Around this time every year, as we’re gearing up for the regular season, I tend to take a look back at some of the best pitches that were thrown last year. A few weeks ago, I did an article on the most-chased pitches of 2021, and I’ll be doing more looks at some of the best pitches of 2021 later.
But today, I want to take a look at something else—pitchers who were throwing nasty pitches that you may not have realized were doing so.
We all know that Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler and Gerrit Cole all throw absolute filth. They’re some of the best pitchers in baseball, and they got that way with great pitching (this is the top-level analysis I think we all expect from Pitcher List—great pitchers are great because of great pitching).
But what’s fun for me is taking a look at guys who may not have had the best season last year, but had (at least) one pitch that killed batters.
So we’re going to take a look at seven pitchers who threw money pitches last year. What’s a money pitch? I’m glad you asked! It’s a pitch that has:
- at least a 40% chase rate
- at least a 40% zone rate
- at least a 15% SwStr rate
In essence, a pitch that was located well and consistently fooled hitters both inside and outside the zone. In total, there were 15 pitches being thrown by starters that were money pitches last year—here are seven (featured in no particular order) from pitchers that might surprise you.
1. Alex Wood’s Slider
If you happened to read my most-chased pitches article (and if you did, thank you, you’re the best and very smart and awesome), you’ll have seen this pitch on there too.
Alex Wood’s slider wasn’t just a money pitch last year, its 44.3% chase rate was good enough for the ninth-best chase rate in baseball (min. 400 pitches thrown). Alongside that awesome chase rate came a 21% SwStr rate and a 49.1% zone rate.
Ultimately, Wood ended the year with a 3.83 ERA, 3.48 FIP, and 3.60 SIERA, all of which suggest he could repeat his success again. And if this slider continues being awesome while his sinker continues to induce weak contact, I don’t see any reason he couldn’t.
2. Matthew Boyd’s Changeup
If you’re a lifelong #BoydBoy and have been following Matthew Boyd’s career closely, then hey Alex Fast, how are you buddy? Hope you’re well.
You also may know that Boyd has, in the past, had a pretty nasty slider. But that’s not the pitch we’re talking about, because last year, it was Boyd’s changeup that worked well as a putaway pitch.
Boyd added his changeup in 2020. That pitch was nasty from the start, posting a 43.1% chase rate and 25.7% SwStr rate in that debut season. Unsurprisingly, the pitch was once again pretty awesome this year, with a 42.7% chase rate, 47.4% zone rate, and 16.1% SwStr rate.
So what about that slider? That was decidedly less effective than it has been in the past. The 34% chase rate and 11.6% SwStr rate are solid and all, if regressions from previous years, but they also came with a .208 ISO against and .330 wOBA against.
Boyd’s a tough case for me. He’s one of those guys I’ve been watching for a long time, a guy who I can tell is a tinkerer, a pitcher who tweaks his game and keeps trying to get better. And I’ve always felt he was just inches away from being a really awesome pitcher.
This changeup felt like the answer! Finally, Boyd has two nasty putaway pitches! But while the changeup has been great, the slider has been less effective, and Boyd has suffered, posting a nasty 6.71 ERA back in 2020. However, 2021 was a bit of a rebound with a 3.89 ERA (though a 4.10 FIP and 4.56 SIERA).
Unfortunately, Boyd’s 2020 and 2021 were both cut short by elbow injuries, and in September, Boyd underwent surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his throwing arm. Is that injury why his slider has been less effective? I think that’s possible. Does that mean, post-surgery, the slider will be back to what it was? That I don’t know. I’m hopeful. But we’ll see what the future holds for Matthew Boyd. He says he’ll pitch in 2022, I hope he does, and I hope he is able to put it all together.
3. Jordan Montgomery’s Curveball
If you know anything about Jordan Montgomery, you know his curveball is his calling card. Since his rookie season in 2017, it’s been his best pitch, and typically his most-thrown pitch.
Last year, The Bear’s curveball looked better than it has since his rookie season, posting a 41.2% chase rate, 40.5% zone rate, and 20.7% SwStr rate.
So is it any surprise that Montgomery also posted his best season since his rookie year? His curveball was a large part of that, as was his changeup, which posted a nasty 21.7% SwStr rate alongside a solid 33.2% chase rate and a .233 wOBA against.
We’ve known Montgomery has it in him to be a really good pitcher ever since he came on the scene in 2017 and impressed to the tune of a 3.88 ERA. So could he post something similar to the 3.83 ERA he had last year again this year?
I think it’s doable, especially if his changeup and curveball keep looking awesome. But his sinker worries me—last year it had a .418 wOBA against and a 14.1% walk rate. That’s not good, especially since he throws that pitch a lot. The four-seamer looked better though, and I’m hopeful he starts using that more than the sinker.
