Corbin Burnes' Cutter and the 10 Most Devastating Pitches in MLB TodayDecember 15, 2021
Not many people will argue that the sharp rise in strikeouts over the last decade or so is a good thing for Major League Baseball, but it'll nonetheless be a hard trend to reverse for at least one reason.
The stuff pitchers are packing? It's good. As in, devastatingly good.
We could elaborate by pointing to league-wide increases in, say, fastball velocity and spin rate since the dawn of the Statcast era in 2015. Instead, we figured it would be more fun to round up 10 individual pitches—though we did cheat with a two-for-one special in one case—that we think are the most unhittable in MLB today.
Our picks were partially informed by numbers concerning bot results and measurements such as velocity and movement. Yet we also wanted to give the eye test a seat at the table, which ultimately turned ranking them into a fundamentally subjective exercise.
With all GIFs courtesy of the indispensable Rob "Pitching Ninja" Friedman, let's go ahead and gawk at some pitches.
10. Robbie Ray's Fastball-Slider Tandem
If you don't mind spoilers, this list is a right-hander-heavy affair in which the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner appears not once, but twice.
It therefore only seemed fair to give at least a single shoutout to American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, whose fastball and slider had a wonderful working relationship in 2021:
The technical term for this is "tunneling," though Ross Stripling might have said it better when he called it "the Clayton Kershaw thing."
Ray's former Toronto Blue Jays teammate elaborated: "The fastball gets on you and the slider goes for 59 feet before it breaks down and in, and he's just beating guys to that spot. Clayton did that for 10 years and won three Cy Youngs doing that."
In the end, both pitches played a huge hand in getting the newest Seattle Mariner to an MLB-leading 248 strikeouts. Among all left-handers, his fastball topped the charts in swings and misses while his slider topped them in strikeouts.
9. Emmanuel Clase's Cutter
If you did blink, what you missed was Cleveland Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase casually throwing a 101 mph cutter. That's just what he does, though what makes it special is that he's really the only one who does it.
On the list of the fastest cutters tracked by Statcast, Clase occupies the top 56 slots before Dellin Betances finally makes an appearance at No. 57. That was for one of the six cutters that he threw over 100 mph. Clase has...[checks notes]...521 of those just on his own.
The catch with Clase's cutter is that its velocity is the only thing about it that's exceptional. It doesn't have the same kind of physics-defying movement as, say, Kenley Jansen's cutter, so it's no great surprise that batters actually managed a .241 average against it in 2021.
8. Corbin Burnes' Cutter
As for the aforementioned NL Cy Young Award winner, Corbin Burnes' primary (as in not his best, but we'll get to that) pitch in 2021 was a cutter that slayed many a hitter:
As it averaged a humble 95.2 mph, Burnes' cutter fell 5 mph short of Clase's in velocity. Yet Burnes made up for that in movement, as both the vertical and horizontal action on his cutter were above par.
Plus, Burnes' ability to locate his cutter is deserving of the ol' chef's kiss. He worked down and off the plate to right-handers, while left-handers got the Mariano Rivera treatment of cutters on the inner third of the zone near the belt.
Should the Milwaukee Brewers ace work in more four-seamers and sinkers to keep hitters honest? Perhaps in theory, but he's doing just fine with his cutter in reality. Since the start of last season, it's responsible for more whiffs than any other fastball.
7. Jacob deGrom's Four-Seam Fastball
Speaking of hard-to-hit fastballs, Jacob deGrom quite famously has a good one of those going for him these days:
At 99.2 mph, deGrom's four-seamer topped even the league's hardest-throwing relief pitchers in average velocity for 2021. Even though he missed the latter half of the year with elbow trouble, he also threw about twice as many 100 mph fastballs as the next pitcher.
As the New York Mets ace's velocity has risen since his debut in 2014, he's gotten better at throwing it past hitters to the tune of elevated rates of called and swinging strikes. He's also gotten more and more pinpoint with his command, notably throwing a career-low 6.9 percent of his heaters down the middle of the zone in 2021.
So even if "run value per 100 pitches" means nothing to you, you probably won't be surprised to hear that deGrom's four-seamer was No. 1 on that particular chart this season.
6. Josh Hader's Four-Seam Fastball
As amazing as deGrom's four-seamer is, we can actually do one better by taking a closer look at Josh Hader's fastball:
So dominant is Hader's fastball, in fact, that hitters have managed just a .144 average when they've swung at it since 2017. Among pitchers who've endured at least 1,000 swings against their four-seamers over the last five years, that's the best by a staggering 33 points.
