Baseball’s New Most Dominant Pitch

Baseball, without question, is going to be a worse game without Mariano Rivera. It wasn’t just that Rivera was consistently excellent. It’s that he was also unwaveringly humble and gracious, being the rare sort of Yankee you could like even if you rooted for a team of non-Yankees. But Rivera’s retirement does, at least, open up some questions that previously wouldn’t have been up for debate. When it comes to picking the best at something, Rivera’s absence gives a chance to somebody else.

I was asked in my Tuesday chat to identify the new most dominant pitch in baseball. Before, the answer was automatic: Mariano Rivera’s cutter. It was that way for nearly two decades, as Rivera rode one masterful pitch to glory and a certain place in the Hall of Fame. Rivera never really declined, and his cutter topped the list because of his command, his results and his longevity. But now we’re able to entertain the idea of other pitchers and other pitches. With Rivera out of the picture, choosing another pitch isn’t blasphemous. The way I see it, there are two contenders.

Rivera debuted in 1995, but he wasn’t himself yet. He was still thought of as a potential starting pitcher, and he didn’t find his groove until the next season. From that point forward, Rivera allowed a 42 OPS+. Recall that a 100 OPS+ is average, and a 99 OPS+ is above-average, for a pitcher. The difference between an average OPS+ allowed and Rivera’s OPS+ allowed is Sergio Romo‘s OPS+ allowed. Rivera was pretty good.

Craig Kimbrel, so far, has allowed a 28 OPS+. He’s been completely absurd. It would be hard to argue against the idea that Kimbrel has been baseball’s most dominant pitcher. But is he in possession of baseball’s most dominant pitch? I don’t think so, because he throws two dominant pitches with his fastball and his curveball. It makes it hard to separate one from the other. It’s interesting what happens if you follow along on the list.

Remember that Rivera, as a full-time reliever, allowed a 42 OPS+. So far, Aroldis Chapman has allowed a 42 OPS+. And, so far, Kenley Jansen has allowed a 43 OPS+. Also significant, for our purposes here: Chapman has thrown a whole bunch of fastballs. Jansen has thrown a whole bunch of cutters. According to the PITCHf/x information we have, and courtesy of Brooks Baseball, later-career Rivera threw 89% cutters. Jansen has thrown 89% cutters. Chapman has thrown 85% heaters. While neither is exclusively a one-pitch pitcher, neither was Rivera. They’re just mostly one-pitch pitchers, like Rivera, and that’s why I’ve settled on this particular pair of candidates.

This is different from finding baseball’s most unhittable pitch. That’s simply ordering pitches by swings and misses. What made Rivera’s cutter so dominant was hitters couldn’t hit it even when they basically knew it was coming. That’s how it’s been with Jansen’s cutter, and Chapman’s fastball. Cole Hamels, for example, has thrown an outstanding changeup, but it would probably be a lot less outstanding if he threw it nine times out of every 10 pitches. Pitches rely on one another; every pitch is connected. Rivera’s cutter relied on itself. Jansen’s cutter relies on itself. Chapman’s fastball relies mostly on itself. I don’t know if there’s an objective way to calculate the game’s most dominant pitch, but for me, frequency scores major points.

Because of that, I actually slightly favor Jansen’s cutter. Chapman has thrown a slider 15% of the time, and it’s extremely different from his fastball. Jansen has thrown a slider 8% of the time, and last year it was below 6%. Jansen is more of a one-pitch pitcher than Chapman is, and so I give extra credit to his cutter. Still, I couldn’t in good conscience write this just about Jansen without acknowledging Chapman’s unhittability. Pick whichever pitch you want between them, and I won’t argue. I’m just picking Jansen’s.

The following is a table of information, from Brooks Baseball. This covers the PITCHf/x era, so it misses a lot of Rivera, but gets all of the other two guys. And, for Rivera, it should be fairly representative.

Pitcher Pitch Strike% Contact% BA ISO
Rivera Cutter 69% 79% 0.192 0.077
Jansen Cutter 68% 66% 0.159 0.086
Chapman Fastball 64% 66% 0.177 0.088

Rivera, of course, wasn’t a strikeout pitcher in the style of Jansen or Chapman. Rivera’s strikeout rate peaked at 31%; for his career, he struck out about a quarter of all batters he faced. Jansen has struck out two-fifths of the batters he’s faces, and Chapman’s exactly the same. Rivera was famously able to induce weaker contact, because of his movement and command. Jansen’s cutter and Chapman’s fastball have yet to be pounded, but they’re just different pitches in style and intent.

