Value Proposition: Who Has the Most Valuable Pitches in Baseball?
Can you imagine the kind of pitcher that would result from adding up the best individual pitches in the league?
That hurler would be untouchable.
It’s always fun to identify the owners of the best pitches in a given season, so we will go ahead and examine the 2022 campaign.
We can always go by the eye test, but numbers don’t lie.
In this case, we will judge them by raw value (RV), a metric that examines things like plate discipline, quality and quantity of contact and assigns value to the different outcomes a pitch has, not just the final result of the at-bat.
For example, hurlers are credited for coaxing opposing hitters into a poor launch angle, exit velocity or horizontal spray angle (i.e., pop-ups), and they are penalized for leaving middle-middle pitches or showing less-than-ideal control.
This advanced stat also considers a pitcher’s stuff and its ability to earn both strikes and whiffs.
If we add up the accumulated RV (lower is better for pitchers) on each pitch in the 2022 season, we can know who had the most valuable offerings.
Let’s go through the best in each pitch type.
Slider: Dylan Cease, Chicago White Sox
Cease was a legitimate Cy Young candidate in the American League, an award that ended up going to Justin Verlander’s shelf for the third time. The White Sox right-hander, however, earns the distinction of having the single best pitch in MLB during the 2022 season: his slider.
Watching Cease’s slider miss bats left and right was a thing of beauty. The pitch earned an incredible minus-33 RV and was considerably better than the next-best slider (minus-24 by Shohei Ohtani).
Cease’s slider, which was also the most valuable of 2021, was so good that he threw it more than his four-seam fastball: he went with it 42.9% of the time, compared to 40.7% heaters.
The split was even more pronounced when he was ahead in the count (46.6% slider versus just 35.8% fastballs). He will also throw a curve and, very rarely, a changeup.
What made Cease’s slider so great? It fared positively in all three aspects of pitching: whiff+ (136), strike+ (114) and command+ (103).
For reference, whiff+ evaluates a pitcher’s ability to miss bats, strike+ gauges how good he is at earning strikes (swinging and called in the strike zone) and command+ tries to determine whether he can achieve what he wants with each pitch he throws. For all three metrics, 100 is considered average and anything higher than that is desirable.
Cease’s stuff and these splits helped him post a 2.20 ERA and 227 strikeouts in just 184 innings. He was a beast in 2022.
Next Best: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels (minus-24)
Four-seam Fastball: Cristian Javier, Houston Astros
You might be surprised to learn that the Astros signed Javier at 18, not at 16 when most young prospects commit their future to an MLB franchise. And they did it for just $10,000. His fastball didn’t even crack 87 mph, but the team liked his clean delivery and his athleticism.
He improved his slider, curveball, and changeup, but the organization left his four-seamer alone because it’s always been a natural wonder because of the way it “rises.”
It doesn’t really rise: all fastballs drop because of gravity, but Javier’s low release point and solid spin rates mitigate most of that drop and force hitters to miss it. It’s really wonderful to see.
Nowadays, his fastball velocity is not elite by any means – he averages 93.8 mph with it. But it was the best four-seamer in baseball anyway with an RV of minus-21.
Javier, who played a key role for Houston in the playoffs, parlayed his excellent heater to a 2.54 ERA and a 0.95 WHIP. He struck out a whopping 194 batters in 148.2 innings.
Yes, the Astros just lost free agent Justin Verlander to the New York Mets, but it may not be the end of the world after all.
Next Best: Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves (minus-16.8)
Splitter: Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays
You probably expected this one, let’s be honest. For the second straight year, Gausman had by far the best split-finger in baseball (minus-18.8).
Just take a look at it:
The ball tumbles and disappears before the hitter can do anything with it. The pitch earned an obscene 168 whiff+ and forced hitters into making awful contact, as it had an 81 BIP+ (this metric evaluates quality of contact and it’s adjusted so 100 is average and anything lower represents less than ideal contact).
