The 2016 World Series’ Nastiest Pitches, Almost Objectively

Even though run-scoring spiked to its highest total in seven years this season, these playoffs have been dominated by pitching like few others. With managers getting more out of their shutdown relievers than ever before and pitchers like Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, Marco Estrada, and Kenley Jansen turning in dominant appearances while shouldering heavy workloads, perhaps it’s no surprise that these playoffs include the lowest-scoring ALCS in history. And with a World Series matchup that features one of the best run-prevention units the sport has ever seen and a pitching staff that just held the Blue Jays and Red Sox to a combined 15 runs in eight games, the World Series seems likely to continue as a low-scoring, pitcher-dominated affair.

With pitching potentially taking center stage for this year’s fall classic, so do the individual pitches themselves. And so, allow me to continue an exercise I’ve performed for each of the previous two World Series, in which I attempt to (somewhat) objectively identify the nastiest pitches we’ll see throughout this final seven-game series.

What makes a pitch nasty? Well, in part, the way it looks, which is informed by the combination of velocity and movement. So that’s half of our criteria right there. Dominant results also make a pitch nasty, and there’s no two better results for a pitcher than a swinging strike or a ground ball, so that makes up the other half of the process of these pitches being selected. Velocity, movement (horizontal + vertical), whiff/pitch, ground ball/ball in play, all relative to the individual pitch type and ranked based on the sum of four z-scores.

We’ve got a lot of filthy pitches to choose from. Lucky us.

No. 10: Cody Allen, four-seam fastball

  • Velocity: 95 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 6 inches, arm side
  • Vertical movement: 11 inches, “rise”
  • Whiff/pitch: 12%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 37%

Cody Allen probably doesn’t get enough love. Over the last three years, only six qualified relievers have posted a better adjusted ERA and FIP than the Indians closer-turned-second-high-leverage-relief-option: Chapman, Miller, Davis, Betances, Britton, and Holland. He’s struck out a third of all batters faced over that time, which also ranks seventh among all qualified relievers. And he does it throwing just two pitches: this four-seam fastball roughly two-thirds of the time, and a devastating knuckle curve (more on this later) the other third. The fastball’s 2,517 RPM spin rate ranks fifth among 187 pitchers with at least 500 fastballs thrown this year, giving it that elite “rise” you see above, leading to plenty of swings and misses. When Allen struggles, it’s typically because he has trouble commanding this pitch, but when he’s locating, he’s one of baseball’s most unhittable relievers.

No. 9: Jake Arrieta, curveball

  • Velocity: 81 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 6 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 9 inches, drop
  • Whiff/pitch: 17%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 57%

For a starter to make this list at all is impressive, given that the nature of how relievers pitch allows them to throw harder and get better results. That’s how good Jake Arrieta’s curve is, and it isn’t even his go-to secondary pitch — that’s the slider — but the hook accounts for a little more than one of his every 10 pitches. There isn’t any one thing in particular that makes this pitch remarkable, but the velocity, movement, whiff rate and ground-ball rate are all nearly a standard deviation above league average, making it a truly nasty offering.

No. 8: Justin Grimm, curveball

  • Velocity: 83 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 7 inches, arm side
  • Vertical movement: 7 inches, drop
  • Whiff/pitch: 19%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 53%

In Justin Grimm’s years as a failed starter in Texas, he threw this curveball roughly a quarter of the time. Since turning into an at-times dominant, at-times frustrating reliever in Chicago, the usage of the curve increased to 37% last year and spiked to 51% this year. One interesting aspect of Grimm’s curve is its unusually low spin rate, which shouldn’t lend it to serving as a good ground-ball pitch, though it still checked in right around league average. What really works in Grimm’s favor is the curve’s velocity and whiff rate, which each rank in the top 20 of more than 200 pitchers with at least 100 curveballs thrown.

No. 7: Corey Kluber, breaking ball

  • Velocity: 85 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 9 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 0 inches, drop (remember, vertical movement is measured relative to a spinless pitch)
  • Whiff/pitch: 28%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 47%

I call it a breaking ball here, because nobody really knows what it is, and that’s what Kluber himself calls it. It’s gripped like a curve, but it moves a bit more like a slider, which is how PITCHf/x classifies it. Whatever it is, it’s nasty. Nearly three out of 10 times Kluber threw this pitch, it got a swinging strike, and exactly half of all swings against it resulted in a whiff. According to our PITCHf/x run values, it was the most valuable slider by a starter in baseball on a per-pitch basis, and by the methodology used in this post, it’s the nastiest pitch thrown by a starter that we’ll see in the World Series.

