B/R '21 MLB Skill Rankings: Jacob deGrom and Baseball's Top 25 Off-Speed Pitches
The task is simple: Name the 25 best off-speed pitches in baseball.
However, rather than simply looking at pitching GIFs of nasty breaking balls, I decided to take a more analytical approach.
After some digging and debating, I landed on these three statistical measures:
- Strikeouts (K): How many times a pitcher recorded strike three with a specific pitch.
- Isolated Power Against (ISO): Opposing hitters' extra bases per at-bat against a specific pitch. Calculated by slugging percentage allowed minus batting average allowed.
- Whiff Rate (Whiff%): How often a player misses when swinging at a specific pitch.
The question was how to use those statistics to best demonstrate the difference between Player A and Player B in terms of off-speed effectiveness.
On the following slide, I outlined my methodology and scoring system, and I encourage you to give that a read before diving in to the article.
The following pitches were up for consideration in this exercise:
To narrow the list of candidates for inclusion, I started by trimming the field to only pitches that met the following benchmarks since the start of the 2019 season:
- 60-plus innings pitched overall to remove small sample-size data skew
- A usage rate above 20 percent to remove small sample-size data skew
- A 4.0-plus pitch value according to the Pitch Value metric at FanGraphs
- A positive pitch value according to the Pitch Value per 100 pitches metric at FanGraphs
- A .175 ISO or lower with the pitch
- At least 25 strikeouts with the pitch
From there, a simple point system was implemented that awarded points as follows:
- 1 point for every strikeout
- 1 point for every .001 below .175 in ISO
- 1 point for every 1% in Whiff% broken down to tenths of a point
No bias. No preconceived notions. Just a set of statistical parameters and a straightforward point system to determine the 25 best off-speed in baseball.
The full data can be found here.
Now, let's kick things off with some honorable mentions.
These 26 players—there was a tie in the No. 50 spot—fulfilled the criteria and finished in the Nos. 26-50 spots in the rankings. They are listed alphabetically:
- Nick Anderson (slider), TB
- Matt Barnes (curveball), BOS
- Shane Bieber (slider), CLE
- Archie Bradley (curveball), PHI
- Corbin Burnes (slider), MIL
- Gerrit Cole (slider), NYY
- Randy Dobnak (slider), MIN
- Jack Flaherty (slider), STL
- Sonny Gray (curveball), CIN
- Brad Hand (slider), WAS
- Brad Keller (slider), KC
- Kenta Maeda (split change), MIN
- Mike Minor (changeup), KC
- Hector Neris (splitter), PHI
- Adam Ottavino (slider), NYY
- Felix Pena (slider), LAA
- Tanner Rainey (slider), WAS
- Hyun-Jin Ryu (changeup), TOR
- Casey Sadler (curveball), SEA
- Chris Sale (slider), BOS
- Mike Soroka (slider), ATL
- Stephen Strasburg (changeup), WAS
- Touki Toussaint (splitter), ATL
- Adam Wainwright (curveball), STL
- Matt Wisler (slider), SF
- Alex Young (curveball), ARI
25. Framber Valdez, Houston Astros (189.9 points)
Metrics: 33.9 Usage%, 117 K, .121 ISO, 18.9 Whiff%
With Gerrit Cole gone and Justin Verlander watching from the sideline, Valdez turned in a breakout season when the Astros needed it most last year. Leaning heavily on his excellent curveball, he posted a 3.57 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 70.2 innings during the regular season and a 1.88 ERA in 24 playoff innings.
24. Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres (193.7 points)
Metrics: 32.8 Usage%, 39 K, .037 ISO, 16.7 Whiff%
A flop in San Francisco after signing a four-year, $62 million deal in free agency, Melancon enjoyed a career renaissance in Atlanta following a trade at the 2019 deadline. The 35-year-old converted 22 of 24 save chances with the Braves the past two seasons while logging a 3.30 ERA in 46 appearances, and his big 12-to-6 curveball is largely to thank. He agreed to join the Padres on Friday, according to AJ Cassavell of MLB.com.
