Gerrit Cole's Fastball and the 10 Most Lethal Pitches in MLB Today

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 11, 2020

Gerrit Cole's Fastball and the 10 Most Lethal Pitches in MLB Today

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    A pitch doesn't necessarily have to be nasty to be effective, but it definitely helps.

    We thought we'd shine a light on the 10 most lethal pitches in Major League Baseball right now. We considered pitches' results—i.e., their swing-and-miss rates and overall effectiveness as measured by xwOBA—but also more specific metrics relating to their velocity and movement.

    To ensure this list is as current as possible, we disregarded Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino and other injured pitchers who won't be seen in 2020 even if there is baseball. We also took most of our cues from the 2019 season, though previous seasons were factors in some cases.

    Variety was also a priority, so we split our 10 picks between left-handers and right-handers and selected one representative from each side for five pitch types: four-seam fastballs, sinkers and cutters, sliders, curveballs and changeups and splitters. We also allowed only one relief pitcher per side.

    Let's begin with the lefties.

Josh Hader's 4-Seam Fastball

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    Wait, hang on. This is a conversation about great fastballs thrown by left-handers and the guy in the spotlight is Josh Hader and not Aroldis Chapman?

    This is admittedly hard to square with Chapman's legendary velocity advantage. Since he debuted in 2010, he's thrown over 2,000 more fastballs of at least 100 mph than the next guy.

    Since 2017, however, Hader's fastball tops the charts in xwOBA and swing-and-miss rate for all four-seamers that have been thrown at least 1,000 times. Set the minimum to 500 pitches, and it likewise had the top whiff rate of any four-seamer during the 2019 season.

    The dominance of Hader's fastball is partially facilitated by its velocity, which sat at an average of 95.5 mph last season. But it also benefits from explosive action. To wit, it has comparable rising movement to Chapman's fastball, but with extra horizontal action.

    Put more simply, Hader's fastball is pretty much the baseball equivalent of a comic book hero with superhuman speed and the ability to vanish. No wonder nobody can hit it.

    Honorable Mention: Aroldis Chapman

James Paxton's Cutter

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    Sinkers and cutters are different, but they're ultimately both fastballs that are meant to break away from the barrel of the bat. Sinkers break toward a pitcher's arm side, while cutters break to the glove side.

    In any case, we're more than happy to take this occasion to gawk at James Paxton's wondrous cutter.

    The big lefty's cut fastball first became a featured part of his arsenal in 2016, when it suddenly accounted for 17 percent of all his pitches. Four years later, it holds the top spots for xwOBA and whiff rate out of all cutters that have been thrown at least 1,000 times.

    Strangely, Paxton's cutter isn't necessarily dominant because of its velocity and movement. Its 88.1 mph average in 2019 was good but also nothing special. The same was more or less true of its vertical and horizontal movement.

    Still, the extraordinary effectiveness of Paxton's cutter hasn't come out of nowhere. It's certainly filthy to the naked eye, and the way in which he uses it in tandem with his four-seamer only makes it harder to hit.

    Honorable Mention: Zack Britton (sinker)

Patrick Corbin's Slider

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    One pitcher got more strikeouts than anyone else on sliders in 2019, and it wasn't particularly close:

    • 1. Patrick Corbin: 161
    • 2. Justin Verlander: 126
    • 3. Matthew Boyd: 118

    Granted, it's relevant that Corbin really likes throwing his slider. It accounted for 37.1 percent of all his pitches last season. That was a higher rate than he threw any other pitch.

    Yet the quality of Corbin's slider in 2019 was just as impressive as its quantity. Its 27.9 whiff rate was tied for first among all sliders that were thrown at least 250 times by left-handers. It also boasted the third-lowest xwOBA.

    Though Corbin's slider had solid averages for velocity (81.7 mph) and vertical movement last season, its dominance is also related to how good he is at putting it on the same plane as his fastball. That's liable to fool batters into reading fastball, only to be caught dumbfounded when his slider suddenly breaks to his glove side as it enters the hitting zone.

    Are there nastier sliders in general? Frankly, yes. Yet none of them flat-out work as well as Corbin's.

    Honorable Mention: Taylor Rogers

Blake Snell's Curveball

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    Right now, your eyes may be widening as you realize the left-handed curveball we've selected for praise does not belong to a certain Los Angeles Dodger named Clayton Kershaw.

    Alas, that's a sign of the times. Kershaw's curve may have been "Public Enemy No. 1" once upon a time, but its effectiveness has faded amid his decline in recent seasons.

    In lieu of Kershaw, there's some debate over which southpaw now has the best Uncle Charlie. There are certainly other choices, but none are as good as Blake Snell.

    Out of all curveballs that have been thrown 1,000 times among starters since 2015, Snell's hook ranks behind only Corey Kluber's for xwOBA. Strictly among left-handers, it also had the highest whiff rate for any curveball during the 2019 season.

    The latter is especially remarkable in light of how Snell's curveball wasn't working quite as well in 2019 as it was in his Cy Young Award-winning campaign in 2018. That year, it averaged 81.3 mph with above-average downward action.

    Last but not least: It also just plain looks cool.

    Honorable Mention: Clayton Kershaw

Eduardo Rodriguez's Changeup

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    What Kershaw is to left-handed curveballs, Cole Hamels is to left-handed changeups.

    And in fairness to the 36-year-old, Hamels' changeup maintained the highest whiff rate of any offspeed pitch thrown by a lefty in 2019. But not far below him on that list is Eduardo Rodriguez, whose changeup also had a lower xwOBA than Hamels'.