I don’t refer to pitch-type values very often, but I will note this: Rivera’s cutter was worth around two runs better than average per 100 throws. That is, over the part of his career for which we have appropriate records. Chapman comes in around +1.2 runs per 100 fastballs. Jansen’s at about +1.8 runs per 100 cutters. There’s a lot that goes into these numbers, and they’re too complex to be tremendously useful, but they can at least be indicative of things, and so consider this confirmation that Jansen has a great cutter and Chapman has a great fastball.

A little more before I let you go. Chapman is no longer the hot mess he was in 2011. The past two years, he’s increased his fastball strike rate. Jansen’s even more interesting, because he was a catcher as recently as 2009. He’s still relatively new to pitching, so he’s still making some improvements. Here’s his cutter strike rate by year:

2010: 64%
2011: 66%
2012: 68%
2013: 70%

The thing about Jansen is he’s aggressive with his cutter in the strike zone. He doesn’t have Rivera’s impeccable command, but his command is plenty good and the quality of his cutter gives him a greater margin of error. He’s able to get away with more. Last year, batters swung through 30% of Chapman fastballs right down the middle. They swung through 33% of Jansen cutters down the middle. More often than not, with Jansen, hitters are going to get a cutter somewhere in the zone. That knowledge hasn’t helped them yet.

You don’t need to see Chapman’s fastball. You know what an Aroldis Chapman fastball looks like. You might be more curious to see Kenley Jansen’s cutter in action. So, as .gif relief, he’s Jansen carving through Yadier Molina last October:

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Perfect, all of them. Kenley Jansen isn’t perfect, but neither was Mariano Rivera. He’s been about as close as humans can get, and he’s done it in large part with one pitch, a fastball with cut movement that just came to him naturally. Jansen and Rivera have a surprising amount in common, which should maybe be less surprising given that the former has extensively studied the latter.

With Mariano Rivera retired, which is the new most dominant pitch in baseball? Forced to choose, I’d say it’s Kenley Jansen’s cutter. Close behind, there’s Aroldis Chapman’s fastball. Craig Kimbrel is probably the most dominant pitcher in baseball, but that’s a different subject. Of course, we can’t think of Jansen’s cutter or Chapman’s fastball in the same way we think of Rivera’s cutter. One of the things that made Rivera’s cutter so extraordinary is he threw it so well for so many years. In that regard, Jansen and Chapman have a long way to go, with an awful lot to prove. But then, Rivera’s cutter was an all-time pitch, and you wouldn’t expect somebody to throw something just as good for just as long. Jansen’s cutter is amazing for now, and that’s good enough. Sadly, Rivera’s no longer an active pitcher in the peer pool.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Rob
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Rob
2 years 2 months ago

Good piece. Minor quibble, Kimbrel throws more of a slider than a curveball.

Ben Suissa
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Ben Suissa
2 years 2 months ago

its a curve using a knuckle grip (per Brooks baseball)

TimBrownU
Member
TimBrownU
2 years 2 months ago

Disagree. People think it’s a slider just because of its velocity but the movement resembles a curveball much more than it resembles a slider.
He actually calls it a curveball himself.
“Every Spring Training I go into Spring trying to throw a changeup, but after about three weeks into Spring that changeup is back in the back pocket, and it just disappears. I’m still going to stay with the fastball and the curveball.”
http://www.talkingchop.com/2013/1/30/3930798/interview-with-atlanta-braves-closer-craig-kimbrel-part-2

Rob
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Rob
2 years 2 months ago

Thanks!

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 2 months ago
tz
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tz
2 years 2 months ago

How about “Dave-Stieb type Wiffleball pitch that should be illegal for anyone also possessing a live 95+ MPH fastball”??

