In the vast catalogue of pitching cliches, some of the most common are the need to “be aggressive” and “pound the zone”.
As often as not, these words are wind. Pounding the zone can be a good way to get hit around, and in an era driven by home runs a little finesse is usually mandatory. No one wants pitchers to nibble too finely around the edges, but you can’t just fill the zone with fastball after fastball and expect to find success.
That, however, is precisely what Joe Biagini did on Tuesday night. In the Toronto Blue Jays 3-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles, the big right-hander used a shockingly simplistic strategy: just throw fastballs.
Of course, that wasn’t that wasn’t literally what happened, but it was as close to it as you’re going to see from a non-Bartolo Colon starter. Of the 88 pitches Biagini threw, 75 were either fastballs or cutters.
“He really didn’t use his breaking ball much,” manager John Gibbons said. “Just a good live fastball, and really a dominating performance.”
Although the outing was dominant in the traditional strikeout-fueled sense, it’s hard to disagree with the skipper’s assessment. By the time his night was done, Biagini has logged a career-high eight innings – something he hadn’t managed since he was at Single-A in 2014. He threw 71.6 percent of his pitches for strikes, didn’t walk a batter, and held Baltimore to an average exit velocity of 77.8 mph – almost 10 mph below the league average. Tim Beckham touched him up for an eighth-inning home run and it was the only time he looked uncomfortable.
In the first he got through the Orioles lineup on eight pitches – all fastballs and cutters. The second and third innings took nine pitches each, but the composition was the same. In the top of fourth he finally dropped in a curveball to Jonathan Schoop – who took it for strike one. That was his 27th pitch and his first below 89 mph.
As the game wore on he mixed in a little more of the slow stuff, but the plan was undoubtedly to force fastballs down the throat of the Orioles. The architect of that plan? Backup catcher Luke Maile.
“He’s got a good fastball and when you’re calling the game you read the swings,” Maile said. “And I think overall the swings weren’t as good as they have been off a lot of guys. He’s good a good one, it was sinking a lot so it’s kind of one [of those nights] where it’s like ‘why not?’”
Gibbons – a former catcher himself – lauded his backstop on the game he called for Biagini.
“Really a catcher’s job is to identify what’s working and what that guy has that’s got hitters vulnerable, and until they prove otherwise you just keep going to it,” he said. “When he’s running that ball into right-handed hitters there’s nothing you can do with it.”
For the vast majority of the night, that was certainly true of the Orioles who ran out a lineup with Chris Davis as the sole left-hander. Time after time, their lineup found themselves at the mercy of Biagini’s heavy fastball, hitting into 14 groundballs against just three flyballs.
Ultimately, the Blue Jays right-hander left the game without a concrete statistical achievement to point to. He didn’t get a win, and he fell just short of a complete game.
What he did do is show that he’s able to put down a major league lineup on the strength of power and aggressiveness in the zone alone. For a guy trying to win a 2018 rotation spot, that’s a pretty significant display.
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