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May 11, 2015

Pitching Backward

Who'll Throw The Greatest Pitch Ever?

by Jeff Long

You remember Daniel Bard, surely. He was the lights out reliever that the Red Sox called up in 2009 who basically imploded a few years later. This isn’t a post about Daniel Bard though. This is a post about my favorite pitch of all time.

Daniel Bard used to throw really, really hard. He averaged over 97 mph on his four-seam fastball, and over 95 mph on his sinker, which he threw much less frequently. Before Aroldis Chapman, a 97 mph average was impressive!

Way back in 2010 Daniel Bard threw what I can confidently say is one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen. If not the best, my favorite. First, a tease:

That last pitch is the one in question: 99 mph with seven inches less drop than you would expect from a pitch with no spin, and 14 inches (!) of horizontal movement. Swisher did not hit the pitch.

You’ve perhaps seen it before:

You can see it in its full glory here at the nine second mark:

Yep.

I’m not the only person mystified by this beautiful piece that Bard unfurled on a hot August day in the Bronx. Tom Tango discussed the pitch on his site, which gives us a bit more context to better understand what exactly we’re seeing. The most relevant supplemental information comes from BP Alum Mike Fast, who in the comments noted two things:

1. Bard appears to drop his arm a bit creating more arm-side run than usual on the pitch.

2. “The game was in Yankee Stadium, and the PITCHf/x system in Yankee Stadium was calibrated about 1.2 mph slow during that time period, so the pitch was actually more like 100.3 mph +/- 1 mph at 50 feet from the plate, rather than 99.1 mph as reported by PITCHf/x. Out of his hand would have been about 1 mph faster than the speed measured at 50 feet.”

The pitch was ridiculous when we all thought it was a 99 mph fastball that moved like a frisbee floating across a collegiate quad. Then we find out the pitch was actually over 100 mph which, while not that big of a difference, gives an even greater aura of absurdity to the pitch.

This is the gold standard. We likely won’t see anything like it again anytime soon. Or we will. This got me wondering: Who are the pitchers most likely to give us something as good as Bard’s fastball to Swisher? A few persons of interest come to mind…

***

For the purpose of this exercise, the primary limiting factor is going to be movement. We all know there are a handful of pitchers who light up the radar gun with triple digits on a regular basis. Part of the problem there is that the insane movement on Bard’s delivery seems to be more difficult to replicate than the velocity it had. After all, we see Aroldis Chapman routinely hit 100+ mph, albeit with seemingly straight fastballs:

This leaves us looking at pitches with excellent movement. Combining the velocity with the movement is what made the Bard pitch so special, so we’ll demand the same thing from our contenders. So let’s get into breaking down the key contenders.

***

A Subjective Approach

Matt Moore

That pitch has Bard-like movement, but at 93 mph Moore doesn’t seem to be a real contender here. If he were pitching in relief and picked up a few mph in his return from TJ, it’d be possible. Moore’s average sinker is over 96 mph, but the harder version of the pitch straightens out a lot more than the 93 model showcased above. Moore certainly has the tools to replicate the Bard pitch, but I’m just not sure if he’ll ever be able to put it all together.

Bardometer:

Blake Treinen

Treinen popped up quite a bit in people’s initial reactions to my question. The pitch above features 13.4 inches of horizontal movement on a 96 mph fastball. Treinen’s sinker has averaged 97 mph this season, topping out at 99.9 in his most recent outing against Miami. Treinen is close to having the velocity, and he’s close to having the movement, so he’s got a shot.

Bardometer:

Pedro Strop

Strop’s sinker isn’t consistent, but it flashes a plus ability to reach Bard’s level. In March he threw a sinker that had 15.4 inches of tail, so he’s definitely got the movement to play in this band. He doesn’t quite have the velocity we’re looking for… his sinker peaks between 97 and 98 mph.

Bardometer:

Marcus Stroman

Stroman might be a stretch. He usually sits 93-94 with his sinker, but its cartoon movement merits a spot on this list. Look at the GIF above. Look at it!

Stroman maxes out with more than a foot of horizontal movement, so he can certainly move it like Bard can. Obviously the velocity is an issue, but if he were a dedicated reliever I think he could get up into at least the same range as Strop.

Bardometer:

Yordano Ventura

Yordano Ventura might be our best hope to replicate the Bard pitch. We all know he throws hard, topping out at over 101 mph on his sinker. The pitch above is only 96, but the movement is certainly of Bard quality, and in 2015 Ventura has topped out at 15.3 inches of horizontal movement. So all of the pieces are here. It’s just a matter of putting them all together.

