As a regular contributor to Nastiest Pitches at Pitcher List, I spend the majority of the baseball season watching the game through a singular lens – an eye fixed on the pitch itself. This is both enjoyable but limiting. You can often be swept up in how good or bad a pitch is in the moment and allow that to dominate your overall feeling of the game or a specific pitcher. Thus, I love diving back into the articles of the previous season to prepare for the baseball yet to come. You spot trends, you find rhythms, you make sense of all those moments that provoked strong feelings during the year, and you come to a bigger picture. It’s the Yin Yoga process for baseball.
And now we have a new metric to help us even further – Pitch Level Value (PLV). Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year, Nick Pollack, wrote an in-depth primer on exactly what PLV is, so indulge yourself in the beauty of it when you have the time. But for now, the short version will give you a taste and help you in this article. PLV is a numerical way to quantify the pure quality of a pitch, regardless of the events that occur around that pitch (i.e. if a great slider is thrown in an excellent location but the hitter is able to knock a home run off of it because they’re a great hitter). So, it helps us identify (in both the moment and across a sample size) whether a specific pitch type “is a good pitch” or “is a bad pitch.”
Of course, this article is also designed to help you out with your fantasy season. Chances are that if a pitcher has one of the best breaking balls in baseball, he is going to throw it heaps with plenty of success. That means wins, quality starts, strikeouts, and a healthy ERA and WHIP. So, let’s get into it.
Matt Brash’s Slider
Yes, let’s kick off with the certified nastiness of the Seattle Mariners‘ young gun, Matt Brash. The 24-year-old Brash quickly became a pitching connoisseur’s darling during his rookie year thanks to his elite stuff with breaking balls, with both his curveball and slider turning heads. Brash throws his slider 41% of the time with his curveball making up another 22% of his repertoire so it’s a steady majority of nasty every time he is on the mound. Let’s take a look at how his slider performed in 2022.
It was a solid rookie season for his slider, which achieved a 17.8% swinging-strike rate, 36.4% CSW, and a .222 wOBA against. With a PLV of 5.24, Brash’s slider sits well above the league average of 5.09. Remarkably, both his slider and curveball notched 15″ of horizontal movement in 2022.
Brash dropped hammer after hammer with his slider in the post-season and it was one of the best breaking balls in baseball for much of the season, particularly after his move from the rotation to the bullpen. It’s going to be an exciting 2023 for the Mariners and the young Brash should play an ever-important role. Here he is fooling veteran Avisaíl García with a devastating 83 mph slider.
Clayton Kershaw’s Curveball
Likely to go down in history as one of the best breaking balls in baseball, veteran Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw still commands one of the game’s best 12-6 curveballs. Although its usage is far below the 43% of his signature slider (which could have easily made this list too, and you should read more about it thanks to Ben Palmer) at 16%, when Kershaw drops the curveball it hits with such potency that you audibly respond.
Kershaw’s curveball sat nearly 6% above the league average in chase rate at 34.1% with a tasty 18.9% swinging-strike rate, 37.2% CSW, and a measly .183 wOBA against. With a PLV of 5.16, Kershaw’s curve makes a mockery of the 4.93 league average thanks to its -8.9 yMov.
One of the things most exciting about Kershaw’s curveball is its impact when thrown. As he relies on a heavy mix of fastball and slider, hitters are often “super-fooled” by its appearance. Thus, it looks magical to watch. Here he strikes out Shohei Ohtani with a brilliant pitch sequence that included four straight fastballs prior to this lethal curve.
Framber Valdez’s Curveball
From the Hall of Fame curveball to the newly crowned “King of the Curve” – all bow to Houston Astros lefty Framber Valdez. Valdez lit up the American League last year with 17 wins and a league-leading three complete games. His pinpoint sinker couples up with a filthy curveball to bamboozle hitters from both sides of the plate. Let’s take a look at how his signature curveball performed last year.
Inducing a league-leading 69.8% groundball rate in 2022, Valdez has become one of the most sought-after pitchers in fantasy baseball, mainly thanks to a whopping 39.9% chase rate of his devastating curveball. Our new PLV metric is in love with Valdez’s curve, scoring it a 5.61 compared to the league average of 4.93. Long may it reign.
A regular in my own Nastiest Pitches articles over the past two seasons, here we see everything that is to be admired from Valdez’s curve. Ramón Urías had no clue when faced with his 79 mph “drop from heaven” to complete the strikeout.
Jacob deGrom’s Slider
Despite yet another injury-hampered year, Jacob deGrom still showed why he is one of the game’s very best in his 11 starts for the New York Mets. His hard slider (which averaged a vicious 92.6 mph) induced a ridiculous 51.5% chase rate to go along with a league-leading 32.7% swinging-strike rate, which grades out at over double the league average. So yes, it was basically un-hittable!
Not surprisingly, deGrom’s PLV is across-the-board lights out! However, the slider sits in a category of its own with an astronomical PLV of 5.97. What we are effectively saying here is that it could be the best pitch in all of baseball.
It passes the eye test with flying colors! In fact, it defies belief in terms of its vertical and horizontal movement. We all hope Texas proves to be a healthier environment for deGrom, and if so be prepared to see this pitch over and over again throughout the season. Now, let’s all laugh at Sam Hilliard. Sorry, Rockies fans!
