Spring training camps will be opening any day now, so it’s time to take a final look back at last season with my annual “Best Pitches” series.
Let’s continue to go pitch by pitch through the arsenals of all starting pitchers who threw 135 or more innings last season and determine the game’s best – and worst – offerings. The main inputs are pitchers’ bat-missing and contact management results. Each pitch is compared to league average swing-and-miss rates and pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Scores.
Adjusted Contact Score is, on a scale where 100 equals MLB average and the lower the number the better, the relative production a pitcher “should have” allowed based on the exit speed/launch angle mix of every batted ball yielded. An average pitch gets a “B’”, and a sliding scale is applied to each pitcher’s results to approximate a bell curve.
Yesterday, we began with the changeups. Today, it’s curves and knuckle-curves. Their 12.6% swing-and-miss rate ranked fourth behind splitters (18.8%), sliders (15.5%) and changeups (14.7%). Their pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score ranked third at 93.8, behind splitters (82.9) and changeups (84.4), 41 pitchers met the total pitch and batted ball requirements to get a grade, with the eight pitchers below receiving either an “A” or “A+” grade. Two of them – the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes, who got the only “A+” and Phillies’ Aaron Nola – get top billing, due to a combination of overall quality, superior innings load and changeup frequency.
Interestingly, all 8 were ERA title qualifiers, and many of them have also garnered very high marks for this pitch in previous seasons.
RHP Corbin Burnes (Brewers) – A+ – (55 Adj. Contact Score, 19.7% Whiff Rate) – Burnes throws his cutter 55.4% of the time, but it graded out as his third best pitch in 2022. Both his curve and slider earned “A+” grades – the curve scored the 2nd best pitch-specific Adjusted Contact Score and the 5th best whiff rate.
This was the second straight season that Burnes earned an “A+” with this pitch – he slightly improved in both contact management (61) and bat-missing (19.4%) from 2021. He absolutely muffled fly ball authority with the pitch, posting a 38 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact score. Its spin rate (2761 rpm) was high, but its average velocity (81.7 mph) and horizontal (5.6 in.) and vertical (4.7 in.) movement were all in the middle of the pack.
RHP Aaron Nola (Phillies) – A – (81 Adj. Contact Score, 20.7% Whiff Rate) – While Nola’s knuckle-curve has always been a top-notch offering, this is its first “A” grade since 2018. It achieved that honor in both 2017 (63 Adjusted Contact Score, 18.8% whiff rate) and 2018 (64, 18.0%) before dropping to a “B” in 2019 (100, 16.3%) and 2020 (137, 21.6%) and bouncing back to a “B+” in 2021 (99, 18.5%). As you can see, it’s the contact management side that has been a bit of a battle for this pitch.
Nola throttled grounder authority (62 Adjusted Grounder Contact Score) with the pitch in 2022. The pitch has above average horizontal movement (8.3 in.), but its spin (2589 rpm), velocity (78.7 mph) and vertical movement (7.2 in.) all are in the average range.
The Other Star Pupils – All six of the other “A” grade recipients threw 162 or more innings in 2022. Guardians’ righty Tristan McKenzie posted the highest pitch-specific whiff rate (22.4%) among all qualifiers. His curve’s 11.0% pop up rate was much higher than the overall qualifier average of 7.2%. Another day, another Grade “A” pitch for the Braves’ Max Fried. His curve muffled fly ball authority (43 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score). The pitch previously posted “B+”, “C+” and “B” grades from 2019-21. His pitch-specific 69 Adjusted Contact Score matched his career best while his 16.4% whiff rate was a new personal best. 2022 marks the fourth consecutive season that the Rockies’ German Marquez earned an “A” grade or better with his knuckle-curve (he got an “A+” in 2021). His average velocity of 86.5 mph was highest among qualifiers by a large margin.Before that he got a “B” in 2017 and “B+” in 2018. Truth be told, the pitch is trending downward ever so slightly – its K rate has gone down for four straight years now, with its Adjusted Contact Score trending in the wrong direction three straight seasons.
The Diamondbacks’ Zac Gallen is yet another repeat “A” grade recipient. His knuckle-curve earned an “A” in 2020, his only other qualifying season. He logged an unusually high grounder rate (52.2% compared to qualifiers’ average of 41.1%) while totally smothering fly ball authority (28 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score led all qualifiers). Talk about stifling contact authority – Mets’ (now Blue Jays’) righty Chris Bassitt ranked 2nd in Adjusted Fly Ball (35) and 1st in Line Drive (70) and Ground Ball (51) Contact Score. His overall pitch-specific 53 Adjusted Contact Score also ranked best among qualifiers. His curve is an old-fashioned roundhouse, thrown slow (71.6 mph) with tons of horizontal (8.6 in.) and vertical (9.3 in.) movement. The Astros’ Framber Valdez posted a very high 53.1% grounder rate with his curve, and ranked 2nd in whiff rate (21.7%) among all qualifiers. He did allow relative hard authority with his curve (100 Adjusted Contact Score), particularly on the few fly balls (207 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score) he did allow.
Just Missed: 6 pitchers received “B+” grades for their curves in 2022: Jameson Taillon, Charlie Morton, JT Brubaker, Kyle Wright, Julio Urias and Jordan Montgomery.
Among that group, Morton, Wright and Montgomery were the best bat-missers, Taillon, Brubaker and Urias the best contact managers, with Morton, Wright and Urias throwing the pitch most often.
The Worst Curves: No qualifying pitcher received lower than a “C” grade for his curve. The seven who got “C”s were Merrill Kelly, Jose Berrios, Cole Irvin, Jose Urquidy, Marco Gonzales, Eric Lauer and Jordan Lyles. All but Berrios nad Irvin were materially below average bat-missers, and all but Gonzales were materially below average contact managers. Lauer (4.9%) was the worst bat-misser, Berrios and Lyles (123) the worst contact managers.
2021 “A” Grade Recipients: We’ve already discussed Burnes, Marquez (”A+” in 2022) and Montgomery (”B+”). Joe Musgrove dropped to a “B” in 2022, as both his bat-missing (from 14.9% to 13.7%) and contact management (69 to 104) performance went backward. The other 2021 “A” grade recipients, Nathan Eovaldi and Ryan Yarbrough, didn’t pitch enough innings to qualify in 2022.
Overall, 2022’s best curves and knuckle curves tended to be thrown hard with high spin rates and plenty of horizontal and vertical movement – though Chris Bassitt’s was an exception in a couple of those areas. Here is a table with all 2022 qualifiers’ curve/knuckle-curve grades.
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