Note: This post is some pretty long weekend reading; if you want a shorter version, we've condensed the results into a brief read here.
For as long as baseball's been played professionally, there's been one question that's endured all the way through dead balls, juiced balls, lowered mounds, stadium shenanigans, the color barrier, and the decision to sell beer to people in their seats. Namely: Who's The Best?
It's a natural part of sports, really, and as time has gone on, we've come up with more and more detailed ways to track the game we love in order to answer that very question. Of course, there's also the flip side of that coin, or Who's The Worst? In any event, that's essentially the purpose of statistics in sports: to tell us who the best and worst players are.
Now, when it comes to pitchers and their craft, the debate about whose fastball is the best, whose slider is the nastiest, and whose changeup collapses stadiums (you'll see later) has always been a matter of qualitative, rather than quantitative, speculation. People swear that Bert Blyleven's curveball would make the greatest of hitters' knees buckle. People swear that Walter Johnson could induce a batter to merely walk back to the dugout shaking their head after 2 strikes because they knew they couldn't hit his fastball. But the debate about who threw The Best Fastball, or the The Best Curveball rages on, because, really, there's no way to know.
You see, over at the great Fangraphs, they've got a new toy called Pitch Type Linear Weights. It's not the catchiest title (and if anyone knows titles, it's us), but the data is really neat. Basically you can see how many runs above average a pitcher's pitch is worth - like BP's WARP, except condensed to measure the value of a specific pitch. We'll be using the /C value, which gives you the measure of how valuable a pitch is in terms of runs above average per 100 thrown/seen. Basically it gives you an idea of who's really got a great fastball, slider, etc - and also who can hit these pitches better than most.
So today we decided that since there's not much going on in the baseball world besides a Brewers pitching prospect failing his second marijuana test and subsequently being suspended for 100 games (should've made the Majors before you started getting caught, bud. Learn from Geo.), we'd take a look at who throws the best/worst pitches in the game and who's the best/worst hitter of the pitches. We know that's an awkward description but we don't know how else to put it. Just...follow along.
Best Fastball: Dan Haren, Arizona Diamondbacks. Runs above average per 100 thrown: 2.45
Best Fastball hitter: Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians. Runs above average per 100 seen: 3.69
Both of these are a bit surprising to us. We'd have expected a guy like Justin Verlander or Ubaldo Jimenez to top the list since they average over 95 mph. Haren's average velocity is now 90.6, down from last year's 91.1 and his career average of 91.6, but he's been very effective with it. As for Martinez, he only leads Albert Pujols by .02, but it's still surprising to us that after his shoulder injuries, he's still able to catch up with the heat. Also we think this is a very basic indiciator of success; if you throw a great fastball, or can hit a fastball like nobody's business, you're in a great situation to succeed.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Top 10: Joel Piniero (5, 88.5 mph) Rick Porcello (6, 90.9 mph) Tim Wakefield (7, 72.5 mph) Jarrod Washburn (9, 88.5 mph), Kevin Correia (10, 90.8 mph). Just goes to show that velocity isn't everything. Also, Wakefield, whose reliance on the knuckler makes his fastball sneaky, was leading the league in RAA/100 earlier this year. You can't make this stuff up.
Unexpected Hitters in the Top 10: Michael Young (8), Jason Kubel (9). The rest of the top 10 reads like a who's who of great hitters; while Young's had a renaissance this year and Kubel's got a big money deal (by Twins standards), that they rank in that list surprises us.
Worst Fastball: Armando Galarraga, Detroit Tigers. RAA/100: -2.16
Worst Fastball Hitter: Bengie Molina, San Francisco Giants. RAA/100: -2.59
Galarraga has certainly struggled this year, and this looks like a big part of the reason why. If a pitcher has a significantly below average fastball, there's not much to work off of in the repertoire. And that an aging catcher (hey oh!) who plays on the Giants has trouble hitting the fastball is not terribly surprising to us.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Bottom 10: Francisco Liriano trails Galarraga by .02 which is surprising. His tailspin is a sad story considering he was the next Johan for awhile there. Also, Roy Halladay and Joba Chamberlain rank in the negatives.
Unexpected Hitters in the Bottom 10: Pretty much what you'd expect. Make a list of guys who aren't very good hitters and/or strike out a lot, and you'll get your (not?) top 10.
Best Slider: Doug Davis, Arizona Diamondbacks. RAA/100: 26.08
Best Slider Hitter: Denard Span, Minnesota Twins. RAA/100: 4.98
Wow. Well, we weren't expecting that. We assume there's some kind of statistical anamoly that allows Davis to be at an astounding 26 RAA/100, like he's only thrown 10 of them all year or something, but those 10 were apparently pretty nasty. But the next guys are still pretty close to his number, so we'll allow it. And Denard Span...well, let's just say we don't expect big things from him.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Top 10: A.J. Burnett's 21.62 is worth a mention, as is Rick Porcello's 11.75...Kenshin Kawakami checks in at 5th (5.25, to give you an idea of the dropoff) while Mark Buerhle and Paul Maholm make the 8th and 10th spots, respectively. Porcello is doing the lord's work with his fastball/slider combo, but runs into trouble elsewhere. That Kawakami, Buerhle and Maholm make the list is surprising to us since they don't profile as power pitchers. Plus, two of them aren't really very good. You can guess who we mean.
