MLB: 15 Most Unhittable Off-Speed Pitches in Baseball Today
What's better than seeing a batter's knees buckle at the sight of a filthy breaking ball or watching a hitter swing through a changeup, only to find that the ball hasn't even reached the catcher's mitt yet?
Now that the 2012 MLB season has begun, it's time to take a look at some of the filthiest off-speed pitches thrown by starters last season.
For the purpose of this article, I used sabermetrics, as well as my own visual knowledge and opinion. The two main sabermetric statistics that I focused on were two different classifications of pitch-type linear weights.
The first is the total runs that a pitcher saved using a specific pitch—represented by wSL, wCB and wCH—and the second category measures how many runs a pitcher saved using a specific pitch over the course of throwing 100 of those specific pitches, shown as wSL/C, wCB/C and wCH/C.
Note that for the first pitch-type linear weight, anything better than 20 is above-average, and for the second, anything more than 1.5 is above-average.
Let's get into it.
Roy Halladay's Curveball
Among his Cy Young-caliber repertoire, Philadelphia Phillies hurler Roy Halladay boasts one of the nastiest hooks in the MLB.
He threw it for a strike 68.70 percent of the time, got 18.27 percent swinging strikes and showed a 14.1 wCU in 2011.
As Paul Swydan of Fangraphs writes:
Halladay’s swinging-strike percentage was tops among starters, and seventh-best among any pitcher who threw at least 100 curveballs. He was no slouch when it came to called strikes either, as his percentage was nearly one standard deviation better than the mean. Halladay doesn’t generate a lot of vertical movement, so the pitch has more of a bottom-falling-out feel than a typical curve. But the result is the same as nearly all of Halladay’s offerings — domination.
Doc's curve has been instrumental in his success over the years, highlighted by two Cy Youngs, a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter.
Jered Weaver's Changeup
Jered Weaver had the best season of his career in 2011, going 18-8 with a 2.41 ERA and 198 strikeouts.
His strikeout numbers last season were down from 2010—233 vs. 198—but he still threw one of the best changeups in the MLB.
He threw the changeup 14.8 percent of the time in 2011, but posted solid numbers with it, showing a 14.5 wCH and a 2.62 wCH/C.
Weaver doesn't throw that hard—the average speed of his fastball in 2011 was 89.1 mph—so he relies on his changeup to keep hitters off balance.
And he's doing a good job.
Ervin Santana's Slider
With so many big-name pitchers out there, Ervin Santana doesn't get the credit he deserves.
He tossed a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians last July and possesses one of the best sliders in the game, according to Fangraphs.
The slider was Santana's most important pitch in 2011, as he threw it 38.2 percent of the time and received 17.5 percent swinging strikes.
Furthermore, he posted a 22.0 wSL—ranking only second to Clayton Kershaw—and a 1.68 wSL/C, making his slider his most effective pitch and one of the nastiest in the MLB.
Justin Verlander's Curveball
2011 American League MVP and Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander is dirty.
Verlander's curveball immediately comes to mind when thinking about a nasty pitch.
According to Fangraphs, he only threw the Uncle Charlie 18.3 percent of the time in 2011, but it was his best pitch, as he sported an 11.2 wCB and a 1.55 wCB/C.
We all know how filthy Verlander's fastball is, but his curve is also an effective pitch that helped him strike out 250 batters last season.
Felix Hernandez's Changeup
Felix Hernandez threw his changeup 22.0 percent of the time in 2011, throwing it for a strike more than 70.0 percent of the time.
King Felix struck out 222 batters in 2011, with his changeup drawing 16.1 percent swinging strikes.
Aside from Cole Hamels, Hernandez sported the best wCH and wCH/C ratings for changeups during the 2011 MLB season.
Hernandez now has three consecutive seasons that saw him strike out more than 200 batters, and he has his changeup to thank for that.
Cliff Lee's Curveball
Some will say that his best curveball came when he decided to return to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011.
Cliff Lee struck out a career high 238 batters, which ranked No. 3 in the MLB.
Although he didn't throw it often—just 10.7 percent of the time—his "yakker" was a devastatingly effective pitch.
Lee posted a 1.78 wCB/C, which ranked fifth amongst all starters in 2011.
Tim Lincecum's Changeup
It goes without saying that Tim Lincecum boasts one of the most vicious changeups in the MLB.
The Freak has been dominating hitters throughout his career, never posting less than 200 strikeouts since fanning 150 during his 2007 rookie year.
Lincecum threw his changeup 24.1 percent of the time in 2011, but it was less than average, showing a 10.4 wCH and 1.21 wCH/C. Regardless of the statistics, watching Lincecum's fastball and changeup combo is special.
Last year, Lincecum became the eighth pitcher in MLB history to record 1,000 strikeouts in five seasons and will continue his elite status with the dirty changeup he throws.
