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2023 SABR Analytics Conference Research Awards: Voting Open Now!

Two weeks ago, we covered the best stuff among starting pitchers for the 2014 season, and this time we tackle the relievers. The same rules apply, with a mix of objective and subjective info determining the finalists, and categories split into fastballs, breaking balls, and off-speed. But before we dive into the best reliever stuff of 2014, let's review the polling results from the starter edition.

The winner for best fastball was Chris Sale, who narrowly edged out rookie Yordano Ventura by a single vote. The breaking ball category was not even close, with Corey Kluber's curveball taking home the hardware with 13 of the 16 votes that were cast. Finally, the top off-speed pitch was declared to be the change-up of Felix Hernandez, who had more than twice the votes of runner-up Stephen Strasburg. I was going to use my own votes as a tie-breaker, which turned out to be unnecessary, but for the curious I would have gone with the readers on Sale's heater and Kluber's breaker, though my vote for Tanaka's split was against the grain.

The stuff is more extreme out of the bullpen, with bigger fastballs and crazier breakers from pitchers who go all-out in their one-inning stints. Reliever stuff is so nasty that we had to add an extra candidate for each of the first two categories, though the relative rarity of off-speed pitches (the presence of which is what often separates a starter from a reliever) keeps that particular category in check.

Without further ado, here are the candidates for the best stuff among relievers in 2014, with data provided by www.BrooksBaseball.net and candidates listed in alphabetical order. Once again, I encourage the readers to cast their votes for each category in comments section, and write-in candidates are welcome.

The Heat

(minimum 500 fastballs)

Aroldis Chapman

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

101.2 mph

41.94%

.150

.217

After the frightening comebacker that knocked him out for six weeks and necessitated a metal plate to be permanently inserted in his face, Chapman returned with a vengeance and arguably the best stuff of his career. His average velocity was nearly two full ticks higher than that of runner up Kelvin Herrera, and in fact the 101.1 mph average was not only the highest of Chapman's career, but the highest of the PITCHf/x era. His whiff-per-swing rate also topped all big-league fastballs, besting runner-up Brad Boxburger by nearly four percentage points.

The Red Dragon surrendered just a single homer off of his heater in 2014, and opposing batters were better off waiting for a walk than making any semblance of hard contact. The Z score for his fastball velocity was an astronomical 3.35 according to Brooks Baseball, which breaks the model with an “84” when converted to a 20-80 scouting scale. Chapman sits perched atop the mountain of the game's greatest fastballs, owning one of the most devastating heaters of all-time, and he has been known to ratchet up the velo to gun-shattering speeds of 105 mph.

Wade Davis

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

96.7 mph

34.55%

.141

.170

The hard-throwing Davis was a revelation for the Royals this season, and the general consensus of the deal that brought him to Kansas City has taken on a new light thanks to a combination of his breakout, Wil Myers' sophomore slump, and the team's postseason success. Davis was a strikeout machine in 2014, punching out 109 batters in 72 innings, and 60 of those strikeouts came on his 95-98 mph four-seamer.

He went to the heat 60 percent of the time, and yet opposing batters could do nothing with it, with a .141 average and just three extra-base hits, none of which left the yard. His whiff-per-swing rate was the third-highest mark in baseball among four-seam fastballs, and the average velo ranked tenth among relievers with at least 500 fastballs thrown this season.

Kenley Jansen

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

94.3 mph

32.16%

.243

.342

The inclusion of Jansen might be debatable due to the vagaries of pitch classification, as his cut fastball could be considered a breaking ball in some circles, and the cutter is essentially a hybrid of the fastball and the slider. In the end, his high velocity, subtle break, and lack of vertical movement on the pitch (despite a high release point) conspired to put him into the fastball category.

The right-hander leans heavily on the pitch, with an 88.6 percent usage pattern, and adding his sinker brings Jansen's fastball frequency above 94 percent. He has been known to bring the cutter at speeds up to 97 mph, and his horizontal movement on the pitch (3.1 inches on average) is the highest of MLB's relievers for cut fastballs, a combination that is borderline unfair when his command of the pitch is sound.

