The pitching talent has never been as good as it is in Major League Baseball at this very moment.
Strikeout rates have risen in 13 straight seasons, hitting an all-time high of 23.4 percent in 2020. When pitch tracking started in 2002, the average fastball velocity was 89 mph. That figure was up to 93.1 mph in 2020. Every other pitch has followed suit, whether it’s the slider (84.1 mph in 2020), change-up (84.5 mph), or curveball (79.2 mph). Despite these massive gains in swing-and-miss stuff, walk rates haven’t gotten worse. The walk rate in 2000 (9.6 percent), for example, was higher than the walk rate in 2020 (9.2 percent).
While some of this may be due to a shift in approach from batters, mainly a wider acceptance of strikeouts and a fly-ball heavy mindset, pitchers are undoubtedly better than ever at this current moment. Pitching staffs are loaded with velocity, movement, and specialization that makes hitting harder than it’s ever been. When looking at the wide landscape of MLB pitching, there are so many names and pitches to choose from. Which pitchers and pitches stand out the most, however?
In this article, I’m going to build the perfect right-handed starting pitcher, starting from scratch by finding a pitcher’s body/command profile to build from. At that point, I’ll find the best pitches in the sport, trying to find individual pitches that not only have the results but also the velocity and movement to boot. While finding these pitches, I tried to find pitches that would also work well with each other, based on similar movement profiles or ones that could potentially be tunneled well. In addition, I preferred starting pitchers as some of baseball’s best pitches aren’t just dominant for an inning but for a whole extended outing. This will be the first of a two-part series, with the perfect left-handed pitcher coming at a later date.
Without further ado, here is the perfect pitcher in baseball, starting from step one.
Pitcher to build from: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
Jacob deGrom is a 32-year-old with a Tommy John surgery on his record. That profile is supposed to make him one of the most vulnerable pitchers in the sport. That is not the case. Since 2017, no pitcher has thrown more innings in all of baseball (690 1/3). After some injury flare-ups in 2016, deGrom didn’t just boost his fastball velocity the following season; he’s done it in every season since. In the truncated 2020 season, deGrom sat at 98.6 mph. deGroms’s slider (92.5 mph) and change-up (91.4 mph) both sat in the low-90’s. All three of those pitches had a whiff rate above 35 percent in 2020. It’s a preposterous profile of stuff that is backed up by his remarkable durability.
During all of this, deGrom’s command has remained elite. His walk rate sat between 5.5 percent to 7.1 percent from 2017-2020. His elite stuff/command profile is a testament to his perfect mechanics on the mound that have allowed him to continue improving his game into his 30’s. deGrom reigns supreme as the top pitcher in baseball, whether you’re looking at sheer stuff, the ability to miss bats, soak up innings, or effortlessly repeat his mechanics. There was no other possible choice for the pitcher’s body, mechanics, and command profile to build around.
Now, onto the specific pitches themselves.
Four-seam fastball: Jacob deGrom
Hey, that deGrom guy again. There are plenty of absurd fastballs in the sport but deGrom takes the cake for several reasons. Mainly, what we just touched on above: he just keeps throwing harder and harder, even as he ages and leads the majors in innings thrown. Sitting 98.6 mph as a starter is simply insane, as is generating a 36.8 whiff percent. The fastball isn’t just thrown super hard, either. The fastball had 90th percentile spin in 2020. It had above-average vertical movement. Add it all together and you have a heater that is dominant by every practical measure and is the starting point for our perfect pitcher.
Sinker: Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers
Here’s the one pitch on this list that doesn’t necessarily have the eye-popping numbers to back it up. Sinkers, by their nature, are designed more to generate weak contact rather than miss bats. May’s sinker fits that mold, as it only had an 11.4 percent whiff rate in 2020 and was slugged at a .447 rate by opposing hitters. This pitch is making the list because its’ profile is absolutely insane, a pitch with both wicked velocity (97.9 mph) and horizontal movement (18.8 inches). It’s the perfect pitch to pair with deGrom’s straight four-seam gas, as May’s sinker has similar velocity but nearly 10 more inches of vertical break and 12 inches of horizontal break. It may even be better to pair, however, with the following pitch on this list.
Change-Up: Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Here’s the one reliever’s pitch on this list because it was simply too dominant to pass up. Williams may possess baseball’s best pitch in his “airbender” change-up. Maybe you think a 27-inning sample from a reliever isn’t convincing enough. Let’s let the numbers do the talking. Only seven change-ups had more vertical movement (40.9 inches) last year. Only six had more horizontal movement (18.1 inches). No other change-up in baseball has this type of movement profile paired with high-end velocity (84.6 mph). Just two pitches had a higher run value than Williams’ change-up (minus 13 runs) according to Baseball Savant. Just three pitches had a higher whiff rate (61.1 percent). This pitch is a literal unicorn, one that moves like a left-handed slider or even a modern-day screwball. Pair this pitch with the aforementioned fastballs and it’d be a miracle if hitters made any contact.
