hit rate (28.3%). Plus, he has a ground ball rate of over 60% at 63%.

Fleming has a four-pitch mix, including a fastball that sits 90-92 MPH, a low-80s change-up, as well as an upper-80s cutter. Fleming will also occasionally mix in a curveball from time to time. But how did this lefty who had a meager 83 ERA+ for the Tampa Bay Rays and couldn't make much progress under their notorious development staff all of a sudden become a quality left-handed reliever for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Well, part of it has to do with his curveball. He's barely used the pitch, only throwing it five times. This is an offering he used 10.9% of the time in 2022 and 22.1% of the time in 2023. In neither year did it produce overly impressive numbers. But the big change has been his cutter.

The cutter was the second most-used pitch in Fleming's arsenal in 2020 and 2021 and his third most-used pitch in 2022. But he didn't throw a single one in 2023. Now, he's using it 25.9% of the time. But bringing back the cutter is only half of the story.

Like Stratton, Fleming is throwing his cutter harder than in previous seasons. In '22, he sat 84.3 MPH with the pitch. Now it's up to 87 MPH. While the amount of spin hasn't drastically changed, how he spins it has. His cutter's active spin rate went from 32% in '22 to 53% in '24. He has sacrificed some vertical break, going from 32.5 inches to 28.5 inches, for horizontal movement, rising from 0.8 inches to 2.5 inches. So far, batters have a .227 wOBA against Fleming's new and improved cutter compared to over .400 two years ago. Batters also seem to be very fooled by his stuff, and not just his cutter, as he has a 37.4% chase rate.

Fleming has been a great addition to the Pirates' bullpen. 

They needed a good long-reliever and it looks like they may have found it. So far, he's pitched two or more innings on three different occasions. For someone they picked up with little fanfare, this could be their Ryan Borucki 2.0 signing.