Every year in the months leading up to spring training, I always love to take a look back at some of the best pitches from the previous year, for a couple of reasons.
First, pitching is my favorite part of baseball (a sentence I’ve probably used for an intro to an article like this about a thousand times), and watching really filthy pitches—the kind of pitches that make major league hitters look stupid, swinging wildly and striking—those are my favorite things to watch.
And second, I love finding pitchers who may not have necessarily had great years last year but were able to consistently fool hitters with a pitch. Sometimes that means those pitchers just got unlucky last year, sometimes it means they’re on the precipice of figuring things out if they make some small adjustments, and sometimes it means they should probably just go to the bullpen. Either way, it’s fun.
So for this article, I’m going to take a look at nine pitchers whom you might not realize threw some great pitches last year. Before we do that, I think I should clarify what a money pitch is—it’s a pitch that has at least a 40% chase rate, 40% zone rate, and 15% SwStr rate. So, essentially, a pitch that fooled hitters consistently and was located well.
So let’s dive in! These pitchers are featured in alphabetical order.
1. Aaron Civale’s curveball
I think a lot of people expected Aaron Civale to regress some after he posted a 2.34 ERA through 57.2 innings in 2019, especially when you saw he had a 3.40 FIP and 4.74 SIERA.
I’m not sure many people expected him to regress as much as he did in 2020, as he posted a 4.74 ERA with a 4.03 FIP and 4.11 SIERA.
Civale’s biggest issue was how much his sinker regressed—in 2019 the pitch gave up just a .269 wOBA and .111 ISO, but in 2020 that pitch turned in a .374 wOBA and .188 ISO against, not what you want for your most-thrown pitch.
He also saw his slider regress pretty badly, going from a .162 wOBA against in 2019 to .483, not to mention a godawful .500 ISO against.
That said, Civale’s curveball was still awesome. A .323 wOBA against isn’t incredible, but the pitch worked really well as a strikeout pitch, posting a 43.3% chase rate, 47.2% zone rate, and 19.7% SwStr rate.
The zone rate on his curveball is very much worth paying attention to, because it’s lightyears better than 2019 when Civale posted a 28.4% zone rate on his curve. He’s locating the curveball a lot better and still getting chases on it, which is really encouraging.
If he can rein in that sinker (or abandon it for another fastball) and his slider, Civale has a pretty solid pitch mix with a cutter that induces weak contact well (.306 wOBA against last year), this great curveball, and a decent changeup.
2. Merrill Kelly’s changeup
What an interesting year for Merrill Kelly. After coming over from the KBO and posting a pretty lackluster season in 2019, not too many people were keen on drafting Kelly in fantasy leagues coming into 2020.
Then he suddenly has a really nice season (albeit in just 31.1 innings), posting a 2.59 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. It’s important to note that ERA came with a 3.99 FIP and 3.92 SIERA, so keep that in mind, but still, Kelly looked interesting.
His changeup was in part to thank for the success. While he didn’t throw it a ton, when he did, it was awesome, posting a 41.9% chase rate, 46.6% zone rate, and 17.2% SwStr rate. That said, he was prone to making some mistakes with it, as opposing hitters had a .227 ISO against the pitch.
The thing that scares me more than anything about Kelly though is his fastball. It’s his most-thrown pitch (as fastballs often are) and he had some serious trouble commanding it, making plenty of mistakes with the pitch. Yes, opposing hitters had just a .217 average against it, but they also had a .217 ISO, meaning the pitch was launched relatively often. That’s not super encouraging for your most-thrown pitch.
3. Randy Dobnak’s slider
After Randy Dobnak showed up on the scene in 2019 looking like a 42-year-old divorced dad named Rusty who just joined a motorcycle gang and threw five brilliant starts, fantasy analysts everywhere were wondering just how to value him.
Sure, he posted a 1.59 ERA, but that came with a 3.92 SIERA and just a 19.5% strikeout rate, so just how valuable was Dobnak?
Well, in 2020, Dobnak regressed pretty hard (and still in just 46.2 innings), posting a 4.05 ERA, 3.96 FIP, and 4.56 SIERA and a miserable 13.5% strikeout rate.
