Who had the best secondary pitches in the MLB in 2015?
After every baseball season, when award voting season is in full swing, there is always a debate about how to best value pitcher’s’ performance.
Over time, these evaluations have evolved from simple W-L records, to ERA and strikeout numbers, and most recently to Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
A pitcher’s unique position forces them to rely heavily on the skills of the other eight players on the field, which make it difficult to separate team performance from individual performance in some regards. But there is an easy way to separate the value of individual pitch types.
Fangraphs.com has a statistic called Pitch Type Linear Weights, which uses probability to assign run values to pitches. It isn’t a perfect statistic - there is no way to differentiate between a good pitch that happened to be a ball, or a bad pitch that happened to be a strike - and possesses no predictive value, but is a perfectly valid way to assess past performance. It’s also a fun and different way to assess performance.
There are plenty of pitchers who have good fastballs, but what about secondary pitches? You’ll notice that every pitcher on this list is a starter, this is partially because starters throw significantly more pitchers than relievers, so their pitches aggregate more value, and partially because successful starters require more “plus” pitches than successful relievers.
The statistic has two forms, total value and value per 100 pitches. The statistics below with “/C” as a suffix indicate value per 100 pitches. Pitch usage statistics come from Brooksbaseball.net.
Zack Greinke - 18.6 wSL, 2.98 wSL/C
Greinke’s slider wasn’t worth the most runs overall, but it was worth the most runs per 100 pitches. The value of this pitch makes sense, since it is the pitch he uses most commonly with two strikes against right handed batters, and second most with two strikes against left handed batters. Greinke’s slider is his second most used pitch against righties, but he uses it far less against lefties. It is still his third most used pitch overall.
Jake Arrieta - 23.5 wCT, 2.35 wCT/C
This isn’t a surprise because Arrieta is a very good pitcher and his cutter might be his best pitch. Arrieta’s cutter is so good that there is actually a debate over whether it is a cutter or a slider. Whatever it is, it’s very effective. Arrieta uses his cutter as an out-pitch against both lefties and righties, but relies on it more heavily in earlier in counts against righties.
It also induces more ground balls than his sinker does, which is part of what makes him so valuable as a pitcher.
Corey Kluber - 16.8 wCB, 3.30 wCB/C
This is a bit of a surprise, no? Clayton Kershaw is notorious for having the best curveball in baseball, but Kluber’s has been more valuable by total runs saved and average per 100 pitches. While Brooksbaseball.net calls it a slider, fangraphs.com calls it a curve based on the movement; it’s hard to discern, but the two are the same pitch and most in the industry acknowledge that it’s a curveball. He uses it 30% of the time against both lefties and righties with two strikes, a significant increase over it’s usage earlier in counts.
Danny Salazar - 19.3 wCH, 3.10 wCH/C
Kluber’s rotation-mate in the strikeout happy Indians rotation, Salazar’s changeup doubles as a split finger according to Brooksbaseball.net, and is used primarily late in counts. With two strikes, he uses it 43% of time against lefties and 37% of the time against righties.
Salazar’s fourseam fastball is his primary pitch, but his change/split finger is a close second in usage.
Having a strong fastball is almost a prerequisite to being a Major League pitcher, but there are many effective strategies that can lead to success. Pitchers like Salazar and Greinke use a fastball-changeup combination and mix in other pitches, which Kluber and Arrieta rely more heavily on breaking pitches to get batters out. These kind of statistics have been hinted at anecdotal for a while, but measuring pitch values statistically is a good exercise.
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