Ranking April’s Most Dominant Pitching Performances to Date

It’s almost time to rip the first page from the regular-season calendar, and many players and moments have already left indelible marks that will live on in our memories. From Trevor Story to Kenta Maeda, from the Cubs and Nationals on the good end to the Twins and Astros on the bad, it’s been an exciting ride thus far.

There are a number of dominant pitching performances already in the books, with Jake Arrieta’s second no-hitter in as many years an obvious highlight. Just a week before his vanquishing of the Reds, the Phils’ Vincent Velasquez and the Cards’ Jaime Garcia unfurled identical game scores of 97 in complete game victories over the Padres and Brewers, respectively. Since it’s still early in the season, and sample sizes remain quite small, let’s use batted-ball data in a more laid-back, fun manner, and attempt to split some hairs among these three gems, and crown one as April’s most impressive pitching performance.

The first criteria set forth in selecting these three games is an obvious one: all three pitchers bucked the recent trend and finished what they started, hurling complete games. Arrieta, of course, pitched a no-no, while Velasquez struck out a whopping 16 while walking none, and Garcia racked up 13 Ks while issuing only one free pass. What kind of contact did each pitcher allow along the way? First, let’s simply look at some summary exit speed/angle data from the three outings:

The Big Three Outings – Average Exit Speed/Angle
AVG ALL AVG FLY AVG LD AVG GB AVG VERT
Velasquez vs. SD 14-Apr 88.1 89.1 87.2 87.4 20.8
Garcia vs. MIL 14-Apr 91.0 97.0 102.6 85.9 -4.6
Arrieta at CIN 21-Apr 86.8 81.9 90.6 89.3 12.2
MLB Avg Thru 21-Apr 89.2 89.9 93.6 86.6 10.4

Let’s start with Velasquez. Frequency-wise, he allowed the most line drives (four, with speed/angle data obtained) of the three, and along with Arrieta tied for the most fly balls, also with four. On the surface, this would appear to signal trouble, as the most damage is done on those BIP types. He allowed below-average authority on those batted balls, however, and (on average) allowed a very high launch angle of 20.8 degrees. Only extreme pop-up guys can live in this area code over a full season.

Of the four fly balls allowed by Velasquez, three sat squarely in the 75-94 mph “donut hole,” within which hitters have produce a .112 AVG and .204 SLG thus far in 2016. The only fly ball that didn’t fall into that range was hit barely harder than “donut hole” velocity, at a barely lower than pop-up-range launch angle. Nothing doing on those fly balls.

As for the liners, all three of the hits (all singles) he yielded, fell into that category. That makes total sense, as hitters have batted .660 AVG-.876 SLG on liners to date, and hit over .600 on them all the way down the 75-79 mph range. Of the three grounders for which readings were captured, one, off of the bat of Melvin Upton Jr. was hit at just over 100 mph. Batters are hitting .347 AVG-.371 SLG on grounders between 100-104 mph so far this season. No dice for Mr. Upton on this one.

All in all, Velazquez allowed the fewest batted balls of the three, walked no one, and didn’t really benefit or fall victim to any sort of luck along the way.

Next, Mr. Garcia. Frequency-wise, he was true to his longtime talent for inducing ground balls. He only yielded one fly ball with captured speed/angle data, compared to eight grounders. This makes the very high fly ball/line drive authority averages on his line much easier to swallow. He was very fortunate on the three liners he allowed, all of which were hit at 97 MPH or higher, including the 106 mph Domingo Santana bolt that went for a single, the only hit he allowed. Give up three liners at that authority level, and you’ll allow two hits on average, with a 40% or so chance that one of them goes for extra bases.

Not only did Garcia yield a bunch of grounders, most of them were hit quite weakly. Six of the eight featured exit speeds under 90 mph. Consider: MLB hitters are batting .219 AVG-.259 SLG on 85-89 mph grounders, and a puny .097 AVG-.108 MPH below 85 mph . His ground-ball ways produced a stellar average launch angle of -4.6 degrees in this start, which is superb, even for him.

Garcia allowed the ball to be hit harder than either Velasquez or Arrieta, but was able to minimize the incidence of the fly ball/liner contact that produced the greatest authority. Lots of Ks (13), one walk, lots of room service grounders, plus some good fortune on the hard line drive contact.