4. Dane Dunning’s Changeup
Dunning’s changeup was the money pitch, with a 43% chase rate, 42% zone rate, and 18% SwStr rate, but he really had two putaway pitches—this and his slider, which posted a 40.6% chase rate and 19.7% SwStr rate.
So why isn’t Dunning better then? Well, first, I’d point you to his 3.94 FIP, which is a bit more palatable than his 4.51 ERA (though yes, I will acknowledge he has a 4.12 SIERA, I don’t want to cherry-pick).
Second, the problem more than anything is command. While the changeup was a money pitch, it also came with a .350 wOBA and .203 ISO against. And his cutter was even worse, posting a 20%(!) walk rate and a .420 wOBA against (though just a .037 ISO against, so I guess there’s that).
His most-thrown pitch, his sinker, posted a .343 wOBA and .147 ISO against, which in all honesty, is fine by me. Those numbers aren’t amazing, but they’re good enough that if he’s able to command his other putaway pitches, I can live with that.
That cutter though? Oof. That’s bad.
But let’s imagine a world where Dunning fixes/ditches his cutter and commands his changeup/slider a bit better. All of a sudden, we’ve got a guy with a serviceable sinker and two really solid putaway pitches, and now I think you know why Dane Dunning is a guy I want to keep an eye on.
5. Yusei Kikuchi’s Slider
We have another member of the most-chased pitches list here!
Kikuchi is an interesting case, because the guy definitely has some great pitches, chief among them is this slider. Last year, the pitch had a 45.7% chase rate (good for seventh-highest among starters), a 51.6% zone rate, and a 17% SwStr rate. And on top of that, Kikuchi also had a changeup that posted a 40.7% chase rate and 21.6% SwStr rate.
So how what went wrong? How did Kikuchi end up with a 4.41 ERA, which included a 5.73 ERA from July through the end of the year?
It’s a multi-faceted issue. One problem was Kikuchi’s cutter, which has been an effective pitch in the past. In 2020, for example, the pitch had a .310 wOBA against it, it worked well. But last year, the pitch had a .387 wOBA and .203 ISO against, as well as a 17.5% walk rate, and it lost a tick in velocity.
And while Kikuchi’s slider was a great strikeout pitch, he had some trouble commanding it in the strike zone (a problem Kikuchi has had before), as the pitch had a .201 ISO against it.
That’s what makes Kikuchi such an intriguing guy—he’s got problems he needs to address, clearly, but if he did address them, if he commanded his slider a bit better and either ditched the cutter (because his four-seam fastball does just fine) or adjusted it, he’s got two very good out pitches he can use to get strikeouts. And then, in this ideal fantasy world, suddenly Yusei Kikuchi is a pretty awesome pitcher.
But that’s a lot of ifs.
6. Matt Shoemaker’s Splitter
Matt Shoemaker has been tantalizing fantasy analysts for five years now, but he hasn’t been able to pull together a full season in a long time.
In 2016, Shoemaker pitched 160 innings. Since then, he’s pitched a combined total of 226.1 innings. That’s in five seasons (so an average of about 45 innings per year).
But Shoemaker’s season wasn’t cut short by injury last year, it was cut short by him being terrible, pitching to an 8.06 ERA and a 14.1% strikeout rate through 60.1 innings. Yikes.
So it’s kind of wild to see him on here, but that splitter was a killer pitch, and it has been Shoemaker’s entire career (honestly, it’s probably the reason he’s had a career this long). Last year, the pitch had a 43.3% chase rate, 42.3% zone rate, and 16.5% SwStr rate.
So what was the issue with Shoemaker? Basically everything else. Every pitch he threw that wasn’t his splitter (that’s a four-seam fastball, slider, sinker, and a rare curveball) had an ISO against over .290, and every pitch except for the slider had a wOBA against worse than .470.
In other words, Shoemaker had one good pitch and was eminently hittable everywhere else. That’s…not great.
7. Paolo Espino’s curveball
So I’d imagine this is a name you weren’t expecting to see (certainly it was a name I didn’t expect).
Paolo Espino, a 35-year-old journeyman who pitched a grand total of 30 innings at the major league level coming into 2021, started 19 games for the Nationals (and pitched another 16 out of the bullpen) because when you’re rebuilding, these are the kinds of things you do.
And you know what? The guy has a nasty curveball. Last year, the pitch registered a 42.6% chase rate, 40.7% zone rate, and 15.5% SwStr rate, altogether a really nice out pitch.
Unfortunately, Espino also threw an 89 mph fastball more than any other pitch and it got knocked around to the tune of a .355 wOBA and .237 ISO against. Meanwhile, his other main pitch—a slider—posted a respectable 36.4% chase rate and 12.7% SwStr rate, but also got launched with a .215 ISO against.
But I mean, hey, great curveball.
(Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerguyboston on Twitter)