I love pitching, it’s one of the best things about baseball (maybe it’s the best thing), and one of my favorite things to do every year in the offseason is to dive into some of the pitch stats from the previous season.
For the past two seasons, I’ve done a series of articles taking a look at some of the best pitches of the previous year, and today, we’re going to take a look at the most-chased pitches of last year.
As I said, this is the third iteration of this article, and it’s one of my favorites to write, because pitches that constantly fool hitters and get them to chase outside of the strike zone are almost always some of the pretties pitches to watch. And, inevitably, there are a few surprises on the list (there will be this year too).
Before we get started, in the past I’ve only included pitches thrown at least 400 times, because I mostly want to focus on starters who threw the same pitch a lot during the season and consistently fooled hitters with it.
Obviously this year, 400 pitches didn’t happen for anyone. So I chose 150 pitches as my cutoff. Why? Because we had a 60-game season, which is about 37% of a regular, 162-game season, and 37% of 400 is 148, so I rounded up to 150.
Anyways, let’s dive in!
No. 10: Luis Castillo’s changeup (46.2%)
Would it surprise you if I told you that Luis Castillo’s changeup has been on this list all three times I’ve done it? If you watch Castillo pitch, it probably shouldn’t.
Coming in at No. 4 two years ago and No. 7 last year, Castillo’s changeup is a masterful pitch, and last year it was just as good as it always is. Alongside the 46.2% chase rate, it also produced a 22.8% SwStr rate, a 32.7% CSW, and a .276 wOBA against.
It is such a consistently good pitch, and it’s one of the reasons why Castillo is such a great pitcher. It’s also the only pitch on this list that’s been in every iteration of this article so far.
No. 9: Zach Davies‘ changeup (46.5%)
Zach Davies is so interesting to me. In 2017 and 2018, Davies’ changeup produced pretty good chase rate/SwStr rate numbers, but generally wasn’t that great of a pitch.
Then, suddenly, in 2019, the changeup becomes this phenomenal pitch, producing a 46.1% chase rate, 15.9% SwStr rate, and a 19.1 pVAL, which ranked fourth-best among all changeups in 2019.
Whatever tweaks Davies made to his changeup, they’ve been working great, because it was an awesome pitch once again last year, posting a 20.4% SwStr rate, a 29.8% CSW, and a .246 wOBA against.
There’s plenty to worry about with Davies though. Sure, he had a 2.73 ERA last year, but his 4.32 SIERA and especially his 5.01 xERA scare me. Even on that awesome changeup, he struggles a bit controlling it, as it also had a .185 ISO against it.
Plus, the repertoire worries me a little. I love that he used his changeup as his primary pitch last year—I’m all for guys using off-speed or breaking pitches as their primary offerings if they work—but aside from that changeup, Davies’ repertoire is fairly unimpressive. An alright slider, a solid cutter, and that’s about it. He’s thrown a curveball in the past, but it’s gotten lit up, so unless that looks different, that doesn’t seem like a viable option.
Still, that changeup is a beautiful pitch, and it looks like Davies will live and die by it.
No. 8: Tommy Milone’s changeup (47.1%)
I wrote at length about Tommy Milone coming into last season, mostly because of this changeup. It was on the list of most-chased pitches last year, coming in as the third most-chased pitch in baseball in 2019.
My hope coming into 2020, especially as an Orioles fan, was that Milone would utilize his changeup more, stop using his really bad fastball so much or utilize his fastball differently and stop throwing it over the middle of the plate (which he did a lot).
That was a lot of ifs, but my thought was, if Milone did something along those lines, he could turn himself into a pretty decent starter.
To an extent, he did start doing that. The changeup was as good of a swing-and-miss pitch as it’s always been, producing a 21.3% SwStr rate alongside that 47.1% chase rate, but it also got knocked around a lot more than it did in 2019, with a .258 ISO against it and a .399 wOBA against.
Even so, after his final start with the Orioles before he was traded to the Braves, Milone was coming off a five-start streak that saw him post a 3.08 ERA and an 8.89 K/9.
