We are a month into another great season of baseball and we have seen plenty of great pitching already both unexpected and expected starting most notably with Phil Humber’s perfect game continuing on with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel’s out-of-nowhere emergence and Joe Saunders’ MLB-best 0.90 ERA on the unexpected side ranging over to the expected of Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg mowing through their opponents with little to no resistance.
With all of that great pitching in mind, I wanted to look at the best pitches of the month. This idea was at least partially influenced by BP colleague Sam Miller’s ridiculously excellent series highlighting the best pitches of the week. I was wanting to do something like this last year, but lacked the means to acquire GIFs such as those you’ll see below and reading Sam’s work on the week’s best pitches jogged my memory and ended up as the impetus to make my computer GIF-ready and introduce the series.
To determine the “best” pitches of the month, I will be using FanGraphs Pitch Values and then supplying GIF-based examples of those of pitches. FanGraphs offers pitch values on fastball, slider, cutter, curveball, changeup, split-finger and knuckleball pitches, but for this exercise, we will be looking at the first five as so few actually throw a split-finger and only R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball among qualified starting pitchers.
I’ll list the top overall value for each pitch, the top value in the other league (so if 1st place is from an NL guy, I’ll list the top AL guy even if he’s further down the list) and also the top surprise listing which is of course arbitrary to my own tastes. GIFs will be included for the Top Overall in each pitch only.
- Top Overall – Lance Lynn (Value 8.5, Usage 64%, Velocity 92.3 MPH)
- Top Other League – Jon Lester (6.0 [7th-best], 56%, 92.3 MPH)
- Top Surprise – Joe Saunders (7.1 [3rd-best], 69%, 89.2 MPH)
Lynn is using his fastball almost 10% less than he did last year when he was coming out of the bullpen shifting that pitch mix over to his slider and changeup as he has made a seamless transition and almost made Cardinals fans forget Chris Carpenter, who is shelved with an injury.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that Lynn’s heater lost just 0.9 MPH in the shift. Oftentimes since relievers are max effort hurlers used an inning at a time, their velocity will be higher than it would as a starter, but Lynn has maintained his heat almost entirely. Lynn is 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 8.0 K/9 and 4.0 K/BB in 27 IP.
Here is a look at some Lynn fastballs from his April 14th home start against the Chicago Cubs. He is facing off against Marlon Byrd in the top of the 5th inning. Byrd is befuddled. (Please excuse the very amateur GIF’ing as these are literally my first GIFs ever on a program that is brand new to me. Hopefully you see improvement as the list progresses as I started to get the hang of it by the time I was working on the changeup leader.)
- Top Overall – Madison Bumgarner (Value 5.9, Usage 40%, Velocity 87.4 MPH)
- Top Other League – Brandon Morrow (3.5 [7th-best], 22%, 86.8 MPH)
- Top Surprise – Barry Zito (4.4 [3rd-best], 37%, 78.7 MPH)
If sliders do eat up a starter’s arm then Bumgarner could be in trouble in the future. He is throwing his fastball 14% less than last year (down to 39%) and 8% of that workload has gone to his devastating slider which is serving him quite well to start the season as he has a 2.53 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in his 32 IP of work. His groundball rate is up to a career-best 55% (not counting the 58% in 10 IP from 2009), but his strikeout rate is way down thanks to just 7 K in his first three starts spanning 17.3 IP.
Since, he has 10 K in 14.7 IP across two starts for a much more palatable 6.1 K/9 compared to his season mark of 4.8 K/9. The surface results are there, but the peripherals are lagging behind a bit save the groundball rate and I’m at least a tick concerned about the escalating slider workload (from 20% in 2010 to this year’s 40%). Of course, then I watch him throw it and understand why he wants to rely on it so much.
Here he is throwing the beautiful breaker in his April 17th start against the Philadelphia Phillies in the top of the 3rd inning against both Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins.
- Top Overall – Tommy Hunter (Value 5.1, Usage 28%, Velocity 85.2 MPH)
- Top Other League – Roy Halladay (4.2 [2nd-best], 23%, 76.5 MPH)
- Top Surprise – Carlos Zambrano (3.0 [3rd-best], 26%, 88.5 MPH)
Hunter atop any of these lists might be a bit of a surprise to some as he is a league average pitcher at best who hasn’t reached 130 IP in any of his three major league seasons, but last year his cutter netted a 6.6 value which was good for 8th in all of baseball among pitchers with 80+ IP.
Hunter hasn’t parlayed his big cutter into any real success thus far toting a 4.26 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 32 innings across five starts. His control is at a career-worst 3.1 BB/9 pairing with his 5.1 K/9 to yield a meager 1.6 K/BB.
Here is Hunter taking care of Brent Morel in the bottom of the 1st inning of his April 18th start against the Chicago White Sox.
- Top Overall – Jonathan Niese/Erik Bedard-tie (Value 4.1, Usage 22%/27%, Velocity 74.3 MPH/75.0 MPH)
- Top Other League – Jake Arrieta (2.3 [6th-best], 17%, 78.9 MPH)
- Top Surprise – Bronson Arroyo (2.4 [5th-best], 16%, 72.4 MPH)
Niese continues his quest to get his ERA below 4.00 and down to the level of his xFIP (ranging from 3.28 to 3.80 since 2010) and currently sits on the precipice with a 4.08 ERA. He is dogged by a 15% HR/FB thus far as his 3.45 xFIP is much more palatable. Meanwhile his curveball has heavily aided his 7.5 K/9 thus far with 47% of plate appearances that end on curveballs resulting in a strikeout.
It has never been about talent with Bedard, rather health as he hasn’t reached 130 IP since 2007 so it isn’t too surprising that his first five starts with the Pirates have gone pretty well. He has a 2.48 ERA, but a 1.41 WHIP thanks to his .337 BABIP. He has an 8.1 K/9 and 2.2 K/BB in 29 IP. His curveball has been his calling card throughout his injury-addled career along with a strong fastball, but this year’s fastball value is being eaten up by a .396 BABIP resulting in a -1.6 value thus far.
Here is Niese’s curve from his April 26th start against the Miami Marlins with a splicing of pitches from a faceoff with Austin Kearns in the top of the 4th and Brett Hayes in the top of the 6th. Also you will see Bedard’s curveball from a pair of at-bats against Dan Uggla on April 28th in the bottom of the 3rd and 5th innings.
- Top Overall – Tommy Milone (Value 5.1, Usage 28%, Velocity 79.5 MPH)
- Top Other League – Anibal Sanchez (4.2 [2nd-best], 19%, 83.3 MPH)
- Top Surprise – Jake Peavy (4.1 [3rd-best], 9%, 83.6 MPH)
Milone entered his Monday night start against the Boston Red Sox with a 2.00 ERA and 0.87 WHIP impressing along the way despite a modest opponent list of Kansas City, Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago (the bookends both at home). The Red Sox would be his first real challenge, especially in Fenway.
They greeted him and his 87 MPH fastball rather rudely as he allowed 7 ER in 4.7 IP pushing his ERA to 3.69 in the process. Milone is a command and control lefty who doesn’t generate many strikeouts due to a lack of overpowering stuff and needs to effectively change speeds to have success so it isn’t entirely surprising to see him atop the changeup list.
Here he is during his April 24th start, a much more successful outing against the Chicago White Sox during which he threw eight scoreless innings of ball. Take a look at four changeups across two at-bats, first against Paul Konerko in the top of the 1st and then against Tyler Flowers in the top of the 2nd.