These aces have MLB's deepest arsenals

February 8th, 2021

There are signature pitches that hitters know they’ll have to defend against. Gerrit Cole is coming right at you with his high-octane fastball. Clayton Kershaw will be nipping at your heels with his slider. Luis Castillo is happy to twirl his wicked changeup at your knees all afternoon.

Pitches like those are so good that their owners can pummel hitters with them early and often. But which pitchers are best at attacking with variety? Who has the most ways to beat you? Who makes you defend anything and everything on any given delivery?

That’s who we’re identifying today. With the same run values metric used last week to identify four of MLB’s most well-rounded hitters, MLB.com looked for starting pitchers that featured at least three different pitch types that each rated at least five runs better than average dating back to the start of the 2019 season. Those starters must have used each pitch type at least 10% of the time, and they must have logged at least 40 innings in the abbreviated ‘20 campaign (eliminating potential qualifiers such as Eduardo Rodriguez, Mike Soroka and Justin Verlander, who all essentially missed last year with injury).

Run values are a counting stat, and so these aces had to combine quality with quantity on three different offerings to qualify. Out of more than 300 pitchers that had at least one pitch type make the -5 cutoff, only nine made our cut. Here’s a quick look at them below.

(Note: As positive run values favor the hitter, the inverse favors the pitcher -- thus the negative values listed below.)

Jacob deGrom, Mets

-27 runs vs. slider
-25 vs. four-seamer
-11 vs. changeup

This shouldn’t shock anyone who’s seen deGrom pitch, because pretty much any pitch that comes out of his hand can be deemed “unfair.” deGrom pairs a heater that’s seen a literally unprecedented velocity spike with baseball’s fastest slider at 92-93 mph. And then, oh yeah, there’s a 90-91 mph changeup in his back pocket.

A ludicrous 94.4% of deGrom’s pitches last year clocked in at 90 mph or faster, second only to Dodgers reliever Jake McGee across all of MLB. And remember -- between the four-seamer, slider and changeup, those missiles are moving in different directions to different parts of the strike zone. That’s why deGrom is MLB Network’s top starting pitcher once again.

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Zack Greinke, Astros

-24 runs vs. changeup
-16 vs. curveball
-14 vs. four-seamer

Baseball’s top craftsman isn't slowing down. After a tremendous ‘19 with the D-backs and Astros, Greinke was quietly just as strong last year with his command (67 strikeouts, 9 walks) and his ability to keep hitters guessing. At age 36, Greinke threw more of his signature changeups, but still got hitters to whiff on nearly half of their swings. His high-80s four-seamer has been as effective as Brandon Woodruff’s high-90s heater over the last two years. And then there’s that eephus-esque slow curve that keeps embarrassing big league sluggers. Behind Greinke’s pedestrian 4.03 ERA was MLB’s sixth-best FIP (2.80) by any qualified starter.

Jack Flaherty, Cardinals

-21 runs vs. four-seamer
-12 vs. sinker
-12 vs. slider

This is why, even if Flaherty slid off some top-10 lists last year, Cardinals fans should still be excited about their young ace. Even in a down season, Flaherty featured three average-or-better pitches, and FanGraphs’ ZiPS projections are undaunted about his potential to bounce back in ‘21. Flaherty might never again reach the heights of his 2019 second-half surge (that’s the highest bar imaginable), but the strength of his all-around arsenal keeps his floor high.

Hyun Jin Ryu, Blue Jays

-30 runs vs. changeup
-10 vs. cutter
-7 vs. curveball

All four quadrants of the zone with all types of pitches. It’s a common refrain when Ryu is on the mound, but Toronto’s ace continues to prove why that approach is so effective -- if you can execute it as well as he does.

Ryu has thrown five different pitch types at least 10% of the time across the past two seasons, and only his sinker has rated “below average” (just barely) in that span. His changeup is tied with Zach Davies’ change-of-pace for MLB’s sixth-most-valuable pitch since 2019, in company with the high-octane four-seamers of Cole, Lance Lynn and Walker Buehler.

Shane Bieber, Indians

-19 runs vs. four-seamer
-17 vs. curveball
-8 vs. slider

You had a feeling he’d be here, right? Last year’s best starting pitcher attacked hitters with five different pitches that rated above average, and it’s a decent bet that his new cutter will make our -5 run cutoff once it has a full season under its belt. As MLB.com’s Thomas Harrigan noted last month, Bieber was one of only two pitchers in 2020 (alongside new Padre Joe Musgrove) that boasted a whiff-per-swing rate of at least 50% on multiple pitch types -- and Bieber was the only one who could claim that with three of his pitches. One of them, his changeup, didn’t even make our list here; that’s how ridiculous Bieber’s arsenal is.

Sonny Gray, Reds

-16 runs vs. curveball
-11 vs. sinker
-9 vs. slider

Gray is a well-established breaking-ball master, especially since he joined the Reds for 2019. Opponents have hit just .148 against his sliders and curves in that span, a top-10 mark among starting pitchers (min. 100 PA).

But Gray's sinker has perhaps been a little overlooked, and it’s a big part of why he and teammate Luis Castillo are the only two qualified starters with a 50-plus percent ground-ball rate and 25-plus percent strikeout rate across the last two years. Gray’s sinker is far from his flashiest pitch in terms of movement, velocity or spin, but his 33.3% punchout rate on sinkers trails only Trevor Bauer and Eduardo Rodriguez dating back to 2019. Watch below how he commands that sinker to both the front and back doors of the zone.

Zac Gallen, D-backs

-15 runs vs. four-seamer
-18 vs. changeup
-7 vs. curveball

Gallen probably hasn’t gotten enough ink outside his record 23-game streak of three earned runs or less to begin his career, but the numbers do a lot of talking -- only five starters (including four on this list) have put up a better ERA since Gallen’s debut. Arizona’s new ace gets the most out of his seemingly pedestrian 93 mph fastball, and his secondary pitches -- the curveball and change -- combined for a .163 opponent average and 41.6% whiff-per-swing rate last year. Gallen looks like he has the superior command and feel to overcome whatever he lacks in the velocity department.

Dallas Keuchel, White Sox

-12 runs vs. cutter
-9 vs. sinker
-8 vs. changeup

Speaking of pitchers who thrive with low-end velocity. Keuchel literally ranked in the bottom 1% in fastball velocity last year, and yet he still finished with the AL’s second-best ERA at 1.99.

Keuchel’s star pitch in his South Side debut was that cutter, which he threw a career-high 31% of the time and yet held hitters to an anemic .203 average and .246 slugging. That gave Keuchel a fourth offering that he could nibble the edges of the zone with, alongside his trademark sinker-slider combo and his changeup. All those divers helped Keuchel get back into the top 15% of pitchers in barrel rate (the ability to limit the most damaging air-ball contact) -- the same territory he occupied in his 2015 AL Cy Young Award season.

Max Fried, Braves

-10 runs vs. four-seamer
-6 vs. slider
-5 vs. curveball

You probably know about the Kershaw-style curveball, but these numbers show why Fried has emerged as much more than just a kid with a beautiful hook. Fried’s slider in particular made hitters guess more last year, and he’s honed his fastball command to make it a solid set-up pitch for those dastardly breakers. Marcus Stroman is the only starter with a better barrel rate across the past two seasons, proving how much Fried’s evolved pitch mix is keeping opponents on their heels.