The Pitcher Who Did the Most With the Least

I recently dreamed that I hit the comeback trail and was signed to a 10 day contract with a minor league team. With a combination of 77 mph cutters, sub-70’s change-ups, and more than a few knuckle balls, I parlayed my short contract to a major league roster spot. The dream ended, as dreams usually do, but it got me thinking about the minimum talent level necessary to pitch successfully in the majors.

When we analyze pitching talent, we’re mostly referring to a function of velocity, movement, command and control. There is a notable intangible that probably deserves mention. I’ll call it craftiness. Basically, the pitcher’s ability to out-think the hitter. Some pitchers seemingly can outperform the results that we might expect from their  speed, movement, and location alone.

In my dream, I was a starting pitcher, so I’m going to take a look at starters only. This is easier, since relievers can have such small samples that the data might not fully reflect the player. I will also filter out relief appearances, since most pitchers are better in the pen and I want to compare apples to apples.

I’ll need to work within the PITCHf/x era. The FanGraphs leaderboard is a good starting place since it lets me filter by velocity and walks per nine. Walk rate isn’t a perfect proxy for command and control, but it’s probably good enough. The leaderboard doesn’t have a handy filter for movement, so I’ll head over to Brooksbaseball.net for that portion of the analysis.

I began with a list of all starter seasons with over 100 innings between 2008 and 2013. I then filtered for all pitchers with a velocity of 90 mph or less and a walk per nine rate above 3.75. That gave me a list of 23 players over 29 seasons. Four pitchers appeared twice and one appeared three times. You can access the initial list here.

The list contains a number of players who were spot starters, had terrible seasons, or otherwise didn’t get the job done. For example, Javier Vazquez had only one season in his career with a velocity under 90 mph and he barely surpassed my arbitrary walk rate cutoff. If you count relief appearances, then his walk rate was better than my cutoff. He also had a 5.32 ERA that year, so he’s off the list.

Garrett Olson never found success at the major league level. He’s out. The same goes for Jeremy Sowers, Brian Tallet, Brandon Backe, and Micah Owings. Jeff Suppan hasn’t been useful by any measure since 2007. Jonathan Sanchez has been terrible since his fastball dipped below 90 mph, so I’m going to cut him too. Kevin Correia and Dillon Gee appear on the list, but both pitchers have found recent success by trimming their walk rate down to about two walks per nine.

After manually filtering the players who don’t pass the smell test, we’re left with this list of 13 pitchers.

Season Name W L GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2012 Aaron Harang 10 10 31 179.2 6.56 4.26 0.7 0.277 72.3 % 38.6 % 6.3 % 3.61 4.14 4.95 1.6
2009 Aaron Laffey 6 8 19 109.1 4.12 4.36 0.74 0.32 70.0 % 48.8 % 7.4 % 4.53 4.76 5.16 1
2009 Barry Zito 10 13 33 192 7.22 3.8 0.98 0.285 75.0 % 37.9 % 9.5 % 4.03 4.31 4.4 2
2010 Barry Zito 9 13 33 198.1 6.81 3.77 0.91 0.277 72.0 % 36.1 % 7.5 % 4.13 4.24 4.56 1.7
2008 Barry Zito 10 17 32 180 6 5.1 0.8 0.295 65.7 % 36.4 % 6.8 % 5.15 4.72 5.28 1.2
2010 Carlos Zambrano 11 5 20 113 8.2 4.94 0.48 0.287 75.2 % 42.2 % 5.1 % 3.19 3.72 4.31 1.9
2012 Carlos Zambrano 5 9 20 115 6.5 5.24 0.7 0.268 68.7 % 48.7 % 9.2 % 4.54 4.68 4.91 0.6
2008 Chris Young 7 6 18 102.1 8.18 4.22 1.14 0.254 75.8 % 21.7 % 8.7 % 3.96 4.4 4.68 1
2008 Doug Davis 6 8 26 146 6.9 3.95 0.8 0.322 72.5 % 47.0 % 9.2 % 4.32 4.15 4.27 2.3
2009 Doug Davis 9 14 34 203.1 6.46 4.56 1.11 0.291 76.0 % 43.1 % 11.6 % 4.12 4.84 4.63 1.5
2013 Erik Bedard 3 11 26 134 8.73 4.43 1.07 0.317 70.3 % 35.6 % 9.2 % 4.77 4.27 4.48 1.5
2012 Erik Bedard 7 14 24 125.2 8.45 4.01 1 0.314 66.5 % 43.3 % 11.5 % 5.01 4.07 4.05 1.1
2008 Greg Smith 7 16 32 190.1 5.25 4.11 0.99 0.256 72.7 % 34.2 % 7.9 % 4.16 4.82 5.23 1.7
2013 Jake Westbrook 7 7 19 110.2 3.42 3.82 0.49 0.289 71.5 % 56.9 % 6.7 % 3.9 4.51 4.91 -0.1
2013 Jason Marquis 9 5 20 117.2 5.51 5.2 1.38 0.261 77.3 % 52.3 % 18.2 % 4.05 5.65 4.81 -1.6
2013 Ryan Dempster 8 9 29 168.2 8.32 4.16 1.39 0.296 71.8 % 40.9 % 14.0 % 4.64 4.7 4.2 1.2
2010 Tom Gorzelanny 7 9 23 130 7.75 4.29 0.69 0.316 70.5 % 40.8 % 6.6 % 4.22 3.83 4.26 2.1
2008 Tom Gorzelanny 6 9 21 105.1 5.72 5.98 1.71 0.301 68.7 % 40.3 % 13.2 % 6.66 6.35 5.77 -1.1
2013 Trevor Cahill 7 10 25 142.2 6.31 4.04 0.82 0.292 73.1 % 56.8 % 12.4 % 4.1 4.3 4.12 0.8

Let’s see which of these pitchers use movement to get the job done. Brooks Baseball has a handy comparison mode that can convert movement into a 20-80 scouting score. I’ll be looking for pitchers who don’t substantially exceed a 60 rating for any of their most frequently used pitches. I’m going to view each pitcher’s entire sample for the PITCHf/x era, so the movement data won’t correlate perfectly with the samples in question.

