With the spread of the novel coronavirus delaying the start of Major League Baseball's 2020 season, we have plenty of time to ponder life's big questions. Rather than do that, we've decided to use this interim period to rank things -- like, say, the best pitches in baseball. Over the next week, we'll be highlighting pitchers who offer quality renditions of five different pitch types: four-seam and two-seam fastballs, sliders, curveballs, and changeups. That process begins today, with four-seam fastballs.
Here's how this will work. In each article, we'll touch on five pitchers: the three best; a "best-kept secret," whose offering is underappreciated for some reason; and a "who's next?," or a pitch that belongs to a prospect but could someday top the field.
A fair and valid question to ask is: well, how did we come up with these rankings? The simple answer is that we used a combination of analytics and observations. The more complex answer -- and the one tailored specifically for four-seam fastballs -- is that we prioritized a couple of attributes, starting with velocity and spin rate. We also required that the pitch was usable -- that means the pitcher could locate their fastball well enough for its innate characteristics to matter. A high-spin, high-velocity fastball isn't inherently useful, but it can be when the pitcher in question is able to place it above the batter's hands.
It should be clear by now that these rankings are objective by nature. We're not pretending these are gospel handed down from above, and we're fine if people want to swap in other pitchers as they see fit. There are more than three good practitioners of any given pitch, folks.
With all that legal mumbo jumbo out of the way, let's rank some freaking four-seam fastballs.
Lucky for us, we already wrote about Cole's nasty fastball during the offseason, right after he signed a record-breaking contract with the Yankees. In the interest of working smarter instead of harder, let's revisit what we published back then:
And, what of that velocity? Cole's fastball averaged 97 mph last season, setting a new career-high in the process and ranking second among hurlers with 2,000-plus pitches, behind Noah Syndergaard. Cole also set a new career-high in spin rate, finishing fourth in that category while ensuring that he has the most extreme combination of velocity and spin of any starting pitcher. (How, exactly, he's been able to improve upon his spin year after year is up for debate.)
Predictably, Cole leverages those attributes by pitching up in the zone with his fastball, where he can overpower opponents. He ranked 24th in the league last season in average fastball height, and he had one of the game's highest swing-and-miss rates on heaters. By nearly any measure -- velocity, liveliness, results -- Cole's fastball is one of the best going.
As you can see, at that point in time we called Cole's fastball "one of the best going." Although we're ranking him first here, we acknowledge there's an argument to be made that he should be second on this list, depending on how one prioritizes volume versus dependency. More on that in a second. First, let's enjoy some choice Cole heaters:
We teased the volume versus dependency aspect above, and here's what we meant: Hader threw about half as many fastballs as Cole did last season (943 versus 1,733, per Baseball Savant). Yet fastballs made up more than 80 percent of Hader's arsenal, as opposed to just 52 percent of Cole's. What matters more, a pitcher relying on a single pitch to that extent, or a pitcher having to use the pitch more often, including across multiple at-bats per game versus the same hitters?
We favored Cole, but we can see the argument for Hader, who has a high-grade fastball no matter if he's ranked first, second, or 18th. His long limbs, lower release point and deceptive, crossfire mechanics make it tough on hitters to pick up the pitch out of his hand. Given that he's typically delivering the pitch in the mid-90s, that leaves the opposition with little time to react.
Last season, Hader's fastball limited opponents to a .167 average and generated empty swings on more than 40 percent of attempts. The fastball's one statistical blemish was a .422 slugging percentage against, as opponents homered off it 14 times. The ball was probably partially to blame, but that stat validates the long-held belief that big-league hitters can square up anything if they're looking for it.
Tom Seaver once wrote that the most important pitch in baseball was the fastball, and that the second most important pitch in baseball was the fastball. Point taken. A lot of folks in the game agree with Seaver, and so there was no shortage of quality fastballs to pick from for this spot. In the end, we opted for deGrom -- yes, over Max Scherzer and Emilio Pagan and Mike Clevinger and Justin Verlander and Jack Flaherty and Walker Buehler and Aroldis Chapman and any number of others.
Why? Because deGrom checks all the boxes. He throws hard (94th percentile, per Baseball Savant); he imparts good spin (77th percentile); and, obviously, he knows how to use his fastball in an optimal way. In 2019, opponents hit .219 against the pitch -- and that was the highest averaged posted against his fastball since 2016. In other words, deGrom's fastball deserves some share of the spotlight for all its good work in recent years.
So, here you go, enjoy these curated clips showcasing its potency on back-to-back pitches against Josh Donaldson:
The best-kept secret
May didn't establish himself as a valued big-league pitcher until his age-28 season, and for that reason he tends to get overlooked. He can credit his recent ascent to his fastball. Last year, he averaged 95.5 mph on his heater and held opponents to a .150 average and .242 slugging percentage. May also generated a 15 percent pop-up rate with his fastball, and saw batters whiff on nearly a third of their swings against it. A lot of sequences against him ended like so:
And like this:
May is supposed to become a free agent after the year. The Twins would be wise to look into an extension before then. Otherwise, some team will likely give him a chance to close.
Velocity is not the only thing that matters when it comes to evaluating fastballs. It does matter, however, and it's the top reason why Pearson gets the nod. For those unfamiliar with him, here's what you need to know: he's a well-built right-hander whose heater touches triple digits. Pearson made it to Triple-A in 2019, and he likely would've debuted this summer had the season launched as scheduled. He'll need to prove that his durability concerns are a thing of the past. If he succeeds in that regard, then he has a real chance to become a frontline starter.