Ranking MLB's Top 5 Pitchers, Pitch by Pitch

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2013

Ranking MLB's Top 5 Pitchers, Pitch by Pitch

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    The MLB has become more and more of a pitcher's league over the past few seasons, and that is as much a result of moving past the Steroid Era as it is due to an impressive crop of pitching talent.

    With so many good arms, there is no shortage of dominant individual pitches, and what follows is my attempt to name who throws the best fastball, cutter, changeup, slider, curveball and splitter.

    While some pitchers rely on one overpowering pitch, others simply have a deep arsenal of pitches at their disposal. As such, guys like Felix Hernandez and Jered Weaver don't appear on the following list for having any one great pitch, but they rank among the best in baseball nonetheless.

    With that, here is my take on the MLB's top five pitchers, pitch by pitch. Take a look at the notes below for a better understanding of the statistics that are presented, all of which are from the start of the 2012 season to now.

    Special mention to R.A. Dickey, a man without peers when it comes to throwing his knuckleball.


    Some clarification on stats, all via FanGraphs:

    - % refers to how often the pitcher throws the pitch.

    - MPH refers to the average miles per hour of the pitch.

    - w(pitch type) refers to the number of runs the pitcher has saved with the pitch.

    - w(pitch type)/C refers to the numbers of runs the pitcher has saved per 100 times throwing the pitch.

    - All stats are since the start of the 2012 season.

Best Fastball

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    1. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds (81.2%, 97.9 MPH, 23.5 wFA, 2.16 wFA/C)

    Chapman has the game's fastest average fastball at 97.9 miles per hour, and he consistently dials it up into the triple digits for the Reds in the ninth inning.

    Only Sean Doolittle of the A's uses his fastball more frequently than Chapman, yet it remains an effective pitch because of its tremendous velocity and how well he mixes in a plus slider.

     

    2. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (62.3%, 93.0 MPH, 30.5 wFA, 1.26 wFA/C)

    Unlike Justin Verlander, who mixes things up with a four-pitch arsenal, Kershaw relies heavily on his fastball/slider combination. Only Phil Hughes and Jordan Zimmermann threw their fastballs more often than Kershaw among starters with at least 150 innings since the start of 2012.

    Since the start of 2012, Kershaw's fastball has statistically been the game's most effective pitch, as he has saved 30.5 runs with it. Part of that is because he throws it so often and throws so many innings, but it's a tough number to ignore nonetheless.

     

    3. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (62.6%, 96.7 MPH, 19.3 wFA, 2.97 wFA/C)

    The premier closer in the game today, everything Kimbrel throws is hard, and he has saved 19.3 runs with his fastball since the start of the 2012 season.

    Few pitchers, if any, bring the sort of electricity to the mound that the 24-year-old does, and much of that has to do with his blazing fastball that has helped him put up a 15.7 K/9 mark for his career.

     

    4. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers (42.7%, 94.6 MPH, 14.5 wFA, 0.81 wFA/C)

    Verlander does not rely on his fastball nearly as much as the other guys on this list, but it's his ability to maintain maximum velocity with it throughout the game that earns him a spot on this list.

    He sits comfortably in the mid-90s, but he can reach back and approach triple digits when he needs to, and it's that full-game command and power that makes his fastball one of the best in the business.

     

    5. Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals (51.1%, 97.4 MPH, 7.2 wFA, 0.96 wFA/C)

    A relatively unheralded name compared to the rest of the guys on this list, Herrera made 76 appearances as a rookie last season. He had a 2.35 ERA and 8.2 K/9 over 84.1 innings of work, recording three saves.

    His average fastball velocity is second only to Aroldis Chapman, though he relies far less on the pitch. A starter in the minors, Herrera also throws a changeup and curveball, but it's his blazing fastball that makes the 23-year-old an effective late-inning arm.

Best Cutter

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    1. Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (88.0%, 90.4 MPH, 5.5 wFC, 2.79 wFC/C)

    Rivera is credited with bringing the cut fastball to prominence, but this is no lifetime achievement award, as his cutter is still a dominant pitch, even at 43 years old.

    With 613 career saves and 1,124 strikeouts in 1,225.2 innings of work, Rivera has put together a Hall of Fame career with essentially one pitch in his arsenal. Broken bats are not a stat that is kept, but one has to imagine no one has sawed off more hitters than Rivera has over the years with his cutter.