Knuckle Curveball: Shane Bieber, Cleveland Baseball Team
Practically any one of Bieber’s pitches could’ve made this list. The 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner took his game to the next level, posting a 1.63 ERA and 3.2 WAR in a dozen starts. Bieber’s most dominant swing-and-miss offering is his curveball, a pitch that was tied for the best by run values in 2020 (10, with Germán Márquez). Only eight of the 89 plate appearances against the curve ended with a hit, only one of which was an extra-base hit. 51.5 percent of swings resulted in whiffs, a year after the pitch had a 48.4 percent whiff rate. The results make plenty of sense given that the pitch ranked in the top 21 curveballs in both velocity (83.6 mph) and vertical movement (53.6 inches). This is our first true vertical breaking ball, a real swing-and-miss offering that pairs well with the multiple fastballs and “airbender” change-up.
Slider: Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres
Lamet’s slider, much like the Williams change-up, had a good argument for the best pitch in baseball in 2020. Lamet threw the slider 559 times in 2020. Out of the 138 plate appearances that ended with the slider, Lamet allowed just 10 hits, only one of which was a home run. Nearly half of the swings (47.2 percent) ended with a swing-and-miss. Add it all up and no pitcher had a better run value on any individual pitch than Lamet’s slider (minus 17 runs). The pitch doesn’t have any outlandish characteristics but it is above average in terms of both velocity (86.5 mph) and movement. What the pitch does have, however, is insane success, an ability to miss bats, and is a perfect pitch to pair with the rest of the arsenal.
Cutter: Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
I’m finishing off this list with two pitches that maybe won’t be utilized as often but will give our perfect pitcher some extra toys to play with. I was tempted to use the Yu Darvish cutter but instead went for the Corbin Burnes version, a pitch that led all cutters in run value (minus 11) last season. No full-time starter threw a harder cutter than Burnes (93.2 mph). With elite velocity and well above-average horizontal movement (4.3 inches) on the pitch, it generated absurd results. Hitters batted just .162 and whiffed on 32.9 percent of their swings against the cutter. Adding this pitch into the mix gives hitters a different look on the fastball and slider, and can tunnel really well with the change-up.
Curveball: Charlie Morton, Atlanta Braves
I’m adding one final pitch to the mix, another variation of the curveball that gives hitters a different look than the two other breaking balls. Morton’s curveball is uniquely effective and dominant. Most sweeping curveballs with more horizontal movement tend to have lower velocities. Not Morton’s bender. The pitch not only had the second-most horizontal movement of any curve last year (17.9 inches) but it was also thrown significantly harder than other curveballs in this realm (78.2 mph). Just for good measure, Morton’s curveball also has above-average vertical movement and elite spin (89th percentile). This final pitch is just the cherry on top that adds a different look for our perfect pitcher.
The final product
Here’s what the final product looks like. I’m starting from the perfect frame, durability, and command profile of Jacob deGrom, baseball’s best pitcher in the game. Since 2018, no starting pitcher has thrown more innings, had a lower ERA (2.10), or had the combination of durability, swing-and-miss stuff, and the ability to throw strikes. With his pristine mechanics and overall success, this was a very obvious frame-point to start from.
In regards to the pitch mix, we have an electric display of stuff, an arsenal littered with high velocity, big breakers, lots of movement, and the results to show for it. Unlike deGrom’s smaller three-pitch mix of the fastball, slider, and change-up, our pitcher has the whole kitchen sink ala Yu Darvish. Quite frankly, the first four pitches for this pitcher would’ve sufficed but I am trying to create the perfect pitcher.
It starts with the aforementioned deGrom’s high-90’s fastball that he maintains despite his big workloads. Next comes the wicked upper-90’s May sinker, a true bowling ball to give some fastball variations. A perfect pairing with the sinker is the Williams “airbender” change-up, a pitch that is a quasi-match for the sinker but comes in nearly 15 mph slower with more movement. The Bieber curveball is the true swing-and-miss, vertical breaking ball, a pitch with all of the characteristics needed to miss bats. We could probably stop at this point and call it a day but we’re adding three more dominant pitches to the mix. The Lamet slider is a sharper breaking ball that misses bats. The Burnes cutter has the unique velocity and horizontal movement to mix in every once in a while. Finally, if our perfect pitcher is feeling it, he can resort to the hard, horizontal breaker from Morton.
It’s impossible to know how this pitcher could perform. Different pitchers have pitches specifically tailored to their own specific body type, arsenal, and overall game-plan. But make no mistake about it: this is a downright nasty pitcher with all of the characteristics to dominate opposing hitters. Here’s the final pitcher in his full form courtesy of this GIF.
Stay tuned for part II in the near future: the left-handed version
*All video and GIFS courtesy of Major League Baseball via Baseball Savant*