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Identifying the best pitch among the Brewers relievers

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This story, like all good stories, begins with Jose Veras.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers-Media Day Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Brewers signed Jose Veras in 2012 (just a few years into my young interest in the sport), I quickly decided his curveball was one of the nastiest pitches from a Brewer that I had ever seen. I’ll admit it felt a bit silly, because despite the pitch’s extreme bite, Veras wasn’t a particularly successful reliever. At the time I didn’t know anything about analyzing individual pitches, so I stuck to the eye test. I’ve since (with the help of Brooks Baseball) discovered that the pitch was incredibly successful over the course of Veras’ career, holding hitters to an excellent .134 average and a .206 slugging.

Then in 2014, the Brewers added another pitcher with an wicked breaking ball: Will Smith and his #SliderofDeath. A look on Brooks shows that Smith’s slider has held batters to just a .142 average and a .223 slugging percentage over his career. And while I was quick to question if Smith’s left-handedness gave him an unfair edge (sliders are typically thrown most often to same-handed hitters), his slider numbers against righties are actually better (.200 SLG%) than lefties (.245 SLG%). Smith’s slider also has a 32% whiff rate and a 64.8% whiff/swing rate, both of which are higher than any other pitches mentioned in this article. I think if Smith was still a Brewer, his slider would top the list here.

So I decided I’d like to identify the current Brewers’ best pitches, but crowning a winner is extremely difficult for a number of reasons. For starters, a pitch does not exist in a vacuum. One pitch’s success relies as much on the break and speed of said pitch as it does the deception and repertoire of the pitcher. If a reliever throws 90% fastballs and 10% sliders, the slider’s effectiveness is likely to be artificially inflated (versus if it was tossed, say, 30% of the time) because hitters are anticipating the heater.

Many change-of-pace pitches would start to yield poor results if overused. Additionally, different pitches yield different results. Fastballs aren’t typically used for striking batters out, and are regularly thrown in disadvantageous counts. For a bit of context on the inherent differences between pitches, here is the average whiff rate by pitch in 2016 according to an article from CBS Sports:

Four-seam: 7.9%

Two-seam: 5.2%

Slider: 16.2%

Curveball: 11.9%

Changeup: 17.6%

Splitter: 17.6%

Obviously this means that direct comparisons across pitch types will be somewhat subjective, but I think the exercise is the fun part here, not the crowning of one Brewers’ champion.

Some parameters were necessary for our exercise, of course, so I settled on requiring a pitch be thrown at least 5% of the time by the pitcher, as well as requiring at least 300 pitches of that type to have been thrown over the last two years. Additionally, if a pitch resulted in a slugging percentage over .330, I have left it off the list, as they aren’t likely to be the “best pitch” if they don’t yield elite results. The sample I’ve decided on is from the 2016 and ’17 seasons (including spring training) because I wanted a larger sample while also favoring recent results. So let’s get started.

Matt Albers, DNQ

Not every pitcher has an offering that qualifies in a “best pitch on the team” discussion. Matt Albers had a stellar 2017, but when you include his poor 2016, his stats are pretty average. Oddly, Matt Albers threw an immensely successful curveball early in his career, which allowed just a .187 average and a .295 slugging. In January he told Tom Haudricourt that he ditched the pitch in favor of focusing on his slider, a pitch that has been hit for a .251 average and a .403 slugging percentage in his career.

Jacob Barnes, 91 MPH Slider (<-click for a GIF of the offering via Pitcher List)

44.23% usage, .193 AVG/.287 SLG || .296 BABIP || 26% whiff || 53% swing

Batters see a lot of Barnes’ slider—which he calls a cutter—and for good reason. The pitch clocks in at over 91 miles per hour on average and results in a ton of groundballs- 60% of his sliders put in play are on the ground. He also misses bats with the pitch, with batters whiffing 49% of the time they swing at the pitch. The pitch even stacks up fairly well with Mariano Rivera’s cutter, a pitch that allowed a .194 AVG/.272 SLG (from ’07 onward), though Rivera threw his pitch 89% of the time.

Oliver Drake, DNQ

Opponents owned just a .205 batting average against Drake’s splitter in 2016-17, but four doubles, three triples, and four home runs left him with a .371 slugging off of the pitch. It’s a solid offering, but not in contention here. As I wrote last August, I still believe he can be an effective reliever if he maintains his release point.