Given that strikeout rate, it might surprise you (it surprised me) that Dobnak actually throws a money pitch! His slider was his second most-thrown pitch last year and it worked really well, posting a 43.9% chase rate, 43.8% zone rate, and a 17.4% SwStr rate. It was also really good at inducing weak contact, with a 56.4% groundball rate and a .026 ISO against.
So what was Dobnak’s problem last year? Honestly, his repertoire doesn’t look all that bad, his biggest issue was his sinker, which had a .390 wOBA against. But even then, the pitch had just a .138 ISO against, so while hitters had no problem making contact on the pitch, they weren’t launching it for home runs, which explains the .341 BABIP against the pitch.
As for the rest of his repertoire, he’s got a changeup that’s not much of a strikeout pitch but does induce weak contact (.202 wOBA and .086 ISO against last year), and a four-seam fastball he throws occasionally that he has trouble controlling (41.7% walk rate on the pitch last year, though in just 42 pitches).
Dobnak doesn’t strike me as much of a strikeout guy, and in the current MLB climate, that’s not going to be a very valuable guy in fantasy, but I do think he can be a serviceable starter who posts a decent ERA, albeit again, with a pretty low strikeout rate.
4. Sixto Sanchez’s changeup
We finally got to see Sixto Sanchez in the majors last year, and he looked pretty impressive.
Throwing primarily a changeup/slider mix with a four-seamer and sinker also mixed in, Sanchez worked his way to a 3.46 ERA and 3.50 FIP (though a 4.18 SIERA) through seven starts with a 20.9% strikeout rate and 7% walk rate.
As I mentioned, he primarily threw a mix of his slider and changeup, and that changeup was awesome, generating a 45.9% chase rate, 51.6% zone rate, and 18.3% SwStr rate, as well as a .156 wOBA against and a .000 ISO (having a .000 ISO in 153 pitches is pretty awesome).
Sanchez was far from perfect though. While his slider was a decent swing-and-miss pitch, it did get knocked around a good bit, posting a .349 wOBA against, and he made plenty of mistakes with his sinker, as opposing hitters had a .380 wOBA against it, but overall Sanchez looked like the prospect with the potential that’s been touted for years. He’s going to be exciting to watch.
5. Steven Matz’s changeup
I’m not sure Steven Matz’s season could’ve been worse last year. Sure, it was just six starts, but those six starts (peppered in with three bullpen appearances) were rough to say the least.
Matz finished the season with a 9.68 ERA that came with a 7.76 FIP, a 4.05 SIERA, and a 1.70 WHIP. He did post a career-best strikeout rate of 25.4%, if you’re looking for some sort of positive, and that was in part thanks to this changeup.
Last year, Matz’s changeup posted the best numbers it ever has, with a 44.3% chase rate, 41.9% zone rate, and an 18% SwStr rate. However, like just about every one of Matz’s pitches, his changeup got knocked around a lot, as opposing hitters had a .406 wOBA and .383 ISO against it.
In fact, every pitch that Matz threw last year had an ISO against above .350. That’s ridiculous and likely the story behind his 37.8% HR/FB rate.
Those numbers aren’t going to keep into this year for Matz (or rather, I’d be shocked if they do), but man was last year a year to forget for him.
6. Tony Gonsolin’s slider
Tony Gonsolin looked really good last year, just like he did in 2019 (though his peripherals were better this year). In eight starts, Gonsolin posted a 2.31 ERA with a 2.29 FIP and 3.68 SIERA alongside a 26.1% strikeout rate.
One big contributor to that season was his awesome slider, which posted a 49.2% chase rate, 44.9% zone rate, and 27.1% SwStr rate. Had the pitch qualified for my article, it would’ve been the third most-chased pitch in all of baseball, and that SwStr rate is good for third-best in baseball last year among pitches thrown at least 100 times.
His fastball was pretty excellent too, inducing weak contact at a great clip, posting a .211 wOBA against and .079 ISO against.
With Trevor Bauer now in the Dodgers’ rotation, it’s hard to see a path to consistent starts for Gonsolin, which is a real bummer considering how good he looked. But if he does start seeing consistent starts, he could be a really useful fantasy asset.