     

    2. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (89.8%, 91.7 MPH, 21.2 wFC, 1.95 wFC/C)

    With Mariano Rivera set to hang it up at the end of the season, it appears as though the torch will be passed to Jansen for the title of best cutter in baseball.

    The 25-year-old has actually thrown it more often than Rivera since the start of 2012, and he is far more prolific a strikeout pitcher than Rivera ever was. In parts of four big league seasons, the Curacao native has fanned 248 hitters in 155.2 innings of work, a 14.3 K/9 mark.

     

    3. Bryan Shaw, Cleveland Indians (79.8%, 92.6 MPH, 3.1 wFC, 0.36 wFC/C)

    The only other pitcher in the game today who essentially relies on just a cutter to get guys out, Shaw has quietly emerged as a terrific late-inning arm in his three seasons in the majors.

    Traded from the Diamondbacks to the Indians in the Shin-Soo Choo/Trevor Bauer deal this offseason, Shaw has a 2.96 ERA in 104 career appearances. The cutter has been a game-changer for him, and it's a pitch he developed by mistake (h/t The Arizona Republic).

     

    4. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers (17.8%, 89.7 MPH, 14.9 wFC, 2.20 wFC/C)

    Much like many of his Japanese counterparts before him, Darvish has an impressive array of pitches with which to attack hitters, but when his cutter is working, there is little question it is his best pitch.

    He threw the pitch 50 times in his near-perfect game to kick off the season (h/t Dallas Morning News), and as he continues to move into the role of staff ace, it's a pitch he will likely lean on more and more.

     

    5. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox (13.9%, 89.8 MPH, 2.4 wFC, 0.45 wFC/C)

    The above numbers don't really reflect how good Lester's cutter can be, but in a down year last year when the rest of his pitches rated as below average, it was still a plus pitch for him.

    Since the inception of PITCHf/x in 2006, only Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay have saved more runs than the 48.0 Lester has with his cutter, and that's made more impressive by the fact that he threw the pitch half as often as Halladay and nowhere near as often as Rivera.

Best Changeup

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    1. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies (29.7%, 83.8 MPH, 11.7 wCH, 1.07 wCH/C)

    Since the PITCHf/x tool was first implemented in 2006, Cole Hamels has had the best changeup in the league by a long shot, saving 81.9 runs with the pitch.

    Despite his slow start in 2013, few would argue that Hamels ranks among the game's elite pitchers, and he has risen to those heights with an average fastball, decent curveball and terrific changeup.

     

    2. Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays (36.4%, 82.7 MPH, 19.5 wCH, 4.44 wCH/C)

    One of the surprise stars of 2012, Rodney went from moderately effective setup man to dominant closer after signing with the Rays, saving 48 games with a 0.60 ERA and 9.2 K/9 last season.

    A fastball that averages 96.2 miles per hour only makes his 83 mile per hour changeup that much more effective, and with great tail and downward bite, it's a legitimate strikeout pitch.

     

    3. Jason Vargas, Los Angeles Angels (27.1%, 80.1 MPH, 19.2 wCH, 2.00 wCH/C)

    Vargas was a horse for the Mariners the past three seasons, averaging 204 innings per season and going 33-36 with a 3.96 ERA.

    Now with the Angels, the left-hander has gotten to where he is almost exclusively because of his changeup, as his fastball and curveball both rate as below-average pitches.

     

    4. James Shields, Kansas City Royals (26.9%, 85.1 MPH, 13.5 wCH, 1.24 wCH/C)

    Tampa Bay traded Shields to the Royals this offseason after he spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Rays. He left with a 87-73 record and 3.89 ERA and took over as the ace of the Royals staff.

    His changeup is second to Hamels since the PITCHf/x system was created, with 66.3 runs saved, and his is made more effective by a plus fastball that averages 92.1 miles per hour and can reach the mid-90s.


    5. Tommy Milone, Oakland A's (25.7%, 80.4 MPH, 14.2 wCH, 1.61 wCH/C) 

    Oakland acquired Milone, the youngster of this group, from the Nationals for Gio Gonzalez last offseason, and he went 13-10 with a 3.74 ERA over 31 starts as a rookie.