Lastly, no-hit guru Arrieta. He didn’t have his best night in terms of strikeouts and walk, recording only six of the former while conceding four of the latter. He yielded 19 batted balls, the most of the three. He tied for the most fly balls (four) and grounders (four) with speed/angle readings. He allowed the lowest average BIP authority of the three at 86.8 mph; this shouldn’t surprise you if you read Dave Cameron’s recent piece — as well as mine during the offseason, which dubbed Arrieta the 2015 NL Contact Manager of the Year. Both his average fly-ball and liner authority on this day were way better than 2016 MLB averages to date.

Of the four fly balls he allowed, three fit snugly into the donut hole, with the hardest hit at only 93 mph. The other was a 73 mph flare – batters have hit .446 AVG-.468 SLG on fly balls in the 70-74 mph range – that was caught by Jorge Soler. Nothing happening on those four BIP.

Arrieta did allow a pair of liners: a high one by Zack Cozart at 88 mph that was caught in the air by Dexter Fowler, and a low one by Joey Votto at 92 mph that was played on a hop by Addison Russell. Liners at 85-89 mph actually are less productive than 80-84 mph ones, as they carry to the outfielders more often, but balls hit like Votto’s have gone for a .680 AVG-.815 SLG this season. Arrieta was a bit fortunate for neither to become hits, but just about all no-no’s involve some luck. About 90% of the time, those two BIP turn in to at least one single.

On this day, Arrieta did not squelch grounder contact to the extent he normally does. His average grounder velocity allowed was well higher than league average, and higher than the averages recorded by both Velasquez and Garcia in their respective gems. Of the seven recorded grounders, four were hit at 90 mph or higher, with the hardest hit fractionally over 100 mph. On this mix of grounders, batters hit around .300, so at least one of them would have been expected to for a hit.

Overall, as usual, Arrieta focused more on suppression of authority than on a go-to BIP type frequency talent. Even if, say, two of the liners/grounders he yielded found daylight, no batted ball that he allowed came even close to doing real damage. The largest issue with Arrieta’s performance on this day was his K/BB shortfall; more batted balls and more free base-runners equal more potential danger than usual.

Lastly, let’s compare these three outings by calculating Adjusted Contact Scores and “tru” ERAs for each. Each batted ball was credited with the MLB average production for its speed/angle “bucket”, and then compared to the MLB average run environment thus far in 2016. In each category, league average is represented by 100.

Single-Outing Contact Score/”Tru” ERA
FLY LD GB ADJ C TRU
Velasquez vs. SD 14-Apr 22 74 75 57 15
Garcia vs. MIL 14-Apr 84 125 89 64 28
Arrieta at CIN 21-Apr 24 91 111 32 47

The first three columns represent Adjusted Contact Scores for the major BIP types; the fourth, the Average Contact Score for all BIP combined; and the last, the “tru” ERA for each performance with all the K and BB added back.

From a pure contact-management perspective, Arrieta is our winner, with an Adjusted Contact Score of 32. All of his fly balls allowed were dead on arrival (24 Contact Score), and while his 111 mark on grounders is higher than league average, he is helped by the overall grounder frequency, since even the most well-hit grounder can only do so much damage. As for single-game “tru” ERA, however, Arrieta finishes third, as a 6/4 strikeout-to-walk performance moves his figure upward to 47. Pretty tough competition here, going up against 16/0 and 13/1 K/BB games.

Garcia finishes last in Adjusted Contact Score at 64, but a strong second in “tru” ERA at 28. None of his BIP-type contact scores shine in this company: he ranks third by far in fly-ball (84) and liner (125) contact score, but is helped greatly by his high grounder frequency. Adding 13 K and 1 BB back into the equation causes his overall Adjusted Contact Score to be cut by more than half.

Velasquez is our winner, as he exhibited almost equal parts contact management and K/BB mastery in his April 14 outing. His fly balls were even deader than Arrieta’s, with a 22 Contact Score, and his liner and grounder contact scores of 74 and 75 were better than either competitor. His BIP mix wasn’t nearly as ideal, with many fewer ground balls, but that’s a minor point. His overall Adjusted Contact Score was a solid 57, but after adding back 16 K and zero walks, it’s cut by about three quarters to a miniscule “tru” ERA mark of 15.

Here’s to hoping that all three stay healthy and continue to thrive as the season progresses. Rest assured, if anyone else puts forth an effort that deserves to be matched against them, we’ll do it right here.





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Brent Henry
6 years ago

Thanks for this Tony!

You must be stoked about Taijuan Walker’s hot start!