From the time he was in the little leagues, Bryan Shaw was taught to throw first-pitch strikes.
This teaching especially remains true for high-leverage relievers in the late innings of tightly contested games.
Make no mistake about it, Shaw has been brilliant out of the bullpen as evidenced by his impressive 1.77 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and .214 opposing batting average entering play, all of which are better than his 2016 numbers.
The 29-year-old right-hander features one of the game’s best cutters, a pitch he throws 88.2% of the time at an average velocity of 93.84-mph (MLB average: 88.49-mph) and average spin rate of 2,345 revolutions per minute (MLB average: 2,228 rpm).
What aspect of his game needs work?
Getting ahead in the count is a good starting point.
Shaw is throwing 51.9% of his first pitches for strikes, a low mark that dips under his career average of 57.2% over five years of major league service time. By looking beyond standard stats such as earned run average and holds, there is analytical data that shows why Shaw nearly cost the Indians a win at Great American Ball Park on Tuesday evening.
In a sample size of three batters, Shaw went 0-for-3 on first-pitch strikes, allowed a single to Adam Duvall and surrendered a game-tying three-run homer to Eugenio Suarez, a player who was 0-for-12 with eight strikeouts in pinch-hitting opportunities.
Here is the pitch-by-pitch breakdown of each at-bat...
Result: RBI single to Adam Duvall on a 1-2, 97.5-mph cutter
Duvall got a pitch he could handle on the outer portion of the strike zone after he got a solid look at the cutter on a first-pitch ball and a borderline, second-pitch strike on the black. While this first example may just be a case of good hitting, Duvall still disciplined himself to work deep into the count and see a number of offerings before uncorking an RBI single up the middle.
Result: Home run to Eugenio Suarez on a 3-2, 96.1-mph cutter
A seven-pitch battle, this at-bat also begins with two cutters off the plate and away to a right-handed hitter with nine or more home runs on the season. Suarez’s ability to get ahead in the count and foul off a multitude of pitches yields a game-changing result and changes the complexion of what seemed to be a one-sided affair. Had Suarez fallen behind 0-2 rather than 2-0, he likely would not have been able to take such big hacks on the three foul balls leading up to his blast.
Result: Pop out to Devin Mesoraco on a 2-1, 95.2-mph cutter
On this particular instance, Shaw misses badly on his first pitch and gives the injury-riddled yet powerful Mesoraco a favorable 1-0 count. The set-up man can breathe a sigh of relief after this at-bat as Mesoraco swings under the location mistake and pops it to first base to conclude his outing.
Although first-pitch balls do not necessarily correlate with discouraging results, they certainly do not help in the biggest stages of a ballgame.
While Shaw has done everything asked of him this year, his career-high 12.4% walk rate and 4.43 walks per nine innings average are both areas that have room for improvement. These uncharacteristic stats likely stem from a lack of first-pitch strikes and overall command of a nasty cutter.
If Shaw makes it a priority to get ahead in the count and put pressure on the opposing batter, then he could very well be one of the best seventh-inning hurlers this game has to offer.