10 of our favorite pitches: ‘The Defector’ for sure makes the cut
For this week’s Lineup Card, the Baseball Prospectus crew picked their favorite pitches from hurlers on current major-league rosters.
It’s a good bet that Mariano Rivera’s cut fastball would have ended up on this list, but as we unfortunately know, the greatest closer of all time retired after last season.
But even without Mo, there are some nasty, wicked pitches out there.
Here they are:
1. Chris Sale’s Slider
No one, except maybe Gumby, should be able to pitch like the Chicago White Sox left-hander. The guy’s only 25, and his inverted "W" is already prompting concern about whether he can sustain his dominance over a long career. Not helping the pro-Sale case, of course, is the fact that he just went on the 15-DL Tuesday. But this isn’t about the future. This is about right now, and right now Sale’s slider is filthy.
It’s not the league’s most valuable slider — actually, it didn’t even crack the top 10 last season. When watching Sale throw it, though, you’ll probably look up those PITCHf/x numbers again and think, “Wait, that can’t be right …”
The only thing more cringe-worthy than these helpless swings-and-misses is pitching coach Don Cooper’s comparison of Sale’s slider to “the Harry Potter thing where that thing flies around and zzzzht!” He tried, he really did. — Nick Bacarella
2. Cole Hamels’ Changeup
The changeup, per the logic baked into its birth name, is dependent on another pitch. Without a fastball, there would be nothing worthwhile to change up. The changeup of the Phillies lefty defies this logic; thus, his changeup is my favorite pitch. You can see hitters digging into the batter’s box, telling themselves, “sit on the change by Jove; do not get beat by the change.” And still those batters will be fooled by Hamels’ changeup, even by back-to-back changeups. Watching batters battle their own mental discomfort when down in the count against Hamels is one of my favorite occurrences in baseball.
Remember your first post-Little League encounter with a lefty that had a really good move to first (that may or may not have been a balk)? Remember when someone was so afraid of getting picked off, they would take only take a one-step lead, yet, the lefty could still get the base runner to flinch towards second and subsequently pick him off? That is Hamels’ changeup. When batters sit on an average off-speed pitch and get one, they do not miss too often. Conversely, when batters sit on Hamels’ change, they still flinch, thinking it’s a fastball, and they still get the rugged pulled out from underneath them. — Jeff Quinton
3. Jake Peavy’s Old-Man Fastball
There was a time when Peavy’s fastball sat 94-96 mph with some solid run. He was on a promising career path then, having reached the apex of modern day pitching after winning a Cy Young Award with the Padres in 2007. But his body broke down, as pitcher bodies are wont to do, and he never really got on the career track I thought he would. What we see from the current Red Sox right-hander now is a fastball that sits in the low 90s. Peavy’s fastball isn’t the best in the game by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s something about the eight inches of run he’s getting on it these days that makes it aesthetically appealing to me in a throwback sort of way. We have a host of young arms throwing 100 on the regular with wicked bite on the black. It’s not fair and those pitches are certainly much better than what Peavy’s throwing up there. But my favorite pitch in baseball (tonight, anyway) remains that old-man Peavy fastball with ridiculous arm-side run. — Mauricio Rubio
4. Clayton Kershaw’s Curveball
I had all sorts of ideas on how to describe Kershaw’s curveball. But that’s why we have Vin Scully. — Harry Pavlidis
5. Zach Britton’s Two-Seamer
I love high ground-ball rates, and probably a little too much. We all have our vices. It’s because of this vice that I’ve long been a fan of the Orioles lefty, whose biggest strength is his ability to wear out the infield dirt behind him. However, he has struggled with command and injuries, which has taken him from potential impact starting pitcher to relief reclamation project. That project appears to be turning into full blown success right before our eyes in 2014. With his overall velocity ticking up, hitters might as well be playing pool when Britton is on the mound, as putting the ball in the air is more or less out of the question.
The culprit for this is Britton’s two-seamer, which just drops off the table, leaving hitters no choice but to either swing through it or smack it into the ground. In fact, per Brooks Baseball, before his latest outing against the Red Sox on Patriots’ Day, he’d thrown it 174 times and it had been put in the air twice. Literally, twice. The first was a double by Boston’s Dustin Pedroia in Britton’s second outing of the season and the second was a pop out by Toronto’s Dioner Navarro on April 12. However, in Britton’s last outing, he gave up two fly balls — including a home run to Boston’s David Ross — which lowered his ground-ball rate to a rather pedestrian 79.5 percent. Sure, it’s not the sexiest pitch on this list, but it is a beautiful thing to watch. — Bret Sayre
6. Kenley Jansen’s Cutter
Jansen only started pitching in 2009, and was in the majors by 2010, armed only with his imposing mound presence and a cutter. Fortunately for Jansen, the Dodgers and the general viewing public, that one pitch is magical. It’s had to be, as he’s thrown it 88 percent of the time since arriving in the big leagues. Despite the mostly one-dimensional approach, Jansen has managed to strike out 371 batters in 235 1/3 innings (through Friday). Jansen has added a wrinkle to his cutter this year, in that he’s averaging 95 mph on it — a full two miles per hour faster than in 2013. This only minimizes the amount of time hitters have to react to its incredibly late break, and it seems to be working as he’s currently whiffing 17.2 batters per nine innings, which would be a career high if it holds. — Craig Goldstein
7. Koji Uehara’s Splitter
In David Sirlin’s book “Playing to Win," he writes of the Japanese term “Yomi,” which is the art of “knowing the mind of the opponent.” In baseball, as in any competition, there are various styles: the overpowering force of Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman’s fastball; the knee-buckling, physical impossibility of the slider of Miami’s Jose Fernandez. But these are physical gifts. The one true style — yomi — is all mental.
