Identifying the Greatest Complete Pitching Arsenal in Major League Baseball

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Identifying the Greatest Complete Pitching Arsenal in Major League Baseball
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Justin Verlander was the American League Cy Young winner and MVP in 2011, but does he possess baseball's most complete arsenal?

If you were asked to name the best current pitcher in baseball off the top of your head, who would you choose?

Go ahead and think of your short list. We'll wait.

Waiting...

OK, so which hurlers did you come up with? Wait, hold up. Before you answer that, here's another question: How did you come up with them?

Did you try to remember last year's Cy Young winners? Or maybe you just went straight to the pitcher with the fastest fastball or the nastiest slider? The highest-paid hurlers might've also entered your noggin, too, right?

Well, before you reveal your answer, how about we break it down based on the best all-around arsenal and see if we bring up some of the same names along the way?

More than a few of the pitchers in this video will be mentioned below.

First off, some guidelines and context. We need to establish a defined period of time to properly evaluate and compare all pitchers, so we'll use the past three seasons (2010-12). Not only does that give us a solid sample size, it also keeps things current (i.e., doesn't factor in performance from too long ago).

Since we're searching for the most complete arsenal, I started by looking through FanGraphs pitch-type linear weights pages to find all qualifying starting pitchers—no relievers here, thank you—who posted a positive (or above-average) pitch value in at least four different offerings. Considering there are really only six pitches—fastball (FB), slider (SL), cutter (CT), curveball (CB), changeup (CH), split-finger (SF)—if a pitcher's repertoire includes four (or more) positive pitch values, that's a pretty incredible, wide-ranging arsenal.

If you're new to pitch-type linear weights, here's a quick primer from FanGraphs:

The Pitch Type Linear Weights (“Pitch Values”) section on FanGraphs attempts to answer the question, “Which pitch is a pitcher’s best weapon?”...A score of zero is average, with negative scores being below average and positive scores being above average. In general, pitches will generally fall somewhere between +20 and -20 runs, with the most extreme pitches touching +/-30 [for a single season].

The neat thing about pitch values is that they're translated to express "the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch."

Below is a table with every starting pitcher who met the criteria—at least four positive (above-average) pitch values since 2010:

 

PITCHER wFB wSL wCT wCB wCH wSF
Clayton Kershaw 59.8 (2) 42.9 (3)   --  9.9 (14) 1.5 (42)
  --
David Price 52.1 (3) 2.4 (61) 5.2 (12) 2.6 (37) 18.2 (11)   --
Jered Weaver 49.9 (5) 6.9 (42)   --

13.5 (10)

26.1 (8)
  --
Justin Verlander 43.2 (6) 16.2 (20)   -- 27.8  (2) 26.5 (7)   --
Matt Cain 37.2 (8) 25.1 (10)   -- 3.4 (36) 13.2 (18)   --
C.J. Wilson 32.7 (11) 4.9 (48) 17.2 (5) 3.6 (35)   --
  --
Johnny Cueto 26.5 (13) 1.9 (65) 7.5 (8)   -- 6.8 (28)
  --
Felix Hernandez 25.4 (15) 10.5 (32)   -- 14.0 (9) 46.9 (2)
  --
Cole Hamels 14.5 (29)   -- 1.3 (23) 3.9 (33) 49.3 (1)   --
Adam Wainwright 12.5 (32) 6.4 (43) 0.7 (26) 32.3 (1)   --   --
Clay Buchholz 4.4 (43) 4.5 (50) 2.8 (16)   -- 7.1 (27)   -- 
Roy Halladay 2.6 (45)   -- 41.8 (1) 21.6 (5) 5.0 (33)
7.3 (3)

 

A few quick notes on the table:

  • It's ranked by fastball runs above average.
  • If a pitcher did not have a positive pitch value for a particular pitch (or did not have this particular pitch in his arsenal), this is indicated by a dash ( -- ).
  • The number in parentheses is the rank in that pitch value among all qualifying starting pitchers.
  • Because pitch values are cumulative counting statistics, a pitcher who misses time due to injury, like Wainwright in 2011 after Tommy John surgery, has fewer innings in which to amass higher numbers. Fortunately in this case, Wainwright was the only pitcher above who missed significant action but probably not enough to drastically alter the statistical results.

That collection of 12 mound men isn't too shabby, right? It's pretty much a Who's Who of the best pitchers in baseball, many of whom have earned Cy Young Awards, won World Series championships, accrued strikeout titles or even notched a no-hitter or perfect game.

Now that we have our dynamic dozen, it's time to start eliminating a few, though. Otherwise, how else will we get down to the greatest complete arsenal?