Chris Young‘s fastball has vertical movement that grades above 70 on the 20-80 scale. He uses the pitch over 70 percent of the time, so he’s disqualified. When viewing the initial list, I thought he would win this competition since he combines low velocity and middling control with good results. The only thing that kept him from appearing multiple times on the list were his frequent injuries.

Doug Davis is a fringe case, his fastball and change-up grade as slightly above 60, but he only used those pitches a combined 36 percent of the time. The cutter that he used 46 percent of the time had below average movement. Let’s keep him. The story is similar with Barry Zito.

Erik Bedard gets plenty of movement on multiple pitches. He’s disqualified despite appearing on the list twice. The same goes for Tom Gorzelanny. Surprisingly, Greg Smith also received some high grades for movement, so he’s out too. That leaves us with this final list of nine pitchers over 13 player seasons.

Season Name W L GS IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% GB% HR/FB ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2012 Aaron Harang 10 10 31 179.2 6.56 4.26 0.7 0.277 72.3 % 38.6 % 6.3 % 3.61 4.14 4.95 1.6
2009 Aaron Laffey 6 8 19 109.1 4.12 4.36 0.74 0.32 70.0 % 48.8 % 7.4 % 4.53 4.76 5.16 1
2009 Barry Zito 10 13 33 192 7.22 3.8 0.98 0.285 75.0 % 37.9 % 9.5 % 4.03 4.31 4.4 2
2010 Barry Zito 9 13 33 198.1 6.81 3.77 0.91 0.277 72.0 % 36.1 % 7.5 % 4.13 4.24 4.56 1.7
2008 Barry Zito 10 17 32 180 6 5.1 0.8 0.295 65.7 % 36.4 % 6.8 % 5.15 4.72 5.28 1.2
2010 Carlos Zambrano 11 5 20 113 8.2 4.94 0.48 0.287 75.2 % 42.2 % 5.1 % 3.19 3.72 4.31 1.9
2012 Carlos Zambrano 5 9 20 115 6.5 5.24 0.7 0.268 68.7 % 48.7 % 9.2 % 4.54 4.68 4.91 0.6
2008 Doug Davis 6 8 26 146 6.9 3.95 0.8 0.322 72.5 % 47.0 % 9.2 % 4.32 4.15 4.27 2.3
2009 Doug Davis 9 14 34 203.1 6.46 4.56 1.11 0.291 76.0 % 43.1 % 11.6 % 4.12 4.84 4.63 1.5
2013 Jake Westbrook 7 7 19 110.2 3.42 3.82 0.49 0.289 71.5 % 56.9 % 6.7 % 3.9 4.51 4.91 -0.1
2013 Jason Marquis 9 5 20 117.2 5.51 5.2 1.38 0.261 77.3 % 52.3 % 18.2 % 4.05 5.65 4.81 -1.6
2013 Ryan Dempster 8 9 29 168.2 8.32 4.16 1.39 0.296 71.8 % 40.9 % 14.0 % 4.64 4.7 4.2 1.2
2013 Trevor Cahill 7 10 25 142.2 6.31 4.04 0.82 0.292 73.1 % 56.8 % 12.4 % 4.1 4.3 4.12 0.8

These are the pitchers who have accomplished the most success with the least amount of tangible skill. I don’t have an objective way to definitively state which pitcher accomplished the most with the least, but I think one pitcher does stand out as the victor.

Carlos Zambrano is right there at the top, having compiled 30 WAR and 37 RA9-WAR over his career. However, he probably should have been excluded for the same reason as Vazquez. The two seasons Zambrano appeared on this list happen to be the only two seasons where his fastball velocity dipped down to 90 mph.

The other guy at the top is also the pitcher who appeared the most – Zito. He’s compiled 31 WAR and 38 RA9-WAR over his career and may still have a couple passable seasons left in the tank. He does have decent movement on his pitches – he barely passed that particular test. His fastball has never exceeded 87 mph and his walk rate has never strayed below three walks per nine in any of his 14 big league seasons. Perhaps he was able to find some success despite the lack of stuff because he used five different pitches at a roughly uniform rate. His least used pitch, the change-up, was thrown 14.5 percent of the time while his four seam fastball was most frequently used at just 26.7 percent. I’m not surprised to find Zito as the victor. Dick Mills, who ran an internet based pitch coaching service frequently used Zito in his examples for how to use tilts and sequences.

Honorable mention goes to Davis, who spun the same no velocity shell game as Zito but never got that huge payday. Davis took longer to establish himself in the majors than Zito and his best seasons were slightly worse than Zito’s. Otherwise, they’re very much cut from the same cloth.

You may have noticed that Trevor Cahill is the only young pitcher on the list. His velocity is barely under the 90 mph cutoff and his walk rate only exceeded 3.75 BB/9 in one of five major league seasons. I’m not sure if this says anything about teams, but it doesn’t look like there are any young Zito’s or Davis’s in the league these days.



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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, RotoWorld, and Rotoballer. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.


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Jeremy Roell
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Jeremy Roell

I am kind of surprised we don’t see Josh Collmenter’s 2012 on there.

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