No. 6: Bryan Shaw, cutter

  • Velocity: 94 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 2 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 5 inches, “rise”
  • Whiff/pitch: 11%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 65%

Everything Bryan Shaw throws breaks hard to his glove side, with this cutter accounting for roughly eight out of his every 10 pitches, and a slider making up the rest. And two things really make this cutter stand out: its velocity and the grounders. By velocity, Shaw’s cutter might be the closest thing to Kenley Jansen’s — and, in fact, Shaw’s average velocity on the cutter was a tick above Jansen’s. And even though the cutter is traditionally a fly-ball pitch, nearly two-thirds of balls in play against Shaw’s cutter this year went on the ground, making for one of baseball’s highest rates, to go along with a league-average whiff rate.

No. 5: Mike Montgomery, cutter

  • Velocity: 90 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 4 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 3 inches, “rise”
  • Whiff/pitch: 15%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 69%

I won’t lie, Mike Montgomery is not a name I expected to crack this top 10, and while I never said this methodology was perfect, it’s also difficult to argue with the results. Montgomery was one of the pitchers to get more ground balls on the cutter than Shaw, and he also posted a whiff rate that was a full standard deviation above average. At 90 mph, it’s not thrown quite as hard as Shaw’s, but it’s also coming from the left side. Montgomery throws five pitches out of relief, and while the curve is his go-to secondary offering, the cutter might be the most lethal.

No. 4: Andrew Miller, slider

  • Velocity: 85 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 5 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 2 inches, drop
  • Whiff/pitch: 25%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 58%

Perhaps this pitch not appearing No. 1 on this list is proof that the methodology isn’t perfect. Or maybe it’s proof that there are some truly outstanding pitches in this World Series. Miller’s demon-spawned slider has produced silly swings like the one above all year, and is the sole pitch responsible for what’s become perhaps this postseason’s biggest story. Nearly half of all swings against it went for a whiff this year, and six out of 10 balls in play go on the ground. As if it weren’t unfair enough, Miller has recently begun manipulating the shape of his slider, alternating between a more cutter-like pitch and a slurvier offering, depending on how he feels he has the hitter set up. Just what the world needed was a second Andrew Miller slider.

No. 3: Cody Allen, knuckle curve

  • Velocity: 85 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 7 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 4 inches, drop
  • Whiff/pitch: 19%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 72%

Allen’s fastball is special in its own right, but it’s the curve that makes him one of baseball’s best strikeout pitchers. At 85 mph, it was the fourth-hardest curveball in the game this year, and Allen’s ability to consistently spike it in the dirt while still generating swings oftentimes renders it unhittable. Allen got 24 swings on pitches in the dirt this year, which ranked 22nd in baseball, despite his throwing fewer than 70 innings. Among relievers, only Dellin Betances and Justin Grimm, whose curveball we’ve already discussed, more often got batters to chase their breaking ball in the dirt. That leads not only to a high whiff rate, but a ground-ball rate that ranks in the top-10 of more than 200 pitchers.

No. 2: Aroldis Chapman, slider

  • Velocity: 89 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 5 inches, glove side
  • Vertical movement: 4 inches, “rise”
  • Whiff/pitch: 25%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 47%

We have now entered the Aroldis Chapman portion of our program. I think we all know what the No. 1 pitch is going to be, but for now, we’ve got this slider. The most remarkable thing about Chapman’s slider is that he throws it 89 mph. Just as crazy is the fact that he’s taking 12 mph off the fastball with the pitch. Chapman gets a whiff on more than half his swings, and batters have a hard time laying off, likely due at least in part to how early they have to gear up to get ready for the heater. Chapman only throws this pitch about 15% of the time, but when he does, he can make hitters look just as foolish as he does with the fastball.

No. 1: Aroldis Chapman, four-seam fastball

  • Velocity: 101 mph
  • Horizontal movement: 5 inches, arm side
  • Vertical movement: 11 inches, “rise”
  • Whiff/pitch: 18%
  • Ground ball/ball in play: 47%

Of course, the most remarkable pitch in the World Series is the most remarkable pitch in all of baseball. No individual pitch stands out more from the field than Chapman’s fastball, and for context, the sum of Chapman’s four z-scores on the fastball was 8.0 standard deviations above the mean, while the slider, which you just saw ranked No. 2 in this study, came in at 5.4. Nothing comes close to Chapman’s heater, and, about that pitch above — I devoted about 500 words to that particular pitch above. It might be the nastiest fastball he’s ever thrown, and that’s saying something.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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bunslow
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bunslow

I assume you add the movement in a Euclidean manner right?