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
In part because of his subpar 4.56 ERA in 2012, Clay Buchholz doesn't belong in the discussion with his superior mound mates.

In the interest of time (and word count), let's lose Wilson, Cueto and Buchholz. Nothing against those three—although, frankly, Buchholz is the "one of these names is not like the other" of this batch—but if you want to argue for one of them as MLB's most complete pitcher, be my guest.

OK, let's whittle some more. Next up is fastball velocity. Even though it's only one pitch, the fastball is the most important because the effectiveness of every other offering relies on a pitcher's ability to throw and command good old No. 1.

Here are the average fastball velocities of the remaining nine starters from 2010-12:

 

PITCHER FB VELOCITY (RANK)
David Price 94.9 (1)
Justin Verlander 94.9 (2)
Felix Hernandez 93.2 (13)
Clayton Kershaw 93.0 (18)
Roy Halladay 92.0 (41)
Cole Hamels

91.7 (46)

Matt Cain 91.3 (59)
Adam Wainwright 90.6 (73)
Jered Weaver 89.0 (112)

 

Some impressive M-P-Hs in there, for sure, but the league-wide average fastball velocity over the same period was about 91.6 mph. That being the case, let's say goodbye to Cain, Wainwright and Weaver, all of whom were below average.

J. Meric/Getty Images
David Price's average fastball the past three seasons is 94.9 mph—tops in the majors.

With three more gone, we're left with the following six: Price, Verlander, Hernandez, Kershaw, Halladay and Hamels.

Aside from repertoire and fastball velocity, another hugely important weapon in a pitcher's arsenal is the ability to miss bats with his stuff. In this case, there's a stat for that, too, called swinging strike percentage, which measures the percentage of a hurler's total pitches that are swung at and missed.

From 2010 to 2012, the major league average for swinging strike percentage was about 8.7 percent.

So how did our final six do in this department the past three years on average?

 

PITCHER SwStr% (Rank)
Cole Hamels   12.0 % (2)
Clayton Kershaw 10.7 % (5)
Justin Verlander 10.4 % (15)
Roy Halladay 10.3 % (18)
Felix Hernandez

9.8 % (26)

David Price 8.8 % (57)

 

Every member of our six-man rotation was above average in this regard, so it's tough to eliminate anyone. It is, however, interesting that Price's swinging strike percentage was only barely better than average, so he's on shaky ground.

Next? Let's look at the percentage of time (sorted by fastball percentage) that each pitcher utilizes every pitch to make sure no one is actually skimping on a particular offering in their arsenal.

PITCHER FB% SL% CT% CB% CH% SF%
David Price 68.5 % 5.0 % 5.1 % 11.9 % 9.6 %   --
Clayton Kershaw 66.2 % 22.8 %    -- 7.9 % 3.1 %   --
Justin Verlander 57.2 % 9.1 %    -- 17.6 % 16.2 %   --
Felix Hernandez 56.8 % 11.2 %    -- 13.8 % 18.3 %   --
Cole Hamels 48.8 %    -- 17.8 % 9.0 % 24.4 %   --
Roy Halladay 27.4 %    -- 40.0 % 18.7 % 4.3 % 9.6 %

Between this data and the previous category (swinging strike percentage), it appears time to bid adieu to Mr. Price, who throws five pitches—all of which are above average by pitch types (see above)—but who relies very heavily on just his fastball, which he should because of its velocity (see above), while mixing in the occasional curve or changeup.

Which pitcher do you think has baseball's most complete arsenal?

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Same goes for Kershaw, who is similarly fastball-reliant (again, for good reason), to the point where the southpaw throws his heater-slider combo nearly 90 percent of the time.

What's left? Four ace pitchers who not only have withstood this layered attempt to cut them down but who also have proven unquestionably to be among the very best in baseball: Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay.

Halladay is at a bit of a crossroads in his career at the moment—is Doc, as we once knew him, finished?—but the veteran right-hander is on the decline of what is (was?) one of the best pitching careers of this generation, so we have to appreciate what he's done and how he's done it.

As for the other three? It's clear that all are still in their prime, pitching extremely well and, wouldn't you know it, each one just so happened to ink a massive, multi-year contract extension to remain with their respective team within the very recent past.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Felix Hernandez put his array of elite pitches to perfect use last August.

Between them, Cole Hamels ($144 million), Felix Hernandez ($175 million) and Justin Verlander ($180 million) are guaranteed just shy of—wait for iiiiit—$500 million.

Point being: whichever one of the three you choose, you're on the money.

 

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.

Want to make a case for another pitcher as baseball's most complete arsenal? Let me hear it on Twitter: @JayCat11

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