I am basing these rankings primarily on fangraph.com's pitch values statistics. People often talk about particular pitchers having the best this or that and as is often the case it is impossible to get a consensus answer. Because of this, I decided to look it up myself. I've used the pitch values over each of the last three seasons, and weighted the most recently completed years the heaviest. These rankings are based on a combination of overall value garnered from the pitch and the pitch's rate value.
20. Carlos Marmol's Slider - Marmol throws his slider roughly half the time and does not even command it that well, but the combination of his awkward motion/arm slot, velocity (the pitch averages over 82 MPH) and movement make it a nasty offering. His slider breaks across the zone more than most but its movement is only good and not spectacular. Marmol's slider is a testament to how much of a difference deception can make.
19. Randy Wolf's 4-seam Fastball - This was a bit of a surprise to me because Wolf's fastball sits in the upper 80s and has never really stood out in my personal observations much. Wolf does command the pitch well and often rides it up in the zone to pickup strikeouts. However, I think the biggest reason that it stands out is how much "life" it has. This is one of those things that is difficult to quantify because it is very subjective, but some pitches just seem faster than they are, and Wolf's fastball is a perfect example. It does have a bit more rise on it than most fastballs and a little arm-side tail that makes it deceptively quick. Wolf also throws one of the slowest curveballs in the league (sitting in the upper 60s) and perhaps it is the difference between those two pitches that catches batters off. Exactly why Wolf's fastball is so effective really is a bit of a mystery, but it is impossible to deny how outstanding the pitch is.
18. A.J. Burnett's Curveball - It is tricky to succeed as a two-pitch starter but Burnett, for all intents and purposes, has been one for his whole career. Although his fastball is extremely quick his lack of command makes the fastball only a decent pitch. However, his curve is just plain filthy. It moves so much (both across the zone and down) that hitters will often swing at it, even when it ends up a couple feet out of the zone. He throws the pitch to left-handed batters and they will often swing at balls that nearly hit their back foot. At an 82 MPH average, the simplest way to describe Burnett's curveball is that it is impossible to find another pitch with this much movement at that speed.
17. Hong-Chih Kuo's 4-seam Fastball - Kuo's injury history and lack of command forced him to the bullpen, where he has been invaluable to the Dodgers. When he was first called up, Los Angeles used him as a lefty specialist, but they quickly realized Kuo's fastball was actually his best pitch. As a result he ended up being able to dominate both left and right-handed batters. His velocity has gone up each year of his career and he averaged over 94 MPH in 2009. The movement on his pitch is nearly identical to Wolf's but the extra 5-6 MPH make Kuo's pitch that little bit better. Kuo would be a closer for most teams but as long as Jonathan Broxton (whose fastball and slider both came fairly close to this list) is in town he'll have to settle for setup duty.
16. Rich Harden's Splitter - Similar to Burnett, it is Harden's fastball velocity that gets the most publicity, but it is not his best pitch. Harden's fastball is very straight, making it more hittable while his splitter has good tumble and is pretty quick itself, sitting in the mid 80s. Harden's fastball velocity certainly helps the splitter because batters will be geared up for the heat and be way out in front when Harden pulls the string. Over the last few years Harden has completely abandoned every breaking pitch but because the split is so effective, he can still be a great pitcher... when healthy.
15. Jake Peavy's 2-seam Fastball - Peavy has gone to the back of most people's minds after a forgettable 2009, but even in limited time he still showed that his fastball is a special pitch. It sits in the low 90s but has a significant amount of arm-side run and decent sink that induces tons of groundballs. It is undeniable that the park he plays in has helped the pitch's value numbers but it also seems obvious to me that this is a top 20 pitch in any environment. If he had been healthy all season I have no doubt Peavy would have the highest rated fastball on this list.
14. Roy Halladay's Cutter - Halladay's curveball was actually #21 when I was writing this list up; after looking at the numbers, it cannot be denied that for about three seasons now, the cutter has been his best pitch. He threw it 41.5% of the time last year (a career high) and it still maintained an incredible level of effectiveness. As I wrote in a previous article Halladay went from being a very good pitcher to one of the best in baseball when he learned and tuned his cutter. The pitch has excellent velocity (averaging roughly 91 MPH) and moves across the zone nearly as much as a slider.
