The nastiest pitches to face, as voted by players

January 7th, 2019

The Year of the Pitcher was and likely forever will be 1968. But 50 years later, in 2018, there were more strikeouts than hits for the first time in a Major League season, with 1,320 fastballs recorded at 100 mph or more and breaking balls continuing to take up an increased percentage of the pitch populace.

So while it might fall short of irrefutable fact, it would sure seem reasonable to suggest that big league pitching, at large, is at a zenith of nastiness at the moment.

But which specific pitcher's specific pitch is the nastiest of all right now?

Near the end of the 2018 regular season, we polled 85 big leaguers (both hitters and pitchers) from 28 clubs with that exact question. And we put particular emphasis on the "right now," because this conversation is always evolving.

Just a couple years ago, it was correct and commonplace to exalt the virtues of the curveball, the slider, the Zach Britton sinker and, of course, the 100 mph heat. Those are all still great pitches, and they all got votes in this exercise. But new kids are coming up all the time with sick stuff that breaks both bats and the laws of physics, and established pitchers are taking advantage of ample data, technology and video to reshape their repertoires.

Our list of the top 10 vote-getters (for the record, a handful of guys surveyed just couldn't limit themselves to a single vote, so that affected the totals slightly) is reflective of the aforementioned evolution, as it features a nice mix of tried-and-true talents, up-and-comers and refined relievers.

And it's fronted, appropriately, by the pitch that ended the 2018 season.

Chris Sale's slider, 16 votes

Gif: Sale locks down WS win

All you really need to know is that this is the pitch that made Manny Machado fall down to end the World Series.

Machado flailed helplessly at Sale's 84 mph offering that began off the outside edge of the plate and somehow ended up behind his plant foot. He had no chance, and neither did the Dodgers in that ninth inning of Game 5.

So what is it about the Sale slider that can make even one of the best players in baseball buckle on the biggest stage?

"He's throwing it from a completely different angle," said catcher . "You don't see many lefties throwing it from second base, and then, the next thing you know, the ball is at first base, and then you take it, but it's in the strike zone."

To a right-handed hitter like Gomes, the pitch begins in the Atlantic and winds up in the Pacific. Like Hall of Famer Randy Johnson before him, Sale's lanky 6-foot-6 frame and large wingspan contribute to the pitch's deception.

And for a left-hander? The ball seems to materialize from behind your back.

"Being a lefty and seeing that slider left-on-left, it's one of the sliders that people try to explain, but until you face it and get a chance to see it, it's hard to really talk about because it's just so crazy of a pitch," Cardinals second baseman said. "It honestly looks like a fastball out of his hand, and all of a sudden it looks like it's coming across slightly the way you look at it on the TV, but it moves like three feet and you're like, 'How the [heck] am I even supposed to hit that?'"

All told, batters hit a measly 23-for-204 (.113) on at-bats that ended on a Sale slider in 2018, per Statcast™, and 57.4 percent of those at-bats ended in a strikeout.

's sinker, 11 votes

Gif: Treinen strikes out Young on nasty pitch

Treinen's emergence as one of the best relievers in baseball was one of the biggest reasons an A's team that entered the year with the game's lowest payroll wound up reaching October. Multiple weapons contributed to his incredible 0.78 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings. Two participants in this poll voted for Treinen's cutter, and Padres pitcher voted for "Treinen's everything."

But the sinker, which can touch 100 mph and sits around 97-98, was especially special last season. When hitters swung at Treinen's sinker, they whiffed about 30 percent of the time, second to only Britton among sinker and two-seam fastball users.

"His sinker is disgusting," Pirates pitcher said. "It's a joke. You shouldn't be able to throw a ball 100 mph that does that."

's slider, 8 votes

Gif: Corey Kluber Ks Marwin Gonzalez

The only thing harder than hitting Kluber's breaking ball is labeling it. Kluber has called it a curveball (so does Statcast™), but the majority of those respondents who voted for this pitch called it a slider, so we'll go with that.

Actually, some hitters have trouble differentiating Kluber's breaking ball from his cut fastball (that's part of the difficulty of trying to get a hit off him), so maybe it would be fair to say his "best pitch" is a slider/curveball/cutter hybrid sent by the Klubot to ruin lives.

"What is it, a churve?" outfielder said. "It's like a cutter and a curve. The churve. That's the pitch."

Per Statcast™, Kluber's breaking ball limited hitters to a 20-for-192 (.104) showing with 77 strikeouts in 2018.

's knuckle-curveball, 7 votes

Gif: Craig Kimbrel strikes out Giancarlo Stanton

Closers typically wow us with their fastball, and Kimbrel has definitely delivered there in his great career (his fastball did get one vote). But it's this beastly breaking ball with devastating downward movement that has made the current free agent such a consistent late-inning force. Kimbrel got whiffs on 55.6 percent of swings against his curve in 2018, limiting opponents to five hits in 61 at-bats (.082) that ended on it, per Statcast™.

"That [pitch] combined with the fastball is a deadly combo," said. "I could make contact [off the curve], but I don't know how people drive that."