    His average fastball velocity of 87.3 is the lowest of anyone on this list, but his changeup is still plenty effective at seven miles per hour slower and with plenty of arm-side run.

     

    *Felix Hernandez throws what is considered a changeup as his primary pitch, but at 89.1 miles per hour, just below his 92.3 mile per hour average fastball, I opted not to include it here with the more conventional changeups. Still, it's a dynamite pitch worth mentioning.

Best Slider

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    1. Luke Gregerson, San Diego Padres (68.5%, 82.9 MPH, 15.2 wSL, 1.82 wSL/C)

    One of the few pitchers in the league today who throws primarily sliders, Gregerson throws the pitch as much as anyone in the game, and he's been a lights-out setup man as a result.

    In five seasons with the Padres, he's made 298 appearances, posting a 2.90 ERA and 1.104 WHIP and striking out 295 in 289 innings. He pitched for the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic and is undoubtedly one of the premier setup men in the league today.

     

    2. Sergio Romo, San Francisco Giants (61.0%, 77.8 MPH, 15.3 wSL, 2.69 wSL/C)

    When Brian Wilson went down with a season-ending injury early last season, the Giants turned to a closer-by-committee. However, it didn't take long for Romo to emerge as the man in the ninth inning, and once he did he went on to convert 14 of 15 save chances.

    He doesn't have the prototypical power slider that many closers do, as the pitch is roughly 10 miles per hour slower than his fastball, but that doesn't make it any less effective an out pitch for him.

     

    3. Matt Harvey, New York Mets (13.9%, 88.4 MPH, 5.7 wSL, 2.97 wSL/C)

    It may be a bit early to put Harvey this high on the list, and I'm not saying I based the ranking on Internet GIFs, but just look at this and this.

    Harvey throws his slider as fast as anyone in the league, as it is a true wipeout slider in every sense of the word. The 24-year-old is off to a phenomenal start to his career, and his fastball/slider combination is largely to thank.

     

    4. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (31.4%, 85.7 MPH, 11.3 wSL, 3.46 wSL/C)

    Not to generalize, but nearly every pitch that leaves Kimbrel's hand has the potential to rank as one of the best pitches in baseball, and while his blazing fastball is his go-to pitch, his slider isn't half bad either.

    He throws those two pitches almost exclusively, and they have allowed him to lead the league in saves each of the past two seasons while striking out 293 hitters in 168 innings over the course of his career.

     

    5. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (22.7%, 85.3 MPH, 5.1 wSL, 0.58 wSL/C

    Kershaw used to rely on his curveball far more, and it is still a filthy pitch when he decides to snap one off, but it is the slider that he leans on now, and the development of the pitch has been a big reason for his success over the past two seasons.

    He began throwing the pitch more frequently at the start of the 2010 season, and since then he's gone 50-26 with a 2.53 ERA and 9.3 K/9, while winning back-to-back ERA titles. While his slider may not be as overpowering as those of the above guys, he relies on it for success as much as anyone in the league.

     

    *Braves reliever Jonny Venters may have the most dominant slider in all of baseball when he's on, but he was inconsistent last season and has yet to pitch in 2013 as he battles elbow problems, so he was left off this list for now. 

Best Curveball

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    1. A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh Pirates (34.2%, 81.7 MPH, 16.7 wCU, 1.38 wCU/C)

    The only pitcher of the group here who throws a knuckle curve, Burnett has long had one of the best hooks in baseball, and he has regained his dominant form with it since joining the Pirates.

    The 36-year-old has gone 17-12 with a 3.42 ERA and 8.6 K/9 in 36 starts in Pittsburgh, and he throws his curveball now more than he ever has in his career, as the pitch remains plus-plus even as his career winds down.

     

    2. David Hernandez, Arizona Diamondbacks (34.9%, 81.5 MPH, 11.5 wCU, 2.70 wCU/C)

    Hernandez joined the Diamondbacks prior to the 2011 season, coming over from the Orioles in the deal that sent Mark Reynolds to Baltimore.

    Since coming to the desert, he's made 155 appearances and posted a 2.95 ERA and 11.5 K/9, as he has quickly become one of the game's elite setup men. He started throwing his curveball more last season and has used the pitch over 40 percent of the time this season.

