Which pitcher gets the most drop on his curveball? Who gets the most rise on his fastball? Is it the same ones who have the highest spin rates? If not, why not?
You'd think, with all the data we have, those questions would be simple to answer. Since so much of this is rooted in physics, it's actually somewhat complicated. Pitch movement numbers have been available for years -- here, as one example, are the slider vertical movement numbers at FanGraphs -- but they've been somewhat challenging for the viewer to reconcile, because they remove gravity from the equation, instead measuring inferred movement against a theoretical "spin-free" pitch.
There are good reasons for that approach, but in addition to results that don't always match the eye test, it allows for some pitches to break "up," which, of course, doesn't align with what you -- or hitters -- see.
(Without getting too deep into the weeds on the history of this: Once pitch tracking came online in 2007, a great deal of public work was put into conceiving and presenting these numbers. A few places to start for more info on this history would be some of now-Braves analyst Mike Fast's work from back in 2007, Dr. Alan Nathan's research on the topic and Jeff Long's 2017 explanation of why the gravity-free measurements took hold.)
For example: When you see Max Fried drop a curveball like in the video below, you want to know that it dropped nearly 65 inches, because it did (don't forget, the mound is 10 inches high). The way Fried threw it pushed it downward, and so did the forces of gravity.
Every pitch drops, remember, thanks to gravity. Four-seam fastballs, depending on their velocity and movement, drop something like 10 to 25 inches on their way to the plate. Curveballs, on average, usually drop between 40 to 70 inches. As you can see, all pitches drop to some extent.
Of course, if you want to report these things with gravity included, you have to account for the fact that gravity requires time to have an effect. No one wants to say that the slowest curveball in the game (right now, that's Chris Bassitt's 69.7 MPH) has the best movement simply because it has more time to break than the fastest (Joe Kelly's 85.7 MPH), right?
That's what the new pitch movement leaderboards at Baseball Savant attempt to account for, reporting movement numbers in inches, with gravity included, and also showing context by comparing movement against similar pitches of that type (defined as pitches within plus/minus 2 MPH of velocity, and within plus/minus half a foot of extension and release point) to reflect what a batter sees from his perspective.
So for example, take curveballs in 2018. Joakim Soria got the most drop on his curve, at 76.2 inches, but he also threw the second-slowest curves, at 70 MPH. If we're trying to get to real movement added, then we can say that Garrett Richards' curveball, which dropped 65 inches on the way to the plate, had +12.4 inches more drop than similar curves at his velocity, which you can also word as "24% more drop." Both numbers were the most in baseball, meaning he added the most movement beyond just gravity. (This is satisfying because Richards also had the most curve spin, though it's not always this clean.)
This gets complicated, but it's a complicated topic. Let's take a look through each pitch type for 2019, through Monday, and see how this method aligns with our expectations.
FOUR-SEAM FASTBALLS (leaderboard)
These are the top five in rise added -- and remember: "rise" is something of an illusion, as it's really more about a pitch that 'drops less than expected.' Every pitch drops.
The way to read this is "inches in rise above average at a similar velocity and release point," also shown in terms of percentage.
1. Marco Estrada, OAK: 4.4 inches
2. Tyler Thornburg, BOS: 4.1 inches
3. Sean Doolittle, WSH: 4.0 inches
4. Neil Ramirez, CLE: 3.3 inches
5. Josh Hader, MIL: 3.3 inches
Right away, these are satisfying results. Estrada has been relying on fastball movement over velocity for years. His four-seamer drops 14.6 inches on the way to the plate, but the average four-seamer at his velocity drops 19 inches, giving him 4.4 inches of additional rise. Bats can't be thicker than 2.6 inches at their thickest point; 4.4 inches of rise is a lot.
No one throws more fastballs than Doolittle does (92.4%); this helps explain why, and also that it's about more than raw spin rate, which for Doolittle is actually low, just 36th percentile -- it's likely that his spin axis is near-perfect.
Thornburg, meanwhile, does have elite spin, though his 7.13 ERA this year proves it takes more than that to succeed, and no one should be surprised that Hader's unhittable fastball is about more than just his 95.1 MPH velocity.
