I’m in the midst of taking a look back at some of the best pitches of each pitch type in 2020, and in this edition, we’re taking a look at the top five splitters of the year.
If you want to read more about how this series works, check out my list of the top five changeups of 2020 where I explain it.
This is also the final edition of the series, so if you want to see the rest, here they are:
Let’s get to it!
5. Dylan Bundy
There are a handful of things Dylan Bundy did differently in his first year in Los Angeles, including utilizing first-pitch curveballs more (which is a good thing), but one thing that hasn’t changed much over the years is how good his split-change is.
It’s been one of his bread and butter pitches for a while now and last year it was very good once again, posting a 33.3% chase rate, 16.6% SwStr rate, and .302 wOBA against.
The pitch isn’t his main strikeout pitch, that distinction goes to his slider, which was phenomenal again last year, with a 40.7% chase rate, 22.8% SwStr rate, 43.2% zone rate (money pitch alert!), .146 wOBA against, and .056 ISO against.
All of that combined with a new approach and a home ballpark that isn’t as horrible to pitch in as Camden Yards led to Bundy having the best season of his career so far, with a 3.29 ERA, 2.95 FIP, and 27% strikeout rate.
I’m a big Bundy fan, I’ve always thought he had the raw ingredients to put things together, he just couldn’t do it in Baltimore. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him continue to be good in L.A. this year.
Taijuan Walker returned to the Mariners in 2020 after spending three years in Arizona, two of (2018 and 2019) were drastically shortened by injury, with Walker pitching just 14 total innings between the two.
And then midseason, Walker was traded from the Mariners to the Blue Jays. And now he’s on the Mets—I guess we’ll see if he sticks there.
Either way, Walker was pretty impressive last year, posting a 2.70 ERA (though worth noting it came with a 4.56 FIP) over 53.1 innings.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to his success was his fastball, which has generally been the case his whole career, but his splitter last year helped a lot too.
It wasn’t a big strikeout pitch like you’d typically expect a splitter to be (it had just a 22.9% chase rate and 6.2% SwStr rate), but hitters couldn’t do a whole lot with it, as they had just a .277 wOBA and .117 ISO against the pitch.
For me, Walker’s FIP and his 4.60 SIERA scare me a bit and suggest to me that the small sample size we saw from him is likely a good bit misleading. That said, pitcher is a volatile position and things can change quickly, so we’ll see how Walker does with a full season in New York.
3. Alex Cobb
It was really fun seeing Alex Cobb’s split-change, which he refers to as The Thing, come back in 2020, and man was it a pretty pitch.
Way back when Cobb was a really good starter, The Thing was his big putaway pitch. In 2014, the pitch had a ridiculous 52.6% chase rate and an 18.8% SwStr rate on its way to a 21.2 pVAL, all of which is pretty incredible.
But after he had Tommy John surgery, The Thing was a bit lost. There were flashes, but it never fully came back—until last year.
The pitch was beautiful, posting a 48% chase rate (good for third-highest in baseball among pitches thrown at least 150 times), a 21.8% SwStr rate, and a .237 wOBA against.
But The Thing was about the only high-quality pitch Cobb had. His sinker got destroyed with a .434 wOBA and .235 ISO against and his curveball posted a pretty weak 12% chase rate and 6.7% SwStr rate, all leading to a 4.30 ERA and 16.8% strikeout rate season for Cobb. Less than ideal.
Now with the Angels, and following an offseason in which he’s worked on his mechanics at Driveline, it’ll be interesting to see if The Thing stays where it was last year and if Cobb is able to support it with some other pitches.
Given the Orioles’ history of trading away pitchers before they turn in great seasons (Jake Arrieta, Josh Hader, Zach Davies, Eduardo Rodriguez, even Dylan Bundy, etc. etc.) it wouldn’t shock me.
2. Kenta Maeda
Another pitch that registered among the most-chased pitches in baseball, Kenta Maeda’s split-change was beautiful last year following some tweaks Maeda made to its movement profile coming into the year.
Last year, the pitch posted a 50.5% chase rate (second-best in baseball among pitches thrown at least 150 times), a 26% SwStr rate, 31.7% CSW, .150 wOBA against, .044 ISO against, and a 40.4% strikeout rate. I mean, what more could you want from a pitch?
All of that helped propel Maeda to the best season of his career so far, with a 2.70 ERA, 2.92 SIERA, 32.3% strikeout rate, and 0.75 WHIP. I love watching Maeda pitch and I hope he’s just as dominant this year. If he’s throwing this split-change, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be.
If we’re talking top-quality split-changes, there’s one name that will always pop up—Kevin Gausman.
Gausman has made his career on his split-change, it’s been awesome for a long time (it made the top 10 most-chased pitches of 2019 article). In fact, it’s been so awesome, he’s essentially become a two-pitch pitcher over the past couple of years, throwing mostly a fastball and his split-change, with a few other pitches sprinkled in here and there (last year it was a regular changeup—probably a circle change if I had to guess—and an occasional slider).
But this split-change, it’s a fantastic pitch. Last year, it turned in a 43.3% chase rate, 26.3% SwStr rate, 63.6% groundball rate, .109 wOBA against, and .039 ISO against.
His fastball was pretty okay (not terrible, but not great, with a .347 wOBA against) and his changeup did a decent job at limiting hard contact, all of which helped him to his best season since 2016 with a 3.62 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and a 32.3% strikeout rate.
Gausman has always had good strikeout numbers thanks to that split-change, the question has always been, can he develop other pitches to go along with it? One pitch doesn’t make an incredible pitcher, it typically makes a good reliever.
If this changeup he was using last year (and maybe the slider too if he uses it more) turns into a nice third pitch, suddenly we could be looking at a decent fantasy asset who might have an ERA in the high-3’s but will have really nice strikeout numbers.
I’ve wanted Gausman to succeed for a long time now, and I really hope to see him do well again this year.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Design by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)