There are many different ways to describe the quality of a pitch. We have movement numbers on this site. There are ground-ball rates. There are whiff rates. There are metrics that use a combination of ground-ball and whiff rates. And metrics that use balls in play. There’s a whole spectrum from process to results, and you can focus on any one part of that spectrum if you like.
But there’s something that’s so appealing about the whiff. It’s a result, but it’s an undeniable one. There is no human being trying to decide if the ball went straight or if it went up in the air or if the ball went down. It’s just: did the batter swing and miss? So, as a result, it seems unassailable.
Of course, there are some decisions you still have to make if you want to judge pitches by whiff rates. How many of the pitch does the pitcher have to have thrown to be considered? Gonzalez Germen had a higher whiff rate on his changeup (30.7%) this year than Cole Hamels (23.7%). Cole Hamels threw seven times as many changeups (708 to 101).
So, in judging this year’s best pitches, let’s declare a top pitch among starters and a top pitch among relievers. That’s only fair, considering the difference in number of pitches thrown between the two. It’s way harder to get people to keep missing a pitch they’ve seen seven times as often. And, in order to avoid avoiding R.A. Dickey the R. A. Dickey Knuckler award, we’ll leave knucklers off the list, and include knuckle curves in among the curves.
Aroldis Chapman (643 thrown, 19.2% whiff rate)
The pitch *averaged* 100.3 last year, so of course this is tops. Velocity isn’t everything — Darren O’Day had the second-best whiff rate (16.6%) on four-seamers thrown at least 300 times and his doesn’t crack 90 — but it sure helps. Chapman’s four-seamer also has two inches more rise than the average fastball, though, so it’s a great pitch by movement and velocity. I mean, what are you going to do against this anyway. Unfair, really.
Madison Bumgarner (915 thrown, 13.7% whiff rate)
We had to know this one was coming. Well, we told you about his great fastball anyway in the postseason, and he told us about it himself. At 92 mph, he has above average velocity for a lefty, but it’s probably mostly about location for the sportsman of the year. When his pitches seem so similar for so long, and then one of them ends up high in the zone with velocity, it’s hard to do much but whiff and sit down. Even if you’re Miguel Cabrera.
Pedro Strop (332 thrown, 31.9% whiff rate)
Strop has the kind of reputation that makes you want to look down the list for a reliever with more sliders thrown so that you can ignore the result. But you have to get all the way down to Will Smith (406 thrown, 27.3% whiffs) and Greg Holland (428 thrown, 25.5% whiff rate) to get relievers that threw more sliders, and while those whiff rates are great, they aren’t necessarily up there with Strop’s. The Cubs’ reliever had a breakout year, and you can see why perhaps they signed up despite his control problems to date. Thanks to PitcherGIFs on twitter, here’s a Strop slider that made Jeff Baker miss by over a foot.
Clayton Kershaw (709 thrown, 29.6% whiff rate)
Imagine Pedro Strop except he’s left-handed, has great command, and a great curve ball and wait why did we start with Pedro Strop again? Let’s just revel in the fact that Clayton Kershaw, who didn’t have a slider coming up and just picked it up when the team asked him to, had the best whiff rate on a slider last year. Of course he did. This GIF courtesy Drew Fairservice, who interviewed the pitcher last year.
Joaquin Benoit (248 thrown, 31.9% whiff rate)
Maybe this is cheating. Benoit throws a FOSH, or a splitter grip where the ball rolls off the weaker fingers a little like a circle change. So maybe you should throw this pitch in with the splitters and give Germen (101 thrown, 30.7% whiffs) or Francisco Rodriguez (295 thrown, 29.5% whiffs) the crown instead. We will just go with what PITCHf/x calls a changeup and revel in it. Here’s a nasty GIF from Pinstripe Alley.
Cole Hamels (708 thrown, 27.3% whiff rate)
This dude threw his changeup a lot. Only 13 pitches threw more changeups. Yes, Felix Hernandez was first in changeups thrown, with 1120, and swinging strikes with 197. But Hamels’ change got more whiffs when he threw it, and it’s practically the model to which all lefties throwing changes should aspire. You don’t have to wear the backpacks, you just have to try and throw your change so it does something sexcellent like this. Thanks to Carson Cistulli for his GIF!
Brett Cecil (369 thrown, 29.3% whiff rate)
Cecil, if you aren’t paying attention to the former starter’s work out of the pen, might seem like a Strop. But dude threw more curves than almost any reliever, depending on how you classify Yusmeiro Petit, who threw 400 curves and got a 28.5% whiff rate. Both pitches aren’t quite hammer/yakker curves — they don’t have the big drop of the twelve-to-six pitches — but they do drop more than sliders. Call them power curves if you must. This GIF from BlueJaysPlus:
Corey Kluber (548 thrown, 22.1% whiff rate)
The curveball isn’t known for whiffs (or swings, even), so it’s not surprising that the two curves that lead the category are barely curves as all. Kluber’s curve is a frisbee that has way more horizontal movement than your average curveball, and about half as much drop as a true 12-to-6er. It’s a unique pitch without many comps, as Jeff Sullivan (who normally would have brought you this article, if this author hadn’t had writer’s block and stolen the topic) has found before. Here’s his GIF on the subject.
Manny Parra (110 thrown, 31.8% whiff rate)
Readers of The Hardball Times Annual this year will be familiar with Manny Parra’s knuckle-stretching grip. For him, the pitch is more fork than splitter (more on that distinction in the THT piece): “I don’t really want to have any seams because I want the ball to come and start slipping and then catch right here at the end. Like a forkball.” He says he doesn’t know which way it’s going, but neither do the hitters. And hitters? “Hitters love predictability.” From BrewCrewBall, a splitter that made a kid very happy.
Masahiro Tanaka (482 thrown, 27.4% whiff rate)
Tanaka — and the idea that the splitter was to blame for his injury this year — inspired the piece in the annual. Hiroki Kuroda threw 847 of them without an injury, but it was Tanaka’s usage that caused concern. By percentage thrown, movement, and velocity, Kuroda’s splitter was indistinguishable from Tanaka’s in 2014 actually. Perhaps it’s how Tanaka’s pitch fits into his repertoire that makes his splitter get almost twice as many whiffs at Kuroda’s (15.7%). We don’t know. All we can do is watch. Cistulli made his very first American splitter go slow-mo:
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.