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May 17, 2013
Stuffing the Ballot, First Quarter
Though I spend the vast majority of my time at Raising Aces immersed in the analysis of pitching mechanics, the best part of the game is the filthy stuff produced by the mechanical process. One of my favorite features at BP is Sam Miller's “The Best Pitches Thrown This Week,” in which the audience is inundated with GIFs of the nastiest projectiles caught on camera. Inspired by Sam's work, in conjunction with our human compulsion toward dicing the season into manageable chunks of information for the sake of over-analysis, I decided to conjure up a collection of the best stuff from the first quartile of the 2013 season.
The categories were chosen to reflect the elements of a well-rounded repertoire, with the data split into fastballs, breaking balls, and off-speed pitches. In appreciation of the qualitative value of elite pitching, both subjective and objective elements were considered when constructing the following lists, yet the end results were too close to call. I plead the audience to help me fill the gaps by voting for their favorite candidate in each pitch-type category and submitting votes in the comments section. [Stats through games of 5/15]
(minimum 200 fastballs)
Harvey's average fastball velocity ranks second in the majors (behind Stephen Strasburg's 96.4-mph average), and his mechanical efficiency supports a deep release point that allows the raw velocity to play up beyond the radar gun. Harvey has been a revelation thus far in 2013, and the fastball has been the key to the sophomore's success, as reflected by a 31.2 percent rate of swings that come up empty. That figure ranks second in the majors at the 200-pitch threshold, and Harvey leads the majors if the bar is raised to 250. Harvey's knack for generating late swings has formed the foundation of his Cy Young platform.
Cashner has put together a somewhat under-the-radar 2013 performance remarkably similar to the one trumpeted by the hype machine of Harvey. He’s one of a trio of pitchers in the 30 percent club for whiff ate, and his batted-ball data strikes an eerie resemblance to New York's finest arm. Cashner's heat is undeniable, as Pablo Sandoval learned in a series of at-bats on April 26 of this year. Cashner overwhelmed the quick-wristed Panda in his first plate appearance, generating a late swing on 97-mph smoke, and the right-hander pumped the gas up to 98 Octane in the fourth while the free-swinging Sandoval stood frozen on an 0-2 count.
Shelby Miller has been the most charming surprise of 2013. The rookie has ridden a two-pitch repertoire to a microscopic 1.40 ERA, striking out 10 batters per nine innings and keeping runners off the bags to the tune of a 0.88 WHIP. Three-quarters of his pitches have been fastballs this season, but the league can't seem to catch up, as his combination of mid-90s heat and impressive release distance invoke defensive swings from hitters who know what's coming.
The fastball charts reflect the physical advantages of youth, and the 22-year-old Miller is the youngest of the bunch, and his 619 four-seamers rank as the second-highest total in the league (trailing Clayton Kershaw's 627). Miller's rate stats may fall short of the two players listed ahead of him, but the sheer volume and overall dominance of the fastball within his repertoire place him among the game's elite as the pitchers navigate the first turn on the oval.
Darvish manages a fastball velocity that is a near-match for that of Miller, but he lies on the other end of the spectrum with respect to the other fastball metrics. His count of just under 250 fastballs is the only knock against his candidacy for the best heater thus far in 2013. Such under-usage indicates that the heat is not the dominant weapon in Darvish's arsenal, yet the rate stats reflect the highest whiff-per-swing rate in the majors in addition to a healthy frequency of strike calls. Opponents have fared poorly even on contact, as the right-hander has utilized the four-seamer with great command to set up a plethora of options that keep batters off-balance.
(minimum 100 breaking balls)
Patrick Corbin's Slider
Corbin arose from near-obscurity to dominate the desert in Arizona, and his sweeping slider drives his success. His slide-piece has resulted in a whiff more than half of the time that batters have attempted a swing, and opposing hitters have hit like pitchers on those rare occasions that they make contact. The pitch travels slowly enough to consider a “curveball” label, but Corbin’s low arm slot (thanks to excellent posture) invokes the two-plane break that has become the trademark for the common slider. It's all semantics, and though the visual evidence of Corbin's breaker is not as impressive as some of the others on this list, his breaking-ball results are arguably the best in the game.