's curveball, 6 votes

Gif: snell curve

Snell's breakout Cy Young Award-winning season in 2018 was a beautiful thing to behold, and his old-school, yo-yo curveball that sits around 80 mph is his go-to putaway pitch. Of the 145 plate appearances against Snell that ended with the curve, 93 were strikeouts. More than half of the swings on all curves thrown by Snell were swings and misses.

"I think it's just mainly because of how hard he throws his fastball," Blue Jays catcher said. "It comes out of the same slot, he's got that angle and that kind of upshot heater, and that breaking ball kind of starts out as something you need to hit. Then, before you know it, he threw it 55 feet."

' sinker, 6 votes

Gif: Hicks 102

Snell's curve is a throwback to baseball's past. Hicks' sinker feels like the future. Average velocity readings have generally trended upward for years, but when you combine extreme velocity with downward dip, that's crazy stuff. Hicks' sinker averaged 100.4 mph in his rookie season of 2018. He now dominates the Statcast™ pitch-speed leaderboard the way Chapman once did. He had 19 of the top 25 fastest pitches in 2018, topped by the 105.1 mph sinker he threw to on May 20.

"I've seen a 103 mph fastball, but straight," Brewers utilityman said. "I've never seen 103 with sink."

But Hicks is still learning how to hone his unusual offering. He had a 15.4 percent walk rate vs. a 12.6 percent K rate with the pitch.

's fastball, 5 votes

Gif: Hader 6-K outing

It's surprising Hader finished behind Hicks here, because, well, he definitely had little trouble honing his four-seam fastball in 2018. In combining it with a wicked slider, he struck out 46.7 percent of the batters he faced -- the fourth-highest percentage of all time. Hitters went 27-for-208 (.130) off the fastball, which came in at an average velo of 94.5 mph.

"He throws it like 80 percent of the time and he strikes out the world," White Sox lefty said.

Fry's right. The actual percentage was 77.2, and hitters just never grew accustomed to it.

"I saw a couple replays from behind home plate, and he completely turns his back [while delivering the pitch]," reliever said. "He shows almost his whole last name, and the hair is flying all over. Any extra movement will cause distraction."

Max Scherzer's slider, 4 votes

Gif: Max Scherzer slider

Scherzer would have fared better in this poll if he only had the decency to limit himself to one dominant offering. But you don't win three Cy Young Awards (with three other top-five finishes) by staying static. Scherzer is constantly updating himself, including the increased emphasis on a relatively new cutter in a typically terrific 2018. He also threw his changeup a little bit more this past season than he did in his first few seasons in Washington, and that pitch garnered two votes in our poll.

But Scherzer's slider, which was the pitch of increased emphasis in his 2017 Cy season, got the most votes here.

"There is no way you can see the spin of the ball," Rangers shortstop said. "My whole 10 years, that's the toughest one."

It wasn't quite as commanding a pitch in '18 as it was in '17, when batters posted just a .129 average and .177 slugging percentage off it in the midst of career-high deployment, but it was still very effective (.195 AVG, .353 SLG).

"I think you could go with a couple of his pitches, but that slider is one of the best ones in the league, if not the best," Marlins third baseman said. "You don't really see the spin out of the hand, and it's got a lot of late bite to it."

's fastball, 4 votes

Gif: Jacob deGrom's 200th strikeout

Another complicated (and that's a compliment) arsenal in a poll like this. deGrom (who, win total aside, had one of the best pitching seasons in history in 2018) got a vote for his slider and, from Twins reliever , a vote for his "everything," a la Treinen, above.

But when in doubt, go with the heater. deGrom promised before 2018 that his new short haircut would lead to an increase in velocity, and, sure enough, he was right. It went from an average of 95.2 mph to 96 mph. And the spin deGrom gets on the pitch (a 2,362 rpm average in 2018) makes it all the more unhittable.

"It's something that you don't see with guys, that illusion of rising," his Mets teammate said. "Not a lot of guys can do that, and he's throwing [up to] 99 mph."

One-third of plate appearances that ended on deGrom's fastball were strikeouts.

's slider, 3 votes

Gif: ottavino slider

This was another one that was tough to nail down specifically, because Ottavino throws his slider and his sinker in almost equal measure, and one big key to his rise in relief standing in 2018 was his creation of a cutter that he sharpened in the previous winter with the use of high-speed cameras.

"He uses all three of his pitches," Padres catcher said. "And when he's throwing his fastball for strikes, he's unhittable."

But Ottavino's improved command of his Wiffle Ball slider -- which, when viewed from behind the mound, seems to take a total left turn as it reaches the plate -- definitely opened eyes. It landed him a prominent spot in this poll (and, more importantly, it will get him paid a tremendous amount of money in free agency).

Other pitches receiving votes: Kershaw's curve, Chapman's fastball, Britton's sinker, Miller's slider, 's changeup, 's curve, 's splitter, 's slider, 's four-seamer, 's (58 mph) curve, 's slider, 's slider, 's fastball, 's four-seamer, 's slider, 's changeup, 's knuckleball.