Newly unveiled sweeper shows Finnegan's willingness to evolve

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Four years into his big league career, Kyle Finnegan has established himself as good late-inning reliever. And he’s done so with a fairly simple repertoire of pitches. He throws a high-90s fastball most of the time (70 percent on average). And he mixes in a slider to right-handed batters and a splitter to hitters from both sides of the plate, both of those pitches registering around 90 mph with movement in opposite directions.

It’s a formula that has worked well for the Nationals closer. But as he thought about things this winter, he couldn’t help but come back to a certain conclusion.

“I think I’ve performed well, but I’ve always felt like I left something on the table and felt like I could do better than I’ve done,” he said. “And I think something I’ve been missing is a slower breaking ball.”

Indeed, with almost every pitch Finnegan throws clearing the 90-mph mark, there isn’t much reason for hitters to worry about anything throwing off their timing when they dig in against him.

So Finnegan went about trying to address that winter by developing a new pitch. And on Wednesday afternoon, he tried it out for the first time in a game: Say hello to the latest major leaguer to add a sweeper to his repertoire.

The sweeper, for those still unfamiliar with the sport’s latest craze, has horizontal slider movement but is thrown at a slower curveball speed. It’s taken the baseball world by storm the last few seasons, and whether you agree it’s truly its own pitch or just another version of a slider, it seems to work.

“Finnegan’s always been toying around with trying to get a third pitch,” Nats manager Davey Martinez said. “Cause everything he throws is hard. So, he wanted to create some kind of deception, more or less.”

Finnegan spent his winter trying to perfect the new pitch, and by the time he departed for Florida he was pretty happy with the state of things. It was registering 78-79 mph, and all the analytical data that came with it – spin rate, horizontal break, pitch shape – was in line with the numbers for a quality sweeper.

Even so, he wasn’t convinced it was going to work once he started to actually throw it at spring training.

“I was joking all offseason – because it was really good – that as soon as I get to Florida and we start playing games, it’s going to totally disappear,” he said. “So that happened. I got here, and in my bullpens it was unimpressive. It just kind of morphed into analytically something you don’t want to throw.”

With some help from pitching coach Jim Hickey and newly hired pitching strategist (and former bullpen mate) Sean Doolittle, Finnegan figured out how to throw the pitch a little bit harder, with a little bit of downward break. The results were encouraging, enough so he was ready to try it out in Wednesday’s game against the Red Sox.

“Between Doo and Hick, they’ve done a great job of using the data, but also keeping it simple,” Finnegan said. “Look, you could have a good analytical pitch, but it gets hit around. At the end of the day, the hitter’s going to tell you if it’s good or not. But this is maybe what we should aim for. Which has really helped me a lot.”

Finnegan wound up throwing three sweepers out of his 15 total pitches during a perfect top of the fifth. Two of them registered 84 mph, the other 85 mph. One of them struck out Boston outfield prospect Ceddanne Rafaela, who offered up an awkward swing at the surprise pitch.

Speaking in detail about it the morning after, Finnegan was excited about the positive results but also realistic about the long road he still has to perfect the pitch and make it consistently effective.

“It’s still very early, and you go through waves of thinking you’ve figured it out and then you lose it,” he said. “There’s a whole process. I’m sure I’ll lose it and have to learn how to get it back before I really figure it out. Maybe a little beginner’s luck, but I was really happy with it yesterday.”

None of this is intended as a complete overhaul of Finnegan’s repertoire. He’s still going to rely primarily on his upper-90s fastball. He’s still going to trust his devasting splitter as his No. 2 pitch.

But a third pitch, especially one that moves differently and comes in at a slower speed than the others, is awfully tempting. Even if he only throws it 10 percent of the time, it’s something else for hitters to think about in their back of their minds.

“I’m happy with how I’ve performed, but I think you’ve always got to evolve in this game,” Finnegan said. “And I’m not afraid of change. So, let’s try it.”

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