Masahiro Tanaka's Splitter and the 10 Best Strikeout Pitches of MLB

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJune 20, 2014

Masahiro Tanaka's Splitter and the 10 Best Strikeout Pitches of MLB

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If you haven't been keeping track, yes, Major League Baseball is on track for yet another record-high strikeout rate in 2014.

    According to FanGraphs, pitchers are striking out 7.76 batters per nine innings this year. That's quite a raise over last year's rate of 7.57 batters per nine innings.

    I feel an urge to blame Masahiro Tanaka. More specifically, to blame his splitter. It's gotten the bulk of the New York Yankees ace's 113 strikeouts, putting it among the best strikeout pitches in baseball alongside...

    Uh, that's actually a good question. With so many pitchers striking out so many batters, there are a lot of elite strikeout pitches to choose from.

    But I think we can narrow it down to 10 pitches, and we'll try to strike a balance between their general statistical dominance and their aesthetic appeal in ranking 'em.

     

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked, and are current as of the start of play on Thursday, June 19.

10. Dellin Betances' Knuckle-Curveball(?)

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    It seems nobody actually knows what to call the breaking ball Yankees reliever Dellin Betances throws. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post had one guy call it a curveball. Another called it a slider. Betances himself calls it a slurve.

    Whatever it is, we know that PITCHf/x actually classifies it as a knuckle-curveball, and we know that the pitch freakin' owns.

    According to BaseballSavant.com, the New York Yankees right-hander's knuckle-curve has already racked up 58 strikeouts in 2014. That's not only the most knuckle-curve strikeouts, but the most strikeouts of any curveball. Pretty good for a guy who, as a relief pitcher, only gets a chance to throw so many hooks.

    Betances is getting so many strikeouts with his hook is in part because Brooks Baseball says he's thrown it 65.5 percent of the time in two-strike counts in 2014. Hitters have swung at it 49.6 percent of the time, and missed 57.8 percent of the time they have swung.

    That's a deadly combination of movement and velocity at work. Betances' hook comes across in the mid-80s, and can have either a more loopy curveball-like break like a curveball or a sharper slider-like break.

    No wonder hitters haven't solved it yet.

9. Kenley Jansen's Cutter

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    From one perspective, Kenley Jansen is the most dominant strikeout artist in MLB right now. According to FanGraphs, his 13.63 K/9 since the start of 2013 is tops among all pitchers who have logged 100 innings.

    And he's basically done it with one pitch: his cutter.

    According to Brooks Baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers closer's cutter has accounted for 88.5 percent of his pitches since the start of 2013, and 86.5 percent of his two-strike offerings. And in all, it's picked up 128 of 155 recorded strikeouts.

    Thus, hitters know what's coming and still can't hit it. We used to say that about Mariano Rivera's cutter, of course, but his cutter never had a whiff/swing rate over 30 percent in the PITCHf/x era (since 2007). The whiff/swing rate on Jansen's cutter has been at least 30 percent every year since his debut in 2009.

    As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan put it earlier this year: "With Mariano Rivera retired, which is the new most dominant pitch in baseball? Forced to choose, I’d say it’s Kenley Jansen’s cutter."

    And this is before Jansen took his Mariano-esque cutter and started throwing it around 100 miles per hour.

8. Stephen Strasburg's Changeup

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    There's probably going to be some debate over this one.

    According to Brooks Baseball, Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has thrown almost exactly as many changeups as curveballs with two strikes since 2012, but has picked up 14 more strikeouts on his curveball. You can therefore argue that the latter is a more dominant strikeout pitch.

    One kicker for me, though, is that the two-strike whiff/swing rate on Strasburg's changeup is 49.0 percent to his curveball's rate of 38.8 percent. Between the two, it's the harder pitch to actually, you know, hit.

    And then there's how Strasburg's changeup relates to those of his peers. BaseballSavant.com tells us that he's one of only five pitchers to rack up as many as 150 strikeouts with his changeup since 2012, and Strasburg is in their company despite throwing the fewest two-strike changeups by about 100.

    Another thing that's so wonderful about Strasburg's changeup is that you never know what it's going to do.

    “Sometimes it drops, sometimes it’ll tail, sometimes it’ll stay straight, sometimes it’ll cut, it’s kind of like a 90-mph split," then-Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki told The Washington Times last year.

    Yup, and sometimes it makes Joey Votto look like a child swinging at a piñata.

7. Cole Hamels' Changeup

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    Remember how we looked at that list of pitchers who have racked up the most strikeouts with their changeups since 2012?

    Meet the man at the top of that list. The changeup has long been Cole Hamels' signature pitch, and he's used it to rack up well over 200 strikeouts over the last two-plus seasons in Philadelphia.

    The only other pitcher who has racked up over 200 strikeouts with his changeup since then is Kansas City Royals right-hander James Shields, and he's needed about 40 more changeups than Hamels to do so.

    Hamels has helped himself by not overusing his changeup in two-strike counts, as Brooks Baseball says he's thrown it only 30.9 percent of the time in such counts since 2012. When he has used it, though, hitters have swung a whopping 72.0 percent of the time. Exactly 40.3 percent of those swings have whiffed.

    That, friends, is a dominant changeup. It looks the part, too, as it'll drop off the table and tail away from right-handers and in on left-handers when he has it working at its best.

6. Masahiro Tanaka's Splitter

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    Freddy Galvis tried to warn us, you guys.

    “It’s the best splitter I’ve ever seen,” the Philadelphia Phillies infielder told the New York Daily News during spring training. “You don’t want to get two strikes on you against him with that pitch, or you are in trouble.”

    No, you don't. And yes, you are.

