Watch enough baseball games and you'll hear the following on a fairly regular basis, "Player X has one of the best (insert type of pitch here) in the game." It is the sort of innocuous statement any TV announcer can make and not have to worry about because it was nothing anyone could ever disprove. By my informal count, I can think of at least 15 pitchers who supposedly have the best curveball in the game, 12 that have the best slider and 8 who have the best change-up. That is a whole lot of "best" to go around, no?
Much to the chagrin of those announcers and their opinions, we now have the tools to help us figure out which of those who lay claim to having the "best" of a certain pitch can do so rightfully. Thanks to the explosion in advanced statistics in baseball, we actually do have the ability to breakdown and measure the effectiveness of a given pitch type for a pitcher (bad news for you, unoriginal announcer man). It may not be a definitive way of proving who is the irrefutable best, but it can at least narrow down the field considerably.
To do this, I'm going to look primarily at runs above average per 100 pitches at each of the major pitch types. Since I want to see who has the best stuff currently, I'm going to look only at the combined stats from this season and 2010 and only at pitchers who have thrown 70+ innings, just to filter out some of the small sample size flukes, which is why I will also exclude players who barely throw the pitch in question.
So, without further adieu:
- Jesse Crain, 3.72
- Jhoulys Chacin, 3.01
- David Pauley, 2.83
- Neftali Feliz, 2.52
If this teaches us anything, it is that sometimes the effectiveness of the pitch isn't always just the pitch itself, but the repertoire it is part of. Feliz's curve is probably only as effective as it is because he uses it off of his excellent fastball, not to say it isn't a good curve, but his fastball is generally considered to be his best pitch. When a pitch is used also plays a role as we can see with Jesse Crain leading the list. Crain is better known for his slider, but he does break out a curve every once in awhile. He must be picking his spots pretty well though since the curve meets so much success.
- Joakim Soria, 4.49
- Jhoulys Chacin, 4.33
- John Axford, 4.16
- Brian Duensing, 4.14
Chacin, again? No wonder he is having such a great year. Soria is interesting since he actually uses hs change-up a bit more than his slider even though the change doesn't grade out much above average.
- Francisco Rodriguez, 4.35
- Felix Hernandez, 3.89
- Shaun Marcum, 3.17
- Jon Lester, 3.15
Seeing King Felix on here is no surprise, his unique change-up has always been considered to be awesome with awesome sauce on top. K-Rod though, now there is a shocker. He made his name with that nasty curve of his, but as he has aged, the curve has lost its effectiveness and his fastball has lost velocity. Yet K-Rod remains a top quality reliever because he has developed such a great change-up in the last few seasons.
Fastball (Two-seam and four-seam)
- R.A Dickey, 2.27
- Neftali Feliz, 2.23
- Alexi Ogando, 1.98
- Jose Valverde, 1.84
Dickey's inclusion is almost comical. He seldom cracks 85 MPH with his "heater" but it succeeds because of how it compares to his knuckleball. The rest of the list after Dickey, and beyond who I have listed, is predominantly relievers, which speaks pretty well to how the skill set between starting and relieving divvies up.
If there is one thing noticeable missing from these lists is the dearth of what we would all consider the elite pitchers and their supposedly amazing pitches. There's no Lincecum, no Sabatha, no Halladay, no Josh Johnson. That doesn't mean they don't have a dominant pitch in their arsenal, but rather that their success isn't entirely predicated on that one pitch. So, we can wax poetic all we want about whose slider is the filthiest or whose curve buckles the most knees, but it really doesn't matter if you can't complement that pitch with a robust arsenal or use it in the right situation and pitch sequence. Yup, turns out pitching is pretty hard.