The game's best pitchers have, generally, some great pitches. We're not breaking any new ground here to say it: Great pitchers have great pitches! Usually, anyway. But in an era when we can quantify more and more about every single pitch in the Majors, perhaps we can find pitches from other, lesser-known arms, that look a lot like pitches from their more-successful counterparts? We can. So we did.
There's not one perfect way to do this, so what we chose to do was to take these five metrics as comparison points, because they give us a pretty good view of what a pitch looks like, what it does. In addition, handedness was included, so lefties were compared only to other lefties, as righties were to righties. For each pitch type, we required a minimum of 30 thrown in 2020.
• Velocity. Obviously.
• Release point. This is height off the ground, so we aren't comparing sidearmers to over-the-top throwers.
• Total movement. In inches, combined vertical and horizontal, including gravity.
• Active spin percentage. The rate of spin that actually contributes to the baseball's movement.
• Measured spin direction. A new tool, as detailed recently here.
Not included here is "total spin rate," which is more about potential movement than actual movement. Nor are we including outcomes, because we're just trying to find similar shapes on the way to home plate. We took 2020 measurements in each of these five numbers, smashed them up and pulled them back apart again to find similarities. (This is a bad way of saying "we found the z-scores, and sorted by the lowest ones, to try to find the most similar pitch types.")
It should be noted, and we can't stress this enough, that "throwing a pitch that bears a lot of similarities to the pitch of an ace starter" does not by itself make a pitcher successful. Command and control matter; deception matters; health and durability matter; having a set of pitches that play well off one another all matters. We're not accounting for those things here. That's why some of these pitchers, overall, haven't necessarily been good yet. They might never be. But they've got at least this one thing that makes them really interesting.
Who throws your favorite pitcher's pitches? Let's pick a few.
Who throws ... Shane Bieber's curveball?
Lance McCullers Jr., Astros
Michael Lorenzen, Reds
Patrick Murphy, Blue Jays
Josh Staumont, Royals
Gerrit Cole, Yankees
The curveball least like Bieber's: Alec Mills, Cubs
Bieber is a great example of a single great pitch not making a great pitcher, because while his curveball was tied for the most valuable in baseball in 2020 (he threw it 325 times, and allowed a mere eight hits, six of which were singles) there's also so much more about him that makes him an ace. Still, it's an extremely effective pitch. You'd like to be able to throw it.
So, when the closest name that popped on our list is another pitcher with a celebrated curve -- you may remember the time McCullers threw 24 consecutive curveballs in Game 7 of the 2017 American League Championship Series -- that gave us some confidence in this method. They're thrown almost exactly as hard, from similar heights, and while McCullers has more raw spin, Bieber uses his more effectively, giving them very similar total movement. (Bieber gets slightly more vertical movement, while McCullers gets a little more break.)
It's nice, also, to see Cole pop up here, but the more interesting names are the ones you don't know. For example: Do you know Toronto's Patrick Murphy? We can't say we did, either, though when we Googled him, it was encouraging to see one of the first results being ... a very lengthy article about his career path and curveball. Murphy was drafted by the Blue Jays way back in 2013, but due to a variety of injuries (he's dealing with a sore shoulder this spring, as well) didn't make it to the Majors until 2020, throwing six innings. You don't need a huge sample to see what this pitch can do, though. Luke Voit found out.
Who throws ... Trevor Bauer's fastball?
Jacob Webb, Braves
Tyler Mahle, Reds
Ben Heller, D-backs
Cole Sulser, Orioles
Richard Rodríguez, Pirates
The fastball least like Bauer's: John Schreiber, Red Sox
Bauer had baseball's most valuable four-seamer in 2020, and it's actually pretty fun that none of these names are big ones. Though his spin rate is off the charts -- Bauer is part of the reason we're not including raw spin in this comparison -- his 93.5 mph doesn't stand out, which allows for a wide group of similarities. While Webb's four-seamer moves slightly differently than Bauer's does (more break, less rise), when you look at the top of the "total movement" list, you get Cole, Bauer, and Webb in the top four. (Tyler Thornburg also would have made our list, but he's injured, unsigned and unlikely to pitch in 2021.)
Most interestingly, we think, is Mahle, and not just because he was Bauer's teammate in Cincinnati over the past two seasons. It's because he was already a popular breakout pick. He's increased his strikeout rate in each of his four seasons in the Majors, with last year's 29.9% K rate ranking in the top 20 of pitchers who tossed 40 innings in 2020. Earlier this week, the revamped cutter/slider he showed placed him atop Eno Sarris' list of "sleeper pitchers who had new pitch mixes," and now, here he is with a four-seamer that shares some characteristics with Bauer's. Mahle threw his 468 times last year. He allowed 19 hits, 10 of which were singles.
Heller, who just signed with Arizona, has rarely been healthy enough to showcase his skills, but we do need to take a minute to focus on Sulser, who posted a 5.56 ERA as a 30-year-old rookie for Baltimore. In 2018, he gained some notice in the Minors for striking out 95 in 60 2/3 innings, but with the O's in 2020, he walked 17 in 22 2/3 frames. Again: a pitch that looks like that of a great pitcher's will not alone make you good, if you can't throw strikes. Still, here's that fastball missing some bats.
Rodríguez, for what it's worth, will be 31 in March and feels like an outstanding Trade Deadline candidate, given that the Pirates are likely to be pulling up the rear in the National League Central. Take all the pitchers who threw 20 innings last year, and only 15 of them had a higher strikeout rate than Rodríguez did.
Who throws ... Dustin May's sinker?