23. Jakob Junis, Kansas City Royals (199.3 points)
Metrics: 44.2 Usage%, 136 K, .126 ISO, 14.3 Whiff%
Junis has already exceeded expectations by even reaching the big leagues as a 29th-round pick in the 2011 draft. The 28-year-old started 31 games in 2019, posting a 5.24 ERA and 1.43 WHIP in 175.1 innings, and he appears to be destined for the bullpen moving forward. That should allow him to lean more heavily on his excellent slider, which could make him a valuable multi-inning relief weapon.
22. Liam Hendriks, Chicago White Sox (201.1 points)
Metrics: 21.4 Usage%, 53 K, .055 ISO, 28.1 Whiff%
After checking in at No. 6 on our list of baseball's best fastballs, Hendriks pops up again with his wipeout slider. An elite 28.1 percent whiff rate shows how tough the pitch can be to pick up, and he's allowed just four extra-base hits and zero home runs with 389 sliders thrown the past two years.
21. Kirby Yates, Toronto Blue Jays (201.3 points)
Metrics: 41.4 Usage%, 55 K, .047 ISO, 18.3 Whiff%
Another repeat offender who claimed the No. 5 spot in our fastball rankings, Yates emerged as one of baseball's dominant closers thanks to his elite splitter. At least until Casey Mize settles in at the MLB level, it's safe to say a healthy Yates has the best splitter in baseball, and he'll look to get back on track in Toronto after a lost 2020 season.
20. Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies (202.1 points)
Metrics: 33.0 Usage%, 156 K, .147 ISO, 18.1 Whiff%
Nola has a full arsenal of pitches with a mid-90s fastball and an excellent changeup, but it's his devastating knuckle curve that is his go-to strikeout pitch. When he misses, the pitch can get him into trouble, evidenced by the 12 home runs he's allowed with it the past two years. But more times than not, the hitter is headed back to the dugout with his head down when he snaps one off with two strikes.
19. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (202.6 points)
Metrics: 39.4 Usage%, 138 K, .132 ISO, 21.6 Whiff%
In his first full season in the Dodgers rotation in 2009, Kershaw threw his slider just 8.2 percent of the time, relying almost exclusively on his fastball-curveball pairing. As his Hall of Fame career has progressed, his slider has become his go-to breaking pitch and an integral part of his repertoire. In fact, he threw sliders (40.2 percent) almost as frequently as fastballs (40.8 percent) in 2020.
18. Amir Garrett, Cincinnati Reds (202.8 points)
Metrics: 57.4 Usage%, 89 K, .088 ISO, 26.8 Whiff%
With Raisel Iglesias traded and Archie Bradley non-tendered, Garrett now has a clear path to the closer's role in Cincinnati. There is little question he has the stuff for the job with a fastball in the upper 90s and a putaway slider he uses as his primary weapon. The former St. John's basketball player has a 3.03 ERA, 12.6 K/9 and 28 holds since the start of 2019.
17. Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels (203.9 points)
Metrics: 23.4 Usage%, 103 K, .097 ISO, 22.9 Whiff%
After a nine-year run in Baltimore that was beset by disappointment, Bundy benefited greatly from a change of scenery while emerging as the ace of the Angels staff last year. The 28-year-old has always had an excellent slider, and it was virtually unhittable this past season, limiting opponents to a .139 BAA and .062 ISO while accounting for 34 of his 72 strikeouts.
16. Tommy Kahnle, Los Angeles Dodgers (204.1 points)
Metrics: 52.2 Usage%, 71 K, .070 ISO, 28.1 Whiff%
Kahnle possesses one of just two changeups to earn a spot inside the top 25 in these rankings, and he used it to emerge as a bullpen force for the New York Yankees. After posting a 3.67 ERA and 12.9 K/9 with 27 holds in 72 appearances in 2019, he made just one appearance in 2020 before he was lost for the year to Tommy John surgery. The Dodgers signed him to a two-year deal this winter, hoping to reap the rewards on the other end of his recovery.
15. Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays (204.4 points)
Metrics: 32.1 Usage%, 103 K, .093 ISO, 19.4 Whiff%
With a towering 6'8" frame, Glasnow is an imposing figure on the mound, and he generates excellent downhill plane on a fastball that can touch triple digits. However, it's his big looping curveball that has accounted for 103 of his 167 strikeouts the past two years, and he averages more than 11 inches of vertical break with the pitch.
