Best Pitchers by Pitch Value

There is a wealth of technical data available today on pitching, the basics like the type of pitch and its location, and the exotic, covering everything from velocity to movement (vertical and horizontal) to spin rate. But, what may be lost in all of the numbers is which pitches were most or least effective in getting batters out. More on the best pitchers and their best pitches is after the jump.

Sports Info Solutions (originally Baseball Info Solutions) has developed a methodology for measuring pitch effectiveness at both the micro and macro level, looking at changes in run expectancy with each pitch of a plate appearance (the micro level), and with the final pitch of a plate appearance (the macro level). Thus, a pitch called a ball would have a small negative value (from the pitcher’s perspective) because the resulting change in the count has improved the batter’s chances slightly, while a pitch for a strike would have a small positive value because the batter’s chances have declined slightly. The final pitch of a PA, resulting in a strikeout, walk (or HPB) or ball in play, would have a large value, positive or negative, because outs and baserunners produce significant changes in run expectancy.

Marrying pitch value with pitch type is one way to quantify the effectiveness of different pitches thrown by individual pitchers. That said, the resulting values of Corey Kluber‘s curveball or Clayton Kershaw‘s slider are not just about those particular pitches, but also about how the pitcher has used that pitch, including its use against some hitters but not others, its use in certain counts, its location, its sequencing with other pitches, etc. In other words, all of the factors that comprise effective pitching.

The pitch value data from Sports Info Solutions ares available on FanGraphs for seasons since 2002. In the tables below are the most effective pitches and pitchers for those seasons, measured by runs saved above average. The data shown are for seasons of 140 IP, or 100 IP for the current 2019 season. Let’s start with the best pitcher seasons for the primary pitch types.

As a reminder, the measurement shown is Runs Saved Above Average. These top seasons will tend to skew to the earlier part of the measurement period as pitcher workloads were somewhat heavier then compared to the current day. Also, the “cutter” category was introduced only in 2004, so these pitches in 2002 and 2003 would have been classified in one of the other categories, probably as fastballs or sliders. Note that four of the top 10 in the “All Pitches” category were in Cy Young winning seasons. It’s also worth noting that two pitchers make these lists for the still to be completed 2019 season.

Looking at seasons with Top 10 finishes gives us this view.

Clayton Kershaw figures prominently as the leader for most top 10 seasons in three categories, and a third place showing in a fourth category. Note that Greg Maddux makes the list for his changeup, despite having only the tail end of his career covered by the measurement period.

Counting all Top 10 finishes gives us this result.

It’s probably worth noting that Zack Greinke is the only pitcher with a top 10 season in every category. Also notable that Pedro Martinez makes this list despite having the measurement period cover only about the final third of his career.

For “career” totals, I’ve opened up the criteria to include all seasons (since 2002) and all pitchers. Here are those results, with the relievers who show up giving you some perspective on their dominance in their specialized role.

Impressive that Aaron Nola cracks the top 10 for his curve ball before finishing his fifth season.

For all the details, I leave you with the season-by-season top 10s.

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Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago

Doug, Your research post has been reply-less for a day, and I suspect that others may be, as I was, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. It’s terrific work — as usual — but it’s also all quite new to me when presented in this sort of ranked format, with absolute values I hadn’t thought about before, and in part it’s also because the names overlap eras (Pedro and Smolz alongside Kershaw and Verlander. I’m very far from having been able to sort through the question of what questions to ask of the data. There is a sort of… Read more »

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Kershaw is actually even more dominant than indicated by his count of top 10 seasons. I say that because a large proportion of those top 10s are actually top 5 seasons; it’s no accident that Kershaw’s career RS is 37% higher than Justin Verlander’s second place total. I find it interesting how there are different paths to success. Consider the 2018 season, with Jacob DeGrom. His leading 57.2 RS was 42% from his fastball, 28% from his slider, 22% from his changeup, and still positive RS from the rest of his pitches. No wonder he was so dominant with top… Read more »

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

I know wins aren’t supposed to count, but a pitcher like Hamels, who played for generally successful teams, and averaged 12 wins per season over a 14 year career, while never black-inking, never really looking dominant for a sustained stretch, I just don’t know how he gets HOF without getting a second wind and adding significantly. He’s a fine pitcher, any GM would be happy to have him, but…

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike L

Mike L Agreed. “Wins” aren’t supposed to count”…but how might he get in, otherwise? You have to have some sort of supreme confidence in WAR and then he gets closer but the “ink” ain’t there nor is the JAWS score (yet). We’ve been over this a zillion times but I have to believe pitching WAR is based somewhat in SO/BB ratios and things of that sort and, thusly, Hamels does well with about 6 WAR for every 270 IP. Certainly W-L takes a back seat. Nice pitcher…an ace on some teams but how about throwing in a 20W season here… Read more »

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul E

It’s been a while since we invoked Mike Hoban’s CAWS system. Why not apply it here? The HoF cutoff for pitchers with over 2400 IP is 220. I calculate Hamels as currently at 161.