Velocity is an increasingly important factor in the success of Hader's fastball, as he's added 2 mph in average velo since his debut. He also gets excellent extension out of his 6'3", 180-pound frame, and he locates his heater higher now than he did in his first two seasons.
Throw in the above-average vertical action that Hader gets on his heater, and what you get is a picture of a fastball that truly explodes at the hitter. No wonder they can't hit it.
5. Alex Reyes' Slider
Pick a slider. Any slider. They're all nasty, so much so that we probably could have made this a slider-only list and gotten away with it.
But the nastiest slider of them all? There are strong statistical and aesthetic arguments for the one possessed by Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen, yet we just couldn't turn away from a certain slider belonging to a certain Alex Reyes:
The St. Louis Cardinals ace's signature pitch was the best of three key worlds in 2021, as it burned bright at an average of 86.4 mph with above-average vertical and horizontal movement to boot.
As you'd expect from a guy who's walked north of six batters per nine innings in each of the last two seasons, Reyes' command over his slider can sometimes be lacking. Rather than just outside of it, he tended to operate firmly within the strike zone with his location.
His slider was nonetheless instant death (i.e., 1-for-48) on batters when they chased it outside the zone. And out of all pitches that ended at least 100 at-bats in 2021, it ended up at or near the top of the boards for whiff, strikeout and putaway percentage.
4. Charlie Morton's Curveball
Even if the slider has long since taken over as the breaking ball du jour among major league pitchers, the curveball is far from a dying art form.
Heck, go figure that the greatest master of the "Uncle Charlie" in baseball today is a guy literally named Charlie:
Since his late-career emergence with the Houston Astros in 2017, Charlie Morton has racked up 33 more strikeouts on curveballs than any other pitcher. And that's not just because he throws so many of them.
The Atlanta ace's curve rates similarly to Adam Wainwright's in terms of two-plane break, except it is also 7.3 mph faster. And rather than sitting on one side of the plate at all times, Morton is able to locate on the outside corner against both righties and lefties.
Not many pitches ended 250 plate appearances in 2021. But of the ones that did, the .124 average attached to Morton's curveball was the lowest.
3. Corbin Burnes' Curveball
And yet, dare we say that Morton's hook isn't quite as dangerous as the one in Burnes' repertoire?
Call it a Houdini pitch, because this thing just plain disappears:
Perhaps it's unfair to give Ray the two-for-one treatment for his fastball and slider and not do the same for Burnes' cutter and curveball. But at least in our estimation, the difference is that Burnes' signature pitches don't quite work in tandem in the same way that Ray's do.
On the contrary, they're for working opposite sides of the plate. If there's any shared DNA between the two pitches, it's only how tightly they spin and, ultimately, how late and how sharply they break.
If Burnes' cutter is his most prolific pitch, his curveball is his most efficient. It had the highest whiff rate of all curves in 2021, and the .074 average against it since the start of last season is the lowest of any pitch that's ended at least 100 plate appearances.
2. Devin Williams' Changeup
Tired of hearing glowing praise for the best pitches that Brewers hurlers have to offer?
Well, too bad. Because here's Devin Williams' changeup:
From looking at it, you can understand why hitters have swung at over 50 percent of Williams' changeups since the start of 2020. When it's halfway to the plate, it looks like a slow-moving target headed straight for the hit-me zone. You hang 'em, we bang 'em.
And yet, the percentage of those swings that have come up empty is also above 50 percent. Courtesy of its unrivaled spin and downward movement, Williams' changeup just plain falls off the table before reaching the aforementioned hitting zone.
Among offspeed pitches, the .124 average against it over the last two seasons is better than even Kevin Gausman's splitter. As in, the pitch that pretty much just single-handedly earned him a $110 million contract.
1. Shohei Ohtani's Splitter
That is indeed a darn good splitter that Gausman has. It's not just a pretty-lookin' pitch. It's also responsible for more swings and misses than any other pitch over the last two years.
It's not the best splitter there is, though, because Shohei Ohtani's splitter also exists:
Velocity-wise, the Los Angeles Angels ace's splitter is exceptional. What makes its movement so deadly is harder to quantify, but suffice it to say that it doesn't get hit when he achieves his goal of making batters chase it outside the zone. They're just 3-for-86 when they do so.
Even when hitters get a chance to hit Ohtani's splitter in the strike zone, they're still only 11-for-97. Combined, they're hitting just .077 against it since Ohtani debuted in 2018. That's the lowest such mark for any pitch that's ended at least 150 plate appearances.
Not bad, considering that pitching isn't even his primary day job.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.