The Best Pitch In Baseball

In only his second start as a major leaguer, Jake Thompson took the mound against the Colorado Rockies and, despite the mathematical issues that make such an accomplishment improbable, proceeded to record four strikeouts in a single inning, becoming the first Phillies pitcher to do so since 1902. To execute such a feat, Thompson took advantage of an archaic and confusing baseball rule that, for the benefit of the reader, may be loosely translated as follows:

If, with two strikes in the count, a batter proceeds to swing at a pitch so far removed from the strike zone that it is not only unhittable, but uncatchable by the very player whose designation is to catch the baseball, then the batter may commence as if he, by virtue of his own skill, put the ball in the actual field of play.

The seemingly inane rule allowed us to witness a pitching event that occurs more infrequently than the much celebrated no-hitter. But more relevant to the author’s intentions, it has given us a pretense upon which to discuss the pitch not only directly responsible for the rule’s enforcement, but also largely instrumental in the consequent four strikeouts. That is, Jake Thompson’s slider.

Of the pitch, Baseball Prospectus has this to offer:

“One of the best descriptors the baseball lexicon has is “wipeout” as it pertains to the quality of a slider. No other pitch gets the label, and Thompson, lucky son of a gun that he is, has a slider worthy of the title.”

Whether the possession of his wipeout slider is attributable to luck, as this particular scout would suggest, or to some manner of Thompson’s own aptitude for pitching, I have no data to offer any speculation. To the extent that it is, in fact, a wipeout offering, I point to the movement and velocity qualities of the pitch as measured by the PITCHf/x cameras. In this regard, Thompson’s slider is unusual, as it exhibits both exceptional horizontal movement and depth for a pitch of its type. In point of fact, there is only one pitch in baseball that bears any similarity:

Velocity (mph) Horizontal Movement Vertical Movement
Jake Thompson 82.8 9.4 -2.9
Corey Kluber 83.8 9.4 -1.2

The approximate league-average swinging strike rate for the slider is 15%. For the curveball, it’s 11%. The above pitch that Kluber throws, whose namesake remains of some debate, has garnered a 23% swinging strike rate over the last three years, a period in which Kluber accumulated more WAR than any pitcher in baseball not named Clayton Kershaw.

Moreover, the pitch has allowed a miniscule slugging percentage of .146 during that same three year stretch. It is through this complete suppression of offense that the pitch, by run value (per 100 pitches), ranks as the most valuable pitch of any kind in 2016. The same pitch was also the league’s best in 2015. And 2014, as well. For the entirety of his tenure as a top flight starting pitcher, Kluber, lucky son of a gun that he is, has been in possession of the most effective pitch in baseball.

The likeness of Thompson’s slider to Kluber’s offering does not, on its own, assure the same degree of success for the former. What it suggests, however, in concurrence with at least one carefully selected scouting report, is that he owns a top-shelf secondary offering capable of eliciting both whiffs and weak contact at the highest level of baseball. In light of Thompson so far demonstrating a level of control that would make Phillippe Aumont cringe, this point remains largely moot. But if he’s able to eventually stumble upon the strike zone, possession of such a pitch bodes well for his future employment, and perhaps success, in the major leagues. Regard as evidence: in no fewer than one innings, the pitch induced a 30% swinging strike rate and put the stamp on three of the four recorded strikeouts.

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  1. Terry

    August 25, 2016 03:05 AM

    Well, no, I’d say there is no best pitch in baseball.

    What makes Dellin Betances’ slider so devastating? Arm-slot, how tall he is, a 100 mph fastball, long stride, relative control between the two, etc. Which is why there is no single “greatest pitch”. The other pitches effect the quality of the “best” pitch. The relative arm-angles and deceptive release are as important as the FX metrics.

    For example, a changeup with 25 mph separation and breaks twice as far as a CHris Sale changeup might seem “unhittable”, but all too many of these “Eephus” pitches are telegraphed. The result is predictable: a rocket somewhere due to the lack of deception coupled with the fact that the pitch just doesn’t fit in the pitcher’s arsenal of other quality pitches.

    It’s never one pitch.

    It’s the whole package.

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