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

One of the more interesting things about Hamels record is how consistently seasonally solid without quite being an ace he is. Just one season in his career where he made the top ten in overall WAR. Four seasons of 5 BWAR or more, which is quite good, but he doesn’t really soar. If he has three years left with 8 more WAR in him, maybe.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Some quick thoughts on Greinke. Greinke’s probably a safe bet for the Hall, largely because his totals are less impressive than his individual seasons. A 125+ ERA may be a bit underwhelming for the Hall, but he concentrated his value in seasons of 10.4 and 9.1 ERA, with two more in the 5-range and four more in the 4-range. 48.0 WAR concentrated into eight seasons (one still in progress). They were spaced out, with his CYA season followed by three underwhelming years, so those seasons didn’t build his reputation as a superstar, and he has never been a workhorse, but… Read more »

Josh Davis
Josh Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

This is a great post, Doug, and I’ll enjoy pouring over it more in the future. Thank you!

As for Greinke, I think he’s an interesting question. I’d say I’m on the fence with him right now as a Hall of Famer. Fairly or not, I think he has a good opportunity to raise his chances this year if he has a good postseason and wins a championship with the Astros.

Side note: Did you know Greinke is hitting .271 this year and slugging .583? I’m surprised at how good his career hitting numbers are.

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
2 years ago

John Goodman talking about how he’d like a do-over for ‘The babe’:

https://youtu.be/mM_Vo3Zx5u4?t=309

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago

In fly-by mode, so very quickly: there an article on 2019 starters and relievers on FiveThirtyEight.com that I think others might find interesting.

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
2 years ago

Lance Lynn just pitched the 9th searchable game of:

fewer than 6 IP
10 or more SO
7 or more Earned Runs.

Last done by Anibal Sanchez and Noah Syndergaard, a week apart in 2015.
Before that, Cole Hamels in 2006.
Bartolo Colon in 2000.
Mussina in 1998 (4.2 IP)
Schilling in ’97.
Joey Hamilton in ’96.

And the inaugural member of the club?
Nolan Ryan, of course. In 1988.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 years ago

Someone I follow on Twitter tweeted that Clayton Kershaw has the lowest ERA for a live ball era 9-year stretch with 2.20 from 2011-2019 (1500+ IP). That gave me an opportunity to use my rolling n-year period spreadsheet.
Here are the the top 10 after Kershaw.
ERA………..Years………………..Pitcher
2.40………..1992-2000………..Greg Maddux
2.44………..1968-1976………..Tom Seaver
2.47………..1997-2005………..Pedro Martinez
2.49………..1968-1976………..Jim Palmer
2.53………..1965-1973………..Bob Gibson
2.58………..1963-1971………..Juan Marichal
2.59………..1931-1939………..Carl Hubbell
2.64………..1958-1966………..Sandy Koufax
2.66………..1994-2002………..Randy Johnson
2.67………..1964-1973………..Wilbur Wood (Wood did not pitch in 1966)

Bear in mind that due to overlapping years most of the players had more than one such period, I just listed the lowest ones.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Here are the same data (plus a few of my own) sorted by ERA+ scores.
ERA/ERA+…..Years……………….Pitcher
2.47/187……1997-2005………..Pedro Martinez
2.66/174……1994-2002………..Randy Johnson
2.20/172……2011-2019………..Clayton Kershaw
2.40/171……1992-2000………..Greg Maddux
2.94/160…….1930-1938…………Lefty Grove
2.97/147…….2003-2011…………Roy Halladay
2.59/145……1931-1939………..Carl Hubbell
2.44/143……1968-1976………..Tom Seaver
2.53/141……1965-1973………..Bob Gibson
3.23/141…….1996-2004…………Curt Schilling
2.49/139……1967-1976………..Jim Palmer (Palmer did not pitch in 1968)
2.58/135……1963-1971………..Juan Marichal
2.64/135……1958-1966………..Sandy Koufax
2.67/133……1964-1973………..Wilbur Wood (Wood did not pitch in 1966)

Remarkable how different the 1930s run-scoring environments were in the AL (Grove) vs. the NL (Hubbell).