7. Tyler Mahle’s slider
Tyler Mahle had quite the turnaround in 2020, posting a really solid season with a 3.59 ERA, 3.88 FIP, and most notable, a career-best 29.9% strikeout rate, up from 23.2% (his former career-best) in 2019.
The secret? A total change in approach. He added almost 270 RPMs to his fastball, giving it enough spin to be in the 73rd percentile in the league among fastballs, and a brand new slider.
And boy was this slider a nice strikeout pitch. It posted a 45.5% chase rate, 51.5% zone rate, and 20% SwStr rate. Mahle’s thrown a slider in the past (he threw one a lot in 2018), but this slider was different, focusing a lot more on vertical drop than just horizontal movement (previously, Mahle’s slider didn’t have much drop on it at all).
There’s one caveat to this: Mahle’s slider was a very good strikeout pitch. But when it got hit, it got hit hard, as opposing hitters had a .451 wOBA and .308 ISO against the pitch.
Now, there’s one thing that’s important to note here: if you’re looking at Fangraphs, Mahle only threw his slider 45 times but threw his cutter a whole lot more, with a lot more success. And, if you compare the movement profile of the cutter on Fangraphs to the cutter he threw in 2019, it looks very different.
What does this mean? To me, it means the cutter and slider got mixed up when they’re one in the same (that happens sometimes with cutters and sliders).
If you take a look at Statcast, you’ll see he’s not registered as throwing a cutter, but rather just a slider, and the contact stats look much better, with a .249 wOBA and .233 xwOBA against, not to mention a 41.5% whiff rate.
Similarly, on Fangraphs, Mahle’s cutter is registered with a 31.4% chase rate, 41.9% zone rate, 18.6% SwStr rate, and a .207 wOBA against.
All that is to say, don’t panic too much on the offensive stats on the slider that I mentioned earlier—I think if you combined the two pitches on Fangraphs, you’d see the offensive numbers shoot way down while the strikeout numbers would stay pretty high. It’s a really good pitch.
8. Yusei Kikuchi’s slider
Yusei Kikuchi came to the MLB with a good bit of fanfare in 2019, but so far hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype.
However, last year we saw him take a big step forward. Yes, the 5.17 ERA isn’t good, but it came with a 3.30 FIP, and we didn’t see that kind of difference in 2019, as his 5.46 ERA that year came with a 5.71 FIP.
We also saw his strikeout rate jump way up, from a paltry 16.1% in 2019 to a solid 24.2% last year (though it’s worth noting the walk rate jumped up from 6.9% to 10.3% as well).
In my personal opinion, Kikuchi is a better pitcher than his numbers have shown so far.
Not a single pitch of his last year had a wOBA against higher than .314, which is fantastic. And this slider worked really well as a strikeout pitch, posting a 44.9% chase rate, 45.7% zone rate, and 16.5% SwStr rate.
With a solid repertoire that includes a cutter and fastball at the foundation that both induce weak contact well and a really nice strikeout pitch in his slider, I think Kikuchi’s going to put it together sooner than later.
9. Zach Eflin’s curveball
You might not know it by looking at his ERA over the past few years, but Zach Eflin is pretty good.
After turning in ERAs over 4.00 his whole career, last year Eflin just squeaked in under that mark with a 3.97 ERA, but one that came with a 3.39 FIP and 3.50 SIERA, as well as a career-best 28.6% strikeout rate.
Our own Mikey Ajeto wrote an excellent piece on some tweaks Eflin could make to take the next step to being a really good pitcher, and as Ajeto notes, even if Eflin doesn’t take those steps, he can still be a solid pitcher.
One of the keys to Eflin’s repertoire is this curveball, which was a beauty last year, posting a 41.3% chase rate, 46.6% zone rate, and 20.3% SwStr rate, not to mention a .115 wOBA and .026 ISO against.
Where Eflin’s weakness lies is really in his sinker, which gets hit quite a bit, with a .354 wOBA against, not to mention his changeup (which, in fairness, he rarely throws), which had a .333 ISO and .533 wOBA against (albeit, again, in 50 pitches).
Still, he’s got some nice pitches, including this awesome curveball, and with a few tweaks, has the potential to be a really solid starter.
Photos by Icon Sportswire / Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)