Craig Kimbrel

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

98.1 mph

31.89%

.149

.199

Kimbrel just keeps on proving that he's the most dominant reliever in the league, with a two-pitch repertoire that has been shutting down opposing offenses at the end of Braves games for the past four seasons. His average velocity ranked third among pitchers with at least 500 fastballs thrown this year, and his whiff-per-swing rate ranked fourth.

The four-seamer is the more common weapon of choice for Kimbrel, representing 72.8 percent of his pitches overall. It is his preferred pitch regardless of the count, situation, or handedness of the opposing hitter, and the ferocity of his fastball allows the right-hander to have a massive advantage even when behind in the count (when the heat comes into play 93 percent of the time). It's no wonder that he has led the National League in saves in four consecutive seasons.

The Breaks

(minimum 200 breaking balls)

Dellin Betances, Curve

Pitch Count

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

644

83.8 mph

50.90%

.075

.124

Like many of the relievers on this list, Betances is essentially a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball has been known to hit triple digits, but it's the curve that has fueled his unbelievable season of relief, accounting for 110 of his 135 strikeouts this season. His whiff-per-swing rate ranked fourth among pitchers with 200 or more curveballs thrown, and his hammer count of 644 was the most thrown by a reliever this season by a wide margin (Cody Allen was second with 412).

The curve leaves Betances hand on a fastball trajectory before it takes a steep dive late in the flight path, adding to the deception of the pitch as batters have to recognize the spin within a narrow time window. The break is mostly vertical in shape, thanks in part to heavy spine-tilt that manipulates his high release point, and though Betances lacks balance throughout most of his delivery, it's hard to argue with the stuff or the results.

Craig Kimbrel, Curve

Pitch Count

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

282

86.3 mph

54.33%

.114

.157

Kimbrel is the only pitcher who earned a top ranking for two different pitches this season, a distinction made all the more significant by the fact that they are the only two weapons in his arsenal. The numbers are impressive on their own, with a whiff on more than half of the curves that generated swings in 2014 and punch-outs on 45 of the 70 at bats that ended with the pitch. Opponents had a BABIP of .292 on Kimbrel's curve, which is roughly league average, but his ability to keep the ball out of play led to the stifling numbers seen above.

The Kimbrel curve earns bonus points for the subjective “wow” factor, with nasty two-plane break that resembles the jaw-dropping movement of Jose Fernandez's Defector. The shape might cause some to put a slider label on Kimbrel's breaking ball, but the 12-mph difference in velocity and the high degree of supination necessary to throw his bender put the pitch firmly in curveball territory.

Andrew Miller, Slider

Pitch Count

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

420

85.0 mph

54.64%

.082

.100

Miller began to draw attention near the end of the season, but his wipeout slider was sending hitters back to the dugout throughout the year. The southpaw has struck out more than 40 percent of batters faced over the past two seasons, including 103 batters across 62.3 frames in 2014, 74 of which were sent packing via the slider.

The deadline deal that sent Miller to Baltimore was overshadowed by the big moves of the Tigers and Athletics on July 31st, but with Oakland and Detroit now ousted from the postseason, Miller could end up being the most influential piece that was acquired by a contender. His slider usage has only increased since the deal, with a 48 percent usage pattern over the final two months with the O's, and his stellar performance for the AL East champs should convert to a generous payday as Miller enter free agency after the season.

Pedro Strop, Slider

Pitch Count

Avg Velo

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

324

83.6 mph

63.31%

.120

.185

Strop might be a relative unknown when compared to the other relief aces on this list, but his breaking ball was arguably the most dominant in baseball this season. The 63.3 percent rate of whiffs-per-swing was the highest mark in baseball for any individual pitch, and the slider was responsible for 58 of the 71 strikeouts that Strop registered in 2014.

The pitch might be labeled a curve by some, given the 13.6-mph velocity differential from his fastball and the sharp vertical drop that often accompanies his breaking ball, but such an identity is purely semantic given that the right-hander only throws one type of breaking pitch. With late break and a trajectory that mirrors his fastball for much of the flight path, Strop's slider has become a devastating weapon against hitters from either side of the plate.