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago

Contemplating playoff matchups. Here are the top three Starters for each contender. LAD – (Ryu, Buehler, Kershaw) 444 IP 9.3 WAR _________ NYY – (Tanaka, German, Paxton) 391 IP 3.5 WAR _________ HOU – (Verlander, Cole, Greinke (incl ARI numbers)) 514 IP 16.0 WAR _________ ATL – (Soroka, Teheran, Fried) 423 IP 10.0 WAR __________ MIN – (Odorizzi, Berrios, Pineda) 423 IP 6.7 WAR __________ CLE – (Beiber, Clevinger, Plesac) 333 IP 8.1 WAR __________ TBR – (Morton, Chirinos, Glasnow) 336 IP 9.0 WAR _________ OAK – (Fiers, Bassitt, Anderson) 428 IP 8.1 WAR __________ WAS – (Scherzer, Corbin, Strasburg)… Read more »

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

The Yankees’ rotation is a thing to behold.

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Domingo German is bumped up to 1.7 WAR with his effort last night.
But still, WAR is not loving him.
Considering his W/L record is 17-3…

Lowest WAR with an .850 winning percentage, minimum 15 decisions:

1.7 … Domingo German
1.7 … Deacon Phillippe
2.2 … Ron Davis
2.3 … Roger Moret
3.2 … Roy Face
3.2 … Brad Peacock
3.3 … John Smoltz
3.6 … Chief Bender
3.7 … Whitey Ford
4.0 … Tom Seaver
4.2 … Bob Stanley

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

Here’s a partial explanation. His ERA+ is 111 which is a little above average and he has had excellent run support from the Yankees. The AL average is 4.88 runs per game and the Yankees have scored 5+ runs in a game he started in 14 of his 22 starts, and in 5 of those games 11+ runs were scored. His FIP is 4.74 which is higher than the AL average of 4.60.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

Perhaps the most comparable season to German’s, innings, WAR and wins-wise, belongs to Matt Moore who garnered 2.6 WAR for the 2013 Rays with a 17-4 record in 150.1 IP. If German doesn’t reach qualified innings, one more win will move him past Moore for the most in a non-qualified season with starts in 60% of games.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Switching gears, J.T. Realmuto on Monday threw out three would-be Pirate base stealers to up his season total to 39, almost double the second-best mark of 20 kills for Yasmani Grandal and Josh Phegley. A lead of 19 over second place is tied with Jody Davis in 1986 (with 89 killls to Tony Pena’s 70) for the biggest since Luke Sewell led by 24 in 1927, while a 1.95 multiplier over second place is the best since 1901, easily topping Frankie Hayes’s mark of 1.55 in 1944.

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Jody Davis’ 89 was the most since the end of the Dead Ball Era (1920, Cy Perkins, 115)

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike L

It’s a slow night on the range and I’m going to spend it being picky. I’m not sure to what end. The “Lively Ball” actually dates from 1911, while lively ball-style play is usually dated from 1920, when Babe Ruth’s example in 1919 and 1920 led some batters to change their swing. So it’s not clear that Cy Perkins (a catcher who was much later Robin Roberts’ mentor) was playing in the Dead Ball Era. Still, the NL lagged in transforming its play. In 1918, the two leagues were very close in OPS: NL: .638; AL .646. In 1919, the… Read more »

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

I’ll take a correction from the esteemed Mr. Eno. I suppose I was using it as an errant shorthand, because MLB did really turn to the HR until it saw the excitement that Ruth brought to the game. in 1920, Ruth hit 54, and no one else managed more than 19. 5 guys tied for 9th with 11. In 1919, Ruth had 29, and only 5 others had 10 or more.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Mike L

Perkins’ 115 CS is by no means an all-time record; it’s just the last time a catcher reached triple digits. From 1901 to 1920, the leading catcher threw out 100 or more in 17 of 20 seasons, with a record total of 156 by Oscar Stanage in 1911. If you threw out 100 in 1914, you would have finished outside the top 10 (incl. FL), while 130 CS in 1909 would have ranked only 5th best. Before 1901 (B-R has totals going back to 1890), the record goes to Deacon McGuire with 189 CS in 1895, 80 more than John… Read more »