Uehara dominates on the back of a 90-mph fastball and an 82-mph splitter. When batters swung at Red Sox closer’s fastball last year, they missed it 25.63 percent of the time — nearly two standard deviations above the average fastball — think 70-grade results on a 50-grade pitch. When batters swung at his splitter, they missed it nearly 45 percent of the time.
The splitter is an odd pitch to explain. It’s more or less like a changeup — an armside-moving offspeed pitch — and yet, its mechanics are very different. The best splitters have low spin, which gives them a sort of knuckling, unpredictable quality. Because of this low spin, they not only appear to drop because of their much lower velocity, but also because they don’t have the backspin force “lifting” a four-seam fastball. Uehara, as do many of the pitchers that throw one, claims to throw multiple variations of the pitch, but, to the best of my knowledge, no one has been able to pick out which variations are which based on the trajectory information.
But, what really makes Uehara’s version of this weird changeup so difficult to hit? Why in combination with a 90-mph fastball is it so devastating? I have no idea. If it feels like it’s moving in some strange, never-before-seen way, that’s probably a trick of your mind reinforced by the batter’s ineptitude. So, I’m left with only one explanation:Yomi. Uehara just doesn’t know how to throw 90 and locate. He knows when and where to do it. He knows the one, true style. — Dan Brooks
8. Craig Kimbrel’s Curveball
There are more obscure gems in today’s game than Kimbrel’s knuckle curveball, but some insane facts must be made known. First, to give you an idea of the sample size, he’s thrown over 1,100 in regular-season play. The batting average against it is .110. He has allowed zero home runs, zero triples and one double off of that pitch. That’s an ISO of .003 in more than 230 innings pitched. Batters fail to make contact on 53 percent of the swings they take at it. About 75 percent of the balls put in play against it are ground balls, putting it at a 9-to-1 GB:FB ratio. (Last year he didn’t allow a single fly ball against it.) He also throws it harder than anyone else throws their curve, averaging 87 mph. Eleven times he’s thrown a curveball 90 mph or harder.
There’s no kind of analysis I can offer here that would be a better use of your time than simply going over those stats again. I just thought you deserved to know. — Dan Rozenson
9. Jose Fernandez‘s ‘The Defector’
It was my first trip to New York City, and the wife and I were enjoying the ambiance at McGee’s Pub (the inspiration for MacLaren’s in “How I Met Your Mother”) when something began to tug at my periphery. Miami’s young pitching phenom was on a TV in the background, mowing down St. Louis hitters, and my attention was drawn every time that Fernandez unleashed his devastating breaking ball. I may have been submerged in a conversation about Slapsgiving or the Bro Code, when suddenly I was entranced by the unnatural movement of a pitch that has been dubbed “The Defector.”
The Defector looks like no other breaking pitch in the game. It is well-supinated, leaving the right hand of Fernandez at a fastball trajectory before the laws of physics cease to apply and the laws of awesome take over. It has the most egregious horizontal movement in the game, with 9.15 inches of lateral break that ranks ahead of Yu Darvish’s slider as the farthest-sweeping pitch in baseball.
Big Fern leaned on the Defector nearly one-third of the time last season, and in 2014 he has upped the tune to an astounding 41 percent frequency. He will throw the pitch in any count against any hitter, regardless of handedness, and the breaker is most daunting when Fernandez is ahead in the count — he goes to the pitch 54 percent of the time when he gets two strikes on a batter. His dependence on the breaking ball reached new heights in Tuesday’s game vs. the Braves, accounting for 54 out of the 109 pitches that he threw and registering 11 of his 14 strikeouts. In fact, two-thirds of the strikeouts that Fern has registered in his brief career have come at the behest of the Defector. His command of the pitch is unbelievable, an element which grows more stupefying when one considers his novice age (21) as well as the pitch’s ludicrous movement. Yet, the pitch is edgy enough to keep batters from digging in — all five of his career hit-by-pitches have occurred on breakers. Hitters have a collective .111 batting average and .158 slugging percentage on at bats that end with the Defector.
It appears that the only thing that can stop Big Fern at this point is himself. The heavy pronation necessary to throw the pitch combined with his escalating frequency creates a potentially frightening scenario for the young arm, and that he possesses an 8 fastball along with a plus changeup suggests that he should limit the exposure of his signature pitch. — Doug Thorburn
10. Luke Gregerson’s Slider
“Everything works off the fastball” is a common refrain among major leaguers, and I have a soft spot for pitchers who take that truism to the extreme. This entry easily could have been about 40-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon, who’s thrown four-seamers or sinkers almost 90 percent of the time as a Met, or Oakland lefty Sean Doolittle, who’s thrown over 80 percent four-seamers in 2014 despite adding a slider since last season, when he threw 89 percent fastballs. For members of that rare breed, “everything works off the fastball” might be better rephrased as “The fastball is everything.” Those guys are great.
But maybe not the greatest. Nearer and dearer to my heart are the few pitchers who work off another pitch type entirely, so here’s looking at you, Mr. Gregerson. The right-handed Oakland reliever, along with San Francisco closer Sergio Romo (who also deserves his own entry, but this will have to do) is one of the few pitchers who uses a breaking ball as his No. 1 weapon. Despite relying on a pitch that typically subjects its practitioners to severe platoon splits, Gregerson has held his own against left-handed hitters, likely because his slider comes in two or three flavors, each of which does something different and has the power to incapacitate opponents. Although he no longer uses the slider a majority of the time, it still retains a plurality among his pitch types. I can’t help but admire anyone with a secondary pitch so good that it becomes a primary pitch, so Gregerson gets my salute. — Ben Lindbergh