Unexpected Hitters in the Top 10: Kurt Suzuki and Juan Rivera come in at 2nd and 4th. The rest are all guys like Chipper Jones, Carlos Beltran, Albert Pujols and other elite-level hitters, so nothing too surprising here, except for hot-hitting Ben Zobrist's appearance at 7.
Worst Slider: Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants. RAA/100: -4.15
Worst Slider Hitter: Mike Fontenot, Chicago Cubs. RAA/100: -4.83
Odd to see Matt Cain topping the list, since he's been having such a great year. By the looks of it he's been getting by on a fastball/changeup platter. On the other hand, we're not surprised to see a Cub top the list of worst hitter of any pitch since they've been such a poor-hitting team this year.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Bottom 10: Justin Verlander's -3.83 ranks 2nd to Cain. Two great pitchers, two awful pitches. But with heat like Verlander's, your slider probably doesn't need to be devastating for you to be a great pitcher.
Unexpected Hitters in the Bottom 10: Geo Soto and Victor Martinez make the list at 7 and 8. Like we said: there's probably plenny o' Cubs in these bottom 10s. Martinez can get around on the heat, but it appears that he's easily fooled by the breaking stuff.
Best Cutter: Kevin Slowey, Minnesota Twins. RAA/100: 21.62
Best Cutter, non-inflated division: Jason Marquis, Colorado Rockies. RAA/100: 4.30
Best Cutter Hitter: Mark Reynolds, Arizona Diamondbacks. RAA/100: 11.32
We feel like Slowey's huge lead on the field means that we should look past his number to see who's a more reasonable member of the pack, and surprisingly we came away with Marquis. Whom we still hate. But he's been having a good year, and it appears that this success with his cutter is one of the biggest reasons why. We're not sure if we're surprised about Reynolds topping the list, since he's been having a great year, but with the amount he strikes out, he must really be laying into these when he does make contact.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Top 10: Todd Wellemeyer ranks third. We'd always thought he lived off his heater, but apparently the cutter's working for him...Dallas Braden, Scott Feldman and Jon Garland take up the next three spots after Wellemeyer, and, well, none of these guys seem like they should be ranking in the top 10 in anything, but good on them for finding a pitch that works for them.
Unexpected Hitters in the Top 10: Juan Rivera and James Loney are a close second and third...Bengie Molina can't hit the heat but is 8th best at hitting cutters, right ahead of Jeremy Hermida.
Worst Cutter: Zach Duke, Pittsburgh Pirates. RAA/100: -6.16
Worst Cutter Hitter: Ivan Rodriguez, Houston Astros. RAA/100: -10.48
Most pitchers don't throw cutters, which sort of skews these numbers, but it appears that Duke would be best served by joining the ranks of those who don't give this pitch a whirl. It's pretty awful. And again, we're not surprised by the old catchers being bad at hitting pitches. On a game we watched recently, the announcers described Rodriguez's swing as being "slider-speed;" it appears that cutters are indeed faster than sliders.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Bottom 10: Josh Beckett's #2 spot is surprising here...Jake Peavy's in the negatives, with the 8th-worst cutter in the lig.
Unexpected Hitters in the Bottom 10: Eh, no one surprising. Everyone here's having a bad year and/or is a bad player.
Best Curveball: Brad Bergesen, Baltimore Orioles. RAA/100: 10.29
Best Curveball Hitter: Robinson Cano, New York Yankees. RAA/100: 6.18
Bergesen has been a nice shot in the arm for the pitching-starved Orioles, who still lack for a Major League-quality output from the mound. But he'd best not hang one to divisional foe Cano, who apparently lays the wood to yakkers with regularity.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Top 10: Dallas Braden is 2nd with a 5.49 mark...Livan Hernandez lays claim to the 4th best...Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, and Todd Wellemeyer round out the top 10. Floyd's calling card as a prospect was his curveball; looks like it hasn't deserted him yet.
Worst Curveball: Chris Young, San Diego Padres. RAA/100: -9.48
Worst Curveball Hitter: Jose Guillen, Kansas City Royals. RAA/100: -5.70
How the mighty have fallen, eh, Chris? Maybe he should've studied more physics at Princeton to figure out how to get a little more tumble on the old Uncle Charlie. Jose Guillen's struggles come as something of the opposite of a surprise, because he's a hacktastic dude who probably doesn't wait on easy pitches to hit.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Bottom 10: CC Sabathia's -3.48 clocks him in at 6th. Big ole Bronx cheer for him, eh?...Rick Porcello can't do it all, it seems: he's posting a -2.92, 8th on this list.
Unexpected Hitters in the Bottom 10: Matt Holliday, at -4.81, shows us another reason for his struggles this season...Alfonso Soriano represents the Cubs with pride at the 7th spot.
