Seventy or so games into the season, the Cleveland Indians’ pitching rotation has proven itself to be a dominating force, confirming expectations that this would be the backbone any kind of a playoff push would be built on. The worst ERA rank of their top five starters is Corey Kluber, who comes in at 18th in the league, and came into the season the avowed ace. As a quintet, they are second in the AL in ERA, first in fWAR at 7.5 combined, first in FIP at 3.79, and second in K rate at 22 percent. The guys can throw, and all have their speciality. But who among them has the best pitch?
Every great pitcher has that go-to pitch, that weapon he can reach to for the key out, for that moment he needs to execute. A decent, though not foolproof, way to rate these is FanGraphs’ Pitching Linear Weights, or Pitch Values, which demonstrates how many runs above or below average a given pitch is. Here’s what each of the Tribe’s starters throw the best:
|Split-finger Changeup: 12.6
If you were curious, Tomlin's curve, much heralded on the TV broadcast and often fun to watch for the surprise of it, is of negative value in large part because he's the luckiest man on earth with that .260 BABIP against and nearly one and a half run difference between his ERA and FIP, and also may be a wizard. Also, that's not a typo, Bauer and Salazar have gained precisely the same value in runs saved from their fastballs despite a 3 to 5 mph difference in velocity.
By the raw numbers, the winner of Greatest Pitch is Danny Salazar and his murderous split-fingered changeup. That’s an amazing pitch. His start against the White Sox on June 18th, some of his teammates thought it was a curveball it was breaking so much. It makes sense that’s the best pitch out there. It's hard to throw a whiffle ball better than he throws a splitter.
It’s not as simple as that, though. While Salazar’s splitter is a great pitch, he is only able throw it about 18-20 percent of the time. The change by its very nature, by its very name, is reliant on another pitch for you to be able to literally change up on. Without his fastball or sinker, something of higher velocity he can throw to get the other guy guessing, the splitter is useless. I’d think he wouldn’t be able to make it through an entire inning throwing nothing but split changes, not like he could with fastballs. We've seen him do that, and that alone devalues that dirty offspeed pitch.
That’s where Corey Kluber comes in. His cutter isn’t rated too far behind Salazar’s changeup as far as run-saving, and he’s able to throw it more simply because it's a fastball. He's cut back on throwing it as much as in the past, which is weird and a problem he needs to figure out. Sequencing and pitch choice is a conversation for another day, though. The cutter, unlike the change, is throwable in most any situation. It’s a high-velocity pitch and it can be used exclusively in an inning if needed. Last year and in 2014, Kluber was throwing it upwards of 27 percent of the time, though that’s dropped to 22 percent this season for whatever reason. It’s a useful pitch in its own right, rather than being something that needs to be pitched into like Salazar’s split.
Which brings us to Trevor Bauer. His four-seam fastball, packing a 4.6 runs saved value, tied with Danny Salazar for best four-seamer in the rotation. In 2014, he threw it 49 percent of the time. Last year that dropped to 43 percent. This year, a legitimate breakout season for him, he’s thrown it 21 percent of the time. The reason I bring this up is not to point out he might have the most valuable pitch on the team, but simply that he seems to have the best idea among his teammates of when to throw that pitch. His sinker use has spiked from 31.2 percent, far and away a career high. Prior to this year, his fastball had never rated positively, in 2014 cratering to a miserable -5.6. It’s interesting to see the impact of judicious use like that, though, and one has to wonder whether it’s a location, movement and stuff improvement, or sequencing change that’s led to his success.
Understanding what to throw and when is the center of everything that divides the thrower from the pitcher. As much as we love to watch Danny Salazar toss 98 up there then drop a split-fingered changeup off the table, he’s not exactly being professorial out there. Bauer, especially prior to this year, perhaps took that too far. He’s leaned back toward using his live arm to dominate, and he can more naturally assume the old salty pitcher role as he learns more of being a pro. There are many reasons why Bauer is fascinating. He has such an academic understanding of his position. If he could just harness himself, he’d be a terror.
Bauer is intriguing and I can see him becoming a force of science and nature in time, but I have to back it up here. Bauer's four-seam pitch value is dead steady with Salazar's four-seamer, which is thrown considerably more, at 52 percent of the time Salazar is on the mound. I almost wanted to list Corey Kluber's cutter as the best pitch in the rotation, but the fact is, Salazar throws his four-seam way more than Kluber's cutter at 22 percent this season. The four-seam is the basis of everything Salazar does. He could just throw it for an entire inning and everyone would swoon. He's done it already, anyway. Salazar has a pair of killer pitches, and he's made them work to the tune of a top two ranking in AL ERA this season.
It makes some sense that Salazar's fastball is the best pitch in the entire rotation, even if the eye test says otherwise. He does throw a hard, movement-filled ball. Even when he's off like he was in Detroit on June 24th, he still can skate into six or eight innings of a couple runs. Everyone knew Danny Salazar could throw, but at this point, we're getting almost ridiculous.