14. Luke Jackson, Atlanta Braves (204.7 points)
Metrics: 50.2 Usage%, 85 K, .076 ISO, 20.7 Whiff%
Jackson was a key cog in a shaky Atlanta bullpen in 2019. He tallied 18 saves and piled up 106 strikeouts in 72.2 innings, serving as the team's primary closer before the team added Mark Melancon and Shane Greene at the trade deadline. The 29-year-old slid down the bullpen pecking order in 2020, but his slider remains an elite pitch.
13. Marcus Stroman, New York Mets (207.3 points)
Metrics: 30.6 Usage%, 86 K, .071 ISO, 17.3 Whiff%
Stroman will be playing for a big payday after accepting a one-year qualifying offer from the Mets. The 29-year-old missed the start of last season with a torn calf muscle and then opted out of the campaign, but he's expected to be fully healthy in 2021. His heavy sinker and plus slider are the key to his success.
12. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (208.2 points)
Metrics: 30.7 Usage%, 95 K, .077 ISO, 15.2 Whiff%
A headline-grabber when he went No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft thanks to his triple-digits fastball, Strasburg has developed into a well-rounded pitcher. He still has the big heater, and now he backs it with a terrific changeup and a sweeping curveball that he has thrown more than any other pitch the past two seasons. The 32-year-old has something to prove after missing the bulk of 2020, which was the first season of a seven-year, $245 million contract.
11. Shane Bieber, Cleveland (209.0 points)
Metrics: 22.1 Usage%, 114 K, .105 ISO, 25.0 Whiff%
Bieber earned an honorable mention for his slider, but his curveball grades out as his best off-speed pitch and one of the best in baseball. The line between curveball and slider can blur for some pitchers, but they are two distinctly different pitches for Bieber. His tight slider doesn't break much, while his curveball averages more than seven inches of vertical break and another three inches in horizontal movement.
10. Joe Musgrove, San Diego Padres (218.9 Points)
Metrics: 22.8 Usage%, 102 K, .079 ISO, 20.9 Whiff%
The additions of Yu Darvish and Blake Snell may have received more attention, but it's Joe Musgrove who checks in with the best off-speed pitch among San Diego Padres newcomers.
The 28-year-old has flown under the radar while pitching for some terrible Pittsburgh Pirates teams, but he quietly raised his strikeout rate from 8.3 to 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 2020, and he looks poised for bigger and better things in San Diego.
He has allowed just three home runs with his slider the past two years while throwing the pitch 757 times, and it has been the putaway pitch on 102 of his 212 strikeouts during that span.
9. Kevin Gausman, San Francisco Giants (228.4 Points)
Metrics: 36.2 Usage%, 102 K, .073 ISO, 24.4 Whiff%
After an ugly 2019 season, Kevin Gausman made good on a one-year, $9 million contract with the San Francisco Giants last season.
The 30-year-old emerged as the ace of the staff, posting a 3.62 ERA and 1.11 WHIP with 79 strikeouts in 59.2 innings, and his splitter was one of the most dominant pitches in baseball.
He threw it 29.3 percent of the time last year, down from previous usage rates, but he surrendered just a .092 BAA and .040 ISO while allowing only three extra base hits—all doubles—and racking up 44 strikeouts. That earned him an $18.9 million qualifying offer, and he returned to San Francisco while more than doubling his salary for the upcoming season.
8. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros (231.1 Points)
Metrics: 28.9 Usage%, 149 K, .100 ISO, 24.6 Whiff%
Justin Verlander started just one game in 2020 before he was sidelined with a forearm strain. He ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery in September, and he'll spend the 2021 season recovering, which will take him to the end of his current contract.
That means the bulk of the numbers above are from a brilliant 2019 season that saw him reach the 300-strikeout mark for the first time in his career and take home his second AL Cy Young Award.
His slider accounted for 149 punchouts, and his 24.6 percent whiff rate is an excellent number for a starter who generally pitches deep into games and is exposed to opposing hitters multiple times.
7. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets (231.8 Points)
Metrics: 32.9 Usage%, 138 K, .103 ISO, 21.8 Whiff%
Despite finishing third in NL Cy Young voting in 2020, Jacob deGrom still has a firm grasp on the title of best pitcher in baseball.
