Building (or Finding) the Ideal Pitcher

The PITCHf/x ERA is approaching ten years old, but the research spawned by the free public access to the data is impressive. We’re now seeing teams start to act on those findings as they try to use the data to inform best practices. Could we take the research as far it might stretch? Can we build the perfect pitcher?

We aren’t talking rates here, at least not in the ‘the perfect pitcher would strike out 100% of the batters he faced and walk zero,’ sort of nonsensical way. We’re talking about research into injury likelihood, and pitch effectiveness, and platoon splits. Let’s list some of those findings because bullet points are easy.

Heavy breaking ball use may lead to injuries.
Pitchers with great control stay healthier, on average.
Pitchers that throw the changeup heavily have lower attrition rates.
Changeups have one of the lower batting averages on balls in play.
Throwing sidearm puts more stress on your elbow.
Changeups generally have a reverse platoon split.
A ten-mph-plus difference in velocity is indeed important if you’re throwing your changeup for whiffs.
The rising fastball has the smallest platoon split among fastballs.
First-pitch strikes are the best peripheral associated with walk rate.
A pitcher’s velocity, on average, drops every season.
More velocity means fewer runs allowed.
Beyond 96 mph, there’s a jump in swinging strikes on the fastball.
Vertical movement on the fastball means more grounders.
Pitchers with long arms and long strides release the ball closer to home plate and make their velocity play up.

Just teasing this out in one sentence, it looks like we want a pitcher with a big rising fastball (96+), a sinker with serious drop, a changeup that’s more than ten mph slower than his fastball, just enough breaking stuff to keep same-handed hitters honest, and great control. Bonus points if he’s tall and has a long stride. Considering that the Pirates focus on teaching all of their pitchers command of two fastballs, and the Athletics’ and Rays’ effort to make all of their pitchers learn the changeup, some of this stuff is already being used in the development process. But here’s your mythical pitcher:

Pitcher McPitcherson (6′ 6″, 220, R or L?)
40% 96 mph rising fastball (-4 PFx_x, 10 PFx_z, 9+% swSTR, 40+% GBs)
20% 95 mph sinker (-9 PFx_x, 1.5 PFx_z, 6+% swSTR, 60+% GBs)
30% 86 mph changeup (-5 PFx_x, 7 PFx_z, 20+% swSTR, 50+% GBs)
10% 88 mph tight curve / slider (3 PFx_x, -4 PFx_z, 12+% swSTR, 50+% GBs)

As you can see, this pitcher has stuff that breaks in all directions. He’s got Chin Music, Bat Breakers and Knee Wobblers. He’s got something to break in on lefties, something to break in on righties, something to get whiffs with, something to get grounders with. He’d have a 12% swinging strike rate (five qualified pitchers did last year), and a 48% ground ball rate (only one pitcher did both last year).

Wait. Only one pitcher did both last year?

Is Matt Harvey the perfect modern pitcher? He satisfies the results end of the spectrum, since he was the only starter to combine 12% whiffs with 48% ground balls. He’s got the velocity (96 on the four-seamer, 94 on the two-seamer), and even if he doesn’t use the sinker as much, his secondary pitches are a changeup, slider, and curve. He’s really not far off, according to BrooksBaseball:

Matt Harvey (6′ 4″, 225, RHP)
57% 96 mph four-seam fastball (-6 PFx_x, 9 PFx_z, 12% swSTR, 38% GBs)
1% 94 mph sinker (-9 PFx_x, 7 PFx_z, 7% swSTR, 75% GBs)
12% 87 mph changeup (-9 PFx_x, 5 PFx_z, 20% swSTR, 60% GBs)
12% 83 mph tight curve (1 PFx_x, -3 PFx_z, 13% swSTR, 58% GBs)
17% 90 mph slider (1 PFx_x, 4 PFx_z, 17% swSTR, 52% GBs)

That’s almost uncanny. he’s got stuff breaking in all directions, hits all the benchmarks save the two-seamer, and gets whiffs and grounders. He’s six-foot-four (and dreamy), too.