And then he exploded. And imploded. At the same time. He had three starts with the Braves where he gave up a total of 16 runs in 9.2 innings and finished the year with a 6.69 ERA and an inflamed elbow.
I still believe he’s a better pitcher than he showed last year, and I still believe if he increased his changeup usage more and tweaked where he’s locating his fastball, he could be a serviceable starter.
No. 7: Zac Gallen’s curveball (47.3%)
Zac Gallen is awesome, we know this, and his curveball is awesome, we also know this. Last year, Gallen’s curveball looked as good as it ever has, posting a 16.9% SwStr rate, a 37.2% CSW, a 40.7% strikeout rate, and a .258 wOBA against it.
There was one knock against Gallen’s curveball though—he had some command issues with it, as it had a .226 ISO against it. Still though, all in all, it was an awesome pitch and helped propel Gallen to a second-straight season with an ERA under 3.00.
I do think Gallen could be in for some regression though. His 3.88 SIERA and 3.70 xERA are somewhat concerning, but even that level of regression would still make Gallen a very good pitcher, so I’m not all that worried.
No. 7: Kyle Hendricks‘ changeup (47.3%)
I’m actually kind of surprised this pitch has never made it in this article before, because Kyle Hendricks‘ changeup has been the mark of consistency over the years.
Here’s a fun fact—since he started pitching in 2014, Hendricks’ changeup has never posted a chase rate below 40% and twice has posted a chase rate above 50%. The pitch is truly a work of art, and last year it continued to be awesome, posting a 17.7% SwStr rate, 28% CSW, and a .266 wOBA against.
In fact, aside from his sinker (because sinkers suck), every pitch in Hendricks’ repertoire had a wOBA against under .300 and an ISO against under .150.
The guy just keeps doing it every year, even with a fastball that tops out at 90 MPH. Will there be some regression next year? It’s definitely possible, given his 4.00 SIERA compared to his 2.88 ERA, but it’s worth noting that he’s had a SIERA above 4.00 every season since 2017, yet hasn’t posted an ERA worse than 3.46 in that same time.
No. 5: Shane Bieber’s curveball (47.4%)
Two years ago in his rookie season, Shane Bieber made this list with his slider, which posted a 47.4% chase rate that year. Since then, his slider (while still an amazing pitch) has dropped in chase rate numbers, but his curveball has climbed, and last year, his curveball was excellent.
Alongside the 47.4% chase rate, Bieber’s curveball had a 24% SwStr rate, 34.8% CSW, 56.2% strikeout rate, and a .135 wOBA against. Basically, it was amazing in every way, shape, and form, much like Bieber’s entire repertoire.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, but last year, four out of the five pitches Bieber threw consistently had under a .260 wOBA against. And the one pitch that didn’t, his cutter, wasn’t even that bad, with a .341 wOBA against.
Oh yea, and Bieber’s slider? It posted a 40% chase rate, a 27.8% SwStr rate, and a 53.5% strikeout rate. The guy was ridiculous last year and looks exactly like the Cy Young caliber pitcher he is.
No. 4: Zack Greinke’s changeup (47.8%)
The man, the myth, the legend, Zack Greinke didn’t have the best year last year. A 4.03 ERA is the highest he’s seen since 2016, and while his 3.72 SIERA and 3.70 xERA suggest he had a bit of bad luck, it still wasn’t nearly as good of a year as we’ve seen from Greinke in the past.
The main issue? His fastball. Last year, the pitch posted a ridiculously high 40.3% line drive rate against, so it’s no surprise opposing hitters has a .387 wOBA against it and a .217 ISO.
The pitch also lost a couple ticks in velocity last year, which is a bit concerning given Greinke’s age, but if there’s anyone I trust to compensate for declining fastball velocity, it’s Greinke, because he’s done it before (let’s not forget, once upon a time the guy threw 95 MPH, now he’s throwing 88).
That said, as I’ve mentioned, it was a weird, short season, and it’s entirely possible Greinke would’ve evened things out if he had a full year. And either way, his changeup looked great, posting a 24.2% SwStr rate alongside the 47.8% chase rate, a 33% CSW, and a .175 wOBA against.
