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Who Has the Best Stuff in Baseball?

In yesterday’s chat, a question was raised about Brandon Morrow and where his stuff ranks with other starting pitchers in the game. Due to the nature of how chats work, I didn’t really have time for a detailed explanation, but I felt like the topic probably deserved a post of its own. So, let’s talk about a pitcher’s “stuff”.

We’ll focus on starting pitchers because relievers are a whole other ball of wax – they get used situationally depending on who is due up, only have to throw 15-20 pitches per outing, and are mostly pitchers who lacked some necessary skill to stick in the starting rotation. The best pitchers in baseball are starters, and we’re most interested in who among that group has the best stuff in baseball.

In general, the easiest way to explain the term “good stuff” is that it’s essentially a proxy for velocity. Guys who throws hard are stuff guys, while guys who don’t are not. There are some differences among pitchers with similar velocity – with movement and secondary pitches coming into play – but you’ll never hear a guy who throws 89 get labeled with better stuff than a guy who throws 95. By far, the main determinant of who has “good stuff” is how hard they throw.

We can argue over whether that’s a reasonable definition or not, but it is what it is; Roy Halladay is never going to be described as guy with elite stuff, even though opposing hitters have no real chance of putting up runs against him. Since his average fastball velocity is just 49th among qualified starters this year, Halladay is not considered a top-shelf stuff guy, despite the fantastic movement and wide variety of pitches he can throw.

While velocity is the main factor in applying a “stuff” factor, it is not the only one. Derek Holland and Clayton Kershaw have the same average velocity on their fastballs this year, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who will equate the two in terms of raw stuff. Why?

Kershaw throws a lot of pitches that have significant movement, using two kinds of sliders and a curveball as his off-speed pitches, while Holland uses the change-up with a lot more frequency. For whatever reason – and I’d argue that this is probably a flaw with the way stuff is described, given the change-up’s effectiveness – pitchers who throw elite change-ups are generally not considered premium stuff guys. The change-up still carries the stigma of a trick pitch which gets its effectiveness from deception, so while guys like Ricky Romero certainly has highly effective weapons with which to strike hitters out, he’s usually not considered to have top-shelf stuff.

The parameters for being considered a high-end stuff guy are basically a high velocity fastball (with a few bonus points for having movement) and a hard breaking ball; either a 12-6 curve or a wipeout slider. If you have a hard fastball and a hard breaking ball, you’ll generally be considered a premium stuff guy, regardless of what the rest of your game looks like. To bring this back to the question that spawned this post, Brandon Morrow has both a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider, which is why the question was asked about where his stuff ranks in regards to other starting pitchers.

So, with that as the criteria, it’s easy to see why the same names pop up over and over when premium stuff pitchers are discussed: Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, David Price, Jon Lester, Tim Lincecum, and Yovani Gallardo are all mentioned frequently, and new guys Michael Pineda and Alexi Ogando are getting their names in the conversation with their early success based on the power fastball/slider combination to start 2011.

Notably absent from the normal discussion are elite pitchers like Halladay, Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, or Cole Hamels, all of whom get outs by pounding the strike zone with lower velocity offerings and using cutters and change-ups to great success. Their success is based more on movement and command, and those things don’t play much of a factor in determining the stuff label. Isn’t that a little bit odd, though? Wouldn’t a guy like Price be even better if he didn’t have to rely on his fastball to such an extreme degree, and instead had two or three fantastic off-speed pitches like the pitchers listed above?

I muddied the waters a bit in the chat by answering that strikeout rate was the best one statistic to serve as a proxy for stuff – in retrospect, I wish I had given a more complete answer, even though that is true. If you only had one number to look at to measure a pitcher’s stuff, you would choose strikeout rate, but that’s not the position we find ourselves in, so we shouldn’t limit ourselves to that kind of one number analysis.

A pitcher who throws more strikes might have a lower strikeout rate with equal stuff simply because he doesn’t run into as many 3-2 counts as his wilder counterpart. Stuff can also be used to get a ton of ground balls instead of racking up a ton of strikeouts. Just using strikeout rate, or even swinging strike rate, will limit you to classifying good stuff pitchers as guys who throw four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone with regularity. There are good stuff pitchers who do that (like Morrow and Pineda), but there are also good stuff pitchers who attack the bottom of the strike zone, trading a lower strikeout rate to get more ground balls and frequently lowering their walk rate in the process as well.

Finally, there’s also the reality that not all pitches work against all hitter types. A fastball/slider pitcher will often have a large platoon split, as the slider often doesn’t work against opposite-handed hitters, leaving that pitcher with a small set of options to throw in many confrontations. Does it really benefit us to describe a guy who can only use half of his arsenal against the majority of pitches he’s going to face as having “good stuff”? How good is a knockout slider if it is only effective against half the population of opposing hitters?

To answer the question of who really has the best stuff, we have to look at the total package – velocity, movement, intent, and simply how hard is it for opposing hitters (of all types) to produce against what they’re thrown. And so, my top five would be as follows, with no disrespect intended to those who didn’t quite make the cut.

1. Felix Hernandez
2. Ubaldo Jimenez (the healthy version)
3. Roy Halladay
4. Tim Lincecum
5. Justin Verlander