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These free-agent pitchers have wicked stuff

@HarriganMLB and @mattkellyMLB and @SlangsOnSports and @_dadler and @paul_casellaMLB
November 30, 2020

We've already broken down the 2020-21 free-agent class by top free agents overall, and top free agents by position. Now we're looking at the free agents with the best individual tools. An elite individual skill is just another way a free agent can be valuable to a team. Hitters were

We've already broken down the 2020-21 free-agent class by top free agents overall, and top free agents by position. Now we're looking at the free agents with the best individual tools.

An elite individual skill is just another way a free agent can be valuable to a team. Hitters were up first, based on the five tools of: contact hitting, power, speed, defense and arm. Up next are the pitchers.

Pitchers don't have traditional "five tools" like hitters, so we're breaking it down by five key pitching categories -- best fastball, best breaking stuff (curveballs and sliders), best offspeed pitches (changeups and splitters), best command and best durability.

These are the free-agent pitchers with the best individual tools.

Best fastball: Liam Hendriks
Key stat: +3.2 inches more "rise" than avg. four-seamer in 2020

It’s hard to believe Hendriks was designated for assignment in 2018. He has become one of the most imposing relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. In particular, attacking hitters with his four-seam fastball early in counts to set them up for his elite breaking stuff has been key to Hendriks' dominance.

The righty has registered an average four-seam velocity of 96.3 mph and an average spin rate of 2,396 rpm since the beginning of 2019, up from 94.9 mph and 2,249 rpm in the four seasons prior. Hendriks’ fastball got +3.2 inches more rise than an average four-seamer this past season, which ranked fourth among all pitchers. In general, high-spin, high-velocity rising fastballs get more swings-and-misses, and Hendriks' results bore that out in '20, when he ranked 10th among pitchers in whiff rate (misses / total swings) on four-seamers with a 30.1 percent mark.

Honorable mentions: Trevor Bauer and Trevor Rosenthal

-- Thomas Harrigan

Best breaking balls: Trevor Bauer
Key stat: .127 combined batting average allowed on curveballs/sliders in 2020

Longtime curveball masters Rich Hill and Adam Wainwright are available this winter (Charlie Morton would be in the running if he hadn't just signed with the Braves), but the meticulous Bauer is in his prime and he is throwing some absolutely filthy breakers. Bauer tinkers with his pitches nonstop (he famously rebuilt his slider from scratch in the middle of his 2018 All-Star season) and he developed both his slider and curveball to the point where they seemed unhittable at many points of his '20 National League Cy Young Award campaign. Opponents went just 4-for-53 this year against Bauer’s slider, an 80-mph frisbee that stays on a vertical plane with his fastball before darting viciously to the left -- a devilish trick of tunneling.

Bauer’s slider averaged +8.8 inches more horizontal movement than an average slider, a top-five mark in MLB. His curveball movement was even more elite, leading all qualified hooks with +11.0 inches more vertical drop than average, while holding batters to just nine hits and 26 strikeouts in 49 at-bats. Two very different pitches, equally devastating.

Honorable mentions: Hill and Wainwright

-- Matt Kelly

Best offspeed pitches: Masahiro Tanaka
Key stat: .207 batting average allowed on splitters in 2020

Only one starter threw at least 300 pitches this season with a lower fastball usage than Tanaka. The right-hander had just a 31.6 percent usage rate on fastballs, trailing only Kenta Maeda (28.5 percent) for the lowest among the aforementioned starters. That low fastball usage rate -- and frequent usage of both his splitter and slider -- have been hallmarks of Tanaka's repertoire.

In each of the first three seasons of his Major League career, his splitter was actually his most-used pitch. In 2017, Tanaka's slider became his primary pitch instead, but the splitter is key. He used it 24.8 percent of the time in '20 and held batters to just a .207 batting average and a .379 slugging percentage in at-bats ending on the pitch. This was a marked improvement for the righty, who allowed a .254 average and a .408 slugging percentage on his splitter in '19 -- each of which represented the highest such figures on the pitch in his career. Tanaka's splitter is key to his success, especially with his low-fastball-usage approach.

Honorable mentions: Matt Shoemaker and Tony Watson

-- Sarah Langs

Best command: Corey Kluber
Key stat: 5.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2014-18

Hendriks, Bauer and Tanaka would all be deserving picks for best command right now -- all three can put the baseball exactly where they want it, in or out of the strike zone. But they're also our picks for the three "stuff" categories, so let's look somewhere else. How about Kluber? He's a really interesting free agent after the Rangers turned down his option. Kluber is 34 and coming off two seasons lost to injury, so there's a risk he never returns to what he was. But "what he was" is "one of the premier aces in baseball," and that wasn't so long ago.

Kluber's five-year run of dominance from 2014-18 was driven by his impeccable command -- of his sinker and wipeout curveball in particular. In that five-year period, Kluber struck out 5 1/2 batters for every one he walked, one of the top rates among starters. He averaged 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings, and only 1.84 walks per nine innings. Kluber is high-risk, but he could also be high-reward on the staff of a contending team in '21.

Honorable mentions: Hendriks, Bauer and Tanaka

-- David Adler

Best durability: Jon Lester
Key stat: 397 starts since 2008 (most in MLB)

Lester's production has tailed off a bit over the last two seasons (4.64 ERA), but he remains one of the most reliable starters in the big leagues. The southpaw started at least 31 games in 12 straight seasons from 2008-19 and he even made 12 starts in the shortened 60-game campaign in '20 -- exactly one every five games. Lester will turn 37 in January, but he's only two years removed from earning an All-Star nod in '18 when he went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA en route to earning a share of NL Cy Young Award votes. At the very least, the three-time World Series champ can provide a veteran presence and plenty of innings.

Honorable mentions: Rick Porcello, J.A. Happ and Bauer

-- Paul Casella

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @HarriganMLB.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.

Paul Casella is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casellaMLB.