Grading the Pitches: 2016 MLB Starters’ Two-Seamers

Changeups: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Curveballs: AL Starters / NL Starters.
Cutters and Splitters: MLB Starters.
Four-Seamers: AL Starters / NL Starters.

Our series evaluating the individual pitch offerings of 2016 ERA qualifiers grinds on. Actually hoped to be finished by now, but I’ve been writing a little bit more over at ESPN Insider (shameless plug), slowing down my progress here. We’re going to double up today, and tackle both AL and NL two-seam fastballs.

For those of you just tuning in, we’re giving all of the pitches a letter grade, weighted 50% on bat-missing and 50% on contact management. League-average-range performance in both component measures would receive a “B” grade. If that seems high to you, bear in mind that these are already better-than-average pitchers, simply by virtue of their ability to compile the 162 innings necessary for qualification while dodging the not insignificant hurdles of injury and ineffectiveness.

Let’s start it off with two tables that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – AL Qualifiers’ Two-Seamers
Happ 74 8.4% A 14.9%
Quintana 83 5.9% B+ 23.5%
Perez, M. 85 5.5% B+ 37.0%
Odorizzi 94 10.4% B+ 29.7%
Sale 102 9.0% B+ 55.7%
Kennedy 118 9.6% B+ 8.3%
Fister 92 3.6% B 43.9%
Rodon 94 5.8% B 30.7%
Stroman 97 4.6% B 43.8%
Sanchez, Aa. 105 5.4% B 52.8%
Bauer 105 6.5% B 24.0%
Price 115 7.5% B 36.6%
Ventura 116 5.3% B 31.2%
Hamels 118 7.5% B 30.0%
Porcello 123 3.7% B 34.2%
Miley 128 5.1% B 10.7%
Weaver, Jr. 100 2.9% C+ 14.6%
Keuchel 112 3.1% C+ 41.7%
Nolasco 117 4.2% C+ 24.3%
Duffy 178 7.9% C 19.6%

2016 Pitch Grades – NL Qualifiers’ Two-Seamers
Bettis 79 7.7% A 9.7%
Martinez, C. 87 4.2% B+ 29.8%
Samardzija 87 6.6% B+ 16.6%
Cueto 91 6.9% B+ 21.8%
Eickhoff 93 4.7% B 16.1%
Roark 94 5.3% B 58.7%
Maeda 98 4.6% B 14.6%
Gonzalez, G. 101 4.9% B 26.9%
Lackey 111 5.8% B 20.7%
Bumgarner 132 10.1% B 10.8%
Ray, R. 133 8.5% B 16.3%
Davies 102 3.3% C+ 55.8%
Colon 106 4.0% C+ 62.6%
Hammel 108 2.6% C+ 20.5%
Hellickson 109 2.4% C+ 22.9%
Garcia, J. 115 4.5% C+ 33.0%
Teheran 123 2.9% C 7.5%

The first column contains each pitcher’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score. Here’s some brief background for those of you unfamiliar with that concept. MLB average production was applied to each ball in play based on its exit-speed/launch-angle combination. Total production of all BIP was then scaled to 100. Below 100 is good; above 100, not so much.

The second column includes each pitcher’s pitch-specific swing-and-miss rate. The last column indicates the pitch’s usage as a percentage of their overall pitch count.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The assessment of each letter grade was a somewhat subjective exercise. With “B” considered league average, I estimated each color-coding bucket to represent a half-grade move above or below average. The final letter grade involved splitting hairs very tightly in some cases.

Compared to the four-seamer, the two-seamer is much less of a bat-misser (5.5% whiff rate) but a far superior contact-management offering (107.8 and 104.1 average Adjusted Contact Scores in the AL and NL, respectively). The two-seamer is a grounder-inducing pitch; for many hurlers, it’s their bread-and-butter, highest-usage option.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the two-seamers thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above. The majority of the pitchers we will discuss are above average at both core disciplines: bat-missing and contact management. We’ll tackle the AL guys first, followed by their NL counterparts.

