Grading the Pitches: 2016 NL Starters’ Sliders

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

This series seemingly began eons ago, but here we are: the final installment of our pitch-specific evaluation of 2016 ERA title-qualifying MLB starters. The best may have been saved for last, as today we examine NL starters’ sliders.

For those of you new to this series, 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 a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2016 Pitch Grades – NL Qualifiers’ Sliders
Roark 57 20.3% A 15.4%
Maeda 68 21.1% A 29.3%
Nelson 76 15.3% B+ 17.3%
Koehler 62 18.3% B+ 24.4%
Arrieta 71 13.0% B+ 18.0%
Eickhoff 74 16.8% B+ 18.0%
Syndergaard 88 27.5% B+ 21.0%
Scherzer 90 27.3% B+ 22.9%
Gray, J. 90 24.0% B+ 25.8%
Samardzija 82 13.0% B 17.3%
Straily 85 14.4% B 25.4%
Hammel 89 16.8% B 35.2%
Teheran 94 21.5% B 25.6%
Ray, R. 105 20.3% B 22.6%
Finnegan 91 12.4% C+ 23.5%
Bettis 97 12.8% C+ 19.6%
Bumgarner 104 11.6% C+ 31.5%
Cueto 98 8.1% C 19.2%

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.

This is a nasty bunch of NL sliders. The slider was the premier bat-missing pitch among qualifying MLB starters, with a 16.1% whiff rate. Ten MLB starters earned a “yellow” or better whiff-rate color-coding; seven of them pitched in the NL. The only two “reds” were in the NL. The senior-circuit starters also were superior to their AL brethren when it came to contact management with the slider, posting an 84.5 average Adjusted Contact Score, far better than the AL average of 97.0.

We’re not going to go into great detail about the sinkers and sliders thrown by all of the pitchers listed above, but let’s do so with those who earned grades of B+ and above. Most of the pitchers we will discuss were way above average at least one of the two core disciplines: bat-missing and contact management.

Grade A – Tanner Roark, Nationals
The slider is typically not a grounder-inducing pitch, but it was for Tanner Roark in 2016. Not only did he yield of bunch of grounders with his slider, but Roark muffled the authority of them, as well, posting a 52 Adjusted Contact Score. He actually stifled all types of contact with his slider, posting Adjusted Contact Scores of 67 and 62 on flies and liners.

He was the premier slider contact manager in the NL (his overall 57 Adjusted Contact Score was over two full standard deviations better than league average), and his pitch-specific whiff rate was tied for fourth best. He did use his slider less than any pitcher listed above, which in part explains his comparatively low placement on FanGraphs’ outcome-based value rankings (15th), though not his 13th place finish in value per 100 pitches.

Stylistically, Roark’s slider didn’t stand out in any way; his average velocity (85.3 mph) and vertical movement (2.2 inches) were both in the middle of the NL pack, while his average horizontal movement (1.2 inches) was the seventh lowest among qualifiers.

Grade A – Kenta Maeda, Dodgers
Most of the sliders on this list of achievers were thrown pretty hard, but not Maeda’s. His average slider velocity (81.5 mph) was the third slowest among NL qualifiers, though the pitch did have above average horizontal (2.7 inches, tied for sixth most) and vertical (3.9 inches, fourth most) movement.

Unlike Roark, Maeda was a fly-ball and pop-up generator with the pitch. He did mute all types of contact with his slider, recording Adjusted Contact Scores of 80, 66, and 52 on flies, liners, and grounders, respectively. His 68 overall Adjusted Contact Score ranked third in the NL, while his 21.1% slider whiff rate ranked third.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch value metrics were just as bullish on Maeda’s slider; he ranked first in overall pitch value and second in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jimmy Nelson, Brewers
This is likely a mild surprise. Nelson was just an average-range bat-misser with his slider last season, though he did post the seventh-best pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score at 76, narrowly earning him a B+ grade.

Nelson was a fly-ball generator with the pitch, though he managed the authority of those flies quite well, posting an Adjusted Contact Score of 66 in the air. That’s a darned good thing, as he yielded an unsightly 162 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score with his four-seamer.

His slider featured well above-average velocity (86.9 mph, fourth fastest in the NL) and horizontal movement (4.3 inches, third most), but very little vertical movement (0.1 inches, fourth least).

Nelson didn’t fare as well on FanGraphs’ outcome-based pitch value rankings, placing 11th overall and 10th in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Tom Koehler, Marlins
The Marlins’ righty has never been much of a bat-misser or control artist, but he has been durable and has expertly managed contact with his slider. At least he did so until this spring, when he earned a demotion to Triple-A.

Like Nelson, Koehler posted an average-range whiff rate with his slider in 2016 and showed even better contact management ability (62 Adjusted Contact Score ranks second on the above list). He induced more grounders than is typical, though not as many as Roark. Koehler absolutely stuffed fly-ball (35 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounder (71) authority with the pitch last season.

