The best pitchers hardly anyone knows

Last week, Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran published his top ten set-up men for the season. Always looking for an excuse to use PITCHf/x to explore a pitcher, Corcoran’s list gives us the chance to look some of the best—but not best known—relievers in the major leagues.

Corcoran’s list

Covering both leagues, Corcoran lays out his case for the a top 10 of:

  1. Matt Thornton
  2. Phil Hughes
  3. Matt Guerrier
  4. Mike Gonzalez
  5. Hideki Okajima
  6. Ryan Madson
  7. Rafael Betancourt
  8. George Sherrill
  9. Brad Ziegler
  10. Brandon Lyon

Corcoran’s basic criteria, in his own words:

This is thus a list of the eighth-inning setup men fans should least want to see enter a game against their favorite team right now. It could look very different by the end of the season, and several of these pitchers could be in different roles come 2010.

Some of the pitchers listed have been closers already, but most have not.

Let’s look at what they throw.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Pitch types

We’ll dig into these below, a full listing of the pitch types (and average speed) thrown by these guys in 2009. Fastballs refer to four-seam fastballs, sinkers to two-seam fastballs. Cutters, sliders and curves are familiar points along a continuum that includes slutters and slurves. Your label may vary.

Change 76
Fastball 86
Slider 73

Change 86
Curve 77
Sinker 93
Fastball 93
Cutter 90

Change 82
Curve 76
Fastball 91

Change 83
Fastball 88
Slider 77

Change 83
Curve 79
Sinker 91
Fastball 92
Slider 86

Sinker 96
Fastball 96
Slider 85

Change 83
Fastball 93
Slider 83

Change 84
Curve 78
Sinker 93
Fastball 94
Cutter 89

Change 86
Fastball 93
Slider 83

Change 84
Sinker 95
Fastball 96
Cutter 91

How they throw it

As you can see above, almost every reliever on the list throws something in the 90 mph and above range. The exceptions are a submariner and one of the most extreme over-the-top pitchers in baseball. But there’s something to say about the whole list, not just Ziegler and Okajima.

The lefties: Sherrill, Thornton, Okajima and Gonzalez

Sherrill works from the first base side of the rubber and presents the lowest release point of the conventional throwers. He’s also releasing the ball further from the center of the mound (two feet, 11 inches) than any other pitcher in this group.

Nothing too special about Thornton—he’s tall and working from the first base side. He’s in a high three-quarter slot, while Sherrill is in more of a low three-quarter. Okajima and Gonzalez have a more distinct approach.

Okajima is straight over the top, his arm straight in the air, his eyes pointed at the ground, practically behind himself. He’s so over-the-top, he releases the ball slightly on the third base side of the rubber (just a few inches from the center, though). His technique also results in the highest release point of the group.

Gonzalez is a conventional three-quarters, but sets up way over to the third base side of the rubber. If you’ve seen him pitch, you know of his rocking wind-up that makes him seem like he’s revving up before jumping into his delivery.

There are no extreme ground ballers in the left-handed group. Thornton leads the group at 45 percent, Okajima trails at 33 percent. Okajima induces the most pop flies (13 percent) and outfield flies (38 percent). There’s a pretty good range of whiff rates in the foursome, from Sherrill’s .187 to Thornton’s .267. Gonzalez (.246) and Okajima (.222) do well in that.

Thornton’s combination of high whiff and ground ball rates is impressive. Gonzalez is not too far behind. Oddly, they are hit the hardest (slugging on contact) of the lefties by a decent margin.

Lefty Whiff GB% LD% FB% PU% SLGCON
Sherrill .187 36% 16% 36% 11% .429
Thornton .267 45% 19% 27% 9% .532
Okajima .222 33% 16% 38% 13% .430
Gonzalez .246 41% 17% 33% 9% .548

The righties: Guerrier, Betancourt, Lyon, Hughes, Ziegler and Madson

Excluding Ziegler’s submarine delivery, where the ball comes out of his hand less than three feet above the ground, the right-handed members of Corcoran’s list fall around the three-quarter standard, ranging from Madson’s below three-quarter whip to Betancourt’s overhand delivery. Working up from Madson are Hughes, Lyon and Guerrier. Madson, benefiting from his height, manages a release point that is just as high as Okajima’s and well to the third base side of the rubber.

By the way, these arm slot designations are, in some cases, based solely on reading the PITCHf/x data tea leaves.

It should be no surprise that Ziegler leads the full 10 in ground ball rate. With an outstanding 63 percent, Ziegler is going to rely on his defense to get most of the outs. That compensates nicely for his group-trailing whiff rate of .161. That’s below average no matter how you slice it.

Lyon would be considered a slightly above average ground ball pitcher, at 49 percent, and Betancourt is plainly a fly ball pitcher. Yielding just 29 percent ground balls, Betancourt also gets more outfield flies (40 percent) than the rest of the group. No one elevates Mr. Ziegler: only 3 percent pop-ups on balls in play. No freebies for the defense.

Madson is a right-handed Thornton, in a certain way. With a .271 whiff rate and 43 percent grounders on balls in play, he also throws in the upper 90s. Hughes looks to be Sherrill’s counterpart (body types aside). Guerrier, lest we forget, is fairly balanced and has given up the least on balls in play.

