Get Ready to Watch One of Baseball’s Best Pitches

This is one of those marathon days of playoff baseball, where the league manages to string four important games in a row. And when you have four scheduled playoff games in a day, you can expect to see some quality pitching. Right now, literally as I’m writing this, Corey Kluber is going head-to-head against Justin Verlander. Later on, the Red Sox will give the ball to Chris Sale. Hours after that, the Dodgers will give the ball to Clayton Kershaw. The playoffs select for good teams. Good teams effectively select for good pitching. I don’t need to tell you how the playoffs work.

Kluber, Verlander, Sale, Kershaw — obviously, each of them is amazing. They’re so good, and they’ve been so good for so long, that most of you already know what they throw. You know how they work, and you know all their best weapons. You know their putaway pitches. Certain select pitchers get to that level, where fans are able to break down their repertoires. It’s a testament to their collective success. It’s not easy to get people to know so much about you. Fans often aren’t so concerned with the details.

But I can tell you that, today, there’s going to be another spectacular pitch. A spectacular pitch from an unlikely source. Kluber has that excellent breaking ball. Verlander has that excellent four-seamer. Sale has his own excellent four-seamer. Kershaw has an excellent slider. The Brewers’ Game 2 starter against the Rockies is Jhoulys Chacin. Chacin’s an anonymous starter with one dynamite weapon.

Here is Chacin, throwing his slider for a strike:

And here is Chacin, throwing his slider for a (quality) ball:

Two videos don’t tell you that much. I could find two videos that would make any pitch look good. I chose those videos, from that game, because I love the St. Louis camera angle. It gives you a pretty good sense of how pitches move. You can see how Chacin’s slider breaks to the left. And, not for nothing, but it’s meaningful that Chacin intentionally threw a slider for a strike, and also intentionally threw a slider for a ball. A useful breaking ball can get strikes out of the zone. A terrific breaking ball can get strikes anywhere.

The videos are an introduction. The data is the meat. I’ve prepared two tables. This first one is for just 2018, and I looked at every single pitcher who threw at least 100 innings. You’re familiar with our pitch-type run values. I calculated everyone’s individual pitch-type run values per 200 innings, and here are this year’s top ten most effective pitches:

Best Pitches, 2018
Pitcher Pitch Value/200 IP
Gerrit Cole Four-Seam 29.4
Justin Verlander Four-Seam 29.0
Max Scherzer Four-Seam 28.0
Patrick Corbin Slider 27.6
Jaime Barria Slider 27.5
Jhoulys Chacin Slider 27.0
Trevor Richards Changeup 26.6
Mike Foltynewicz Slider 26.0
Zack Wheeler Four-Seam 24.9
Chris Sale Slider 24.3
Minimum 100 innings.

For Chacin, sixth place is a good showing. There are a lot of pitchers, and each pitcher throws multiple pitches. But you would be right to point out that one single season can be noisy, when it comes to the run-value calculations. Why not expand the window? Here’s the same idea, but now going back to 2016, when Chacin re-emerged as a regular pitcher. This time I looked at everyone with at least 300 innings.

Best Pitches, 2016 – 2018
Pitcher Pitch Value/200 IP
Corey Kluber Slider 25.8
Justin Verlander Four-Seam 24.0
Lance McCullers Jr. Curveball 23.9
Clayton Kershaw Slider 23.2
Jhoulys Chacin Slider 22.7
Aaron Nola Curveball 21.0
Max Scherzer Four-Seam 19.8
Rich Hill Four-Seam 19.6
John Lackey Slider 19.1
Zack Godley Curveball 18.0
Minimum 300 innings.

There’s Kluber! He’s pitching today. There’s Verlander. He’s pitching today. There’s Kershaw. He’s pitching today. And there’s Chacin. We’ll see if the Astros use McCullers out of the bullpen — that way, in one day, we could see the top five pitches from this table. But many of these aren’t very surprising. Chacin is more of a surprise, just because many people don’t know who he is. He’s hardly an ace, and he’s not even necessarily the most dependable No. 2, but there’s no question that Chacin throws one incredible pitch. The data up there proves it.

I like looking at run values per 200 innings, because it’s a little like WAR — it’s both a counting stat and a performance stat. Sometimes you’ll see run values per X number of pitches, but that can mislead, because an infrequently-thrown pitch can register a high result simply because hitters don’t expect it. Looking at it per 200 innings, high results are for pitches hitters know might be coming. Chacin’s slider, for example, isn’t a secret. He uses it often as his strikeout pitch. He also uses it earlier in the count. It’s the first thing a hitter would learn about him, but the pitch has still been this dangerous.

Something fun and interesting about the slider is that it’s not just a swing-and-miss pitch. It’s also apparently a bad-contact pitch. I’ll use some numbers from Baseball Savant. On contact, since 2016, Chacin’s slider has an expected wOBA of .296. The league average for a starter has been .354. And this year alone, on contact, Chacin’s slider has an expected wOBA of .282. The league average for a starter has been .346. It’s been a tough pitch for opponents to square up, and as a consequence, maybe this plot won’t surprise you at all. What are pitchers doing in this day and age? Increasingly favoring the best pitch they throw.

In fairness, there’s a pitch here classified as a curveball that’s also basically Chacin’s slider. I suspect they’re one and the same, and they end up split because Chacin is able to manipulate the pitch. So let’s put it this way: In 2016, Chacin threw his breaking ball 32% of the time. In 2017, he threw his breaking ball 39% of the time. In 2018, he’s thrown his breaking ball 45% of the time, and 49% of the time since the start of July. The Brewers have come to understand Chacin pretty well; he doesn’t have baseball’s deepest arsenal of quality pitches. So half of his pitches have been his best weapon. It’s the sensible approach to take.

I don’t want you to walk away from this thinking that Jhoulys Chacin is an incredible starting pitcher. The Brewers are probably hoping that he gives them five innings, and in large part because of how heavily Chacin depends on his breaking ball, he runs some big platoon splits. He’s absolute death to righties, but he’s exploitable against lefties, and the Rockies have some left-handed hitters. Chacin doesn’t have, say, Corey Kluber’s cutter. He’s still a pitch or so short, if he wanted to be an ace. The Brewers are essentially ace-less.

But that Chacin slider you’re about to see a lot of? That’s a slider that could be thrown by Hall-of-Fame pitchers. As it turns out, Hall-of-Fame pitches don’t have to be thrown by Hall-of-Fame arms. You expect it from the great ones. You don’t expect this kind of weapon from the Jhoulys Chacins of the world.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago

Jaime Barria. I checked back and I’ve actually watched Jaime Barria pitch in games and I cannot recall Jaime Barria.

(Nor have I had alcohol-related memory loss while watching baseball. Pretty sure.)