     

    3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals (24.3%, 73.7 MPH, 14.2 wCU, 1.68 wCU/C)

    One of the iconic moments in recent postseason history was a young Wainwright freezing Carlos Beltran with a filthy curveball to slam the door on Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.

    It's taken Wainwright some time to round back into ace form after missing all of 2011 with Tommy John surgery, but he's off to a great start this year at 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA, and his curveball is once again one of the best in the business.

     

    4. Sean Marshall, Cincinnati Reds (37.9%, 77.0 MPH, 3.2 wCU, 0.84 wCU/C)

    A middling swingman over the first four seasons of his career, Marshall was 19-29 with a 4.55 ERA and 6.4 K/9 entering the 2010 season when he moved to the bullpen full-time.

    Since then, he's 18-16 with 2.46 ERA and 10.3 K/9 over 232 appearances, as he ranks as one of the premier left-handed setup men in the game. His curveball is by far his best pitch, and he's been able to make the most of it in a late-inning role.


    5. Wandy Rodriguez, Pittsburgh Pirates (31.0%, 76.3 MPH, 8.3 wCU, 0.79 wCU/C)

    Rodriguez has had a fantastic curveball since he broke into the league back in 2005, but it is only within the past few years that he has really rounded into a complete pitcher.

    As his other pitches have improved, his curveball has become that much more effective, and since the start of 2009, when he turned 30, the left-hander has gone 50-48 with a 3.41 ERA and 7.6 K/9. He joins teammate A.J. Burnett to form a dynamic one-two punch of curveball throwers.

     

    *Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw both have fantastic curveballs, but they have deep enough repertoires that they don't rely very heavily on the pitch, so they settle for honorable mention here.

Best Splitter

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    1. Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs (13.8%, 85.4 MPH, 9.1 wFS, 2.09 wFS/C)

    Samardzija has always had a fantastic splitter. It has been the development of the rest of his repertoire that has led to his jump into the upper echelon of MLB starters.

    The split has always been his strikeout pitch, dating back to when Chicago first drafted him out of Notre Dame, and it was his over-reliance on the pitch early on in his minor league career that led to his slow development. Now that the rest of his game has rounded into form, the splitter is a lethal weapon with two strikes.

     

    2. J.J. Putz, Arizona Diamondbacks (22.7%, 85.8 MPH, 5.3 wFS, 2.42 wFS/C)

    One of the top closers in the game during his time in Seattle, Putz served as a setup man with the Mets and White Sox in 2009 and 2010, respectively, before joining the Diamondbacks and again emerging as a frontline closer.

    Early in his career he relied on a fastball that he could dial up into the triple digits as his out pitch, but now that his fastball sits in the low 90s, the splitter has become his out pitch, and it's one of the best in the game.

     

    3. Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattle Mariners (24.9%, 86.2 MPH, 8.7 wFS, 1.55 wFS/C)

    Iwakuma signed a a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the Mariners last offseason after being posted by his Japanese team the previous year but failing to sign with the Athletics.

    He went 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 30 games (16 starts) last season, and he has assumed the role of No. 2 starter in the Mariners rotation with Jason Vargas gone. He's off to a 2-0 start with a 1.69 ERA over 26.2 innings of work, and the split-finger remains his go-to pitch, as he has the makings of a breakout season on his hands.

     

    4. Ryan Dempster, Boston Red Sox (13.9%, 81.1 MPH, 7.3 wFS, 1.67 wFS/C)

    A savvy veteran at 35 years old, Dempster throws a little bit of everything at this point in his career, but the splitter remains his most effective pitch.

    He didn't start throwing the pitch regularly until 2009, and he's gone 48-45 with a 3.92 ERA and 8.4 K/9 since then. Now with the Red Sox, the right-hander has thrown the pitch more than ever this season at 19.9 percent of the time.

     

    5. Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals (46.4%, 86.4 MPH, 4.8 wFS, 1.06 wFS/C)

    No one throws the split-finger more than Mujica. He has thrown the pitch a whopping 57.6 percent of the time so far this season, as he has increased how frequently he throws it every season of his career.

    He'll get a chance to feature the pitch in a more prominent role after recently sliding into the closer's role in St. Louis, and he has two saves with a 1.23 ERA and 9.8 K/9 in seven appearances so far this season.

     

    *Honorable mention: Brandon League and Koji Uehara.