DD
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DD
2 years 2 months ago

Because you are basing this analysis on heavy use of one pitch, you effectively exclude starting pitchers, who may well have a more dominant pitch than either of these two, but due to usage it’s harder to isolate the dominance. I know you referenced that a little with the Hamels comment, but can you think of a way to look at SPs too to make this an all-encompassing investigation?

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 2 months ago

Starters (aside from maybe knucklers) and really most relievers. Most guys at least show a second pitch somewhat frequently. Kimbrel throws 70% fastballs. There is no way of knowing how dominant he would be if he threw 85% plus fastballs.

Some research: Last year (min. 50 IP) only seven guys (including Jensen and Chapman) threw at least 85% heaters. The only other two players to throw at least 85% one pitch were Rivera (cutter) and Dickey (knuckle).

Jensen and Chapman are both very good pitchers, but you could imagine a world without those two guys (and without Rivera). In that world, are you really going to say Sean Doolittle, Ross Detwiler, or Ernesto Frieri have the most dominant pitch in baseball?

Bartolo Colon
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Bartolo Colon
2 years 2 months ago

I am never excluded from anything.

Manager of Old Country Buffet
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Manager of Old Country Buffet
2 years 2 months ago

It’s true: Bartolo Colon is never excluded from anything. I tried to exclude him from my restaurant and he just keeps coming back. Again and again.

The Dude Abides
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The Dude Abides
2 years 2 months ago

Favorite Jansen GIF is this filthy 93 MPH cutter that Goldschmidt swung through.
http://www.mlbgifs.com/2013/06/kenley-jansen-with-an-absolutely-filthy-pitch-to-paul-goldschmidt/

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

Oh boy

tz
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tz
2 years 2 months ago

Were those first three pitches from Jensen to Molina cutters? Spotted at the knees, just off the inside corner, tailing late to catch the inside corner? At 95+ MPH?

If so, I agree that this might be the new most dominant pitch. Made Molina (a real good fastball contact hitter) absolutely helpless on the fourth pitch right over the heart of the plate. Wow.

arc
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arc
2 years 2 months ago

What’s interesting is that although they are tremendous pitches with great location, they don’t appear to be the intended location. The catcher sets up either center or outside in each of the first three gifs, and in a couple cases is reaching back inside to receive the pitch.

Jeff calls them “perfect”, and that’s arguably the case, but they also appear to be…mistakes. He’s missing in a fantastic spot with fantastic stuff, but he’s still missing.

Or, I could be misreading or making a false assumption about the meaning of where the catcher is setting up.

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 2 months ago

Good point. That might be why the first pitch almost looks like a reverse slider, tailing back towards the hitter. I was blaming it on the camera angle but it could be my eyes getting “framed” by the catcher’s reaction.

Either that or I need to make my next eye appointment a lot sooner.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

It is true that they were probably missed. Jansen is exactly the kind of pitcher I think of who has “control” but not “command”. He’s good at finding the strike zone, but he generally doesn’t consistently hit the exact spots where the catcher sets up. With a pitch that hitters swing through even when it’s over the heart of the plate, you can pretty much do that.

jim
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jim
2 years 2 months ago

I asked the question on Tuesday :D I feel special now!

Tim
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Tim
2 years 2 months ago

I thought this was going to be about Brian Wilson’s knuckleball.

Schuxu
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Schuxu
2 years 2 months ago

How is that last pitch perfect? It seems like he missed his location towards the plate and up, but not really up and out of the zone which would be good.

JoseSav
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JoseSav
2 years 2 months ago

Why that last pitch perfect? Because Molina missed. Whatever is missed by the hitter should be considered perfect.

CajunDodger
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CajunDodger
2 years 2 months ago

Wouldn’t Kershaw’s curveball have to be included? I know that he basically skews the results because he only throws it about 1/4 of the time (and never with a 3 ball count), but aren’t opponents slugging less than .200 off of it?

Paul
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Paul
2 years 2 months ago

He only throws his curveball 12.5 % of the time. So, no, that’s not comparable to someone throwing a pitch 80+ %.

Pack
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Pack
2 years 2 months ago

Any footage of Jansen from a better camera angle? The off center camera hides or obscures movement.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

The typical home broadcast angle from Dodger stadium is pretty good for seeing it. Take a look at The Dude Abides’ link. That’s like Jansen at his maximum filthiness.

jacaissie
Member
2 years 2 months ago

I was hoping the answer was going to be “Bartolo Colon’s fastball”. Might be fun to see which starter’s pitch is most dominant. Doesn’t he throw that 90% of the time?