Grade A – J.A. Happ, Blue Jays
Happ’s 74 Adjusted Contact Score was the lowest two-seam mark in either league, and his 8.4% whiff rate was over a full standard deviation above average. His grounder rate on the only Grade A two-seamer in the AL was extremely high, driving his success. In addition, he muted fly-ball authority (59 Adjusted Contact Score) with the pitch.

Stylistically, Happ’s two-seamer was the eighth slowest among AL qualifiers (90.9 mph average), with the third-most horizontal (10.3 inches) and the second-least vertical movement (4.7 inches).

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch-value rankings placed Happ fourth among AL qualifiers and second in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jose Quintana, White Sox
Our first two AL Grade B+ two-seamers are characterized by strong contact management and average-range bat-missing. Quintana’s measureables don’t stand out in any way. His 92.0 mph average velocity and 8.3 inches of horizontal movement both sit squarely in the middle of the AL pack, while his two-seamer’s 7.3 inches of vertical movement ranked ninth.

Quintana’s two-seamer grounder rate wasn’t particularly notable; it was his ability to throttle fly-ball authority (47 Adjusted Contact Score) that drove his high ranking.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch values also placed Quintana high among his AL peers; he ranked third in both overall pitch value and in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Martin Perez, Rangers
Perez threw his two-seamer 37.0% of the time, the second most of any pitcher we will discuss today. He was an even more extreme grounder-inducer than Happ with the pitch.

His high ranking is driven almost totally by that high grounder rate; he allowed fairly loud authority on all BIP types (Adjusted Contact Scores of 155, 100 and 107 on flies, liners and grounders) with the pitch. Its standout characteristic was its 10.7 inches of average horizontal movement, second most among AL qualifiers. His 92.5 mph average velocity and 6.4 inches of average vertical movement were both in the middle of the pack.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch values ranked Perez eighth in overall value and ninth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jake Odorizzi, Rays
Odorizzi narrowly missed an A grade; his 10.4% whiff rate was the highest mark for any two-seamer in either league. In terms of contact management, it was a mixed bag. He actually allowed more fly balls than grounders on his two-seamer, a very unusual occurrence. He was quite unlucky on liners, allowing an .808 AVG-1.154 SLG (159 Unadjusted Contact Score, adjusted down to 103 based on exit speed/angle). He did a nice job of limiting fly-ball authority (68 Adjusted Contact Score).

While his average velocity (91.8 mph, ninth slowest among AL qualifiers) was close to Perez’, Odorizzi’s pitch was its polar opposite, with much more vertical (10.5 inches, most in the AL) than horizontal (5.1 inches, second least) movement.

That relatively bad fortune dropped his outcome-based FanGraphs rankings a bit; he checked in ninth on total value, 10th in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Chris Sale, White Sox (now Red Sox)
Sale threw his two-seamer a whopping 55.7% of the time in 2016. He threw it harder (93.0 mph, eighth hardest in the AL) than any of the other A/B+ recipients, with the most horizontal movement (11.1 inches) of any AL qualifier. Its average vertical movement (4.9 inches) ranked third from the bottom.

Sale’s grounder rate on the pitch was much lower than most of the other hurlers being reviewed today, but so was his liner rate. Authority-wise, he pretty much lingered in the average range. It was his bat-missing ability (9.0%) that landed him his B+ grade.

His heavy usage rate drove him to a first place finish in FanGraphs’ outcome-based value rankings; per 100 pitches, he finished a bit lower, sixth overall.

Grade B+ – Ian Kennedy, Royals
Kennedy earned his grade in a different manner than the other AL hurlers. It sure wasn’t volume, as he only threw his two-seamer 8.3% of he time. He also, by far, posted the worst pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score (118) of any pitcher we’ll discuss today. There were some crazy things going on in his relatively fly-ball heavy BIP profile; his outfielders helped obscure loud contact in the air (48 Unadjusted vs. 138 Adjusted Contact Score), while he was incredibly unlucky on the ground (.474 AVG-.474 SLG, 368 Unadjusted Contact Score, marked down to 144 for context).