And he’s hurt. Of course, injury was the reason we wanted a changeup-first guy, and he doesn’t *quite* satisfy the command component. He had good walk totals last year, but not in the minors, and not in his first go-round. Is there anyone else?

Cole Hamels is close. In 2011, he was even right there with whiffs (11.3%) and ground balls (52%). Here’s his pitching mix from that year:

Cole Hamels (6′ 3″, 195, LHP)
45% 92 mph four-seam fastball (4 PFx_x, 12 PFx_z, 5% swSTR, 41% GBs)
25% 83 mph changeup (-9 PFx_x, 6 PFx_z, 29% swSTR, 67% GBs)
12% 76 mph tight curve (-1 PFx_x, -3 PFx_z, 12% swSTR, 53% GBs)
20% 89 mph cutter (1 PFx_x, 7 PFx_z, 9% swSTR, 60% GBs)

It’s close. He’s changeup-first, and even if he doesn’t have the big velocity, he’s got the command we’re looking for. He’s been healthier, too. And he’s got the thing with the pitches breaking in the different directions and all that. His bonus comes from using his left hand more than his dreaminess.

Clayton Kershaw seems perfect now, but he’s still searching for the changeup. James Shields has the mix, but not the results. Anibal Sanchez is close. Really close. Tim Lincecum never had the control. Young man Michael Wacha really has a chance — a sinker might be all he needs. If Gerrit Cole was changeup-first, he’d be it. Maybe David Price and Max Scherzer deserve more attention. Down a little further on the changeup leaderboard, though, you might find the best candidate:

Felix Hernandez (6′ 3″, 230, RHP)
19% 92 mph rising fastball (-2 PFx_x, 7 PFx_z, 9% swSTR, 32% GBs)
36% 92 mph sinker (-8 PFx_x, 5 PFx_z, 5% swSTR, 54% GBs)
22% 89 mph changeup (-6 PFx_x, 0 PFx_z, 25% swSTR, 67% GBs)
11% 84 mph slider (2 PFx_x, -3 PFx_z, 12% swSTR, 58% GBs)
13% 80 mph roundhouse curve (6 PFx_x, -9 PFx_z, 13% swSTR, 60% GBs)

So maybe the younger Felix Hernandez, the one with more gas, maybe he was the perfect pitcher. Except back then he didn’t throw the changeup as much. And he’s never hit the threshhold for whiffs, with four double-digit swinging strike rate seasons out of eight. And there’s some other benchmarks he didn’t quite hit. Even if he does a look a lot like McPitcherson.

Of course there’s no perfect pitcher, in the end. It was a tight definition. And maybe that’s the point of the exercise. After all, we can define our perfect pitcher, we can ask our pitchers to strive for that ideal, and we can mold our practice sessions and coaching strategies to aid players in that process… but we can never achieve it. And so, if you get a 5-11 Dominican guy and you aren’t sure about his mechanics, or even a 6-10 dude that just throws way too many sliders to make you comfortable with his long-term health… sometimes it just works. After all, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson were okay pitchers in the end.

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

34 Responses to “Building (or Finding) the Ideal Pitcher”

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  1. Wally says:

    These are the kind of articles that make me love fangraphs.

    +43 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. matt harvey talk makes me sad.

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Steve Giufre says:

    If it weren’t for the hard change up, I’d guess Gerrit Cole comes really close as well?

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  4. A Commenter says:

    Sounds like Roy Halladay off-hand.

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  5. Wanted “Pitcher McPitcherson” to be a hyper-link.

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. leeroy says:

    James Earl Jones: Clayton Kershaw is a total Pitcher McPitcherson.
    Malcolm McDowell: Obvi, he’s amaze-balls. He’s like the most pitchering pitcher that ever pitched
    JEJ: And his slider is totes adorbs
    MM: Totes mcgotes, it’s cray-cray adorbs.
    JEJ: Totes mcgotes

    +19 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. bilbovibrator says:

    eno probably greatest of all time

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Crawdads says:

    I think Jose Fernandez is the perfect pitcher, even if he throws too much junk for this criteria.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. tz says:

    ^^^ Building The Perfect Article ^^

    Awesome. And it just gets me thinking about how great a change-up can be, since it’s the one pitch that can mix a guy up without having to vary location/break, so you can pound the strike zone with a change/fastball mix.

