Exposing Major League Baseball's 10 Most Unhittable Pitches
As a hitter, there's no feeling in baseball worse than knowing you are at the plate to face a man you know will dominate you with just one pitch.
As you adjust your batting gloves and dig in, you know you're going to flail wildly, but that there's nothing you can do about it. Three pitches later and you're back on the pine, wondering what went wrong and coming to the realization there was not anything you could have done anyway.
And so it goes when you face the best aces in baseball, especially those who have made a name for themselves with one unhittable pitch. Think about Johan's changeup, Greinke's slider and Mo's cutter, and you know what I'm talking about.
You can have the biggest, longest, lightest piece of lumber with you at the plate when you step in to the batters' box, but it's not going to help you. And if you're squaring off against the Yankees and the game is on the line, it's probably a good idea if you have more than one of your Louisville Sluggers standing by...
Here's a look at some of the filthiest heaters, unworldly changeups and fall-off-the-table-nasty deuces. Here's a look at baseball's top 10 most unhittable pitches.
10. Adam Wainwright's Curveball
If you’re a Mets fan, the image of Adam Wainwright dropping the deuce on Carlos Beltran in the ’06 NLCS brings you to tears. Just take the bat off your shoulder, Carlos!
Unfortunately for the rest of the league, New York’s injured center fielder isn’t the only person who has trouble with Wainwright’s Uncle Charlie.
It saunters in between 73 and 75 MPH, bending the best part of nine or 10 inches on its way to the plate. You think it’s in your happy zone and the bottom falls out. You think it’s going to brush you back off the plate and it floats harmlessly in for a strike.
His curveball is a perfect complement to his two- and four-seam fastballs. It also sets up his slider, despite being not as effective, and can still cause hitters problems when they're not looking for it.
Wainwright has quickly established himself as a true ace, and his 12-6 curve is as nasty and old-school as it gets. If he feels like pulling the string, you might as well stay in the dugout.
9. Zack Greinke's Slider
Greinke is nasty, not just because of his plus-plus fastball but also because of his nasty slider.
It comes in around 85 MPH, more than eight MPH slower than his fastball, and breaks away from right-handed hitters and in on lefties.
In terms of raw numbers, it has been calculated to be worth about 20 runs saved per year over a replacement-level version of the pitch. That is third in the major leagues behind Brett Anderson and Ryan Dempster, but the main difference is that Greinke doesn’t need to rely on it as much as the other two.
Still, he has the ability to throw it on any count, and if he chooses to throw even more changeups as has been the trend over the last few years, expect him to throw fewer fastballs. His command was sharp in 2009 and he struck out a career-high 242, more than half with the slider.
Remember that game in late August when he struck out 15 Cleveland Indians? Eleven of those Ks came on sliders.
He stranded an above-average number of baserunners over the course of last season, but all of the statistics point to even more room from improvement. Don’t let the 0-2 record so far in 2010 fool you, Greinke and his slider are for real, and it’s impossible to hit.
8. Ubaldo Jimenez's Fastball
If you had to pick one word to describe the Rockies hurler, it has to be unhittable. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Atlanta Braves.
Jimenez throws his fastball consistently harder than any other pitcher in the game, and it is very likely that he is still getting better.
The average velocity on his fastball last season was 96 MPH, faster than any other starter, and he has been known to regularly dial in at 99 and even 100.
Sure, people will say that a good hitter can time a fastball after seeing it a few times no matter how hard it’s thrown, but Jimenez doesn’t seem to care. He threw it as much as 70 percent of the time in 2008, and only an improved slider reduced this number in ’09.
The other thing that makes the fastball unhittable is the fact that it breaks more than six inches in on a righty. With that kind of speed and movement, no wonder it’s hard to time. It should also come as no surprise that he constantly posts ground ball rates over 46 percent and K/9 rates around 8.2.
If I was stepping into the batter's box, I certainly wouldn’t want to see Jimenez staring down at me, even if he promised he’d just give me a diet of his slider and change.