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Entering play on Tuesday, the Braves’ Mike Soroka’s 190 ERA+ is the best of the live ball era by any rookie pitcher with 20+ starts, with Jose Fernandez’s 176 mark in 2013 the current standard. Curiously the top 8 are all before 1950 or after 2000.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Guess I jinxed Soroka. Had a good outing (2 runs over 6 IP) against Toronto tonight but was tagged with the loss, his first of the season in 14 games away from home.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Pete Alonso belted his 42nd home run on Tuesday to establish a new single season franchise record. By my count, he’s the 9th rookie to record that feat in a 20 HR season. How many of the others can you name?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Without looking up anything I’ll guess Wally Berger and Harlond Clift. And I think Ralph Kiner tied a record which was previously accomplished by another Pirate rookie.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 years ago

Also Bill Melton for the Chisox. And I now realize that Harlond Clift was an awful guess.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Melton wasn’t a rookie when he set the ChiSox franchise record.

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug,
Are you considering McGwire’s 49 as an “Oakland” record or is that short of Foxx’s “Phila – KC – Oakland Athletics” franchise record?

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul E

I wasn’t counting McGwire.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

In 1969, Nate Colbert, still technically a rookie, smashed a Padres franchise-record 24 HR. No previous Padre had ever come within 24 HR of Colbert’s record, which I’d guess was an MLB record for the margin by which a rookie exceeded a franchise HR record.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Babe Ruth probably holds the record for the largest margin that anyone has exceeded a previous franchise record, topping the previous Yankee record (held by Wally Pipp) by 42 with 54 HR in 1920. Second place would go to Mark McGwire, bumping up the Cardinal record (held by Johnny Mize) by 27 with his 70 dingers in 1998 (I’m excluding “margins” in a franchise’s inaugural season).

So, which player has simultaneously held the franchise record for three franchises?

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

My guess would be Rogers Hornsby. He had the Cardinals record before Mize, then played for four teams in four seasons while still one of the top hitters in the game.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Like Richard, I thought first of Wally Berger, whose name came to mind when I saw a headline last night saying Alonso was the first rookie since 1938 to set a franchise HR record. But I think Berger’s rookie season was 1935 and the 1938 rookie was Johnny Rizzo of the Pirates. If that headline was accurate, then it would seem the others we are looking for would all be pre-1938 (likely in the 1920-1937 time frame). Is that correct?

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
2 years ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Berger’s rookie year was 1930 and his 38 HR set a Braves record for seasonal HR held by Rogers Hornsby who had 21 HR in 1928.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
2 years ago

Thanks, Richard; that makes sense. I guess 1935 was in my head because Berger had that great season (leading the league in HR and RBI?) on an otherwise dismal Braves team – but that was mid-career.

Your note inspires more confidence in Hornsby as the answer to Doug’s second question. He would have then held the Cardinal and Brave team HR records simultaneously for a couple years. Had he also established a high for the Giants or Cubs? The latter seems likely, but it would have been short-lived with Hack Wilson hitting 56 in 1930.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Rajah is correct. He held the Cardinal, Giant and Braves HR records after the 1928 season, and the Cardinal, Brave and Cub records (the last jointly with Wilson) after the 1929 season. He relinquished the Giant record to Ott in 1929, the Braves record to Berger and the Cub record to Wilson, both in 1930, and the Cardinal record to Mize in 1940.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

Rizzo and Berger are correct. Three are after Rizzo, all in franchise inaugural seasons (big hint, there), and three precede Rizzo.

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Seems like one of the inaugural ones is Travis Lee for the 1998 Diamondbacks.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

That’s one, and Richard Chester identified another with Nate Colbert for the Padres in 1969. Colbert extended his record the next season, and held onto it for another 26 years. For Lee, it was one and done.

Lee has the distinction of being the only retired player to homer on opening day in his first and last seasons. He also had one other OD homer; of 149 retired players to homer in three or more OD games (22 active players have done this), only three had fewer career games and HR than Lee.

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Hyun-Jin Ryu
– thru Aug 11: 142.2 IP, 23 ER allowed
– since: 14.2 IP, 18 ER allowed

Doug
Doug
2 years ago

Eduardo Escobar tonight became just the fourth switch-hitter to record a 10/20/30 season, as in 10 triples, 20 doubles and 30 home runs, following Ripper Collins (1934), Mickey Mantle (1955) and Jimmy Rollins (2007). Rollins has the most impressive of those seasons, a 20/30/30 campaign that only lefty Jim Bottomley (1928) has matched.

