What is the best swing-and-miss pitch in baseball right now?by Jason Dunbar
May 11, 2012
The presence of a lights-out, swing-and-miss pitch in a pitcher's repertoire doesn’t guarantee he’ll use it properly, or even that the pitcher will ever figure out how to pitch in the major leagues. That much is clear. But that doesn’t mean those pitches aren’t fun to watch.
A swing-and-miss can be one of the most spectacularly violent moments in all of sports, and often happens dozens of times within a single game.
With that said, when I discovered the whiff/swing tool so generously provided by the guys over at Brooksbaseball.net, an obsession was born. Brooks Baseball has been both a godsend to my baseball watching experience and a bar-of-soap-in-a-gym-sock to my family life—I think my wife filed divorce papers last week while I was surfing its pages. Yet I still can’t give it up.
As a Red Sox fan, I began tinkering with the feature while wondering how dialed-back Daniel Bard’s stuff has become since his conversion to starter. Reports coming out of spring training said he’d developed a second, tamer version of his notorious video-game slider. Bard’s fastball certainly had something taken off—he wasn’t throwing 99 miles per hour anymore, which was to be expected. But his slider looked as good as ever. A quick check with the numbers over at Brooks, and it turns out I didn’t need glasses (more on that later).
I did more and more digging, until eventually I combed through every pitcher (and breaking ball) in the majors and came up with combined whiff/swing data from 2011 and ’12 in a search for the pitch with the highest swing-and-miss rate in baseball over the past year or so. These are my results.
I’ve broken the leaders down between 2012 starters and relievers by league, including guys who are on the 15-day DL (but not on the 60-day, or are currently in the minors). The minimum for all pitches is 200 times thrown, to ensure a big enough sample size of pitches.
The question I was kicking around: If there was a situation where you absolutely had to keep the ball out of play, which pitch would give you the best chance, and who throws it? Here are the results.
(Note: all whiff/swing stats reflect numbers appearing on Brooksbaseball.net through Wednesday, May 9.)
National League starters
1. Cole Hamels’ changeup
Hamels is currently taking a lot of heat for his actions concerning Nationals phenom Bryce Harper, but that doesn’t take away from his repertoire on the mound. The 27-year-old California native has dropped his off-speed pitch on hitters at a mind-boggling whiff rate of 50.12 percent since the start of 2011 (926 times thrown).
This sort of weaponry hasn’t hurt Hamels’ numbers (in a contract year, no less), as he is 4-1 over 40.1 innings pitched, and sports a 2.45 ERA. He’s upped his K/9 rate from 2011’s 8.1 to 9.8 so far this year as well.
2. James McDonald’s slider
Though the 27-year-old Pirate is showing signs of figuring it out in the early going, this is probably our first example of a guy with tantalizing stuff who just can’t put it all together.
Yet, one thing’s for sure: his slider has worked spectacularly for him over the past season or so. Though the explanation may just be small sample size (he’s thrown it 231 times since the start of 2011), hitters are still whiffing at an impressive 49 percent rate during that span.
3. Jeff Samardzija’s splitter/change-up
Though Brooks has this pitch classified as a splitter, I came across this bit from Bradley Woodrum of FanGraphs:
I’m not entirely convinced these are two different pitches. His splitter and change-up travel at nearly the same speed and have nearly the same break. The PITCHf/x algorithm did not even detect a splitter until Sunday night, so I’m inclined to think it’s all just the change-up. And his change-up is good; rather, it’s good enough. It’s about as fast as his slider and has been moderately effective through his career. As a surprise pitch or a put-away pitch against lefties, it works admirably.
This is the 27-year-old’s first season as a member of the Cubs rotation, so the 234 times-thrown is a little low for a starter. But whether it’s a splitter or a change-up, the off-speed pitch seems to be working for him.
Here’s hoping the former Notre Dame wideout keeps up his early season success and is able to live up to the initial promise he showed for the Cubs.
4. Clayton Kershaw’s curveball
Kershaw’s 12-to-6 curve is truly a jaw-dropping pitch when it’s on, and probably doesn’t need much of an introduction here. And though it was especially effective, it was just one of many weapons Kershaw rode to the 2011 NL Cy Young Award.
He does use it sparingly, though, throwing the hook just 205 times since the beginning of ’11 for a 45.86 percent whiff rate.
5. Edinson Volquez’s change-up
Swapped in the Mat Latos deal from Cincinnati in the offseason, Volquez may be seeing the start of a resurgence in the transition to San Diego’s Petco Park.
Whatever the cause of his 2.98 ERA over 42.1 innings, park factor certainly doesn’t figure into the 44.54 percent whiff-rate the 28-year-old has racked up on 685 chang-eups thrown since the start of 2011.
American League starters
1. Daniel Bard’s slider
The slider is Bard’s best weapon, hands down, and is one of the best breaking pitches in the AL. Though he probably takes the top spot on this list due to the time he spent as a reliever last season (reducing his attempts and allowing him to ramp things up as a reliever), his whiff-rate has actually increased from 50.48 to 58.33 percent this year.
