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Rockies Film Room: Bryan Shaw's simplicity and lethality

Rich Allen Avatar
March 19, 2018

In the third edition of Rockies Film Room, we look at the second head of the Rockies’ Cerberus-like bullpen: Bryan Shaw.

Where Wade Davis, whom Jake Shapiro ran down in the initial Rockies Film Room, and Jake McGee are going to be the flashy, ninth inning and setup guys, respectively, Shaw is going to be the eighth-ninth inning version of Chris Rusin. He’ll absorb innings where the other two will be unavailable, but use a devastating cutter-slider combination to act like a closer.

Shaw, who was a supplemental piece to Cody Allen for the Cleveland Indians for the past five seasons, has never posted an ERA above 3.52. This feat is all the more impressive with the inclusion of the fact that he has served a workhorse role, leading the American League in appearances in three out of the last four years. He hasn’t pitched in less than 64 games in a season since his rookie year in 2011.

On a recent episode of the BSN Rockies podcast, Manny Randhawa of MLB.com said that Shaw may actually have been a more important pickup than Davis.

The Rockies gave Shaw $27 million to make Denver his home for the next three years, so let’s look at what they paid for.

Arsenal

Shaw is particularly interesting because his repertoire has evolved over his career, but his production has, for the most part, stayed consistent. Where early in his career he complimented his cutter with a sinker, changeup, curveball and slider, he as omitted all but the latter in recent seasons. In that time, he’s used his 94.5 mph cutter and 82.5 mph slider almost exclusively, with the exception of four total changeups since the beginning of 2016.

The explanation, however, is pretty simple. If you’ve got the best cutter in baseball, you don’t need much else. Couple it with a slider that changes speed by more than 10 mph and has some break, and you’re in business.

Here’s what he’s worked with over the past couple of seasons.

Cutter

When the Rockies added both Shaw and Davis, they started to crowd the top cutters in the game podium, as the two ranked first and third in baseball, respectively.

Davis, however, mixes in a traditional fastball and curveball as well, while Shaw’s main weapon is the cutter. As noted, he uses it 88 percent of the time, hyper-reliant on the pitch early in counts, especially to lefties.

He can run it in on lefties a la Mariano Rivera, creating reverse split domination. The two inches of horizontal movement at mid-to-high 90’s is enough to get off the barrel of left-handers, getting the swing and miss on the inside edge, like he does here to Seth Smith (with some additional cheddar clips for good measure).

Or, he can keep busting it inside to lefties to induce weak ground balls or break bats.

But make no mistake, it’s not just a weapon against off-handers. He can also just straight blow it past you, regardless of handedness, and make you break your bat in another way

Now, let’s watch Shaw embarrass the game’s best hitter, Mike Trout, on back-to-back nights with the pitch.

Trout, two days in a row, fell victim to the pitch, even though neither time the location was optimal. Mike Trout, two-time MVP and eventual Hall of Famer, was not only burned by the pitch twice in a row, but also in clutch situations.

That’s how good the cutter is.

Plus, an uptick in velocity toward the end of last season reaching up to 97 mph, for which the only explanation Shaw and the Indians could give was more rest from a deeper bullpen, makes the pitch that much more lethal. For a deep Rockies bullpen, being able to give Shaw the rest he needs to maximize the potential of the pitch and turn him from workhorse to an even more devastating eighth inning man should be tantalizing.

Slider

Of course, even Mariano Rivera needed a secondary pitch to keep hitters honest. For Shaw, a slider that Brooks Baseball describes as “mediocre” is enough. The 12 mph difference in speed combined with the eight inches of horizontal break and two-and-a-half inches of drop is enough to do the job.

But, because Shaw’s cutter is so good, he can also only use the slider when it can do the most damage and not just to change speeds on the hitter. Shaw will very rarely throw it early in counts or behind, per the chart we’ve already seen. He only increases its usage when he has the hitter on the rope: ahead in counts and with two strikes when the batter goes into self-defense mode. When the batter is ahead, he throws it less than once per ten pitches. When Shaw is ahead, he’ll throw it once every four pitches to right-handers.

What results is a lot of swings, and most of them not very good. Over the past two seasons, his slider has drawn a whiff 20 percent of the time, like this one to Tyler Saladino on October 1.

He puts the pitch in a position to succeed, and so it does. In that at-bat, Saladino had seen three straight cutters and was in no way shape or form ready for a much slower, sweeping pitch that didn’t get off the plate like Shaw probably would’ve wanted, but still did the job. Because of the velocity change, his swing was already ahead, shrinking the area of possibility for contact and pushing it deep to the inside of the plate.

Saladino had no chance.

Summary

Bryan Shaw will live and die by the cutter. Fortunately for him, and the Rockies, he happens to throw one of the best in the game. Where in previous seasons he found success in deception with an expanded pitching arsenal, he’s simplified his approach because that pitch is so good that he can. What might be even more saliva-inducing for Rockies fans is that, when he can rest and not be used as an inning-devourer, it has the possibility to get even better with an added mile per hour or two.

While nearly nine out of every 10 pitches Shaw will throw will be a cutter, that tenth and final pitch will be a slider, and because of its juxtaposition, it can be just as potent. Because hitters sweat the cutter so much, they don’t prioritize the slider and will swing and miss more than I do on Tinder.

Yes, he’s led the American League in appearances and serves a strong role as a plug. But, we cannot let that overshadow just how lethal Shaw can be.

Now, let’s wrap this up with a clip that’s so filthy the Kansas City Royals banned it from their clubhouse.

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