Ringo Star
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Ringo Star
2 years 2 months ago

Hitters managed only a .131/.198/.260 line against his fastball last year. So I’d say that’s one of the most dominant.

larry
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larry
2 years 2 months ago

but doesnt Colon throw several versions of his fastball? so its really more than 1 pitch. He isnt just throwing 4 seamers every time like Chapman.

Seattleslew
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Seattleslew
2 years 2 months ago

That makes sense. I also remember Pedro Martinez saying he threw 10 different fastballs.

Max
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Max
2 years 2 months ago

That cutter is nasty but I would prefer to have Chapman over Jansen personally.

Ringo Star
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Ringo Star
2 years 2 months ago

Why? If you exclude Jansen’s blister issues that affected him at times in 2012 and 2013, he has a 1.11 ERA over the 2-year span with a 41.9 K% and a 6.2 BB%. Chapman over the same time has a 2.37 ERA with a 37.0 K% and a 9.9 BB%. Finally, Cuban pitchers have been shown to incur more injuries while there has only been a few Curacao-born pitcher injuries in MLB history.

Anon21
Member
Anon21
2 years 2 months ago

“Finally, Cuban pitchers have been shown to incur more injuries while there has only been a few Curacao-born pitcher injuries in MLB history.”

You started off in a sensible place, then ended with this lunacy. What happened, Ringo?

Colin
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Colin
2 years 2 months ago

Sean Doolittle threw 89% fastballs last year. The results weren’t quite up there with Jansen and Chapman, but not too far off.

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
2 years 2 months ago

Bruce Sutter’s splitter too, you just have to love a pitcher that can throw a pitch you know is coming and still can’t hit.

Seattleslew
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Seattleslew
2 years 2 months ago

Kazuhiro Sasaki also had a filthy splitter. Unfortunately, like Sutter, he ended up having arm problems in his mid 30’s.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 2 months ago

Darvish/Corbin’s slider has too be up there.Jarrod Parker’s changeup. Salazar’s fastball..and Burnett’s knuckle-curve.

Cody Allen’s curveball,Holland’s slider, and Koji’s splitter deserve mention. You could argue based on 2013 that Allen’s hard curve was better than Kimbrels.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 2 months ago

I think the only one of those pitches thrown often enough to really be “valuable” is Salazar’s fastball.

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 2 months ago

I’d disagree. Darvish threw his slider nearly 40%. Burnett threw the knuckle curve nearly 40% of the time. Same for Allen’s curve and Hollands Slider.

I wouldn’t say the fact that a pitcher uses other pitches makes it less valuable. Especially from a starter where you need at least 2 pitches to be good.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

Darvish uses his slider about as often as a starter will usually use any offspeed pitch. Same with Uehara, that splitter is used much more than a typical offspeed pitch.

By Jeff’s methodology, it seems he was really only selecting among one-pitch pitchers anyway. I think, with someone like Darvish, you have to balance the fact that he doesn’t throw the slider as often against the fact that he faces the same lineup multiple times in a game, he presumably doesn’t throw as hard or as many sliders as he would as a reliever, and he just generally throws more innings. All of those things artificially reduce the measured effectiveness of his slider, which Jansen and Chapman do not deal with.

coldseat
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coldseat
2 years 2 months ago

Jansen will be coming back to the pack this year. He’s no Mariano.

NotJoeTorre
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NotJoeTorre
2 years 2 months ago

alrighty then

ALEastbound
Guest
2 years 2 months ago

Uehara and his splitter is pretty ridonk.

Kogoruhn
Member
Kogoruhn
2 years 2 months ago

You mentioned Sergio Romo early on but then went on to ignore his slider which has a pitch value of 2.28 / 100 pitches throughout his career.

MrKnowNothing
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MrKnowNothing
2 years 2 months ago

My two cents.

You tell any major league hitter in advance that you’re throwing a fastball and many will be able to hit it. You basically don’t get to the Bigs without being able to hit one. You STAY because you learn to recognize breaking pitches and such. But a 90 mph FB that’s grooved in there can be hit well.