When you have such a good pitch, you just have to throw it a lot. Gausman’s go-to offering is still his four-seamer at 48.7%, but he goes to his elite splitter 36.4% of the time. It’s good enough to fool lefties and righties.
In fact, he uses it 50.7% of the time when he’s ahead in the count. He likes to go for the kill with the splitty, and how could he not?
Thanks mainly to the offering’s effectiveness, Gausman had a 3.35 ERA but a much better 2.32 FIP. And 133 of his 205 strikeouts (in 174.2 frames) were on splitters.
Next Best: Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays (minus-12.7)
Changeup: Sandy Alcántara, Miami Marlins
We had warned you that Alcántara was on the verge of achieving great things as a starting pitcher on the strength of his changeup. Now, he can say he won an NL Cy Young Award thanks to it and his many talents on the mound.
The pitch had an elite RV at minus-18.4, but that’s not the most impressive part.
Alcántara finished with above-average marks in whiff+ (122), strike+ (118) and command+ (111), so he pretty much did what he wanted with his change. The evolution of the pitch is probably the main driving factor behind his improvement in ERA, from a 3.19 finish in 2021 to a career-best 2.28 mark in 2022.
The most amazing part of it all was that opposing hitters managed just a 26 BIP+ against Alcántara’s changeup last season. That’s absurdly low and an indication of the poor contact batters had when facing the offering.
It was so good that the changeup became Alcántara’s most frequently used pitch at 27.5%. He trusted it in all situations and it paid off.
Next Best: Jeffrey Springs, Tampa Bay Rays (minus-13.9)
Cutter: Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
With an RV of minus-18.2, Burnes’ cutter was the cream of the crop in MLB. Of course, this is no secret for anyone who has seen him pitch since 2020. His cut fastball is really something else and the key to his breakout that year.
Burnes put himself in a lot of advantageous counts with his cutter, which had a 121 strike+. Additionally, he forced hitters into some really bad swing decisions as they had a poor 80 discipline+ against it.
Burnes’ 2.94 ERA in 202 innings can largely be attributed to his excellent cutter, a pitch he uses a whopping 55.5% of the time and reaches home plate at an average of 95.0 mph. Of his 243 strikeouts, an MLB-high 114 of them went down on his cutter.
The Brewers right-hander also had the most valuable cutter last year, and as long as the pitch behaves like it does, he’ll continue to be a dominant force in the league.
Next Best: Kenley Jansen, Atlanta Braves (minus-15)
Two-Seam Fastball: Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays
Manoah was actually a Cy Young finalist in the American League, which is everything you need to know about the kind of season he had.
No two-seamer was more valuable than Manoah’s at minus-12.4. By average, it’s a 93.3-mph fastball that’s actually his third favorite pitch.
He did, however, throw it a lot – 26.2% of the time. That’s close to his slider (27.3%) and four-seamer (35.6%).
The pitch wasn’t anything special from a bat-missing standpoint (80 whiff+), but did earn an elite 36 BIP+. The league-average BIP+ (which measures quality of contact or the damage inflicted after it) is 100, so Manoah’s two-seamer produced lots of easy outs.
All things considered, Manoah’s two-seamer was key to him finishing 16-7 with a 2.24 ERA in a breakout 2022 season.
Next Best: Alex Cobb, San Francisco Giants (minus-10.3)
Curveball: Charlie Morton, Atlanta Braves
Last, but not least: the hook.
Morton is a known curveball artist who led the majors with a 3,069 spin rate among those who threw at least 400 breaking balls.
And he did not disappoint in 2022 as his curveball was the best in the business with an RV of minus-15.2.
It missed bats at an incredible rate as its 146 whiff+ suggests, although hitters did inflict some damage when they made contact (120 BIP+).
Morton’s curveball is one of the most aesthetically pleasing pitches in baseball, and there is no doubt about it.
With a 4.34 ERA in 172 innings, Morton’s 2022 wasn’t quite as good as you would think. At 39, he is getting up there in age.
However, no one can take his beautiful curve from him.
Next Best: Triston McKenzie, Cleveland Guardians (minus-13.9)
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