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHI/PHI200709300.shtml

And Rollins’ 20th triple was on his final PA of the season (6th inning)

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
2 years ago

Lots of runs for the Twins tonight, but they are coming in unexpected ways as they lead the Tigers 12-4. Their first nine runs were scored one at a time in this fashion: single, single, fielder’s choice, fielder’s choice + error, double, sac fly, groundout, passed ball, and fielder’s choice – before Nelson Cruz hit a three-run homer in the 4th.

Scary Tuna
Scary Tuna
2 years ago
Reply to  Scary Tuna

And by “Nelson Cruz” I meant “CJ Cron”. That’s not the first time this season I’ve looked at one of their last names and mistakenly read the other.

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Soriano’s 2002 was extraordinary in so many ways. Here’s one more of them: Most SO with 200+ hits: 189 … Bobby Bonds 157 … Soriano 154 … Mo Vaughn 144 … Mo Vaughn 138 … Dick Allen 135 … Charlie Blackmon 132 … Chase Utley 131 … Alex Rod ___________________________ Here’s his season next to Bonds’: 741… 696 … 128 … 209 … 51 … 2 … 39 … 102 … 41 … 13 … 23 … 157 … .300 … .332 … .547 … .880 … 129 … 381 … 6.1 oWar 745… 663 … 134 … 200 …… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

Voom,
I believe Soriano has all-time “records” for things like “most TB (and/or XBH) with fewer than 25 BB” ; most 30 HR seasons/fewer walks than HR, etc….unique hitter, for sure

Mike L
Mike L
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Nice thing about baseball is the ability to see generational talents and compare them to past greats. Let’s hope Trout avoids the injuries Mickey had and goes on the break just about every record in the book.

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Doug, I’d say that overall, Trout’s September is equally likely to push the totals farther apart. After all, he’s already ahead in 2B, HR, and SB (the last by a ton). But it’s a neat comparison, regardless. Mike L has it right: fingers crossed that injuries don’t screw up what could be the greatest non-PED career of our lifetimes.

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Eno (epm)

Well, Trout won’t be spending his evenings at the Copacabana with Billy Martin. So he’s got that going for him.
40 million a year and a healthy lifestyle in southern California gives him a pretty good chance I’d say.

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

career OPS+ of 176 for Trout; 173 for Mantle. With OPS as close as 1.000 vs. 0.994 , they’re practically hitting in very similar Runs Scored environments as well. With Mantle’s slightly higher OPS, I would suspect their wOBA and wRC are very, very similar

Paul E
Paul E
2 years ago
Reply to  Doug

actually, through 5,258 PA’s Trout is at 10.23 RC/27/AIR versus 10.04 for Mantle. That would give Team Trout an 82.518 – 79.482 seasonal edge over Team Mantle per Pythagoras

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago

Matthew Boyd just pitched the 3rd searchable game of :

4 HR allowed
11 SO
and a Win

It hasnt happened since Art Mahaffey did it to the 1962 Mets.
Mahaffey also hit a Grand Slam:

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN196208020.shtml

The other was Ben Wade in ’52, who was spotted a 12 run lead before giving up the dingers:

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BRO/BRO195205170.shtml

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

I’m not sure feats of prowess against the ’62 Mets should count. . . .

The opposing pitcher in Mahaffey’s game, Craig Anderson, had gone 4-3 for the Cards as a rookie in ’61, and started strong for the Mets, reaching 3-1 with a 2.08 ERA in mid-May for career totals of 7-4 / 2.83. The remainder of his MLB career he was 0-19 / 6.14.

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago

Raisel Iglesias just became the first pitcher since 1989 to lose 11 games in relief while Saving at least 20.

In the same game, John Gant moved to 10-0.
If that record holds, he will become the first reliever ever to win 10 without a loss.
The record is current 9, by Frank DiPino

Bob Eno (epm)
Bob Eno (epm)
2 years ago
Reply to  Voomo

Of course, the statement about Gant’s record isn’t strictly true: Roy Face went 17-0 in 1959 . . . until a mid-September loss spoiled his perfect year. Face had 8 Blown Saves: four cases where crucial inherited runners were charged to his predecessor, and four others where his team bailed him out. Gant has worked 25% fewer IP than Face at this point, and has only 3 BS (but some pretty bad outings where his team was already behind).

Voomo
Voomo
2 years ago

Brandon Workman currently has the lowest H/9 for a season of at least 60 IP:

3.82 … Workman
3.88 … Kimbrel
3.93 … Carl Edwards
3.98 … Josh Hader
____