Jonathan Hernández, Rangers
Domingo Tapia, Mariners
Miguel Castro, Mets
Walker Buehler, Dodgers
Alex Reyes, Cardinals
The sinker least like May's: Tyler Rogers, Giants
May's ridiculous power sinker, which famously made Manny Machado look like this last August, would seem to be in a class by itself. But what if we told you that his was 97.9 mph, with 98% active spin, 20.8 inches of total movement, delivered 5.4 feet above the ground ... and Hernández threw his at 97.7 mph, with 99% active spin, 20.3 inches of total movement, delivered 5.5 feet above the ground? You'd want to learn more about that pitch, right?
The 24-year-old Hernández was named "Rangers Rookie of the Year" by local media last season, when he led the Majors with 31 relief innings. We noticed, entertainingly in retrospect, that prior to 2020, Ben Clemens at FanGraphs wrote about Hernández' sinker with the title "You’ve Never Heard of Jonathan Hernández, but Maybe You Should Have." Like May, the sinker is the main event, but it's not his out pitch. Hernández got misses on 17.7% of swings on his sinker over the past two seasons, but a 47.1% on his slider and changeup. The fear of 98 with movement surely has a little to do with that.
It's fun to also see Buehler on that list, who is already a stud, and had we gone one more name on this list, we'd have made it to Codi Heuer, who, as we noted when looking at the fascinating White Sox bullpen, just performed like a Top-5 reliever. (He's not quite that good, but he's good.) Consider this also to be yet another reason why we'd really, really like to see what Reyes can do if he can stay healthy over a full season.
Who throws ... Blake Snell's fastball?
Drew Pomeranz, Padres
Yusei Kikuchi, Mariners
Justin Wilson, Yankees
Jake McGee, Giants
Jake Diekman, A's
The fastball least like Snell's: Brian Moran, Rays
Snell uses his four-seamer about half the time, though interestingly it wasn't that effective in 2020. (He allowed a .326 average and .663 slugging on it, though it had been much better in 2018 and '19.) Still, 95 from the left side with some movement has more than a little merit, and we're looking at pitch shapes here, not outcomes. This is a fun list because unlike the others, we're not seeing little-known youngsters. We're seeing veterans, who are mostly known quantities. Pomeranz has been an elite reliver for the past two years; McGee has thrived for years on his almost-entirely-fastball diet.
But Kikuchi? At first glance, his two years in the Majors have been miserable -- he had a 5.46 ERA in 2019, and a 5.17 mark in 2020. If you can get past that, there's a lot to be intrigued about here. For one thing, he upped his strikeout rate from 16.1% to 24.2%, while also upping his ground-ball rate from 44% to 52%. There were only eight pitchers (minimum 40 innings) to have a grounder rate over 50% with a strikeout rate that high, and we're talking about some big-time studs in that group -- Clayton Kershaw, Hyun Jin Ryu, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray among them. He did that, in part, by improving his fastball, which jumped from 92.5 to 95 mph from his first season to his second.
Who throws ... Zack Britton's sinker?
Aaron Bummer, White Sox
Framber Valdez, Astros
Scott Alexander, Dodgers
Josh Osich, Reds
Max Fried, Braves
The sinker least like Britton's: Alex Claudio, Brewers
Britton has thrived for years with a mid-90s sinker that gets a ton of ground balls and misses at least a few bats, so it's not a terribly large surprise that Bummer and Alexander are on this list, because they profile similarly. (The 2018-20 ground-ball leaders are actually Britton-Bummer-Alexander, 1-2-3. It's what they do.)
Valdez gets his share of ground balls, too. He's sixth on that 2018-20 ground-ball leader list. But unlike the trio we just mentioned, he's not a reliever. He's a 27-year-old starter who, as MLB.com's Thomas Harrigan just detailed recently, might be in the midst of a breakout-in-progress. That's because while we're talking about him here in regards to his sinker, it's actually his curveball that is his best pitch; it is, in fact, one of the best curves in the business. Pair that with the sinker, and the Astros -- the underrated Astros, somehow -- might really have something here.
Who throws ... Dinelson Lamet's slider?
Antonio Senzatela, Rockies
Chris Stratton, Pirates
Triston McKenzie, Cleveland
Taylor Clarke, D-backs
Tanner Rainey, Nationals
The slider least like Lamet's: Tyler Zuber, Royals
Lamet's slider was arguably the single most dominant pitch in baseball in 2020, so let's once again reiterate that having a pitch with similar velocity/spin/movement/release characteristics does not by itself make you a star. Plus, sliders are pretty different from fastballs and curveballs in the sense that active spin doesn't tell the same story, so it's possible the inputs we've chosen are less effective for this particular pitch. Again, great pitchers get their pitches to work in tandem, and Lamet's fastball is pretty elite in itself.
That all in mind, this is an interesting and varied list. Senzatela's seeming step forward in 2020 seems like a bit of a mirage to us, because he still doesn't miss enough bats. (He doesn't miss any bats, actually; he had the lowest qualified strikeout rate in baseball.) Stratton has long been an analytical darling due to high spin rates, and he took a pretty big strikeout step forward in 2020. The most interesting name here is McKenzie, Cleveland's No. 3 prospect, who impressed in eight 2020 outings.
Interestingly, the slider was a new pitch for him, one he plans to keep working on this winter.
“I’d say it’s definitely come a long way, and I think some of the results show this year,” McKenzie told Cleveland.com. “With every pitch there’s always going to be room for growth, there’s always going to be room for development. I think with new pitches like my slider this year, there’s definitely a lot of that. But I’m very confident where it was at, and I think I have kind of the right idea of where I want it to be in the future.”
In 2020, that slider was plenty good anyway. He threw it 111 times, allowing only three hits. (Two, to be fair, were home runs.) If it gets even better? It might not look like Lamet's. It might not matter. Maybe next year, we'll be sharing which sliders look like McKenzie's.