One dominant pitch does not make a good starter.
On the contrary, the list of starters who have had success in the majors as a one-trick pony is short -- even a guy like Brandon Webb, who regularly threw his sinker more than 70 percent of the time, had a second pitch. The Mariano Riveras and Kenley Jansens of the world dominate with one pitch, but there’s a reason they’ve done it one inning at a time.
That doesn’t mean, though, that having a singular pitch that excels doesn't correlate strongly with success. The top of the Fangraphs leaderboard of pitch values, for every pitch, is laden with guys having successful years. It stands to reason -- if you do something that well, and can back it up with secondary offerings that are passable, you are probably near the top of your class.
Let’s take a look at a few of the guys having the most success with individual pitches this year.
Hyun-Jin Ryu’s changeup
Ryu is actually generating positive value with three of his four offerings -- his fastball is actually tops in terms of average, not cumulative, value among qualified pitchers, and his cutter is above average as well -- but it’s his changeup that has held the key to his brilliant first half. He’s throwing the pitch more than 26 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career, and he’s generating both whiffs and bad contact with it. To that end: opponents are hitting .164/.168/.246, a .414 OPS, against his change this season. It’s not a pitch that’s come out of nowhere, but it is one that the 32-year-old has refined and turned into a weapon over time. Health has long been the thing getting in Ryu’s way, but good fortune and that dominant changeup have probably put him in line to start the All-Star Game with his 9-1 record, 1.27 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 90/6 K/BB ratio across 99 innings of work to date.
Editor’s Note: Stay ahead of the competition from wire to wire with rankings, customizable projections, trade evaluator, exclusive columns and more in our Season Pass. And start using optimized lineups on Yahoo!, DraftKings and FanDuel with our DFS Toolkit!.
Justin Verlander’s slider
It’s hard to believe a pitcher of Verlander’s ilk has reinvented himself at age 36, but that appears to be what he’s done this year, at least to this point. Long relying on a fastball that, by Fangraphs’ Pitch Value, has annually been the best in the game, Verlander this year is throwing his fastball less than 51 percent of the time, easily the lowest mark of his storied career. In its place, Verlander is throwing his breaking pitches more often, and with huge success. The value of his slider on a per-pitch basis is 4.57 per 100 pitches; the next closest is Max Scherzer at 3.23. He’s basically lapping the field, and it’s helped him stay on top of the game despite his usually-reliable fastball being a pedestrian offering for him this year. Great pitchers adapt, and he’s one of the best. You can’t argue with the results, either -- the right-hander is sporting a 2.59 ERA with 133 strikeouts over 16 starts this year.
Yu Darvish’s cutter
Unlike the rest of the guys on this list, there’s not a lot to praise about Darvish’s 2019 to this point. One bright spot has been his cutter, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s improved in recent weeks as he’s thrown the pitch more frequently. He’s relied on it twice as much this year as he has over the course of his career, throwing the cutter 30 percent of the time -- and he’s finding success, with a pitch value of 3.19 per 100 pitches, almost a full point higher than the next guy. His usage has been even higher in recent starts, with Darvish throwing the pitch 35 times in 89 pitches -- 39.3 percent -- in his most recent outing against the Mets on Friday. Homers and walks have been sinking him, and he’ll never thrive if those don’t improve, even with a shiny new (well, newly effective) pitch, but there are at least signs that he’s moving in a good direction. Optimists might find this a good time to buy low on the 32-year-old.
Charlie Morton’s curveball
If Verlander is the most recent high-profile example of a pitcher reinventing himself, Morton is on the Mount Rushmore. Morton was a sinker-reliant, mediocre pitcher before he overhauled his approach in 2016, throwing fewer sinkers and more breaking pitches. That reimagination has continued in recent years, to where he’s now throwing a sinker 22.5 percent of the time while throwing his four-seamer -- a pitch that helped him pick up a few ticks of velocity, which has played a part in his renaissance -- nearly 25 percent of the time and his curveball a whopping 36.2 percent, basically every third pitch. That frequency has been effective, too, with Morton leading the league in curveball pitch value at 15.0. It’s helped him not only lengthen his career but also jettison into the list of the best pitchers in today’s game. That he’s throwing his curveball more than ever this season and is finding even more success shows the 35-year-old hasn’t stopped evolving yet, a scary thing for the opposition.
Yonny Chirinos’ splitter
Chirinos is one of only a handful of guys who throws a splitter with any consistency, and he’s one of the even fewer who has had good results this year. The 25-year-old throws the pitch roughly 22 percent of the time, mixing it in with a sinker and a slider, and hitters are batting .113/.125/.169 -- a .294 OPS! -- against it. He uses the pitch as his finishing move, generating plenty of two-strike whiffs, but he also gets a ton of ground balls with it. It’s why, despite a relatively average 21.1 percent strikeout percentage, Chirinos has been able to post a 3.00 ERA and 0.97 WHIP through 87 innings of work. With the pitch being so singularly dominant, the next step in his progression could be to throw it even more often, like Masahiro Tanaka. If that happens, watch out.
Lucas Giolito’s arsenal
It would be wrong to call Giolito a jack of all trades but a master of none; he’s proven fairly masterful in this, his breakout season. What is true is that while he’s not at the tip-top for value of any one pitch, he’s in the conversation with three different offerings. His 94-mph four-seamer leads the way, with a value of 10.3, but his changeup is actually his best pitch by average value at 2.98. Not to be forgotten, his slider also checks in as a plus pitch at 1.96 per 100 pitches. He does a good job mixing them, too -- he throws his four-seamer 55 percent of the time, his changeup 24 percent and his slider 14 percent. It’s that arsenal that made him such a highly touted prospect and also surely what frustrated fans, fantasy players and the White Sox front office when he struggled so mightily before 2019. The same talent is what makes his 2.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 104 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings of work seem viable despite such a short track record of success in the majors. The light seems to have turned on, and it’s burning bright.