The 32-year-old checked in at No. 10 in our fastball rankings, and he has a plus changeup. But it's his slider that has been his go-to strikeout pitch. He has snapped it off to close out 138 of his 359 strikeouts the past two years.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he's surrendered just nine home runs with the pitch, despite throwing it 1,421 times. He was one of just three starting pitchers to appear on both the fastball and off-speed pitch lists.
6. Charlie Morton, Atlanta Braves (251.5 Points)
Metrics: 36.5 Usage%, 160 K, .101 ISO, 17.5 Whiff%
A sinkerballer early in his career, Charlie Morton revamped his approach after joining the Houston Astros, pitching off a fastball up in the zone that better set up his curveball as a strikeout pitch.
That ability to change hitters' eye levels and keep them off balance has been the key to his unlikely late-career rise to stardom, and he'll return to the National League this season after signing a one-year, $15 million contract with the Atlanta Braves.
The 37-year-old has 282 strikeouts over the past two seasons, and 160 of them have come with a curveball that averages more than 6.5 inches of vertical break and more than 10.5 inches of horizontal break.
5. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals (256.8 Points)
Metrics: 20.0 Usage%, 84 K, .030 ISO, 27.8 Whiff%
With a 19.99% usage rate on his slider over the past two seasons, Max Scherzer benefited from rounding to hit the 20 percent benchmark for inclusion.
That said, the offering absolutely belongs in the conversation for best off-speed pitch in baseball.
He has thrown it 796 times since the start of 2019, and opposing hitters have managed only six extra-base hits—all doubles. It was particularly nasty last year, limiting hitters to a .154 BAA and .019 ISO with just seven singles and one double.
4. Patrick Corbin, Washington Nationals (271.0 Points)
Metrics: 37.8 Usage%, 195 K, .125 ISO, 26.0 Whiff%
Patrick Corbin has struck out 195 batters with his slider since the start of 2019, the second-highest total with a single off-speed pitch behind the one that claimed the No. 1 spot on this list.
His .125 ISO with the pitch is the highest of any offering ranked inside the top 15, with 20 doubles, one triple and nine home runs allowed.
Still, it's an unquestionably elite pitch and the key to the breakout that earned Corbin a six-year, $140 million contract from the Washington Nationals prior to their World Series run in 2019.
3. German Marquez, Colorado Rockies (271.6 Points)
Metrics: 22.9 Usage%, 148 K, .074 ISO, 23.6 Whiff%
Toiling away on a middling Colorado Rockies team far removed from the national spotlight, German Marquez gets my vote for most underrated pitcher in baseball.
The 25-year-old led the National League with 81.2 innings last season, posting a 3.28 FIP and 140 ERA+ despite making six of his 13 starts at Coors Field.
His knuckle curve is one of the best breaking balls in baseball, and his ability to spin it at altitude speaks to just how good the pitch is relative to the average curveball. He does a good job mixing his fastball, slider and curve, but the curveball has been the finisher on 148 of his 248 strikeouts over the last two years.
2. Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres (287.1 Points)
Metrics: 48.2 Usage%, 148 K, .059 ISO, 23.1 Whiff%
There are some really effective breaking pitches that don't look all that impressive in GIF form, and there are some really GIF-able pitches that aren't particularly effective.
Dinelson Lamet's slider passes the metric test and the eye test with flying colors.
The 28-year-old had long teased his swing-and-miss potential while struggling to stay healthy enough to fully break out. Everything came together in 2020, and he finished fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting, posting a 2.09 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 69 innings.
From that impressive strikeout total, 71 came by way of his lethal slider.
1. Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds (311.7 Points)
Metrics: 31.8 Usage%, 205 K, .095 ISO, 26.7 Whiff%
At a time when sliders have become the game's most prominent secondary pitch and a good changeup is harder and harder to find, Luis Castillo stands above the rest.
The variance in speed between his 96.8 mph fastball and 87.6 mph changeup is part of the reason for its effectiveness, but the absurd 9.3 inches of horizontal movement he gets is why he generates an elite 26.7 percent whiff rate.
The 28-year-old has 315 strikeouts since the start of 2019, and 205 have come via his changeup, making it the most effective off-speed pitch in the game.