Not many distinguishing characteristics to Koehler’s slider: it had somewhat above-average velocity (85.4 mph, 10th fastest among NL qualifiers) and vertical movement (3.0 inches, tied for sixth), while its 2.2 inches of average horizontal movement ranked in the middle of the pack. He also placed highly in FanGraphs’ outcome-based metrics, third in overall pitch value and fourth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jake Arrieta, Cubs
With a 13.0% pitch-specific whiff rate, Arrieta missed the fewest bats of the A/B+ group, but his strong 71 Adjusted Contact Score narrowly earned him this grade.

Like many of the others on this list, he threw this pitch hard, with an average velocity of 89.2 mph, second fastest among NL qualifiers. It also had well above-average horizontal movement (3.4 inches, fourth most), though its 2.5 inches of average vertical movement was unremarkable.

Arrieta pulled off the neat daily double of inducing both grounders and pop ups at a solid rate with his slider. He also was able to mute the authority of the grounders he allowed (60 Adjusted Contact Score).

He ranked only 20th in total value and 19th in value per 100 pitches in FanGraphs’ outcome-based metric. This is likely due to bad fortune on both fly balls (132 Unadjusted vs. 108 Adjusted Contact Score) and, especially, liners (179 vs. 95). Hitters somehow batted .833 AVG-1.222 SLG on liners despite slightly below-average authority.

Grade B+ – Jerad Eickhoff, Phillies
This represents another clear disagreement between this method and FanGraphs’ outcome-based rankings, which placed Eickhoff 14th in both overall value and value per 100 pitches. His overall pitch-specific Unadjusted Contact Score of 107 was rather unimpressive, but was driven by bad luck on both fly balls (178 Unadjusted vs. 112 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (103 vs. 51).

Eickhoff ran a significant fly-ball tendency with his slider, so management of fly-ball authority is key. A low liner rate also helped keep his overall Adjusted Contact Score (74) down; that’s a heavy regression candidate, in the wrong direction.

Unlike most of the pitchers on this list, Eickhoff does not throw his slider hard (81.9 mph, fifth lowest among NL qualifiers), and neither his average horizontal (1.5 inches, eighth least) nor vertical (2.7 inches, ninth most) movement particularly stands out.

Grade B+ – Noah Syndergaard, Mets
Two of the remaining three pitchers on our list are, unfortunately, injured and out for extended periods. All three earned their high grades with massive swing-and-miss rates that overshadowed average-range contact-management performances. Syndergaard’s 27.5% slider whiff rate ranked first among NL qualifiers.

As you might expect, the large righty throws the heck out of this pitch, with an average velocity of 90.8 mph that paced the NL in 2016, and above-average horizontal (2.6 inches, ninth most) and vertical (2.6 inches, 10th most) movement.

He was a prolific grounder-inducer with his slider and expertly managed authority of both the flies (74 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (60) he yielded. On the down side, he allowed only a single pop up with his slider.

FanGraphs’ outcome-based metric also holds the pitch in high esteem, ranking him fourth in overall value and first in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Max Scherzer, Nationals
Scherzer’s pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score (90) and whiff rate (27.3%) almost exactly mirrored Syndergaard’s, with the Mets’ righty slightly better in both measures.

This is another hard slider, with above-average velocity (86.2 mph, sixth highest among NL qualifiers), but well below-average horizontal movement (0.6 inches, tied for third least. Its average vertical movement of 1.9 inches sat in the middle of the NL pack.

He lives on the edge a bit with this pitch, allowing a representative number of fly balls, with harder than average authority (131 Adjusted Contact Score). A fairly pronounced pop-up tendency works in his favor. FanGraphs’ outcome-based rankings concur with this placement: he finished second in overall pitch value and fifth in value per 100 pitches.

Grade B+ – Jon Gray, Rockies
The Rockies’ righty was largely a two-pitch guy last season, combining to throw his four-seamer and slider over 80% of the time. Like our previous two B+ recipients, it’s all about bat-missing with Gray’s slider (24.0% whiff rate, third among NL qualifiers).

This is another plus-velocity (88.2 mph, third fastest in the NL), plus-movement (3.0 inches vertical, sixth most, 2.0 inches horizontal, middle of the pack) slider. Gray kept his contact-management effort in the league-average range by inducing an above-average number of grounders and limiting their authority (74 Adjusted Contact Score).

He also received similar rankings in FanGraphs’ outcome-based metric (eighth in total pitch value, sixth in value per 100 pitches). He likely was dinged a bit because of the Coors Field effect (171 Unadjusted vs. 85 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score).

Next week, as promised, we’ll use these same parameters to review the pitch arsenal of 2016 “non-qualifier” Clayton Kershaw.

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I can’t wait for a health Jon Gray, what a boost he could be to an already good Rockies team