You can also see how this changes year over year. Take Clayton Kershaw and his four-seamer. It's well known that his velocity has dropped, but so has the movement.
In 2017, his four-seamer had the most rise in baseball, +5.0 inches more than similar fastballs at his 92.8 MPH velocity and release.
In 2018, his four-seamer had the 14th-most rise, at +2.9 inches more than similar fastballs at his 90.8 MPH.
In 2019, his four-seamer has the 34th-most rise, at +2.2 inches more than similar fastballs at his 90.0 MPH.
Remember, these are being compared to pitches thrown in the same velocity and release range, so this is capturing more than just lower speed.
SINKERS / TWO-SEAM FASTBALLS (leaderboard)
The top five in drop, or sink added over average:
1. Jared Hughes, CIN: 11.6 inches
2. Zach Duke, CIN: 8.4 inches
3. Richard Bleier, BAL: 7.5 inches
4. Aaron Bummer, CHW: 6.8 inches
5. Framber Valdez, HOU: 5.9 inches
That does say that Hughes gets nearly a full foot more drop than other sinkers at his velocity and release point, and while that may seem like a lot, there's two pieces of supporting evidence here. First, over the last three seasons, Hughes' ground ball rate of 63% is the second best of the 210 pitchers who threw 150 innings, so that makes sense.
Second, just look at this thing.
By the way, this works horizontally, too. The most horizontal movement compared to their similarity average: Chris Sale, who gets nearly five more inches than other sinkers similar to his velocity and release, just ahead of Cory Gearrin and Charlie Morton.
The top five in vertical drop added over the player's comparison average:
1. Trevor Bauer, CLE: 8.9 inches
2. Sean Newcomb, ATL: 8.3 inches
3. Tyler Chatwood, CHC: 8.2 inches
4. Seth Lugo, NYM: 7.7 inches
5. Joe Biagini, TOR: 7.7 inches
This is such a satisfying list, and Atlanta's Fried is the very next name. Bauer is constantly discussing how he's taken an analytical approach to improving his pitches, and here's how it shows up in his curveball -- he gets 63.7 inches of drop, while other curveballs at his velocity and release get just 54.8 inches. It has, unsurprisingly, also been one of the most effective starting pitcher curveballs in 2018-'19.
Chatwood and Lugo are noteworthy names on the top five here, because they each have elite 99th percentile spin rates. As Chatwood could attest, you also need to be able to throw strikes to succeed, because there's no "one secret key to pitching," not spin or velocity or location. In in this case, at least, they're turning their great spin into great movement.
Horizontal movement is also important for curves, and that's a fun list, too. Remember, these are compared to the movement of pitches at similar velocities and releases, so each pitcher has their own average to be compared against.
1. Ryan Pressly, HOU: 10.8 inches
2. Charlie Morton, TB: 8.5 inches
3. Tyler Olson, CLE: 8.4 inches
4. Adam Wainwright, STL: 8.2 inches
5. Kyle Wright, ATL: 8.1 inches
You should already know Pressly is unhittable, because he just set a record for the longest consecutive scoreless game streak in history. He gets an extra 3.6 inches of drop on his curve, but he also gets an extra 10.8 inches of break -- which is where all that spin is going.
Morton's high-spin curve makes sense on this list, as does Wainwright's sweeping horizontal breaker.
The top five in vertical drop over average:
1. Luke Jackson, ATL: 9.5 inches
2. Zack Britton, NYY: 9.5 inches
3. Brett Anderson, OAK: 8.7 inches
4. Evan Phillips, BAL: 8.3 inches
5. Blake Treinen, OAK: 7.6 inches
They don't call Jackson "the Friendly Neighborhood Slider-Man" for nothing, apparently.
Now, we get a little bit into the confusing vagaries of what a pitcher even throws. We know Britton throws his sinking fastball about 90% of the time. The remaining 10% of the time, he throws a breaking pitch at 80 MPH that drops 53.8 inches. It looks like a curveball. The data says it could be a curveball.
But Britton doesn't call it a curve. He calls it a slider, saying to FanGraphs last fall in reply to a question about pitching strategy that "some of it is how my ball moves, both my sinker and my slider." So, it's a slider, albeit one that drops like a curve, and that's why it rates so well here. Pitch classification is always a moving target.
