Building the Perfect MLB Pitcher, Piece by Piece

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2015

Building the Perfect MLB Pitcher, Piece by Piece

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Recently, we staved off the mid-January baseball doldrums by stepping into the imaginary lab and building the perfect MLB hitter. He'd have the swing of Miguel Cabrera, the pop of Giancarlo Stanton, the eye of Joey Votto and so forth.

    Naturally, the question arose: Who's going to get that guy out?

    Why, the perfect MLB pitcher, of course. (Please say you saw that coming.)

    What makes a great pitcher? For our purposes, let's break it down into five essential elements: velocity, durability, off-speed stuff, command and mechanics. 

    By narrowing each category down to just one current pitcher, we're necessarily leaving many of the game's elite arms off the list (like, say, last year's American League Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber).

    We're including only starters, so no flame-throwing closer or slider-slinging setup men.

    Still, you'll surely agree, these five hurlers would give our hypothetical Frankenmasher (let alone the average MLB hitter) a rough at-bat. 

Velocity: Yordano Ventura

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    Tannen Maury/Associated Press

    No one embodies the "big things, small packages" cliche better than Yordano Ventura, whose slight frame belies a rocket right arm that fires fastballs into the triple digits.

    In his rookie season with the Kansas City Royals, the 23-year-old phenom averaged 96 mph with his heater, per FanGraphs, and singed the radar gun at 101 mph. 

    Among starting pitchers, only the Los Angeles Angels' Garrett Richards had a higher average velocity (96.6 mph), but he topped out at 99 mph.

    Of course, Ventura is young and still learning to harness his stuff. Like many a fireballer before him, he'll probably lose a few clicks as he matures—the old "pitching" versus "throwing" distinction.

    For now, though, when it comes to slinging the cheddar, consider Ventura the dairy section.

Durability: Madison Bumgarner

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    Madison Bumgarner is still just 25 years old, yet he's already packed in the career accomplishments of a grizzled veteran: two All-Star appearances, three rings and a World Series MVP.

    Through it all, the big left-hander has defined durability, eclipsing 200 innings in each of the last four seasons.

    Last year, he took it to the next level, logging 217.1 regular-season frames and then tossing an MLB-record 52.2 postseason innings, including 21 in the World Series alone.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, Bumgarner became the first pitcher to record two wins, a shutout and a save in the same Fall Classic. Essentially, he was a one-man pitching staff.

    Asked after Game 7 if he considered pulling his stud at any point during Bumgarner's epic five-inning relief appearance, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy answered simply, per MLB.com: "I don't know if I could have gotten him off the mound, to be honest."

    It'll be interesting to see if his 2014 workload impacts Bumgarner this season. For now, he's baseball's reigning iron armand Mr. October on the hill.

Off-Speed Stuff: Felix Hernandez

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    How much does Felix Hernandez love his off-speed pitches? He threw them nearly 57 percent of the time in 2014, per FanGraphs, while enjoying a typically dominant campaign. 

    Specifically, Hernandez posted a 2.14 ERA and AL-leading 0.915 WHIP to go along with a career-best 248 strikeouts in 236 innings.

    He did it while throwing 32.2 percent changeups, 16.2 percent curveballs and 8.3 percent sliders. Opponents knew the off-speed stuff was coming, yet they still couldn't do anything with it.

    What's most impressive is that the changeup wasn't always a part of King Felix's arsenal. In fact, as Fox Sports' Jeff Sullivan notes:

    The best changeup in baseball was self-taught, a few years into Hernandez’s big-league career. When he first came up, he was known for everything else. He had a fastball that could scrape triple digits. He had a breaking ball referred to as the Royal Curve. He had a slider the team had to keep him from throwing too often in order to try to preserve his health. What changeup he had was hardly a feature pitch. It was there simply to keep hitters honest.

    Now, it's his primary out pitch, an unmatched weapon the five-time All-Star can deploy at any time—with predictably devastating results. 

Command: Phil Hughes

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    There's an array of more established names that belong in this conversation: David Price, Jordan Zimmermann, Cliff Lee.

    But it's impossible to ignore Phil Hughes after the season he just had.

    Yes, the 28-year-old right-hander posted a respectable 3.52 ERA in 209.2 innings with the Minnesota Twins. He warrants mention here, though, because he set baseball's all-time strikeout-to-walk ratio with an eye-popping 11.63.

    Not surprisingly, Hughes also led MLB with a 0.7 walks per nine innings, as he issued just 17 free passes (one of them intentional) all season.

    It was an anomalous campaign for Hughes, whose walk totals the previous two years hovered in the high 40s. Still, pinpoint control is pinpoint control.

    What was Hughes' secret? As he told The Associated Press (via Newsday), "You can't just lay pitches down the middle."

Mechanics: Clayton Kershaw

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    What do you like in a windup? The tight-coiled funkiness of Johnny Cueto, the sidearm sling of Chris Sale or the timing-disrupting variety of Adam Wainwright?

    It depends on your preference, naturally, and there is no single answer. But when combining deception, efficiency and effectiveness into one befuddling package, it's hard not to conjure Clayton Kershaw.

    The reigning NL Cy Young and MVP does almost everything right. But his greatest asset might be how he delivers the baseball, unfolding his lanky frame in stages, hiding the ball until the last possible moment and ultimately leaving the hitter flailing more often than not.

    Here's how FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan broke it down in 2013:

    Kershaw, without question, has been blessed with wonderful stuff, and with a more conventional delivery, he’d almost certainly be a successful starting pitcher. ... But because of the way he throws, Kershaw keeps the baseball hidden from the hitter until right before it’s released, and it stands to reason that makes Kershaw even more effective than he might be otherwise. Hitters are left having to guess, and Kershaw isn’t afraid to throw any of his pitches to any kind of bat.

    Here's a simpler take, courtesy of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, after Kershaw twirled a no-hitter last June, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times: "He's the best pitcher on the planet right now. There's nobody even close."