Across the two seasons combined, he’s thrown 368 sliders for a 52.53 percent swing-and-miss rate. Now if the 26-year-old can just put it all together as a starter for Boston.
2. Ricky Romero’s change-up
Having the opportunity to see Romero pitch on a semi-regular basis is highly entertaining, and his change-up is one reason why. Since the start of 2011, the 27-year-old has thrown it 711 times for a 43.13 percent whiff-rate.
Though he’s off to a 4-0 start for the Jays, his K/9-rate is down from 7.1 to 6.2 thus far. One reason may be that hitters are whiffing on the off-speed pitch 29.73 percent of the time, down from 44.88 in 2011.
Note: Chicago’s Chris Sale and his slider held down the No. 2 slot (46.66 percent whiff-rate, 567 times thrown), but the converted reliever has gone back to the ‘pen (at least for now) after making five starts for the White Sox.
3. Ivan Nova’s slider
The Yankees seem to have a found a middle of the rotation-type in the 25-year-old Nova. He’s set up the slider to the tune of a 42.77 percent whiff-rate and a 3-1 record thus far in ’12. If nothing else, the pitch will probably help propel him to just under 200 innings and double-digit wins this year for the Yanks.
4. CC Sabathia’s slider
Perhaps the most impressive entry on the AL list, Sabathia has thrown his slider a whopping 1,204 times since the start of last season. Clearly, there are no small-sample size issues here. (No, that wasn’t a weight joke, for once.)
Hitters have swung and missed at the breaking ball at a rate of 42.77 percent since the beginning of 2011.
5. Francisco Liriano's slider
If this doesn’t illustrate the frustration that Twins fans have felt at watching Liriano, then I don’t know what does. Not only does Liriano hold down the fifth spot, but his change-up comes in at No. 6.
With an arsenal like that, it’s mind-boggling that Liriano isn’t an annual Cy Young contender. But he’s just another—and perhaps one of the greatest—examples of how “stuff” isn’t everything.
Right now, he's 0-5 with a 9.45 ERA, and the whiff rates on the two aforementioned pitches have fallen significantly from last year to this.
National League relievers
1. Jonny Venters’ slider
In case you were wondering: This is the answer to my initial question. If you absolutely have to keep the ball out of play in a single situation, Venters’ slider is the way to go.
Though his 95-mph sinker is more famed (and rightfully so, as Baseball Nation named it the best pitch in baseball in 2011), the slider comes with a far higher whiff-rate. The Braves’ lefty reliever fired off 312 of them since the start of 2011, inducing a swing-and-miss 69.18 of the time. Ridiculous.
2. Joel Hanrahan’s slider
Despite blowing his first save of the season on Tuesday vs. the Nationals, the 30-year-old has had a successful start to the season, which comes on the heels of a 2011 campaign that saw him post a 1.83 ERA. His best swing-and-miss weapon, the slider, misses bats 58.50 percent of the time (220 times thrown).
3. Henry Rodriguez’ curve
Henry Rodriguez sports a ridiculous whiff-rate when he drops his hook (55.6 percent on 256 times thrown). The problem is, he’s thrown only seven of them this season, compared to 2011’s 249. He seems to have replaced the curve with a slider, which comes with an impressive (if not meaningless, at this early point) whiff rate at 54.55 percent (26 thrown).
One can’t knock him for this move, though, as he has six saves and a 2.84 ERA for the upstart Nationals thus far.
American League relievers
1. Jordan Walden’s slider
Ironically, a lack of control on this breaking ball is one of the reasons Walden lost his closing job for the Angels. Now that newly minted closer Scott Downs is injured, Walden may win back the role if he can recapture the form that garnered him a 2011 All-Star appearance.
The first step on the road to reclamation will be regaining control of his slider, which hitters missed at an amazing rate of 64.21 percent (201 times thrown).
Once again, Walden is a prime example that a single swing-and-miss weapon doesn’t necessarily correlate to success as a pitcher.
2. Sergio Santos’ slider
Shoulder injuries aside, when Santos takes the mound for the Blue Jays, his slider misses opponents’ bats at the second-highest rate in the American League since the beginning of 2011, at 64.21 percent.
Though his 317 sliders went for a 65 percent whiff-rate last year, his rate was down significantly (53.85 percent) before he went down in late April.
3. Aaron Crow’s slider
He's a possible starter down the road for Kansas City, so the whiff rate on this pitch will probably decline as his career goes on. The book on him has been that he has been unable to get lefties out, though that hasn’t exactly held true this season (again, possibly due to a small sample size).
In any case, Crow’s slider comes in at an impressive 52.52 swing-and-miss rate, good for third among current AL relievers.
So, there you have it. A whiff pitch the size of Thor’s hammer doesn’t necessarily correlate to success, but it sure helps in a lot of cases. It certainly isn’t a detriment to viewing pleasure, either.
References and Resources
A big round of applause to Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Brooks Baseball.
Here's an Excel spreadsheet of my findings.
Jason is a freelance writer, proud father, and has far too much time on his hands to think about baseball. He can be contacted at jaydunbar at live dot com.
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