Josh Hader, 95 MPH Four-seam Fastball

80.5% usage, .173 AVG/.307 SLG || .279 BABIP || 17.2% whiff || 47.8% swing

As I mentioned above, the statistical results of a fastball aren’t typically even directly comparable to breaking balls. Four-seamers are regularly thrown out of necessity in order to get to a put-away pitch, a pitcher’s changeup, curveball, slider, etc. Instead of mixing his pitches more evenly, Hader threw his four-seam with extreme regularity and still got elite results. It’s difficult to be negative about such a dominant pitch, but it’s worth remembering the potential benefits of a rookie year, especially with a deceptive delivery and electric stuff like Hader possesses.

One final note, Hader’s fastball also resulted in balls in play being popups 12 percent of the time, which trails only Corey Knebel among teammates. A popup has essentially the same in-game value as a strike out, because players very rarely reach base on either. For reference, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball (.173/.248) results in nine percent popups/balls in play.

Jeremy Jeffress, 81 MPH Curveball

19% usage, .210 AVG/.330 SLG || .305 BABIP || 15.1% whiff || 39.5% swing

Jeffress is an interesting case, because his best pitch over the last two years is actually a splitter, he just hasn’t thrown it enough to qualify here. Over the last two seasons, Jeffress has thrown that pitch 10% percent of the time, 206 splitters total. That pitch has been hit for a .250 average but just a .294 slugging percentage (.362 BABIP). It has also resulted in six times more groundballs than flyballs.

Jeffress clearly has confidence in his splitter, ramping up its usage from one percent in 2015, to three percent in 2016, and finally 15 percent last year. It will be a crucial pitch going forward, as Jeffress looks to get his career back on track. But this section is supposed to be about Jeffress’ curveball, another solid pitch that puts the ball on the ground, this time with a 3.66:1 GB/FB ratio in 2016-17, as well as a high popup rate (9.8% PU/BIP) for a curveball.

Corey Knebel, 81 MPH Curveball

28% usage, .172 AVG/.192 SLG || .340 BABIP || 9.9% whiff || 27.3% swing

Knebel’s curveball has some truly excellent results, without a few of the frills you might expect from an elite offering. Knebel’s curveball doesn’t draw a ton of swings, nor does it miss a large number of bats, despite sharp downward bite. Instead, the pitch causes extreme groundball numbers, including a nearly 5:1 ratio of grounders to flyballs. As a result, Knebel has allowed just two extra base hits off of the pitch in the last two seasons, both doubles.

Corey Knebel, 97 MPH Fastball

72% usage, .212 AVG/.342 SLG || .316 BABIP || 14.9 whiff% || 48.6% swing

I didn’t originally include Knebel’s fastball here, because it technically didn’t fulfill my sub-.330 SLG requirement in 2016-17s, but it certainly belongs. Given the disadvantage fastballs have here, I felt it warranted discussion, particularly since the pitch was greatly improved in 2017 (.189/.311, 17% whiff), ticking up nearly two miles per hour over 2016. The pitch whiffed batters over twice as often as the average four-seam last season, and had a 12.9% pop up rate over the last two years (16.1% in 2017).

Boone Logan, 84 MPH Slider

53.7% usage, .130 AVG/.208 SLG || .228 BABIP || 27.4% whiff || 50.9% swing

Another lefty whose pitch holds up against batters regardless of handedness, Logan’s slider tops this list with a 27.4 whiff% and a 53.8 whiff/swing rate . The pitch also resulted in over three and a half times more groundballs than flyballs in ’16-’17, an impressive rate for a slider. Additionally, he sees these excellent results while throwing the breaking ball over half of the time. It’s a good thing Logan owns such an stellar offering, because his four-seam fastball is well below league average, having yielded a .575 SLG in the last two seasons, and a .538 SLG over the course of his career.

Statistics courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

Poll

Which is the best pitch among Brewers relievers?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Barnes’ slider
    (18 votes)
  • 31%
    Hader’s four-seam
    (104 votes)
  • 2%
    Jeffress’ curveball
    (7 votes)
  • 44%
    Knebel’s curveball
    (148 votes)
  • 12%
    Knebel’s fastball
    (42 votes)
  • 3%
    Logan’s slider
    (10 votes)
329 votes total Vote Now