Best Changeup: Braden Looper, Milwaukee Brewers. RAA/100: 6.25
Best Changeup Hitter: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers. RAA/100: 9.36
Looks like Looper gives Braun some tips on how to hit the slowball. The teammates are both first in their respective categories by a healthy margin.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Top 10: Ken Kawakami is 2nd. Not unexpected for a guy who pitches like he does, but unexpected because he's not been great...Tim Lincecum finally makes an appearance, coming in right behind Kawakami. We'd have expected him to be higher on the fastball and curveball lists...Chris Young redeems himself a bit with a 5th place showing, right ahead of Brian Tallet of the Blue Jays and Zach Duke.
Unexpected Hitters in the Top 10: Jerry Hairston, Jr is 6th, while Alexei Ramirez is 10th. A couple impatient shortstops recognize and pulverize one of the tougher pitches in baseball to see. Weird.
Worst Changeup: Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs. RAA/100: -126.69
Worst Changeup Hitter: J.J. Hardy, Milwaukee Brewers. RAA/100: -6.26
Wow. We like to think that Dempster threw one changeup and the result was so disastrous that he scrapped the pitch entirely. Like maybe he blew a no hitter and the game by throwing one in the bottom of the 9th with bases loaded and giving up a grand slam. And then, we don't know, the stadium collapsed. That seems like it's worth a -126, right? Also, we were hoping that Dave Bush or someone would have the worst changeup so the Brewers would sweep. It appears that Braden Looper does not take too kindly to Mr. Hardy.
Unexpected Pitchers in the Bottom 10: Carlos Zambrano continues the Cub suckfest at #2, and #3 ain't even close to him...hey, Brewer Dave Bush comes in at 7. Not quite bad enough for the Brewer sweep, though. Maybe he should take lessons from Dempster.
Unexpected Hitters in the Bottom 10: No one, really. Those guys all suck.
As for splitters and knuckleballs, the last two pitches that Fangraphs charts, very few pitchers throw them so we're not gonna spend much time on them.
Best Splitter: Trevor Cahill, Oakland A's. RAA/100: 26.63
Best Splitter Hitter (heh): Yunel Escobar, Atlanta Braves. RAA/100: 37.98
Worst Splitter: Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore Orioles. RAA/100: -141.41
Worst Splitter Hitter: Kevin Kouzmanoff, San Diego Padres. RAA/100: -21.62
Good God, Guthrie! That's the sort of thing we expect from Oriole pitching. If Dempster's -126 brought down a stadium, Guthrie must've caused an international incident with his split piece. Also, Mark DeRosa and Ben Francisco have yet to see a splitter. We feel like they're deprived. Won't someone have pity on them?
Best Knuckleball: Tim Wakefield, Boston Red Sox. RAA/100: 0.45
Best Knuckleball Hitter: Jose Guillen, Kansas City Royals. RAA/100: 38.58
Well, Wakefield's the only guy with a recorded knuckler, and so he wins even though his .45 is pretty shoddy. But that also means he's the worst knuckleballer around, so there's that.
Worst Knuckleball Hitter: Jason Bay, Boston Red Sox. RAA/100: -23.38
The fact that Wakefield is the only pitcher with a recorded knuckleball this year begs the question of how, exactly, Jason Bay (and Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Lowell, and Kevin Youkilis) have seen the pitch. We think the Red Sox are practicing black magic.
Also, we wondered if hitting a knuckleball is an actual skill, so we looked at some of the leaders' career numbers versus a knuckleball. The answer: nope. Probably because they see so few of them every year, the average RAA/100 for hitters fluctuated wildly from year to year.
So, what do we ultimately learn from all this? Well, think about "elite" players. With the exception of Haren's fastball, none of the "bests" from above are guys we think of as cream of the crop-type players. Yeah, the elite guys show up in the top part of the rankings, but in terms of runs above average, they're not the best of the best. Pujols, for example, handles fastballs, sliders, and cutters with aplomb, putting up ~4, 3, and 2 RAA/100 each. But he's below average on curveballs and splitters. There's probably a good deal of statistical noise that is involved with sample sizes and such, but even dominant players can have significant weaknesses in their game.
In fact, if you exclude knuckleballs, only one hitter is above average at handling each pitch: David Wright. Everyone else is in the negatives with at least one type of pitch. And on the pitching side, only three pitchers are above average at throwing each of their pitches: Dan Haren, Zack Greinke, and Josh Johnson. And furthermore, that the guys who are best at a particular pitch aren't necessarily great players shows us that there's perhaps less of a difference between elite and mediocre than we might think. If, say, Denard Span is the best in the league at hitting a slider, but has a barely above-average 109 OPS+, or Ryan Dempster has the worst changeup in the league but can get well-deserved Cy Young votes (last year, we mean), then it appears that the talent distribution is more even than we, at least, initially thought.
Put it this way: if this were a science fair project, our (simplified) hypothesis would've been: Albert Pujols Is The Best At Hitting Each Pitch And Tim Lincecum's Pitches Are All The Best. And we'd have been wildly wrong. And probably lost, since this is a post about baseball, not science. But that's why we use stats like these: because who would ever predict that Brad Bergesen would be the most adept at making Jose Guillen look silly with a curveball?