Wandy Rodriguez's Curveball
While highlighting the best curveballs of 2011, Fangraphs makes special note of Wandy Rodriguez's hook.
Although it declined some in 2011, Rodriguez still possesses one of the most jaw-dropping yakkers in the league.
Paul Swydan of Fangraphs writes:
Wandy Rodriguez threw 221 more curveballs than any other pitcher, and with good reason — he has a nice yellow hammer. But Rodriguez’s value was down a little overall last year, and he didn’t grade out particularly well in either swinging- or called-strike percentage.
Rodriguez sported a 13.6 wCB and 1.17 wCB/C last season. Again, it's down from 2007 and 2009, but his curve is still one of the best knee-bucklers in the MLB.
Cole Hamels' Changeup
2008 World Series MVP Cole Hamels is known throughout the bigs for having an outstanding changeup.
Hamels had the best changeup in baseball in 2011. Name every pitch result or pitch value stat related to his change, and Hamels is in the top 2 among qualified starting pitchers: 2nd to Roy Halladay in throwing his changeups for strikes (72.0%), 1st in baseball in SwStr% (27.1%), and 1st in baseball in both wCH and wCH/C. That he leads both changeup value categories speaks to both the reliance that Hamels had on his changeup in terms of quantity, as well as the quality of each changeup that he threw on average.
Hamels isn't a hard thrower and relies on his changeup to strike hitters out, which he's had no problem doing as of late.
He accumulated 211 K's in 2010 and 194 in 2011, and will continue to post solid numbers with his go-to pitch.
CC Sabathia's Slider
CC Sabathia's slider is so effective because he throws a plus fastball 59 percent of the time.
Throwing a filthy slider 21.3 percent of the time in 2011, Sabathia posted an impressive 14.6 wSL and 1.93 wSL/C.
Last season, Sabathia ranked No. 2 (only to Justin Verlander) in the American League in strikeouts with 230.
As a Yankees fan, I hardly miss a Sabathia start.
When he's on with the slider, he's practically unhittable. And when you consistently throw more than 230 innings per season, you have a lot of time to work on your craft.
Livan Hernandez's Curveball
Livan Hernandez's curveball is known throughout the league as one of—if not the slowest—Uncle Charlies around.
He threw the curve at 66.4 mph in 2011, resulting in a below-average 9.6 wCB, but an impressive 2.36 wCB/C.
If you've never seen this dude's hook, I suggest jumping on Google and finding some footage.
You won't be disappointed.
James Shields' Changeup
James Shields has blossomed into a top pitcher in the AL—he made his first All-Star appearance last season—and has developed quite a changeup.
The righty threw the change 27.6 percent of the time last season and did so effectively.
He sported a 17.7 wCH—third among all starters—and a 1.82 wCH/C.
Fangraphs notes that, "With such good sink on it, he whiffed 36.6% of hitters who chose to swing."
He won 16 games for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011 and could be bound for more in 2012 if his changeup continues to evolve.
Zack Greinke's Slider
Zack Greinke fanned 201 hitters in 2011 and will surpass that number in 2012 if his slider continues to move this way.
Because of a plus fastball that he threw 56 percent of the time last season, Greinke had success with his slider, which he threw 18.7 percent of the time.
He posted an 11.0 wSL, which is low, but a 2.06 wSL/C makes up for it.
Greinke struck out 242 back in 2009, and it's not out of the question for him to surpass that mark in 2012.
Jeremy Hellickson's Changeup
2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson relied heavily on his changeup to earn the award last season.
The youngster threw the changeup 31.7 percent of the time, sporting a 17.0 wCH and 1.9 wCH/C.
Not too bad for a rookie, huh?
Albert Lyu of Fangraphs writes:
You would think that professional hitters would eventually figure out the AL Rookie of the Year because he relies on his offspeed pitch so much. Well, not so for the young and handsome Hellboy of Tampa Bay, as his changeup whiffed 32.8% of batters who swung. His straight changeup creeps in at more than 10 mph slower than his low-mid 90s fastball, useful for setting up hitters to swing out in front when expecting the fastball.
Hellickson struck out 117 hitters last season and will assuredly eclipse that mark in 2012.
Clayton Kershaw's Slider
When you think slider, you think Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw's slider was swung on and missed 33.9 percent in 2011, which helped him strike out 248 batters and win the NL Cy Young award.
According to Chris Cwik of Fangraphs:
"With an 0-2 count, Kershaw went to the slider 45.2% of the time. That number jumped to 55.3% in 1-2 counts, and 60.9% in 2-2 counts."
He led all starters with a 22.9 wSL and posted a 2.60 wSL/C last season, further cementing the effectiveness of his slider.
Kershaw will continue to be a strikeout artist if he can consistently throw his filthy slider.
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