Watch Jimenez stifle the Braves in his no-no here.
7. Dan Haren's Splitter
Haren and his splitter could have been a few places higher on the list in the same way that it could have missed the top 10 completely. I’m not sure how to categorize his career right now, but there is no doubt that, when it is working, his splitter is nasty.
It breaks down like his slider, and he is comfortable throwing it to lefties and right-handed batters alike. I read a blog saying that a few years ago it was the pitch that he threw for a strike the most to righties, even though batters were only making contact with it 56 percent of the time.
That’s filthy. The numbers obviously weren’t as appealing to lefties, but that is to be expected.
He may be neglecting his splitter more now than he did at Oakland in favor of a more traditional cutter, which he throws slightly harder and releases slightly lower, but it is still a pitch to build a career around. It doesn’t have the sudden drop of Ed Mujica’s and Jose Valverde’s split-finger fastballs, but he makes up for it with a wicked horizontal cutting movement.
Used as his two-strike pitch, it’s impossible to lay off of in the dirt.
6. Johan Santana's Circle Change
Santana throws the circle change better than any other pitcher in baseball. Whether you want to categorize Lincecum's off-speed pitch as a changeup or splitter, Santana's straight change is as unhittable as they come.
The main reason is because of the speed differential between his change and fastball, as is the case with most good pitchers with a plus changeup.
While Lincecum brings the heat at 93 MPH with an 83 MPH change, Johan is more likely to average out at 90 MPH and 81 MPH, which is essentially the same. The biggest difference is that Johan relies on his changeup more, almost twice as much, in fact, as Lincecum did in 2008.
Factor in the slider and, to some extent, the two-seamer, and you can see why Lincecum is more effective right now. Lincecum sets things up with his fastball and then makes professional hitters look bad by dropping the change. Johan throws a lot more breaking balls, so hitters get a much better look at them, but even that doesn’t necessarily help. The arm angle, delivery, and release point are identical for both his fastballs and changeups. He doesn’t choke the ball or slow his delivery down, making even batters with the best eyes struggle to recognize the pitch until it's too late.
In an article in The New York Times two years ago, Jason Giambi said: “The thing that makes his changeup so tough is how he controls it. He doesn’t bounce it. It just comes to the plate like a fastball and falls off.”
If he’s locating his fastball for strikes and mixing in his changeup too, he can the best in the world. That one-two combination is as filthy as they come, and his nine strikeouts per nine innings over the last decade tells you just how many bats he can miss even on an average day at work.
5. Wandy Rodriguez's Curveball
Wandy Rodriguez has the best curveball in all of baseball right now. It breaks as if it's falling off the table, and it's just plain filth to hit. It's his groundball pitch and it's the reason he almost posted a sub-3.00 ERA last year.
His fastball is above average, but it is his curve which is worth almost two whole runs per 100 pitches. He threw it 36.8 percent of the time last year, meaning his curveball alone was worth about 24 runs over the course of his 33 starts.
He has thrown his curveball more in each of the years since 2006. It should therefore come as no surprise that the more he throw his best pitch, the better he performs. In every year since 2006, Wandy has had fewer walks, a better ERA, and a better fielding-independent pitching score.
He is death to lefties, and as long as his 76 MPH breaking stuff continues to buckle knees, he'll be a star for years to come. If he can tidy up his arm slots and release points, his deuce has room to become even better. Isn't that a scary thought?
4. CC Sabathia's Changeup
Statistically speaking, Sabathia owned the second-best changeup in all of baseball last year.
He started throwing it more frequently in 2007 and it has become more and more of a weapon ever since. When he was with the Indians he relied more on his fastball, but ever since then it has been his nasty changeup that's been his big "go to" pitch.
It regularly comes in at 86 MPH, nicely spaced between his 94 MPH heater and 78 MPH curve. It also has nice horizontal movement, but its greatest quality stems from the fact that it leaves his hand at exactly the same point as every other pitch in his arsenal.