His average 92.7 mph velocity was 10th hardest among AL qualifiers’ two-seamers, though he had more than typical horizontal (9.1 inches, tied for seventh) and vertical (8.0 inches, fifth) movement.

Kennedy ranked lower in FanGraphs’ outcome-based value rankings (13th overall, 11th per 100 pitches) than the other AL star students.

Grade A – Chad Bettis, Rockies
Bettis didn’t throw his two-seamer all that much (9.7% usage rate), but he got exceptional all-around results with it. He had the best pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score (79) and the third-best whiff rate (7.7%) among NL qualifiers. His strong contact-management performance was driven by a very high grounder rate.

The pitch didn’t stand out in terms of velocity (90.9 mph, ninth slowest among NL qualifiers) or movement (6.7 inches horizontal, dead last, and 4.7 inches vertical movement, tied for sixth least).

His Unadjusted Contact Scores on fly balls (10) and grounders (28) were microscopic, but they bounced up to 121 and 113 once adjusted for exit speed/angle. It was the BIP mix, not the authority allowed, that keyed Bettis’ excellence.

Bettis placed extremely high in FanGraphs’ outcome-based rankings (fourth overall, second per 100 pitches), largely due to an overall 43 Unadjusted Contact Score. Get well soon, kid.

Grade B+ – Carlos Martinez, Cards
Martinez is our only A/B+ grade recipient with a materially below-average whiff rate (4.2%) on his two-seamer. An extremely high grounder rate was the driver behind the 87 Adjusted Contact Score that earned him this grade.

Many of the others on this list posted middling average velocities; not so Martinez, whose 94.0 mph two-seam average paced the NL. The pitch had much more horizontal (9.6 inches, tied for fourth) than vertical (3.4 inches, least in the NL) movement.

The Cards’ righty also got a similar rating from FanGraphs’ outcomes-based model: he ranked third in both overall value and in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jeff Samardzija, Giants
Stylistically, there were plenty of similarities between Samardzija and Martinez’ two-seamers. The Giants’ workhorse posted a slightly lower average velocity (94.4 mph, second in the NL) and slightly more horizontal (10.0 inches, third) and vertical movement (3.9 inches, third least) than Martinez.

Samardzija is another A/B+ guy who got there by inducing a ton of grounders with his two-seamer. He was extremely unlucky with the pitch; his Unadjusted Fly Ball (164) and Liner (178) Contact Scores were far higher than his adjusted marks (107, 104).

That misfortune caused his FanGraphs outcome-based rankings to suffer; he placed 13th in both overall value and in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Johnny Cueto, Giants
Cueto and Samardzija’s two-seamer performances ran in tandem, as the teammates exhibited similar contact-management (Adjusted Contact Scores of 91 and 87) and bat-missing (6.9% and 6.6% whiff rates) abilities. Both were adept at inducing grounders with the pitch as well.

Cueto’s two-seamer looked an awful lot like Bettis’s, with an average velocity of 91.4 mph (ninth in the NL) and average horizontal (8.3 inches) and vertical (6.5 inches) that sat in the middle of the NL pack.

Grounder frequency and authority management (78 Adjusted Contact Score) were both strengths for Cueto. Those skills enabled him to weather the fairly loud fly-ball authority (118 Adjusted Contact Score) he allowed on the pitch.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based rankings concur; he ranked fifth in overall two-seamer value and sixth in value per 100 pitches.

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6 years ago

The reason Odorizzi allowed so many fly balls on his two-seam is because he consistently throws it up in the zone. Hard to knock something into the ground when it’s up by your chin.

6 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

Also seems like it didn’t have much horizontal 2-seam type movement compared to the others.