In one sense, baseball’s most extraordinary pitcher right now might be Clayton Kershaw. He’s generating results that put even Cy Young-winning Clayton Kershaw to shame, to the point where he’s starting to make people reflect upon career-prime Pedro Martinez. Career-prime Pedro Martinez sets an impossibly high bar, but Kershaw’s trying his damnedest to get there, and it’s a pleasure for everybody that isn’t a baseball player tasked with the responsibility of opposing Clayton Kershaw. He’s doing what he can to be the perfect starting pitcher.
But we can attack the term “extraordinary” in a variety of different ways. Kershaw might be the most extraordinary pitcher by results, but what about the related but different matter of style? Who are baseball’s most unusual pitchers, in the way they go about their business? That’s the question I set out to answer, following a fairly simple and user-friendly process.
I identified what I think are pretty fundamental qualities. Everything below is based on five statistics:
- Strikeout rate
- Walk rate
- Groundball rate
- Fastball rate
- Average fastball velocity
Three of those, of course, are results-based statistics, but they’re pretty indicative of style, or process, whatever word you want to use. So, with numbers in mind, it was time to generate player pools. I split starting pitchers and relievers and examined the past one calendar year. For starters, I set a minimum of 100 innings pitched. For relievers, I set a minimum of 40. Then it was just a matter of averages and standard deviations and z scores. For each number, for each pitcher, I calculated a z score from the average, and then I added up the absolute values of the five z scores. The result, in theory: a measure of unusualness. Maybe you’d come up with a better process, but this doesn’t not work.
A note: I had to make a judgment call and I ended up combining fastballs and cutters. I could’ve left them separate, but I decided, as far as style is concerned, hard pitches are hard pitches. Also, while I calculated the numbers for starters and relievers separately, in the end I put them back together. So let’s look at the ten most extraordinary pitchers of the past calendar year! It’s a list with four starters and six relievers.
(Note: the average z-score sum was 3.91)
- R.A. Dickey, 9.65 z-score sum
- Aroldis Chapman, 8.83
- Chris Young, 8.44
- Bruce Chen, 8.12
- Sean Doolittle, 7.83
- Koji Uehara, 7.65
- Nick Vincent, 7.29
- Zach Britton, 7.28
- Bronson Arroyo, 7.01
- Craig Breslow, 6.92
Fun fact: sitting in 11th place is Clayton Kershaw, at 6.84. Kershaw is extraordinary no matter how you look at him. The top of this list functions pretty well in terms of validating the method — you have baseball’s one regular knuckleballer, and maybe the hardest thrower in major-league history. And then you get Young without even taking into consideration his extraordinary height. Let’s isolate the top five and quickly consider just what it is that makes each of them stand out, in a bit more detail.
The one thing that isn’t at least one standard deviation from the reliever mean is fastball velocity. Doolittle has a quick fastball, but he doesn’t have an exceptionally quick fastball. But he throws his fastball way more than average, he gets grounders way less than average, he walks guys way less than average, and he whiffs guys way more than average. Doolittle is a fastball-heavy reliever who works up in the zone, and his numbers are even more obscene than you might think, even if you’re an A’s fan who just a few minutes ago looked at Sean Doolittle’s numbers.
Sometimes it can be easy to forget that Chen is still hanging around, but he just started for the Royals on Sunday, and the Royals are in the playoff race. Chen has come with a more or less league-average walk rate, and his strikeouts have been low, but he really stands out with his fly balls and pitch mix. Both his groundball rate and his fastball velocity are 2.4 standard deviations below the mean, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he also hasn’t thrown his fastball that much. Chen’s a 37-year-old junkballer, and here he is, sharing a list with Aroldis Chapman, which might be a first.
Again: this doesn’t even consider his height. The fastball rate isn’t weird. The walk rate isn’t weird. Young’s fastball velocity has been 2.3 standard deviations below the mean, and his groundball rate has been 3.3 standard deviations below the mean. When I started this, I was hoping that Young would show up on the list, and here he is, justifiably, because he works in a way in which basically no one else works. Young throws soft high fastballs, and he’s holding down a rotation spot for a team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Well duh. Fastball velocity: 2.9 standard deviations above the mean. Strikeout rate: 4.5 standard deviations above the mean. Over the past calendar year, Chapman has struck out more batters than he hasn’t struck out. Over the past calendar year, Chapman has struck out more batters than he hasn’t struck out. Over the past calendar year, Chapman has struck out more batters than he hasn’t struck out. Over the past calendar year, Chapman has struck out more batters than he hasn’t struck out. Over the past calendar year, Chapman has struck out more batters than he hasn’t struck out. WHAT
The other obvious one, in that Dickey is baseball’s resident knuckleballer. Over the past year, Dickey has thrown 221 innings. The other knuckleballers have thrown a combined seven innings, and two of them have been Mike Carp and Danny Worth. Because of the knuckleball, Dickey seldom throws his fastball. His fastball, also, is slow, relative to other fastballs from other starting pitchers. Of Dickey’s z-score sum, 89% is because of the fastball rate and velocity. His grounders, strikeouts, and walks are surprisingly normal. If it weren’t for that one thing, Dickey would be a pretty ordinary starting pitcher, but you could say the same thing of Jim Abbott.
As long as we’re here, I might as well run through the opposite end of the spreadsheet. If the above are determined to be baseball’s most extraordinary pitchers over the past year, then here are baseball’s five most ordinary pitchers. Once more, this is more about style than results, so ordinary isn’t intended as a synonym for mediocre. And remember that, because of the 100- and 40-innings minimums, this is all selective for a better pool of pitchers than the overall league-average.
- Bryan Shaw, 1.18
- Dan Jennings, 1.19
- Alex Wood, 1.20 (1.198)
- Jose Quintana, 1.20 (1.205)
- CC Sabathia, 1.26
It might surprise you to see Wood, but even though he shows up as pretty ordinary, his strikeout rate as a starter has still been half a standard deviation higher than average. And this isn’t a process that accounts for throwing motion. Quintana, too, might be a little surprising, in that he’s among baseball’s more underrated starting pitchers, but his strikeout rate has been 0.4 standard deviations higher than average, and his walk rate has been a little lower than average. Being a little better than average in a number of ways is one way to be quietly terrific, and don’t let this make you think that Quintana is anything less than pleasing. There’s a reason he just showed up at No. 37 on Dave’s Trade Value list. There are multiple reasons, really.
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