Ranking the Best Strikeout Pitches in Baseball

Chris StephensCorrespondent IIMay 28, 2013

Ranking the Best Strikeout Pitches in Baseball

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    With the downfall of the PED era, Major League Baseball has become more of a pitcher's league.

    From starters to relievers, there are multiple pitchers who can make hitters look like fools.

    However, each hurler has his own special way of doing so—a go-to pitch that generates far more whiffs than wallops.

    Using insight from Bleacher Report MLB featured columnists Joel Reuter, Adam Wells and Joe Giglio, here's a look at the best strikeout pitches in baseball.

    Note: This list specifically deals with individual pitches from a particular pitcher.

10. James Shields' Changeup

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    James Shields has a deadly arsenal of pitches, but his changeup might be the deadliest of them all.

    Having come over to the Kansas City Royals from the Tampa Bay Rays, Shields has shown he is the ace of the staff with a 2.96 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 11 starts.

    According to Wells:

    Shields doesn't get as much credit for being a strikeout pitcher as I think he should, especially considering that he works with a fastball that only has above-average velocity and is rather straight. But the reason he lasts in the big leagues is because his changeup is so good.

    First, it has the perfect velocity separation from his fastball (historically between 7-8 miles difference). A lot of that has to do with his arm speed, which is exactly the same as his fastball. On top of that, Shields' changeup has such great movement. Once it enters the zone and a hitter commits, it just drops off the table and they are either going to swing and miss or hit a slow ground ball.

    Shields struck out 200-plus batters in both 2011 and 2012, with roughly half of those punchouts (225 of 448) coming via the changeup.

    Needless to say, it's his greatest weapon. Hitters are batting .190 on the pitch since 2011.

9. A.J. Burnett's Knuckle Curve

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    A.J. Burnett is one of the few pitchers in baseball to throw a knuckle curve. And the manner he throws it is dominant for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    According to Reuter:

    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 19-15 with a 3.27 ERA and 8.8 K/9 in 41 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.

    Burnett has an average velocity of 82.1 mph and has gotten 368 of his 583 strikeouts since then via that pitch. He's already got 46 strikeouts on the knuckle curve this year in 70 innings, with 85 punchouts overall.

8. Matt Harvey's Fastball

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    Matt Harvey may still be young in the big leagues, but he's already been a big-time pitcher for the New York Mets with his fastball.

    According to Wells:

    Harvey gets great extension out front in their deliveries, meaning he is letting the ball go closer to the plate. So instead of just a standard 95 mph fastball coming at youwhich is hard enough on its own to hita hitter's reaction time has to be that much quicker, like that of a 100 mph fastball. So even though Harvey tends to pitch up in the zone a lot, where the ball can be elevated and hit over the fence, it is extremely difficult for pitchers to get on the pitch to drive it.

    Many still want to see a bigger sampling out of Harvey with not even a full season's worth of starts under his belt. However, it's hard to argue with his results.

    Harvey has 77 of his 144 strikeouts via the fastball, with an average velocity of 94.7 mph.

    As noted by Wells, the ball tends to elevate, so when players get ahold of it, they're lifting it in the air more than 50 percent of the time.

7. Kenley Jansen's Cutter

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    Kenley Jansen doesn't get as much press for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but he definitely deserves some.

    Jansen has made 65 appearances in his career and has struck out almost 40 percent of all batters he's faced.

    According to Reuter:

    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 271 hitters in 170.1 innings of work, and has a 14.3 K/9 mark.

    The cutter has been a great pitch for Jansen. Of his 271 strikeouts, 205 have come via the cutter, with an average velocity of 92.3 and a max of 97.7.

    Hitters generally have no chance at the pitch, batting .153 against it.

6. Jeff Samardzija's Splitter

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    Jeff Samardzija has gone from gridiron star at Notre Dame to ace of the pitching staff for the Chicago Cubs.

    Samardzija has a deadly splitter that can throw hitters for a loop.

    According to Giglio, "For some reason, fewer and fewer pitchers throw the split now. When Samardzija does, few can touch it."

    Reuter agrees:

    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.

    While Samardzija uses various pitches for strikeouts, the notion that he can throw the splitter with two strikes keeps hitters guessing if the bottom is going to fall out of the pitch they're about to face.

5. Craig Kimbrel's Fastball and Slider

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    Craig Kimbrel has been a beast ever since he made his first appearance with the Atlanta Braves a few years ago.

    What makes his fastball so great is his ability to throw a slider that totally drops off the table.

    According to Reuter:

    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.

    Kimbrel's fastball has an average velocity of 96.2 mph, while the slider averages 86.1 mph.

    What hitters never know is which pitch he'll use for the strikeout. Of his 312 career strikeouts, Kimbrel has thrown 163 with the fastball and 137 with the slider. So, it's anyone's guess which of his plus-pitches he will throw to ring up a batter.

4. Cole Hamels' Changeup

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    Cole Hamels may be having his struggles this year with the Philadelphia Phillies, but his changeup is one of the deadliest in baseball.

    Giglio says Hamels is deadly because of his arm motion: "Same arm motion as the fastball, but slower and late, deadly movement. Right-handed hitters don't have a chance."

    According to Reuter:

    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.

    Of Hamels' 410 strikeouts from 2011-12, 201 of them have come via the changeup. The velocity hovers around 83.5 mph, but with the same arm motion as the fastball, hitters don't know it's coming until it's too late.

3. Clayton Kershaw's Curveball

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    Clayton Kershaw is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball and a lot of it has to do with his curveball.

    According to Giglio:

    (It) totally drops off the table. Seems to have the ability to throw it at two different speeds. A looping, slower curve to get a called strike early in the count. Then a faster, sharper curve to get swings and misses for K's.

    Kershaw may get more strikeouts via the fastball and slider, but those are nothing compared to the curve.

    When he throws the curve with two strikes, he's getting strikeouts 51.6 percent of the time. When hitters do make contact, they're only hitting .124 since 2008, with a .042 average this year.

2. Aroldis Chapman's Fastball

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    Does anyone really question the powerfulness of Aroldis Chapman's fastball?

    The Cincinnati Reds pitcher was thought to go into the starting rotation this year, but the team decided against messing with success—or Chapman's ability to throw at full strength with every plate appearance.

    Chapman uses his fastball 81.2 percent of the time. According to Reuter:

    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.

    Of his 253 career strikeouts, 173 have come via the fastball.

    Chapman simply overpowers you and has reached a max velocity of 105.1 mph. If that's not power, I don't know what is.

1. Mariano Rivera's Cutter

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    Mariano Rivera is still the one guy you want closing ballgames for you, despite his age.

    Rivera's cutter lives among legends, both in the regular season and postseason.

    According to Reuter:

    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 626 career saves and 1,135 strikeouts in 1,239 innings of work, Rivera has put together a Hall of Fame career with essentially one pitch in his arsenal. There is no stat for broken bats, but one has to imagine no one—at least no reliever—has sawed off more hitters than Rivera has over the years with his cutter.

    Since 2009, 179 of his 201 strikeouts have come via the cutter. His K/9 ratio (8.4) isn't as high as others in that timeframe, but his cutter will go down as one of the greatest strikeout pitches ever.