El Cambio

(minimum 200 Off Speed pitches)

Joaquin Benoit, Split

Pitch Count

Velo Diff

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

251

-10.0 mph

59.29%

.058

.058

The splitter of Benoit was almost literally unhittable in 2014. He allowed just four singles and a lone walk in the 70 plate appearances that ended on the split, with zero hits going for extra bases. The 36-year-old also punched out 42 batters on the splitter, representing 65.6 percent of his K's on the season, and his whiff-per-swing rate was easily the highest among all off-speed pitches in baseball.

Unlike the top three starting pitchers in the off-speed category, Benoit recorded a double-digit velocity differential when comparing his split to his four-seam fastball, adding a timing element to the precipitous drop that batters had to contend with in order to make contact. Opposing hitters even struggled to stay alive, with a 21.4 percent rate of fouls-per-swing that was easily the lowest of any pitcher who threw 100 or more splits this season.

Fernando Rodney, Change Up

Pitch Count

Velo Diff

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

355

-13.3 mph

45.81%

.172

.241

Known for his Legolas impersonation when celebrating a successful save, Rodney relied on el cambio to be the most dangerous arrow in his quiver at the end of Seattle games this season. The immense velocity differential was devastating to opposing batters, and his nefarious arm-side run on the pitch allowed him to cover for the outings when Rodney's command was off-kilter while leaving batters handcuffed on the days when he was able to hit his targets.

The right-hander became a controversial-yet-critical signing for the Mariners, who were in postseason contention up through the final days of the regular season. The change was largely responsible for his success in 2014, including the third-highest rate of whiffs-per-swing among reliever cambios and finishing 45 of his 76 strikeouts on the season.

Francisco Rodriguez, Change Up

Pitch Count

Velo Diff

Whiff/Sw %

Opp AVG

Opp SLG

307

-7.8 mph

47.67%

.157

.259

K-Rod topped Rodney in the whiff-per-swing department for change-ups, finishing second among all relievers this season (Alex Torres was first). Rodriguez displayed a lot of variation on his change, ramping the pitch up to 86 mph at times only to be off-set by the occasional 80-mph cambio, though the velocity differential in the above chart reflects his average change-up velocity of 83.8 mph.

His movement on the change was tied to how hard he threw the pitch, as he would get greater (movement) the softer he threw it, and his variation on the change-up involved the degree of pronation while the arm-speed stayed relatively consistent. K-Rod's cambio has excellent depth, and he can get some arm-side run when he targets the right-side of the plate, a combination that often resulted in empty swings this season. In this sense, he was the Benoit of the change-up crew, with a low rate of 21.8 percent fouls-per-swing that was easily the lowest among the game's relievers.

Thank you for reading

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faztradamus
10/14
Red Dragon
Kimbrel
Benoit
brownsugar
10/14
Chapman. With a shout-out to Jake McGee, but it's hard to justify picking somebody other than the guy whose average velocity needs a third digit.

Then Betances and K-Rod. K-Rod gets the nod because unlike the others, I can't imagine how he could survive without that pitch.
rawagman
10/14
FB - Chapman
Breaking ball - Miller
Change - Benoit
schlicht
10/14
Chapman
Strop
Benoit
saberbythebay
10/14
Gotta write in Jake McGee... The guy had a sub-two FIP while throwing 96% fastballs.
rolewiii
10/14
Chapman/Betances/Rodney

I picked Rodney mostly because of Pompey's approach was to attack a heater, he shortened his swing up considerably to catch up and just embarrassed himself.

The Benoit pitch is wild, though.
BSLJeffLong
10/14
Chapman
Miller
Rodney

Betances is a close runner-up on breaking balls, but I'm biased towards Miller. Also Betances' breaking ball has some massive break but I didn't see too many embarrassing swings against it. Miller's on the other hand made hitters look foolish nearly every time he pitched.
gizrock13
10/14
chapman
betances
benoit
jfranco77
10/14
Chapman
Betances
Benoit
Shawnykid23
10/14
Chapman
Betances
Benoit
watson12
10/14
Chapman
Miller
Benoit
bobbygrace
10/14
Maybe Chapman's fastball should be considered hors concours, just to keep things interesting.
beeker99
10/14
Chapman
Betances
Benoit - even if we deduct a bit for pitching in Petco, 4 singles and no XBHs is wow