No. 3: Alex Cobb’s splitter (48%)
Now this one is a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. Perhaps one of my favorite things that happened in baseball last year was the return of this pitch—The Thing.
If you’re not familiar, back when he was a really good pitcher, Alex Cobb had a split-change he referred to as The Thing that was an absurdly good pitch. In 2014, the pitch posted a 52.6% chase rate with an 18.8% SwStr rate, adding up to a 21.2 pVAL. It was awesome.
Then, post-Tommy John surgery, Cobb kind of lost it. We saw flashes of it here and there, and in 2019, it looked like the pitch was coming back (I even did a whole article talking about it). But after just 12.1 innings, Cobb lost the rest of the year to injury, and that was that.
Enter 2020: The Thing makes its comeback and it looks awesome. That 48% chase rate is the best chase rate Cobb has posted since 2014, and alongside it, the pitch had a 21.8% SwStr rate (the best SwStr rate he’s ever had), and a .237 wOBA against.
But sadly, one pitch does not make a great pitcher, and Cobb’s sinker got absolutely lit up last year to the tune of a .235 ISO and .434 wOBA against. That, combined with a curveball that had a horribly sad 12% chase rate and 6.7% SwStr rate, is why Cobb put up a very mediocre 4.30 ERA with a 16.8% strikeout rate last year (oddly enough though, his highest strikeout rate since 2014).
You would hope that his 22.2% HR/FB rate comes down this year, and his ERA along with it, but he does pitch in Camden Yards, so who knows. Either way, at least we’ll get to watch this beautiful pitch again.
No. 2: Kenta Maeda’s splitter (50.5%)
Kenta Maeda showed up for the Twins last year and figured he might screw around and have the best season of his career.
I always like Maeda but man, I did not expect him to turn in the season he did last year. A 2.70 ERA, 2.92 SIERA, 32.3% strikeout rate, 0.75 WHIP, dude was a monster, and a big reason why was this split-change.
It looks like Maeda tweaked the pitch a bit coming into 2020. It’s previously been classified as a changeup, but that tends to happen with splitters sometimes when they’re split-changes (see: Alex Cobb, Kevin Gausman).
This past year, Maeda’s splitter didn’t have the vertical movement it’s had in the past, making it mainly a horizontally-moving pitch. The results are hard to argue with—a 26% SwStr rate, a 31.7% CSW, a .150 wOBA against, a .044 ISO against, a 40.4% strikeout rate, it was a fantastic pitch.
In fact, that 50.5% chase rate his split-change had was the best chase rate he’s ever posted for a single pitch in his career (though the split-change came close in 2018 with a 49.8% chase rate).
It remains to be seen if Maeda can keep this up in another season, and his peripheral stats would suggest he can, but either way, what a fun breakout to watch.
No. 1: Aaron Nola’s curveball (58.2%)
No Pitcher List article about beautiful pitches would really be complete without talking about Aaron Nola.
Aaron Nola’s curveball is one of my favorite pitches to watch in all of baseball. It’s a true work of art, it really is, I could watch it over and over again forever. It’s a pitch that is a great example of what I love so much about pitching—the fact that a guy can take this weird little ball of cork and rubber and animal hide, throw it from 60 feet, six inches away from home plate, grip in a weird way, twist their wrist, throw it and make it dance through the air like that, it’s art. It’s alchemy. It’s magic. It’s all of those things.
Nola’s curveball looked as good as ever last year. That 58.2% chase rate is the highest chase rate ever posted in this article (for reference, Hyun-jin Ryu’s changeup was #1 in 2019 at 56.6%, and Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter was #1 in 2018 at 55.5%).
Not only did it get chased almost 60% of the time, it also had a 21.6% SwStr rate, a 44.1% CSW, and a 48% strikeout rate. There aren’t too many better swing-and-miss pitches in all of baseball.
That said, Nola did have some command issues with it, as hitters had a .211 ISO against it, which isn’t good, but as far as a nasty strikeout pitch goes, Nola’s curveball was amazing.
Just take a moment and rewatch it. It’s a thing of beauty. Pitching is an art, Nola an artist, and that curveball is his masterpiece.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)