Bardometer:

***

A Quantitative Approach

This being BP, I felt we needed to apply some statistical rigor. I asked Harry Pavlidis to pull some data for me so we could solve this conundrum. Harry, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is a god among men. Harry provided me with every fastball from this season that was over 95 mph, sorted by horizontal movement. Here are our contenders for individual pitches, rather than pitchers, capable of challenging Bard:

Pitcher

Velocity

Horizontal Movement

Date

Opposing Hitter

Yordano Ventura

97.8 mph

15.3 inches

4/12

Featherston

Brad Hand

95.8

15.1

4/18

Lagares

Tony Watson

96.3

14.1

4/23

Hamilton

Aaron Loup

95.3

13.8

4/27

Bogaerts

Blake Treinen

99.0

13.6

4/8

Granderson

There are a few important caveats that I should come clean on with regarding this chart. The most important note is that I’m omitting Chris Sale because his release point gives him an unfair advantage, such that if we included him he'd have seven of the top 10 entries on this table. Also, these are only the top performances from each pitcher. So while Ventura’s offering is his only mention in the top 100, Tony Watson could have had multiple pitches up there before we got to Loup or Treinen. Without any further ado, here are the statistical contenders in reverse order:

Treinen vs. Granderson

Stats: 99.0 mph, 13.6 inches of break.

Treinen shows up in our anecdotal section and statistic section for good reason. This sinker is the closest we’ve seen to Bard’s velocity, but the movement isn’t quite the same. It might feel closer if it was lower in the zone, but as it stands it seems like a pitch that just got away from Treinen. Still, Treinen gets a bump of two Bards.

Bardometer:

Loup vs. Bogaerts

Stats: 95.3 mph, 13.8 inches of break.

This one is okay. We know the movement is there, but visually it’s not super impressive. I think the camera angles hurt lefties a bit too because it limits our ability to see the break, so keep that in mind as we look at Loup’s attempt at replicating Bard. His velocity is a little lacking but the movement is decent.

Bardometer:

Watson vs. Hamilton

Stats: 96.3 mph, 14.1 inches of break.

Watson suffers as Loup does: He's a lefty and the camera angle in Cincinnati is brutal. Further, the pitch runs back over the middle of the zone and Hamilton puts a good swing on it. Watson’s a meh contender on this pitch, but he shows up a few times on the list Harry pulled, so maybe we’re not giving him enough credit. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he's an extremely long shot to replicate Bard.

Bardometer:

Hand vs. Lagares

Stats: 95.8 mph, 15.1 inches of break.

I had high hopes for Brad Hand. I’m disappointed. We’re all disappointed. Hand tops out at 96 mph and averages about 11 inches of break on his fastball. That’s not going to cut it.

Bardometer:

Ventura vs. Featherston

Stats: 97.8 mph, 15.3 inches of break.

This is what I’m talking about. Earlier we gave Ventura eight Bards, noting that he needs that elite movement coupled with better velocity. Velocity that we know he’s capable of. Ventura might just be our guy.

Bardometer:

***

Daniel Bard’s career has taken a tumultuous turn. He fell apart in MLB before being designated for assignment by the Red Sox. A few years and a major shoulder surgery later Bard faced 18 opposing hitters for the Rangers Low-A affiliate, resulting in this:

Daniel Bard is making a comeback bid with the Cubs (of course) this season, but he’s currently working in extended Spring Training as his command issues seem to still be haunting him. Perhaps he can work his way back to relevance this season or next, but the fall was swift and hard.

The reality is that for many professional baseball players, especially relievers, what makes them so dominant is often a part of their undoing. These guys might be the most likely to replicate Bard’s insane ability, but there’s also a chance that they could experience a similar fall from grace.

I’m going to be keeping my eye on Ventura, and probably Treinen, looking for the next Bard-level pitch. I’m not holding my breath, though, because all the stars need to align to produce the effect that Bard’s offering had. Lest we forget, baseball is hard and success is often seen only in glimpses.

Thanks to Harry Pavlidis for research support. Additional thanks to Justin Perline, Eno Sarris, and Kyle Boddy for pitcher recommendations and GIF support. Sources included Over the Monster, InsideTheBook.com, NotGraphs, Reddit, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, and many others for the various GIFs used in this post.

Jeff Long is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

Related Content:  Kansas City Royals,  Boston Red Sox

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