But a breaking pitch, be it a cutter slider, curveball, forkball, gyroball could be announced in advance and a hitter still may have trouble hitting it because the way it breaks or cuts or slides or gyros may differ, not just from pitcher to pitcher but from pitch to pitch.

In that’s sense, Chapman’s FB may be more dominant because he’s throwing the one pitch every major league hitter *should* be able to hit. He’s just throwing it at such crazy speeds that none of them can. I would guess that if Kimbrel told the batter “this at bat is nothing but FBs” the hitter would probably get around on one. Chapman does this and they still don’t.

arc
Guest
arc
2 years 2 months ago

By no means is it all about velocity. You could invent a game where pitchers were only allowed to throw fastballs, and several elite unhittable pitchers would emerged because of their command alone.

Velocity primarily increases your margin for error when it comes to location. But arguably location and thus command are the most important parts of fastball (and every other pitch?) execution.

This doesn’t contradict what you’re saying, by the way. Just expands on it. Chapman is overwhelming because of his left-handed delivery, extreme velocity, and typically solid command. He doesn’t miss over the middle much.

Fister?
Guest
Fister?
2 years 2 months ago

Is pitch 4 to Yadi a 90mph change? Sickness. Also, someone should do a gif series of the top 5 most valuable fastballs, sliders, curves, etc. to see how they compare. Comparing a Harvey slider against a Sale slider for instance would be baseboner time.

I dont even knower!
Guest
I dont even knower!
2 years 2 months ago

Someone should come up with a stat like (movement above average) x (velocity above average) and then get GIFs of those pitches. Might get some crazy 93 MPH splitters vs. 95 MPH cutters vs. 99 MPH fastballs with a lot of late movement.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 2 months ago

Kojis splitter was unhittable last year, lets see if that continues and he may be added to the list

SplittingHairs
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SplittingHairs
2 years 2 months ago

This may be silly and probably has no meaning, but I read the title differently – what is BASEBALL’S (not one particular pitcher in baseball’s) most dominant pitch?

Fastball is most common, but what about other measures – percentage of swinging strikes produced (by a type of pitch), percentage of called strikes, percentage of ground ball outs generated relative to other pitches, percentages of (that type of pitch) that result in home runs, and so on

daniel
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daniel
2 years 2 months ago

Jenrry Mejia’s everything.

Jim
Guest
Jim
2 years 2 months ago

Jansen’s “Cutter” ain’t cutting. It’s running in.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

That angle must be deceptive then. The first two are definitely cutting. The third looks like it might be tailing, and the fourth looks kind of straight.

I know from watching Jansen a lot that his typical pitch has noticeable cutting action.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 2 months ago

Kimbrel’s slider:

Strike%: 65%
Contact%: 48%
BA: .107
ISO: .004 (!!!)

He also throws the pitch about 45% of the time, which is more than I would have expected.

arc
Guest
arc
2 years 2 months ago

If Kimbrel throws 90 MPH on his fastball – or 98 but with poor command – how different is the effectiveness of his curve?

Pure speculation, of course, but it’s an important distinction. People aren’t missing Jansen’s cutter or Chapman’s fastball because they’re worried about a different pitch. They know what they’re getting.

The reason Kimbrel is the better overall pitcher is because he has *two* crap-your-pants offerings – and he throws each almost 50% of the time! It’s possible neither one is nearly as effective without the other but that in combination, they’re historically unhittable.

Chaos Path
Guest
Chaos Path
2 years 2 months ago

Curve, this is addressed within the first two comments for God’s sake

SplittingHairs
Guest
SplittingHairs
2 years 2 months ago

missed it – thank you

tz
Guest
tz
2 years 2 months ago

Wonder who hit the only double off his slider. Probably a broken-bat, wicked sidespin job that plopped just inside the right-field line.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 2 months ago

He definitely doesn’t throw it 45% of the time. Maybe like 30%.

Seattleslew
Guest
Seattleslew
2 years 2 months ago

Has anyone ever seen Felix Hernandez pitch? His change up is one of the best. Obviously a pitcher needs mix his change with other pitches but I’ve seen him strike out batters many times with three straight change ups.

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