    Which makes any rumors of Clayton Kershaw mastering the changeup so scary….

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Peter Jensen says:

    The PITCHf/x ERA is just over ten years old,

    I am not sure how you have figured that since Pitch F/x was introduced during the 2006 World Series and was not installed in all MLB parks until 2008.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Jon L. says:

    Is that accurate, or is it a typo, that Felix Hernandez throws a 92-mph fastball and an 89-mph change?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. yosoyfiesta says:

    great article Eno, would’ve loved to see Jose Fernandez in there!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. scatterbrian says:

    For his career (1412.3 IP) Matt Clement had a 12.8 SwStr% and a 49.2 GB%.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. japem says:

    This is fantastic.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. nevin Brown says:

    Honestly Kevin Gausman could work his way into that category and as an Orioles fan I’m undoubtedly biased.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Owen says:

    I understand baseball better now.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. AC of DC says:

    Pitcher McPitcherson, you say? Sure, if you think a distemperate Gael can be relied upon to stand up straight every fifth day — let alone achieve perfection! I suppose if he were wholly of the Scots’ blood we could measure by him to some degree; hardy breed, though ornery. With both “Mc-” and “-son,” he frankly sounds right American. They turn wayward and dissolute in the colonies.

    In all seriousness (not really), if Pedro Martinez is 5’11”, then I’m a Center in the NBA.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Edwin says:

    2010 Francisco Liriano comes somewhat close. He has the results, and the big fastball, but throws too many sliders, and his Change is a hair fast. And the Fastball mix is off.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. Connor says:

    Really great article, for sure. Zach Greinke might be worth a mention.

    Another pitcher, very under rated during his 2-3 years of great success with the Yanks, was Chin-Ming Wang (although like Shields, his numbers only panned out for a few years before an injury) I don’t have the Pitch F/X data as portrayed here, my memory tells me this:

    95-96 mph rising fastball (25% frequency), thrown early in count
    94-95 mph hard sinker (50%), thrown early, tons of grounders
    84-86 mph slider, breaking down and in to lefties for strike outs
    86-87 mph change up, hard sink, lots of grounders and strike outs.

    It’s important to note some exceptions as well. There were some great articles by Jeff about Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine right after they got inducted to the HOF. Freaks, indeed, and this article proves how well they performed without the stuff mentioned here. Rarely threw more than 3 pitches for outs (usually only needed two), didn’t have the rising fastball, or the hard tight breaking ball (although Maddux’s 2 seamer had about the same movement and velocity), and therefore, the whiff or strikeout rates. But certainly had the numbers.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Chris Hines says:

      Fangraphs says 2008 Wang is as follows

      4-seam 91.8 MPH
      Slider 86.0 MPH
      Change 83.5 MPH
      Sinker 89.9 MPH
      Split 83.4 MPH

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Jim Rouse says:

    Maybe Alex Meyer will apply for the job of Pitcher McPitcherson.

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  21. BurleighGrimes says:

    I wish Matt Harvey hadn’t gotten hurt. Man was he fun to watch last year.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  22. The Party Bird says:

    Where does Verlander fit in? He seems like an obvious choice if you’re looking for a pitcher with a power fastball and 3-4 other usable pitches, all breaking in different directions.

    The only thing keeping him from being McPitcherson in pitch selection is his recent lack of two-seamer usage, and, well, he used it about as much as Harvey did.

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  23. tz says:

    One of my favorite pitchers:

    His changeup, a work in progress while with the Rangers, grew into a weapon in TB and Detroit. And now it appears based on fx that he’s added a 2-seamer to his repertoire. End result is a long and winding road to a high level of McPitchersonness.

    Going to Petco to be Huston Street’s backup closer could mean some huge numbers for Benoit these next 2 years.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  24. Grant says:

    This is great stuff Eno!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  25. Noah Baron says:

    Johan Santana in his prime?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  26. Seth says:

    Stephen Strasberg?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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