Righty Whiff GB% LD% FB% PU% SLGCON
Guerrier .191 44% 18% 31% 7% .400
Betancourt .240 29% 20% 40% 11% .468
Lyon .182 49% 19% 24% 8% .430
Hughes .198 36% 19% 34% 11% .519
Ziegler .161 63% 17% 17% 3% .457
Madson .271 43% 23% 25% 8% .460

As a group, the righties may miss fewer bats, but they aren’t hit quite as hard.

Pitch quality

Two versions of run values: rv100 is based on linear weights for batted ball outcomes, and rv100E is based on distributed batted ball outcomes based on batted ball type. In other words, singles and doubles vs. liners and pop-ups. Both use pitch outcomes the same way. And, negative run values are better for pitchers. I’ll just throw these numbers out for you to peruse. I’ll roll them up and rank the pitchers below. I’ve made this table sortable—just click the headers.

pitcher type # rv100 rv100E
Ziegler Change 100 -0.20 1.95
Lyon Change 16 0.77 -1.27
Sherrill Change 9 4.06 2.63
Okajima Change 178 -1.98 -1.60
Guerrier Change 34 -1.72 0.47
Gonzalez Change 8 2.16 8.68
Hughes Change 9 2.95 3.15
Betancourt Change 53 -1.62 1.73
Madson Change 224 -3.39 -1.90
Lyon Curve 188 -0.84 -1.55
Sherrill Curve 220 -1.74 -1.08
Guerrier Curve 114 -0.75 1.83
Hughes Curve 273 0.07 0.10
Lyon Cutter 169 -0.99 1.10
Hughes Cutter 193 -1.44 -1.29
Madson Cutter 148 0.47 -0.78
Ziegler Fastball 660 0.08 -0.64
Lyon Fastball 217 -2.60 -1.57
Sherrill Fastball 588 -1.04 -0.30
Okajima Fastball 466 -1.73 -0.90
Guerrier Fastball 263 -3.81 -0.71
Thornton Fastball 674 -1.17 -1.41
Gonzalez Fastball 560 -0.37 -1.01
Hughes Fastball 660 -0.69 -0.67
Betancourt Fastball 460 -1.24 -0.78
Madson Fastball 376 -0.13 0.10
Lyon Sinker 237 -0.69 0.87
Guerrier Sinker 164 0.07 -0.07
Thornton Sinker 53 3.61 0.47
Hughes Sinker 53 1.84 2.66
Madson Sinker 112 -2.33 0.09
Ziegler Slider 81 -1.68 -2.11
Okajima Slider 176 0.40 1.43
Guerrier Slider 186 -1.48 -1.59
Thornton Slider 87 -3.74 -1.97
Gonzalez Slider 388 -0.69 -0.71
Betancourt Slider 97 -1.96 -1.97

Same ten, different order

Using the pitch quality metrics shown above, I arrived at one value for each set-up man on the list. Using those run values, this would be the re-ordered top 10. SI’s rankings are shown in parentheses.

  1. Matt Thornton (1)
  2. Mike Gonzalez (4)
  3. Rafael Betancourt (7)
  4. Ryan Madson (6)
  5. Hideki Okajima (5)
  6. George Sherrill (8)
  7. Brad Ziegler (9)
  8. Phil Hughes (2)
  9. Matt Guerrier (3)
  10. Brandon Lyon (10)

Matt Thornton, you’re the undisputed eighth inning champion of 2009. Well, two votes to none, so far.

References & Resources
Sports Illustrated and Chris Corcoran published the top 10
Pitch data from MLBAM, classifications by the author. Stats updated through Aug. 21.
All release points are ball position 55 feet from the back of home plate—this is five feet further back than the Gameday release point.
Sortable tables by Kryogenix

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Did you separate Hughes’ numbers as a starter and a reliever?

Harry Pavlidis
Harry Pavlidis

No, I left those in. I’ll re-run his #‘s tonight splitting out by appearance type, see if it looks any different.

Dave Allen
Dave Allen

I am going to post about Hughes stuff as a reliever at FanGraphs in the afternoon.  The run values on all his pitches are way better.  I will be interested to see how much better than are with your rv100E since his BABIP and HR/FB are way way better as a reliever than as a stater.  In other words I wonder how much of the improvement in the pitches is not luck based.

I think that this year Hughes throws a cutter not a slider.

Harry Pavlidis
Harry Pavlidis

Dave, I am interested to see how are numbers vary. Also, if you look above, I don’t have a slider for Hughes, just his cutter.

Dan Novick
Dan Novick

Just to clarify, Hughes doesn’t throw a cutter anymore…. he dropped it last July in favor of the cutter.

Harry Pavlidis
Harry Pavlidis

Just to clarify, Hughes doesn’t throw a cutter anymore…. he dropped it last July in favor of the cutter.


Harry Pavlidis
Harry Pavlidis

OK, dropping everything including his first two relief outings (one was multiple innings, starting in the 3rd, he’s been late game since then) I find that he stopped throwing the change-up.

Here are the rv100 and # thrown
Curve   0.43 (119)
Sinker   2.26 (13)
Fastball -3.11 (310)
Cutter   -5.46 (49)
and rv100E
Curve   1.46
Sinker   4.02
Fastball -1.83
Cutter   -3.85
Rolling it up, it moves Hughes into second place behind Thornton in the re-ordered top ten.

Based on rv100E, two of Hughes’ pitches are worse and two are better. Grain of salt included.

Dave Allen
Dave Allen

Sorry Harry,

Miss read it.  I had expected the cutter and fastball to look good even iwth the rv100E, because he is getting big time whiffs with both pitches.


Ryan Madson was the best man