If it looks like a fastball and comes out like a fastball, then it must be a fastball. Unless you swing at it before it reaches the plate, in which case it's probably CC's changeup.
3. Ryan Dempster's Slider
Zack Greinke could have easily occupied this spot, but I want to give some love to Ryan Dempster.
There are very few pitchers in all of baseball that have such a good slider and such a weak fastball. Adam Wainwright gets pounded when he relies on his heater and Brett Anderson is quickly developing into a stud, so I’ll give him a pass.
Yes, Greinke has an amazing slider, but he only throws in 20 percent of the time. His main success comes from his fastball, backed up by a plus curveball.
Dempster, on the other hand, throws his slider an incredible 35 percent of the time. When you consider the troubles he had with his fastball in 2009, it’s a surprise he doesn’t throw it even more. Don’t even start with the argument about his splitter, because that’s barely worth acknowledging.
2008 was more of an exception than the norm, and don’t expect anything close to 17 wins in 2010. He has started off the new season with a little more zip on his low-90s fastball and a lot more bite to his slider, but that's just a result of him being fresh.
His slider may be more effective today than ever before with the development of his two-seam fastball, which comes in at the same speed as his straight fastball but moves the opposite way to the slider.
2. Mariano Rivera's Cutter
Who else has crafted a Hall of Fame-worthy career out of just one pitch?
It's so good that everyone knows it's coming, but they still can't do anything with it. He's relied on it more and more over the last three years, throwing it as much as 93 percent of the time in 2009. That means that out of 1,027 pitches, Mo only threw 72 pitches that were not cutters.
His cutter is ever so slightly slower (91.3 MPH) than his straight fastball, but it has decreased in velocity each year. Expect more of the same in 2010. The pitch's horizontal movement has also dropped as his age increases, but it is still good enough to break more bats than anyone else's in the business.
The reason is because of the late break that comes from him essentially throwing the ball with a fastball grip that is slightly off-center, creating a little sidespin.
His dominance in 2008 was anything but a fluke, but he should take heed of some telling statistics. He threw significantly fewer pitches in the zone in 2009 (44 percent) than at any other time in his career (53 percent average), and when batters did swing at pitches in the zone they made contact more than ever before. His ground ball rate also dropped to its lowest since 2002, while his home runs per fly-ball rate spiked to an all-time high.
Nobody relies on one pitch as much as Rivera, but no one has reaped the rewards quite as much either. Rivera could have been No. 1, but age is definitely working against him right now. He's still elite, but there's a new man leading the charge.
You can watch Mo's first save of 2010 here.
1. Tim Lincecum's Changeup
What else is there to say about the two-time NL Cy Young award winner that hasn't been said already?
How about the fact that his changeup is the best pitch in all of baseball? Sure, Lincecum has a mid-90s fastball and a big 12-6 curveball, but his change is what has pushed him over the top as the best pitcher in baseball right now.
Fangraphs.com rates his changeup to be worth 6.25 runs per 100 pitches, which is by far the highest for this type of pitch. It is particularly telling that Lincecum has retained his dominance while relying more and more on his off-speed stuff.
He threw his fastball as much as 67 percent in 2007, but that total dropped to 56 percent in 2009. By contrast, he threw his changeup 21 percent of the time, a career high, last year, up from 13 percent two years ago. When he incorporated the changeup into his repertoire post-'07, he really blossomed into the star he is today.
It comes in around eight or nine miles per hour slower than his fastball, mainly because he has taken a little off it, and it breaks down and away from left-handed batters because of his split-finger grip.
Batters are now swinging at almost one-quarter of the pitches Lincecum throws out of the zone. Add to that the fact that his changeup keeps hitters off-balance and makes his fastball look even more impressive and you have the reason for his continued dominance.
Watch how he sets hitters up with the fastball and 12-6 curve before finishing them off with the mid-80s changeup. It's a joy to behold.