Aaron Nola’s Knuckle-Curveball
The Aaron Nola knuckle-curve is what the Jacob deGrom slider is…it’s the same amount of nasty! Nola was sensational down the stretch for the Philadelphia Phillies as they proved everybody wrong by running the table and making it to the World Series. Nola’s knuckle-curveball is arguably the best in baseball and his command and location make it a key strikeout pitch.
Nola’s knuckle-curve eclipses the league average by 20% in terms of chase rate, sitting at a whopping 48.8%. Just as impressive is the 21.6% swinging-strike rate, 39.2% CSW, and 5.60 PLV. The deception with the movement is elite, with equally beguiling vertical and horizontal break. Wowsers!
Even the very best often have little answer for the pitch – Trea Turner found out the hard way towards the end of last season. This delicious 78 mph beauty makes the fantasy ace look a little silly.
Emmanuel Clase’s Slider
Quickly emerging as one of the premier closers in all of baseball, Atlanta’s Emmanuel Clase put in his second season of unrivaled consistency in the ninth inning. He doesn’t quite reach the heights of Edwin Diaz in terms of K% rate, but his elite stuff and dominating command are a joy to behold. There could be more to come in terms of swing-and-miss given his overall 45.7% O-Swing last year.
His slider is the cream of the crop, generating a monstrous 55.8% chase rate to go along with a 27.6% swinging-strike rate and 40.5% CSW%. It generated a 5.97 PLV and rivals deGrom in terms of pitch quality. Quite the prize.
Yoán Moncada might as well have stayed still rather than wasting his time swinging for this remarkable 93 mph slider with a nasty sharp vertical break. Ouch!
Corbin Burnes‘ Curveball
Pitcher List’s consensus number one starting pitcher for fantasy going into 2023, Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes has everything the best starter in baseball needs to dominate on every outing. He is likely to hit 200 innings and smash through 200 strikeouts on his way to greatness. And we are here to enjoy the ride. Boasting a vicious fastball, it is Burnes’ three complementary pitches that really turn the eye and draw the swing-and-misses. The curveball is the crown jewel.
PLV grades Burnes’ curveball as his most quality pitch, slightly ahead of his equally effective slider and changeup. The pitch’s 5.36 PLV is sitting way above the league average of 4.93. It’s notable that a 20.4% swinging-strike rate is nearly double the league average also. It is my favorite of his five-pitch arsenal.
The confidence oozed from Burnes last year as he ramped up the usage of his curveball as a whiff pitch. He saw a nice healthy bump in chase rate to go along with 58 strikeouts, a 12% increase from 2022. Here he is making light work of Daniel Vogelbach with a delightful 83 mph curve.
Julio Urías‘ Curveball
Los Angeles Dodgers phenom Julio Urías is electric every time he hits the mound. His curveball registers at over 400 RPMs higher than the average MLB curveball and he has consistently been able to limit hard contact with it. It’s also a key wing-and-miss pitch when ahead in the count.
With a 5.74 PLV, Urías can rely on his curveball no matter the game situation. Despite a drop in strikeouts and swinging-strike rate in 2022, Urías will look to establish the curve as a whiff pitch which can only be good for his fantasy value.
This is just downright unfair. Unleashing a devastating sweeping 80 mph curve to strike out clueless San Francisco Giants outfielder Luis González is about as good as it gets from the Dodgers’ young southpaw. Feed it into our veins.
Edwin Díaz’s Slider
Remember a time when people were worried about Edwin Díaz’s ability to command in the ninth inning? Yeah, seems silly now. The New York Mets closer was sensational in 2022, leading all relievers in K%, CSW%, swinging-strike rate, and xERA. Díaz earned the right to be Pitcher List’s number one ranked closer for the upcoming season. His overall improvement in command has been particularly lethal when it comes to his slider.
Díaz racked up a league-leading 88 strikeouts thanks to his hard slider which averages out at just under 91 mph. A 49.4% chase rate inevitably led to a stunning 45.6% CSW%, simply phenomenal. The pitch quality sits at 5.62 PLV, which crazily sounds too low.
In high definition and with super slow-motion replay here is Díaz’s slider in all its glory. Perfectly located before breaking nastily at the last moment to induce the K. Marvellous! Rafael Ortega the victim here.
Andrés Muñoz’s Slider
We return to the Mariners bullpen for yet another vicious slider, this time from young Andrés Muñoz. The similarities between Munoz’s slider and Díaz’s slider are uncanny and in some ways, it is hard to differentiate between the two. Munoz generates an extra half an inch of vertical drop compared to Díaz and visibly it is more effective while keeping up with the velocity.
Munoz relies heavily on his slider (64.7% usage) and hits the strike zone 5% more than Díaz at 44.4%. An elite 29.5% swinging-strike rate and 45.9% chase rate could lead to more strikeouts throughout 2023. Munoz’s slider achieved a 5.88 PPLV last year, grading out above Díaz’s own hard slider.
Munoz’s ascent to high-leverage duties for Seattle has been no surprise and with Paul Sewald ahead of him in terms of saves there is a feeling that is only a matter of time until he takes over the mantle. He still registered four saves while adding a healthy dose of strikeouts in 2022. Expect an uptick if he continues to make hitters look foolish, like Jeimer Candelario here.
Do you have a favorite breaking ball? Let us know and tell us why!
Featured Image by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)