2016’s Best Pitches Thrown by Starters

On Tuesday, we looked at the best pitches in baseball last year when judged by whiffs and grounders. One thing we learned in that exercise: they were all thrown by relievers. Makes sense. They get a lot of advantages when it comes to short stints and leveraged situations. Let’s not hold it against them because the rest of the reliever’s life is very difficult. On the other hand, let’s also celebrate the starting pitchers separately, because many of them have pitches that are excellent despite the fact that they have to throw more often, to batters of both hands.

So, today let’s take a look at the best pitches thrown by starters only. We’ll find some usual suspects, sure, but the surprises will be meaningful. We’ll use the same methodology as before, which I outlined in the previous post. Basically: “best” pitches, in this case, means best by a combination of whiff rate and ground-ball percentage.

2016’s Best Pitches Thrown by Starters
Pitcher Pitch Type swSTR GB% Sum Z
Corey Kluber CU 27.1% 33.7% 6.3
John Lackey FC 23.1% 34.1% 5.8
Charlie Morton FT 11.3% 42.9% 5.6
Clayton Kershaw SL 25.6% 45.1% 5.4
Jake Arrieta CH 22.4% 59.1% 5.4
Noah Syndergaard SL 27.6% 35.9% 5.1
Brock Stewart SL 21.0% 58.3% 5.1
Carlos Carrasco SL 26.1% 39.2% 4.9
Lance McCullers KC 21.1% 40.6% 4.5
Rubby de la Rosa SL 22.2% 47.1% 4.4
Max Scherzer SL 27.0% 29.6% 4.3
Jose Fernandez CU 23.8% 25.6% 4.2
Jon Gray SL 24.0% 35.8% 3.8
Corey Kluber CH 20.7% 50.0% 3.7
Alex Wood KC 17.1% 50.0% 3.7
Jon Lester CH 23.5% 40.0% 3.7
Jon Lester CU 21.3% 30.8% 3.7
Jeremy Hellickson CH 26.1% 30.4% 3.6
Michael Pineda SL 24.2% 33.3% 3.6
James Paxton FC 19.0% 30.5% 3.6
Michael Pineda FT 9.0% 42.3% 3.6
Danny Salazar CH 23.1% 40.0% 3.6
Kevin Gausman FS 22.0% 41.9% 3.3
Stephen Strasburg CH 20.4% 47.5% 3.3
Aaron Nola CU 19.1% 35.1% 3.2
Sum Z = twice the z-score for swinging strike rate plus one times the z-score for ground-ball rate, judged within each pitch type.

Corey Kluber‘s curve is a cheater. So’s John Lackey‘s cutter. That curve is probably a slider, and that cutter is definitely a slider. Probably. Then again, let’s not get too mad at PITCHf/x for calling those pitches what they do. For one, Kluber himself doesn’t want to call his pitch anything other than a breaking ball, and it has the horizontal movement of a curve and the velocity and swing rates of a slider… it’s a weird pitch.

Lackey’s pitch? Definitely a slider. It’s 8-plus mph slower than his fastball, has the second-best whiff rate among cutters, and the second-most drop. That’s a slider. This is a slider.

You might notice something very different about the starter’s list than the reliever’s one fairly quickly. Where are the big fastballs? Aroldis Chapman and Jeurys Familia had fastballs in the top 15 among relievers, and yet there’s only Charlie Morton‘s sinker and Michael Pineda‘s sinker in our top 25 for starters, and they averaged a hair under 94 mph when combined.

That’s good, but it doesn’t seem like gas alone puts a fastball on this list. In fact, given that Carlos Carrasco, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray, James Paxton, Danny Salazar, Max Scherzer, and Noah Syndergaard appear on this list for pitches other than their fastballs, it seems like velocity is the Big Set-Up. Their gas makes their other stuff play up.

Morton’s sinker tho.

Volume is a big deal. Some of these pitches aren’t as good as others simply because they aren’t thrown as often. It’s tough to throw a ton of one pitch and still get the same results. So when you see Jake Arrieta‘s changeup, or Kluber’s changeup, or even Clayton Kershaw‘s slider… those are good pitches, but it might also not make sense for them to throw those pitches more often. Well, at least that’s true of Kluber’s change: it has fairly average movement and velocity gap. Kershaw’s slider is probably his third-best pitch, and, well, it makes people look like this.

Carlos Carrasco stood out in this analysis before he broke out in the real world because he had multiple pitches on the leaderboard. Last year that calmed a bit, but his slider was still world-class.

It’s still interesting to see the pitchers with two or more pitches on this list. Off list, because of his reliever innings, is possible Cubs starter Mike Montgomery, who had a changeup and cutter in the top 25 overall. Jon Lester really refined his changeup this year to have it join his vaunted curve in the top 25 here. But let’s showcase Michael Pineda, who may have command problems, and may not trust his change, yes, but still owns a two-pitch combo better than most of baseball by this measure. The slider can still wow.

Let’s highlight some of the less established pitchers on this list! Rubby de la Rosa developed that slider this year. If his elbow is able to withstand this latest bad news, he’d represent a good investment for the D-backs, who picked him back up on a minor-league deal, because he still has gas and a change that Pedro Martinez taught him. Brock Stewart recently improved his fastball velocity, sits above 93 now with an elite spin rate, and has this plus-plus slider. His changeup has a 13 mph velocity gap. Can’t wait for people to know more about Brock Stewart.

Do you know how good Jon Gray was once he started throwing the curve regularly? He had a top-25 strikeout minus walk rate from the moment he started throwing the curveball more than 10% of the time in early July. The Rockies have something special with this young man.

It takes more than one pitch to be great! Kevin Gausman has always had this splitter, for example, and has spent the rest of his career looking for the right breaking ball to pair with it.

But it still pleases me greatly still to see Aaron Nola‘s curve and James Paxton‘s cutter on this list. Paxton convinced me that his new arm slot will unlock all the command and bite that he needs to be excellent, and Nola’s command and curve — coupled with a change that got more drop than any other changeup thrown by a starter — make him one of my favorite young starters. At least they’ve got step one down: one pitch.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

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