2009’s Toughest Pitches

Before the start of this season, I wrote a piece that mentioned the toughest pitches to hit in 2008. I them promptly forgot about the data that I had pulled to write that. Now fast forward to a few days ago, when I was again curious about the pitches that garnered the highest percentage of swings and misses. I ended up re-doing my work, but in a vastly more efficient manner (it’s nice to know that I’ve gotten smarter in at least some areas) this time around, so maybe I won’t forget and let this go to waste.

Anyways, last year’s toughest pitch was Ryan Madson‘s changeup thrown to same-handed (that is, right-handed) hitters. Back then I broke each pitcher-pitch combo down into four groups, separated by role, starter or reliever, and batter handedness, same or opposite. This time, I am less inclined to do so, preferring to focus on bigger samples and effectiveness spread across platoon situations. I can still break it down like that in the future should the need arise, but for this year’s hardest pitch to hit award, I’m keeping it on the level.

And the winner of that award for 2009 goes to Brandon League. It’s a rather remarkable win, because the pitch in question, a changeup — or, possibly, a splitter — was a new one for League, who up until 2009 was a dominant fastball pitcher that tossed out a slider once in awhile. In 2009, League introduced the splitter pitch and relied on it, using it roughly 35% of the time. And boy did it work. 35% of the time that Brandon League threw that splitter, the hitter swung and missed. It was five percentage points better than the person-pitch in second place, an old friend, Ryan Madson‘s changeup, at just under 30%.

Third and fourth place went to Jonathan Broxton and Huston Street‘s sliders, in that order, and Francisco Rodriguez‘s changeup rounded out the top five.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

23 Responses to “2009’s Toughest Pitches”

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  1. eyebleaf says:

    Oh, Brandon League. We’ll miss you.

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  2. OremLK says:

    Where does Wandy Rodriguez’s curveball fall, out of curiosity? I seem to remember an awful lot of swings and misses.

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  3. NBarnes says:

    I think a little more refinement would generate more interesting results. It’s good to know what pitches get a lot of swings and misses. But there’s more to swings and misses to pitching. It should be possible to look into pitches that get called strikes. Or pitches that get hit weakly to infielders all the time. Or even pitches that get a lot of singles, but never turn into doubles or HRs. Those are all pretty good pitches.

    Also, not separating out starters and relievers has to be considered a mistake. You combined them and predictably ended up with five top spots == five relievers. *yawn*

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  4. trebek29 says:

    mo’s cutter does not make the list?

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    • Will says:

      not even close,
      mo was actually more hittable this past year than any other of his career despite putting up 44 saves.
      his contact against rate soared to a career high 82.8% up from 76.3% in ’08.
      It seems that his control dropped off even though his BB/9 stayed amazing at 1.63. He threw fewer strikes in ’09 than ever before at only 43.5% of pitches in the zone. And when he located, those balls were hit. His z-contact was 90.2%.
      Also notable that he stranded an unusually high number of runners with a career high 91.8%, well higher than his career average of 80.1%.
      Putting all this together, look for Mo to start showing his age in 2010.
      Mind you, I’m a huge yanks fan and hope he pitches into his 50s.

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      • Will says:

        I wonder what the numbers would look like if you removed the first month of the season. Mariano was coming off an off season surgery and a slow spring training schedule, so that might explain some of these “declining” rates.

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    • NYD says:

      Mo’s cutter, although tough, gets put into play quite a bit, albeit it usually leaves the hitter with a broken bat….

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  5. I thought hitters missed Wuertz’s slider like half of the time–at least I remember a bunch of buzz about that July-August around Fangraphs. Did it drop off at the end of the year or something?

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    • vivaelpujols says:

      Matthew’s looking at swinging strikes/total pitches. The Wuertz looked at swinging strikes/pitches swung at. It’s up to you to decide which is the better stat.

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  6. KaminaAyato says:

    So that means that Z saw the stats, saw League’s change/split and said, “I have to have it” and promptly traded for him?

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  7. andy says:

    i think lincecums’s change should be the winner. the point of a pitch is not necessarily to create a swing and miss but to prevent runs. lincecums change was 35 runs above (below?)average. more than any other pitch from any other pitcher last year. it was also good for 4.94 runs per 100 pitches tops of any pitch thrown with regularity.

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    • Joe says:

      I agree. Biased Giants fan here, but his change was glorious in ’09. Strangely the numbers seem to back it up by different criteria, but not by this author’s apparently.

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Yup. I’m a SF fan, but objectively Lincecum’s changeup was the best pitch last year. I find it hard to consider RP’s for the “best pitch” honor for the same reason they hold a massive disadvantage in the Cy Young voting: they simply don’t throw enough. It’s not hard for League to do as well as he did when he only threw 74.2 innings against Lincecum’s 225.1. When hitters get to see Timmy as often as they do, every additional PA gives them more of an advantage, whereas League likely didn’t face the same hitter more than two or three times. It’s hard to make adjustments when you have two ABs against a guy in six months, but not so hard when you see a guy at least once a month, and two or three times per game. The fact that Tim’s changeup was so good all season and despite its frequent exposure should hand the award to Tim.

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  8. opisgod says:

    A whole lot of the success of that splitter is in the way it moves depending on where its thrown, and how much it moves. When thrown in to left handers, it’s vertical break is ridiculous, and it is basically a 85 MPH curveball (also what Pitch FX classifies it as, but it tails so definitely a changeup), while inside to right handers it’s your typical screwball-esque changeup. However, both drop a ridiculous amount. He throws it with the splitter grip.

    Vertical movement:

    Changeup: -1.3 inches
    “Curveball”: -4.8 inches (!)

    Compare this to Timmy’s splitter:

    4 inches.

    And Haren’s:

    5.1 inches

    The typical split/change in baseball has about 4-6 inches of vertical rise, the spin on League’s pitches actually cause it to sink faster than gravity, which is all but unheard of in pronated pitches. Watching hitters flail wildly at that “curveball” time and time again was so commomplace it stopped being funny; no one ever got any type of reasonable contact off that pitch, it was just unfair.

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    • opisgod says:

      I guess I should also mention that his “changeup” splitter was far more hittable; so this curveball-type pitch, we’re looking at something like a 50%+ whiff rate on pitches thrown. Filthy, absolutely filthy.

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  9. John C. says:

    What about Zack Grienke’s or Jokaim Soria’s curveballs, both of them break about a foot and are nasty. UNHITTABLE.

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  10. NEPP says:

    Which made it very annoying when Madson would basically abandon his changeup when he was thrust into the closer’s role and in the playoffs. He’d end up throwing a very straight 96 mph fastball instead and ignore his best pitch.

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  11. csiems says:

    You know, if you count all of the times his fastball was literally unhittable (like when he threw it 20 feet outside or in AAA), then Brandon Morrow comes out much better on this list.

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  12. Matthew says:

    tim lincecum OBVIOSULY had the best pitch in baseball last year…

    HIS CHANGEUP was best pitch in last 10 years…

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