There have been numerous pitchers with sweeping breaking balls and blazing fastballs throughout baseball history. For those who love watching nasty pitching, there’s arguably no better time to be a fan of the game than now. Twenty different players have hit 100 mph on the radar gun this year (including the Reds’ own Tanner Rainey), Noah Syndergaard is flipping up 92 mph sliders regularly, and Shohei Ohtani is doing this.
As I watched Ohtani go deep at the plate on Sunday Night Baseball to give the Angels the go-ahead run in a 4-3 win, I searched for some of his pitching highlights (side note: here’s hoping we don’t have to wait until 2020 to watch him throw again) and began to wonder which Reds have the nastiest pitches. Of course, I could venture a pretty good guess just based on watching so many games, but giving you my best anecdotes wouldn’t be very fun or informative. So, I dove into some of the numbers and decided to determine which Reds arms have the best pitches — an exercise finally worth doing after several years of abysmal performances on the mound.
Without further ado, here’s the list I came up with (Note: I limited the results to pitchers currently on the active roster):
While he doesn’t have the highest fastball velocity among Reds pitchers (that honor goes to Mr. Rainey, who could find himself atop this list someday if his control comes around), Mahle may have the most effective heater. The rookie was heralded for his command of the pitch as a prospect and has carried that ability over to the big leagues nicely, turning to it 67.4% of the time he delivers to the plate. The Brewers’ Freddy Peralta is the only starting pitcher who throws the four-seamer more often.
Mahle’s location and varying movement on the pitch allow it to be successful. He sits in the 92-93 mph range, but he can dial the pitch up to 98 mph when needed. He can fire it straight or throw it with tail — the latter of which is particularly effective against left-handed hitters.
His fastball ranks 24th out of 88 qualified starters in FanGraphs pitch value and has held hitters to an average exit velocity of 87.1 mph, placing him 21st out of 110 starters who’ve allowed 50 or more batted balls on the four-seamer this year. It gets better, too. A total of 72 starting pitchers have thrown the fastball 500 times this year, and only 11 have a higher percentage of whiffs per pitch than Mahle (11.5%). His heater ranks ninth in xwOBA (.306) among that same group. And he doesn’t do it with the velocity so many of his peers do these days (usually) — he does it with impeccable command.
After an offseason filled with high-priced free-agent signings, the Reds made one of the best acquisitions by signing Hughes to a low-profile, $4.5 million contract for two years. Without gaudy strikeout numbers or velocity, the right-hander received little fanfare heading into the season. That was before he started flashing one of the best two-seam fastballs/sinkers/whatever-you-want-to-call-its among all relievers. It’s always been Hughes’ top pitch, but never quite to this extent.
At the top of the list for fastball pitch value for bullpen arms are some usual suspects: Sean Doolittle, Josh Hader, Chad Green, and Blake Treinen. Sitting in ninth on that list is Hughes, ahead of 158 other qualified relievers. Despite using it nearly three-fourths of the time he throws a pitch, hitters have done nothing with it this year. They’ve hit it on the ground 69.0% of the time they’ve made contact, and they’re chasing it nearly half the time it’s thrown outside the strike zone (48.4%) per PITCHf/x.
Unsurpisingly, Hughes is also getting more whiffs on the pitch than ever before, which has played a huge part in his 20.0 K%, the best he’s had since a 12-game cup of coffee in his rookie year (2011). Only Treinen and Neil Ramirez have more swings and misses per two-seamer/sinker than Hughes (13.5%). Here’s a good example of both his ability to both get chases and whiffs with the offering:
If you think that’s impressive, he’s also faster than the bullpen cart.
According to Statcast data, Romano is the only Reds pitcher who has thrown a cutter this year, and he’s only spun 24 of them. But he wins by default. Congrats, Sal!
With all due respect to Raisel Iglesias, who’s getting whiffs on 26.3% of the changeups he throws this year and would probably win this fake award if he played for any other team, the nod here goes to Castillo. The sophomore slump has been real for the 25-year-old, but his changeup has been lights-out. Hitters have swung through it 27.1% of the time he’s offered it up this year, the highest rate in baseball. In the last six years, only five pitchers who’ve thrown the pitch 400 or more times have a better rate than that in a single season, and three of those campaigns belong to Cole Hamels (for the curious, Jeremy Hellickson in 2016 and Danny Salazar in 2015 are the other two).
Castillo twirls the pitch to the plate at an average of 85 miles per hour, getting 10 mph of separation from his fastball, a devastating combo when paired with the horizontal ride and vertical drop he gets on the pitch. Even when he throws it outside the strike zone, it doesn’t matter. Hitters still can’t recognize it and lay off, with Castillo registering a ludicrous 50.8 O-Swing% on his changeup this year.
Those types of numbers are more common for relievers who can go at maximum effort nearly every time they pitch. To produce that kind of output as a starter is much more difficult with the larger workload per outing, which is why Castillo ever so slightly edges Iglesias here. (But seriously, Iglesias has a filthy change, too.)
Aside from the changeup, this was the toughest selection on the whole list, and Robert Stephenson would challenge for the top spot if he was eligible based on my silly rules. But he’s not, and so the award for best slider goes to Garrett.
Although the southpaw has fallen on hard times lately, that doesn’t diminish what he’s done to this point, posting a 3.43 ERA (3.06 xFIP) through Sunday’s game. With his fastball averaging 95 mph out of the ‘pen, his slider is playing up as well. Garrett particularly likes to throw it down and away from left-handed hitters and at the feet of righties, who are 1-for-25 with a swinging-strike rate of nearly 30%.
In total, hs foes have come up empty on swings 27.0% of the time Garrett has used his go-to weapon. Out of 153 relievers who’ve thrown 100 or more sliders this year, that ranks 10th — ahead of Aroldis Chapman, Kelvin Herrera, and Dellin Betances, to name a few players. Like Castillo’s changeup, Garrett’s slider is a tough pitch for batters to lay off, as evidenced by a 45.1 O-Swing%. When hitters manage to put wood on it, they’re averaging just 82.2 mph off the bat and hitting a pitiful .094 with a .226 slugging percentage. Who knows if we’ll get to see him use these weapons as a starting pitcher again, but it sure would be fun if we did.
Another difficult call here. I could easily make a case for either David Hernandez or Stephens. Both are at extreme ends of the spectrum on spin rate for the curveball, and they’ve found success with those opposing approaches. I ultimately decided on the surprising pick here. Here’s why: Stephens doesn’t just have the best spin rate on the pitch on the team; he also has one of the best in all of baseball.
His curveball is in elite territory at an average of 3,141 revolutions per minute this season. Granted, he’s only thrown the pitch 61 times, but this isn’t a new development. Going back to last year, when he unleashed it 83 times at the big-league level, Stephens also had one of the best spin rates (2,919) of any curveball in the league. With the extra spin this year, he’s behind only three other pitchers in baseball — all of whom are having pretty good seasons: Garrett Richards, Ryan Pressly, and Seth Lugo. Take a look at the way this sucker drops:
That increase in spin has led to more swings and misses on the bender for Stephens this year, with a rise from 13.3% to 16.4%. It’s also led to more groundballs (53.8%), as hitters are batting only 3-for-19 with an average exit velocity of 77.9 mph when putting his curve into play. While Stephens’ other pitches don’t show much flash, he has something potentially special here.
Growing up just north of Cincinnati, Matt has been a Reds fan for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he was often found leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 and imitating his favorite players (Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns) in the backyard. One of his earliest baseball memories is attending the final night game at Cinergy Field. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in the Dayton area. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.