13. Chris Carpenter's 2-seam Fastball - Carpenter is a bit of an oddity on this list for two reasons. The first is that he only pitched in one of the last three years and the second is that the pitch he is on this list for doesn't actually generate many swings-and-misses. His fastball makes the list because it sometimes seems impossible to get it off the ground. His fastball was primarily responsible for 2009, allowing him to generate huge amounts of easy, efficient outs with slow grounders to his infielders. That is, I believe, the difference between the groundballs Carpenter gives up compared to the rest of the league; he never seems to give up a hard-hit grounder, everything is a 10 hopper and too slow to even sneak through the infield.
12. Jonathan Papelbon's 4-seam Fastball - There are two people on this list who are one-pitch pitchers. Papelbon is the first and the other will be coming up later. In order to succeed as a one-pitch guy, that pitch has to be incredible and Papelbon's fastball is just that. It sits easily in the mid 90s and he seems to be able to hit the upper 90s when necessary. Other than its velocity, there isn't actually anything that remarkable about the pitch. He can control it fairly well and does a good job at attacking hitter's weaknesses with it, but it does not move very much in any direction. Nonetheless the batters always know it is coming and it rarely matters.
11. Cole Hamels Changeup - Hamels has a very ordinary fastball and a below average curve, but has a 3.67 ERA through his first four seasons in the majors anyway because of his changeup. His command of the pitch is its biggest asset. He will throw it for strikes or down out of the zone, making batters flail helplessly at it. The pitch does hit the magical mark of being more than 10 MPH slower than his fastball and Hamels is so good at maintaining his arm speed and slot that the pitch is devastating.
10. Ryan Dempster's Slider - We begin the top 10 with a bit of a surprise. However he has put together a couple good seasons in a row, thanks almost entirely to his slider. Even when Dempster struggled his slider was a solid pitch, however in recent years it has been exceptional. He throws it over 30% of the time, and it is very hard, only six MPH slower than his fastball. As a result the pitch has a short, but very sharp break that can generate both strikeouts and groundballs. His slider has become such a go-to pitch that he posted a 3.65 ERA last year and it was his only offering with a positive value.
9. C.C. Sabathia's Slider - The hard-throwing Sabathia's slider took a bit of a dip in value last year, but it was so potent in '07 and '08 it ranks in the top 10 anyway. His slider has more across-the-zone movement than any other pitch that averages over 80 MPH and he has excellent command of it too. Last year lefties batted under .200 against Sabathia thanks mostly to his slider, and that was when the pitch wasn't at its sharpest. He has also become adept at burying it inside to right-handed hitters who can do nothing with it but swing and miss or dribble it weakly to third base.
8. Ervin Santana's Slider - It's probably hard to believe that someone who has only had one good season in the past three years is on this list, but even last year when he struggled Santana's slider was a dominant pitch. When Santana struggles it is generally because he loses command of the fastball. His version of a slider is not exceptionally hard like Dempster or with drastic movement like Sabathia, it falls somewhere in between. The raw movement data suggests that it should be a solid pitch but I can't really see a logical reason for it rating as highly as it does. Maybe he can control the pitch better than I realize or maybe batters know that his other pitches are less effective and they're always looking to drive something else. After seeing the stats I intend to pay closer attention to Santana next year and try to figure it out, but until than it will have to be enough simply that we know it's an amazing pitch.
7. Edwin Jackson's Slider - Jackson is Santana part 2, a reasonably effective pitcher with only one good pitch. The difference between the two of them is that Jackson's fastball is actually worse but he has still been a durable league average pitcher. He throws the slider less often than Santana or Dempster, but his other options are less effective and his slider is even better than either of there's. It seems like he could be much more effective overall if he used the pitch more often. His version of the slider looks almost like a cutter, averaging just over 86 MPH with a short, sharp break. It actually reminds me a bit of the one Robb Nen used to throw. The best way to illustrate how good Jackson's slider is, is to point out that he has been a league average pitcher over the last three years, as a two pitch pitcher, and the only other pitch he throws is pretty terrible.
6. Adam Wainwright's Curveball - There are only two curveballs on this list, and Burnett's is really more of a slurve (with Halladay's curve ranking 21st). So what do Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright have in common that makes their curve's so exceptional? They are both very tall. Halladay is 6'6 and Wainwright is 6'7; I believe that allows them to get a little extra leverage and helps the pitch break down that much more. The movement on Wainwright's curve is staggering. It is perhaps best illustrated by looking at one of his pitch fx game charts, so you can see just how different it is from his other pitches. It has a significant amount of lateral break, but it is the downward movement that is off the charts. This makes it effective against both right and left-handed batters. Wainwright was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year and the reason for the spike is his refinement of the slider and curve. Both are great pitches, but the curve is better.