For sliders, the horizontal movement leaders above average are so much more entertaining.
1. Chaz Roe, TB: 15.2 inches
2. Adam Ottavino, NYY: 10.8 inches
3. Sonny Gray, CIN: 10.7 inches
4. Kyle Crick, PIT: 10.2 inches
5. Trevor Bauer, CLE: 9.5 inches
Now we're talking. Roe's frisbee slider has been the subject of endless celebratory articles over the years, and earlier this spring, Rays catcher Mike Zunino told you all you need to know about it:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he fools me while I’m catching -- and I know what’s coming,” Zunino laughed. “That thing breaks so much. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit.”
Look at what this thing can do.
Ottavino, famously, rode his mastery of pitch design to a three-year contract with the Yankees, thanks to his demon slider, and you're not surprised to see Bauer here.
It's also worth pointing out Crick, a 2011 San Francisco first-rounder who was moved to the bullpen shortly before making his Major League debut in 2017. He was traded to the Pirates in the relatively unpopular Andrew McCutchen trade, and in 80 games for the Bucs over the last two seasons, he's had a 2.41 ERA. This slider is a big part of why.
The top five in vertical drop added above average:
1. Joey Lucchesi, SD: 9.6 inches
2. Noé Ramirez, LAA: 8.3 inches
3. Trevor Cahill, LAA: 7.9 inches
4. Aaron Brooks, OAK: 6.8 inches
5. Daniel Norris, DET: 6.8 inches
Lucchesi throws something that's kind of a curveball and kind of a changeup -- sometimes he calls it a "churve," believe it or not -- but he's been pretty clear it's ultimately a changeup, as he told FanGraphs. That it has some tendencies of a curveball is why it drops more than other changeups, because it's something unique.
There's not quite as strong a correlation between changeup movement and success as there are from other pitches -- for the sake of brevity, we're not showing the horizontal leaderboard here, but it's not terribly impressive, aside from Mike Soroka ranking fifth -- which tells you that the strength of a change is often about how it works off the pitcher's fastball.
That said, Ramirez has had one of baseball's more effective changeups this year, and it's not that hard to see why.
The top five in vertical drop added above average:
1. Blake Parker, MIN: 3.6 inches
2. Hector Neris, PHI: 3.5 inches
3. Kirby Yates, SD: 3.5 inches
4. Erick Fedde, WSN: 3.1 inches
5. Tony Sipp, WSN: 3.1 inches
There really aren't that many pitchers who throw a splitter in the first place. Just 23 pitchers have thrown at least 25 splitters this year, compared to the 254 pitchers who have thrown at least 25 curveballs.
Still, it's satisfying that Parker, Neris, and Yates are at the top of this list, given the success they've found with their respective splitters. (Yates in particular may be the best reliever that no one seems to know about, and he only started throwing his splitter in 2017.) It's also satisfying that at the other end, who get the least drop -- or most rise, if you prefer -- are Chad Green and Junior Guerra, though for different reasons.
Green has struggled this year, with a 13.50 ERA, and lack of movement on that split makes sense. Guerra has been very good, with a 2.52 ERA, but while his splitter had been getting between 29 and 31 inches of drop in previous seasons, it's dropping only 24.7 inches this year. That might suggest an effect from trying to learn a similar changeup this spring, perhaps.
We're saving the cutter for last because the description "cutter" somewhat encompasses pitches that could otherwise be thought of as four-seamers or sliders, and it's not even perfectly clear if rise or drop is better for it. The answer is probably depends on the pitcher. Instead, let's just show horizontal break above average leaders, which seem more interesting than Yusmeiro Petit and Drew Pomeranz on the rise leaderboards.
1. Phil Maton, SD: 6.0 inches
2. Yu Darvish, CHC: 4.2 inches
3. Shane Greene, DET 4.1 inches
4. Walker Buehler, LAD: 3.7 inches
5. Roberto Osuna, HOU: 3.6 inches
Those are some quality names, and Kenley Jansen, at +1.6 inches of rise and +3.0 inches of break, comes in tied for eighth.
All of the pitch movement leaderboards are now live at Baseball Savant.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Ballpark Dimensions podcast.