Roy Halladay's Curve
Halladay has struggled through one of his roughest seasons as a pro. The difficulties began in spring training, and an up-and-down road through April ended with Halladay on the operating table for an ailing shoulder, scuttling his chances of re-appearing on this list at the halfway mark. His sinker and trademark cutter have been hammered this season, but the veteran's curveball was one of the best in the league. His 50-percent whiff rate is perched near the top of the curveball leaderboard, and though he struggled to keep the pitch within the zone, Halladay teased enough swings to make the curve his premier offering.
Clayton Kershaw's Curve
It was tough to decide between Kershaw's breaking pitches, as both his curveball and slider rate as plus, but after watching dozens of breakers in a chorus line of video clips, the pitch that stood out was the big curve. The ridiculous depth of Kershaw's curveball invites empty swings, and though the slider is both more prevalent and more prone to the whiff, the big bender is Kershaw's choice with two strikes. The helplessness of opposing batters is reflected in a .000 isolated power, with just three singles allowed on curves this year and 21 men retired via the K.
Yu Darvish's Slider
Darvish makes another appearance, and once again the choice of breaking ball was a huge factor in this decision. Yu throws no fewer than three breaking pitches, from the exploding slider to a 12-to-6 curve and even a lollipop curveball that drifts into the zone at 64-68 mph. The slider has gained the most attention of the arrows in Darvish's quiver, and rightfully so, given that he has thrown more sliders than fastballs this season. He achieves a 50 percent rate of whiffs-per-swing on both models of the curve, and his 30 percent rate of called strikes on the slow curve reflects the general bafflement of hitters, but the slider stands alone as the most wicked pitch in his arsenal. Rather than take my word for it, allow the following GIFs to paint a picture of his most effective pitch this season.
(minimum 100 Off Speed pitches)
Stephen Strasburg's Changeup
Strasburg is a freak, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The guy has a sub-3.00 ERA and nearly a K per inning, yet his season has been considered a disappointment by those expecting even greater dominance. For all the talk about his supposed problems, Strasburg's average fastball is still the fastest in the league, and his changeup is thrown hard enough to outpace the fastballs of many big leaguers. His whiff/swing rate on changeups ranks fourth in the majors, and he’s surrendered just two hits in 32 at-bats that ended on the off-speed pitch (with zero extra-base hits). Strasburg has averaged nearly 89 mph on el cambio so far this season, and he can ramp up the speed to the low 90s while at the same time pumping enough gas to give the change-of-pace merit.
Cole Hamels' Changeup
Yet another Phillie who has fallen on hard times this season, Hamels has mimicked Halladay in more ways than one. Like his teammate in the Philly rotation, Hamels has watched his fastballs and cutters get knocked around like a pinball machine in the early going, but his go-to pitch has remained strong in the face of adversity. Fantasy league managers are lamenting Hamels' stat line due to mechanical issues that I discussed with Paul Sporer on the latest episode of TINSTAAPP, but the southpaw has actually minimized the damage with his devastating change. Hamels’ swing-and-miss percentage on cambios ranks just ahead of Strasburg’s, which is made all the more impressive by Hamels' changeup frequency, which ranks fourth in all of baseball.
Jeff Samardzija's Split
I might be biased, as a former forkballer myself, but the split-finger fastball is my favorite pitch in the game. The offering uses fastball arm action in conjunction with a deeper grip to produce the effects of a changeup without the necessary degrees of pronation that el cambio requires. Samardzija throws hard enough to have been considered for best fastball in quarter one, and the movement on his two-seamer is enough to put him into multiple categories when we re-assess stuff at the halfway mark, but the strength of his splitter might keep Samardzija afloat even if his fastball command goes AWOL. He carries a ridiculous 11.5-mph spread from four-seam to split, but all the proof we need is that of one Joey Votto, who was coaxed into one of the ugliest swings of his career by a Samardzija splitter that is still diving toward the dirt.
Hisashi Iwakuma's Split
Keeping the splitter torch alive is Hisashi Iwakuma, who has ridden the split to one of the best pitching lines of 2013. The velocity change is minimal at just over four miles per hour, but Iwakuma makes up for the minimal timing disparity with exceptional movement. His late-breaking splitter plants the seed of a fastball within the minds of opposing batters such that it's too late to restrain a swing by the time the pitch-break kicks into gear.
Iwakuma is a shining example of how a deep release point can pay dividends for a pitcher with command of both a fastball and an off-speed pitch. The most eye-opening piece of his statistical profile is that Iwakuma has generated a called strike on less than two percent of his splitters, yet he has walked just a single batter among 70 plate appearances that culminated with the deep-diving pitch, while recording 32 K’s.