    But that's merely part of the reason Rodriguez has the stage to himself here. It also has to do with how his changeup's measurements barely seem possible.

    Out of all lefties who threw at least 250 changeups in 2019, his ranked second with an average velocity of 87.4 mph. Moreover, it boasted above-average vertical movement and downright elite horizontal movement. Indeed, its arm-side fade was on par with that of teammate Chris Sale.

    On top of all this, E-Rod's changeup is plenty easy on the eyes. Put it all together, and you get one of the more underrated pitches in baseball right now.

    Honorable Mention: Cole Hamels

Gerrit Cole's 4-Seam Fastball

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    If C.O.L.E were an acronym for Gerrit Cole's fastball, it would stand for "Cole's Overpowering Laser Eviscerater."

    Out of all four-seamers that were thrown at least 1,000 times last season, Cole's had far and away the best swing-and-miss rate and xwOBA. Unsurprisingly, he was to strikeouts on four-seamers what Corbin was to strikeouts on sliders:

    • 1. Gerrit Cole: 177
    • 2. Lance Lynn: 144
    • 3. Jake Odorizzi: 121

    The sheer unhittability of Cole's heater is largely a function of its velocity. He threw it at an average of 97.1 mph in 2019, which led all qualified starters.

    But Cole's fastball is also known for its elite spin rate, and that translates into tangible benefits. Namely, both the vertical and horizontal action he gets on his fastball are well above average.

    Throw in how Cole also has arguably the best curveball and slider of any starter, and his $324 million contract with the New York Yankees might begin to sound like a bargain.

    Honorable Mention: Max Scherzer

Jordan Hicks' Two-Seamer/Sinker

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    Apropos of our earlier note about injured pitchers, Jordan Hicks was spared from the cutting-room floor because he's on track to return from Tommy John surgery at some point this summer.

    When he does, he'll hopefully still have the same gas from before he went under the knife in 2019.

    Upon making his debut in 2018, Hicks has thrown the three fastest (105, 105 and 104.4 mph, respectively) pitches that Statcast has tracked in the last two seasons. More than half his pitches have hit triple digits, and he's averaged 100.6 mph altogether.

    Mind you, the part that makes Hicks an odd fit for this list is that his 100 mph sinkers aren't as effective as one would think. They've yielded a .321 xwOBA, which barely places in the top 15 among sinkers that have been thrown at least 1,000 times since 2018.

    Even still, that's hardly a bad spot to occupy. And when it comes down to it, the aesthetic of Hicks' heat is simply too great to ignore. Anything traveling at or above 100 mph simply shouldn't be able to move like this, this and this.

    Honorable Mention: Blake Treinen (sinker)

Justin Verlander's Slider

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    Corbin's slider was an easy pick for best in class for left-handers. But among right-handers, picking the best slider is like picking the best James Bond movie. There are a lot of them, and it depends on what you like.

    If you want velocity, there's Jacob deGrom's high-octane slider. If you're more in the market for movement, the absurd two-plane break on Sonny Gray's slider is hard to beat.

    But if it's ultimately a question of which righty's slider works the best, we have to side with the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner: Justin Verlander.

    He was one of only five righties who threw at least 900 sliders in 2019. And out of that small class, his slider had the highest whiff rate and easily the lowest xwOBA.

    At least relative to deGrom and Gray, Verlander's slider didn't beat hitters because of exceptional velocity or movement. But it was solid in both those departments, and there may be no pitcher more skilled at disguising a slider as a fastball.

    Honorable Mentions: Jacob deGrom and Sonny Gray

Tyler Glasnow's Curveball

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    The Tampa Bay Rays have some truly outstanding curveballers on their staff. In addition to Snell, there's also Charlie Morton, Nick Anderson and our pick for the best curve among right-handers: Tyler Glasnow.

    Because injuries limited him to only 12 starts, we didn't get to see much of Glasnow in 2019. But what we did see in those starts was perhaps the most dominant pitcher this side of Cole and Justin Verlander. Glasnow racked up a 1.78 ERA and 76 strikeouts in only 60.2 innings.

    With respect to his superb fastball, the 6'8" righty's curveball was indeed his best weapon. It held hitters to just a .111 xwOBA. That was the lowest mark not just for 2019, but also for all seasons of the five-year Statcast era.

    At an average 83.5 mph, Glasnow threw his curve harder than most in 2019. On top of that, hitters also had to contend with its elite downward-breaking action.

    In practice, the effect was that of a pitch that often literally seemed to be on a string.

    Honorable Mention: Nick Anderson

Stephen Strasburg's Changeup

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    Stephen Strasburg has carried out a few experiments with his pitch mix over the years, but the one constant has been a changeup that's never lost its edge. 

    Among right-handers in 2019, Strasburg's changeup placed in the top 10 with an average speed of 87.7 mph. It likewise had better-than-average vertical and horizontal break. Even into October, the combination of these qualities made Strasburg's changeup the subject (see here and here) of some lovely GIFs.

    Regarding regular-season effectiveness, it's only fair to point out that Strasburg's changeup yielded half as many strikeouts as Luis Castillo's. Castillo's excellent changeup also had about the same xwOBA as Strasburg's, with a higher whiff rate to boot.

    Still, the overall body of work of Strasburg's changeup can be neither ignored nor downplayed.

    In the Statcast era alone, the pitch is responsible for a .184 xwOBA. That's the lowest by a comfortable margin over Castillo, not to mention over other great offspeed artists like deGrom, Max Scherzer and Kyle Hendricks.

    Honorable Mention: Luis Castillo


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant. All videos courtesy of Major League Baseball, via YouTube.