Looking at the BA Best Tools Survey

The good folks over at Baseball America have released their annual survey of MLB Managers in regards to which players have the “Best Tools” in Major League Baseball. This is clearly a subjective exercise, but it’s still fun to look at and see what the guys running teams from the dugout think.

A lot of the picks are as expected. Albert Pujols is the National League’s best hitter? Yup. Cliff Lee is the best pitcher in the American League? Few would argue that point. Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman grade out as the two best defenders at third base in their respective leagues? UZR thinks so, too.

However, there are a few picks on there that are… curious. I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at some of the selections that might make you raise your eyebrows, and then suggest an alternative answer to the question.

Best Fastball, AL – Justin Verlander

Hardest fastball among starting pitchers? Sure. But that’s not really the question, and despite the velocity, Verlander’s fastball isn’t all its cracked up to be. Our pitch type linear weights have Verlander’s fastball worth 43.1 runs above average over his career, or about 0.4 runs per 100 pitches thrown. That’s less than either his curveball or his change-up, which are the pitches he actually gets hitters out with. Yes, his fastball sets up those other pitches, but some guys have fastballs so good that they can get guys out on their own.

Take Matt Thornton, for instance (and yes, relievers are eligible – notice that Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz are #2 and #3 in the category). His fastball has been worth +49.6 runs in his Major League career, a half dozen runs better than Verlander’s mark. That is despite throwing 10,000 fewer total pitches than Verlander and his fastball being a pitch he relies on almost exclusively.

Thornton has thrown 83 percent fastballs in his career, and is at 91 percent this year. Despite the predictability, hitters still can’t touch him, and he’s become the game’s premier left-handed reliever. It’s even thrown at the same velocity as Verlander’s, so we can’t argue his case in that area.

Verlander has a good fastball. Thornton, though, has the best fastball in the American League.

Best Change-up, National League: Johan Santana

Santana has a fantastic change-up, no question. He’s a worthy contender for the top spot. But there’s one that stands out above the rest in baseball in terms of movement and ability to make hitters look ridiculous, and it belongs to Tim Lincecum.

To be fair, managers put him in a tie for second with Cole Hamels, so they clearly like his change-up as well. But I’m not sure they like it enough. For fun, take a look at Lincecum’s pitch selection in any two strike count:

0-2: 40% change-ups
1-2: 50% change-ups
2-2: 51% change-ups
3-2: 45% change-ups

Want to know why Lincecum is still running sky high strikeout rates despite losing his fastball? Because he puts hitters away with the nasty change-up, and that pitch has only gotten better over the years. He still throws it at 84 MPH, and while it appears to have fastball properties, it falls off the table while the hitter is swinging over the top.

Quantified, the pitch type linear weights suggest that Lincecum’s change-up last year alone was worth more than Santana’s over the last three years combined. In his prime with Minnesota, Santana’s change was the best in the game. Now, though, its just one of the best, and it takes a back seat to the one from the wiry kid in San Francisco.

Best Defensive Outfielder, AL, second place – Torii Hunter

Ahh, reputations. They don’t die easily, even when the player himself says “yeah, I’m not that good anymore, and I should move to right field now.” Managers just love them some Torii Hunter. I won’t bother going into much detail here, because, well, I think everyone realizes that Hunter hasn’t been a good defensive outfielder for quite a while now.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Derek Jeter as 3rd best SS seems based on reputation too.


Religious dogma is a better explanation.
And I’m a Yankee fan. And I still think the world of Jeter. But 3rd best defensive shortstop? Hoo, what a load.