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July 20, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Best Pitches Thrown This Week

by Sam Miller

Since the very first Best Pitches Thrown This Week, we’ve bumped up against the limits of what we can really conclude about a pitch. The pitch is not meant to impress us; it is meant to impress the batter, and we are not the batter, so our conclusions are answering the wrong question. So this week I asked some baseball players to name the nastiest pitch they have seen this year. These are their answers, which are interesting to me because these are absolutely not the answers I would have given for them. None of these guys even fell over! Batter falling over is 90 percent of my typical assessment. But they know. I don’t know. They know. Here we go.

3. Freddy Garcia’s splitter to Peter Bourjos.

Layman’s view: Good pitch. Looks like a good pitch. Pretty good pitch, looks like. Not bad.

All three of these pitches are somewhat surprising choices, and they are all surprising in different ways. Here’s what Bourjos says about this pitch, which was the first split-finger he saw that day (but not the first time he had ever seen Garcia’s splitter) and which came on a 2-2 pitch in Bourjos’ second plate appearance:

“It looked just like a knuckleball and took off. I think it's just how it comes out. It came out with good rotation and just went down. A good split doesn't tumble a whole lot. It's going to drop at the last minute.

“I was half-looking for it. Obviously when he’s got two strikes on you so you gotta be ready for anything, but I was expecting it. That’s his pitch. He just threw a good one.

“He threw me a couple last year and they more kind of tumbled, and yesterday the one he threw me was good, it didn't have a lot of rotation, and it took off.  You know, I saw it, recognized it, and it looked like it was going to be a strike and that’s why I swung. At the last minute it dove out of the zone.

“When he throws a good one it's gonna do that. That's why he's had such success, is that split, especially now that he doesn't have as much velocity.”

2. R.A. Dickey’s fastball to Chris Stewart.

Layman’s view: Crud I missed it.

I’m 100 percent sure I wouldn’t have ever picked this pitch, because I could barely even see this pitch. The camera cuts to it so late, and there is no replay, so basically we’ve got a fade into the last 20 feet of the pitch and what appears to be well-leveled ball that gets in on the handle and turns into a double play. Also, it’s a fastball. Also, it is 84 mph. Also, this is the location:

Here’s Stewart:

“I think it was a first pitch and I was actually sitting fastball, and it looked like 120 mph coming at me and shattered my bat and I hit a little squeaker groundball to the shortstop. [Actually second baseman.] So.

“I saw all knuckleballs (in the first two at-bats) and I know he throws more fastballs than an average knuckleball guy and I was actually sitting on the fastball and sitting on the location he threw it and it was just harder than I thought it was. It was the first pitch and so I might as well get something good and get something to drive. And he threw the exact pitch I was looking for and I just couldn't catch up to it.

“He throws a harder knuckleball than normal, but you're really trying to focus on picking it up and where it's going to be and seeing it so you can hit it, and the fastball off of that just looks way harder than it is.”

R.A. Dickey doesn’t throw a very good fastball. If he did, he would never have bothered with the knuckleball, and if he did he would have been successful years ago. Dickey’s fastball averages 83 mph. He throws it every six or seven pitches or so. It is also very successful:

2012: 77 percent strikes
2011: 73 percent strikes 
2010: 75 percent strikes 
2009: 76 percent strikes

The league average for fastball strikes is about 64 percent. Lest you think that Dickey is, like other knuckleballers, throwing the pitch only when he’s behind in the count and has to come in with a strike, that’s not the case. He throws it more often when he’s behind in the count, as most pitchers do, but he throws it nearly as often to start at-bats, or in various two-strike counts. He threw it 15 times in the game against the Yankees: four balls, nine strikes, two groundouts. Just one game, but for just one game it was very effective.

1. Craig Kimbrel’s slider to Eric Chavez

Layman’s view: Looks okay. Is there one where the batter falls over on his butt?

And here is the obvious one, except not the obvious one. Craig Kimbrel’s slider is one of those pitches that I keep in my back pocket, knowing that some week I’ll have four minutes to write a piece and I’ll be grateful that I haven’t used Craig Kimbrel’s slider yet. But Craig Kimbrel’s slider is especially pretty when it looks like this:

Lower in the zone, or out of the zone, and eventually in the catcher's mitt. The one that Chavez identified is not the one I would have identified. But here’s what Chavez said:

“Kimbrel. Slider. Nastiest.

“It was 1-1. I was expecting a heater because he just threw me a—it might have been 99. The 99 was the second-best pitch I saw this year. I took it, for a strike. And then he threw me a slider and I hit it like a Little Leaguer to second base.

“It's just sharp. It's just hard and it's comparable to Mariano's cutter as far as the depth it comes in to a left-handed hitter, but it's better, it's sharper. It's impossible to even really hit it. I don't even know how I hit it in the first place. I hit a ball, literally it was the softest ball I ever hit to second base. It was the softest ball I ever hit. I'm not kidding.”

Chavez was the only Yankee to put a ball in play that inning. Kimbrel struck three other batters out, with one reaching on a wild pitch. “He's got the best stuff I've ever seen. Ever. I mean, electric. Really I don't know how the guy gives up any hits at all. The best stuff I've ever seen in my career. He's unhittable.”

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

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