    According to Brooks Baseball, Tanaka has gone to his splitter 43.5 percent of the time with two strikes in 2014. A staggering 69.0 percent of those have induced swings, and 41.7 percent of those swings have missed. If you've watched, you'll know that most of those have been feeble hacks by hitters who thought they were getting a fastball at the knees until it's too late.

    In all, 57 of the 184 two-strike splitters (31.0 percent) Tanaka has thrown have gotten strike three.

    But the best splitter in baseball? Allow me to invite you to the next page by saying this: Maybe not.

5. Koji Uehara's Splitter

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    It's uncanny how closely the splitters of Masahiro Tanaka and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara stack up.

    We mentioned how 31.0 percent of Tanaka's two-strike splitters in 2014 have gotten strike three. Remarkably, Brooks Baseball tells us that Uehara has gotten strike three on 30.9 percent of the two-strike splitters he's thrown since the start of 2013. To this end, it's a push.

    However, that Uehara has used his splitter in 60.9 percent of two-strike counts means hitters have a pretty good idea of what to look for. And they've taken their shots, swinging 74.6 percent of the time. Of those, however, 40.0 percent have hit air.

    In other words: Uehara's splitter is more predictable than Tanaka's, but equally unhittable.

    Maybe this is because Uehara's splitter is something of an ultimate shape-shifter. He told Tim Britton of the Providence Journal this spring that he actually throws several different splitters and that, "From year to year, my conditioning is different, so the way the ball moves is different."

    Criminy. Let's just hope Uehara's splitter never becomes self-aware. Because if it does...

4. Craig Kimbrel's Knuckle-Curveball

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    A moment ago, we talked about a nasty knuckle-curveball belonging to Dellin Betances. Now we're going to talk about an even nastier knuckle-curveball belonging to Craig Kimbrel.

    The Atlanta Braves closer's hook is similar to Betances' in that it goes in the mid-80s and can move either like a traditional curve or a traditional slider. But while we can compare the movement of the two, there's no comparison when it comes to results.

    Whereas Betances uses his knuckle-curve freely in two-strike counts, Kimbrel actually prefers his wicked heater. According to Brooks Baseball, he's only thrown his knuckle-curve in 39.4 percent of two-strike counts since 2012.

    On those, hitters have swung 55.8 percent of the time and missed 51.9 percent of the time. And in all, 125 of the 328 two-strike knuckle-curves Kimbrel has thrown since 2012 have gotten strike three.

    Yup. When Kimbrel has thrown a two-strike knuckle-curve, it's ended the at-bat close to 40 percent of the time. Nasty.

3. Yu Darvish's Slider

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    There are a lot of great sliders in the game today. So many, in fact, that I'll admit I feel somewhat ashamed that only one is represented on this countdown.

    But this one slider is Yu Darvish's slider: aka the slider that all other sliders bow to.

    That's largely owed to the movement the Texas Rangers right-hander can get on his. According to Brooks Baseball, Darvish's slider averages more than nine inches of horizontal movement.

    Per the PITCHf/x leaderboards at Baseball Prospectus, only one other pitcher who's thrown at least 1,000 sliders in the PITCHf/x era has gotten that kind of lateral run on his slider: Sergio Romo. And the difference between his slider and Darvish's, of course, is that Darvish's is faster by several miles per hour.

    And it's been quite good at racking up strikeouts. Darvish has gone to his slider 33.2 percent of the time in two-strike counts since 2012, getting swings 70.6 percent of the time. Of those, 39.8 percent have missed.

    In all, 722 two-strike sliders have produced 234 strikeouts. Devastating production for a devastating pitch.

2. Aroldis Chapman's Fastball

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    With so many great benders and breakers to talk about, we only have room for one straight pitch. And you know what? Sometimes the obvious choice really is the best choice.

    According to BaseballSavant.com, only Detroit's Max Scherzer and St. Louis' Lance Lynn have gotten more strikeouts with their four-seamers since the start of 2012 than Aroldis Chapman. Impressive stuff considering that he's just a humble relief pitcher.

    We can look closer and see that the Cincinnati Reds southpaw closer has used his heater in 82.5 percent of two-strike counts since 2012, according to Brooks Baseball. Hitters have swung at 64.4 percent of those, and whiffed on 37.3 percent of their swings.

    In all, 6.0 percent of all the pitches Chapman has thrown since 2012 have been swinging third-strikes on his heater. The next closest guy (minimum 500 pitches) is Sean Doolittle at 4.5 percent.

    Is it the velocity? Well, Brooks Baseball does have his average career heater at 99.3 miles per hour and he's apparently thrown 348 more 100-plus mile per hour heaters than anyone else since 2012, so...

    Yeah, let's go with velocity.

1. Clayton Kershaw's Curveball

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    The discussion of who has the best true curveball in the game is always a good one, but let me tell you why Clayton Kershaw's curveball is king of them all.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers ace lefty's hook looks the part, for one. It did even before Clayton Kershaw was Clayton Kershaw, and there's still no other curveball that wows quite like his.

    And if we go as far back as 2011, BaseballSavant.com tells us that only Kershaw, Washington's Gio Gonzalez, Detroit's Justin Verlander and St. Louis' Adam Wainwright have notched over 200 strikeouts with their curves since then.

    Kershaw is a member of the list despite throwing only 708 two-strike curves since then, about 300 fewer than the next guy (Wainwright). With 203 strikeouts on curves, that's a strike-three rate of 28.7 percent that neither Gonzalez, nor Verlander nor Wainwright can match.

    And Kershaw's curveball isn't losing its power, you guys. Per Brooks Baseball, 22 of the 58 two-strike curves he's thrown in 2014 have gotten strike three. That's close to 40 percent of them.

    Basically, Kershaw's curveball is about as dominant as it looks.