5. C.C. Sabathia's Changeup - The only person to appear twice on this list, (although several were very close) I think most people would be surprised to find out Sabathia's changeup is actually his best pitch. While it has always been very good, over the last couple of seasons it has improved drastically and last year it moved in front of Sabathia's slider as his best pitch. At an average of 86 MPH it is only 8 MPH slower than his fastball, but because he has become so good at spotting it on the outside corner to righties that difference is enough. The pitch also has a huge amount of tailing action for changeup. For a right-handed batter, the location, speed and tail makes the pitch appear like a strike out of Sabathia's hand, but by the time they swing it is no longer within their reach.
4. Zack Greinke's Slider - This is Greinke's only appearance on this list but his fastball was also in the 21-30 range. Early in his career Greinke's primary breaking ball was a curve, but after his sabbatical Greinke switched to a slider. He's actually used both pitches since, but the slider has become his bread and butter. In 2007, pitching mostly in relief, it was a slightly above average pitch. In 2008 it became one of the better pitches in baseball, and in 2009 it was one of the very best overall. As he has used it more often, its velocity has increased, up to an average of 86 MPH last year and it has increased its downward break each season as well. Its across the zone movement has actually regressed some, but even after that it remains well above average. It is the combination of velocity and movement that makes the pitch special. It is the same speed as Edwin Jackson's, but with more break in both directions, and he commands it better.
3. Cliff Lee's 2-seam Fastball - Over the last two seasons, Cliff Lee's fastball has the highest total positive value number. While it is not as special as some other fastballs on a per-pitch basis, he throws it nearly 70% of the time and batters still have not figured it out. Lee works with 4 pitches, but he throws his fastball more often than A.J. Burnett, Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden, all two-pitch pitchers. Lee gives opposing batters a chance to sit on his fastball and they still cannot do anything with it. It only averages just over 90 MPH and does not move an exceptional amount in any direction. There is no real secret behind Lee's fastball though. I believe there are three key reasons why it is the best in baseball. First he hides the ball extremely well in his delivery, second he works so quickly that hitters never feel comfortable against him and most importantly, he seems to be able to throw the pitch exactly where he wants, every time.
2. Mariano Rivera's Cutter - Perhaps the only surprise here is that Rivera's cutter does not rank first overall. You can make an excellent case for it being first, but objectively I think there is one better pitch out there. I doubt that any single pitch has ever been analyzed as much as Rivera's cutter. He doesn't sit in the mid 90s anymore, but still pitches routinely at 92 MPH and his command is obviously impeccable. I earlier wrote about Edwin Jackson's exceptional slider; just to show you how special Rivera's cutter is, it actually moves more than Jackson's slider and is roughly 6 MPH faster. It almost doesn't seem possible that a pitch has can move that much when it gets to the plate so quickly, but that's what makes it pitch one of a kind.
1. Tim Lincecum's Changeup - Seriously. In case you haven't noticed, Lincecum has been the best pitcher in baseball for two years now and the pitch most responsible for that is his insane changeup. His fastball was in the 21-30 range and both of his breaking pitches are also very good, but it is the changeup that is truly special. It is as close to unhittable as exists in the Major Leagues today. However, the annoying thing is that I really cannot tell why. It checks in at 83 MPH, making it roughly 10 MPH slower than his fastball, and gives the impression of a drop because of its velocity. The biggest reason that I can see on paper for its effectiveness is that its horizontal movement is identical to Lincecum's fastball, meaning it arrives on the exact same plane. Lincecum also uses the same release point regardless of the pitch and the same arm speed. Perhaps it is a combination of all of those things and his naturally deceptive delivery that make the pitch so lethal. Lincecum only threw his changeup 21.4% of the time last year yet it's total positive value was miles ahead of any other changeup in the last six years. In fact in all the years FanGraphs has data for, only Jamie Moyer in 2002 boasted a changeup with a higher total value than Lincecum's, and in that year Moyer through the pitch 34.6% of the time, 13.2% more often than Lincecum. MLB hitters beware, baseball's ultimate weapon is Tim Lincecum's changeup.