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Taking a look at the Nationals pitchers' best pitches

Taking a look at the Nationals pitchers' best pitches

By Cam Ellis

It's no secret that the Nationals can pitch a little. Besides having MLB's lowest ERA, the Nats boast a top-10 mark in batting average against, strikeouts, and quality starts. They're probably in the upper echelon of a variety of additional pitching stats, but you get the point. A bigger question mark than usual heading into the season, the Nats have ridden bounce back performances from Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, relied on the steady all-star talent of Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, and gotten a surprising lift from Joe Ross on the way to a franchise-best start. 

What's made their pitchers so tough thus far? What pitches work for them and which ones should they stay away from? Using a handful of different statistics, this article looks to explain what pitch is each starters strongest and most effective. One of the best ways to get a singular representation of a pitches value is using FanGraphs' Pitch Type Linear Weight value, which is explained in full here. Like any lone baseball stat, it doesn't tell the whole story; what it does is help give an understandable value to each pitch and help shed light on how valuable it is to the pitcher. Which pitch is most valuable to which pitcher? Let's take a look. 

Max Scherzer

Best Pitch: Slider

Scherzer's case is tricky because the question of sample size comes into play. As you'll see above, the numbers suggest his cutter is his most effective pitch - a cutter he's only thrown three times all year. His slider generates the most swings out of the strike zone (O-Swing%), the most amount of swinging striks (SwStr%), and the least amount of contact (Contact%) in general. 

The chart above shows the batting average against each of his pitches. Considering his three most common pitches thrown are his fastball, slider, and change up, and his slider's BAA is the lowest of any three of those, it stands to reason that that's his best pitch. 

Once again, we're leaving Scherzer's cutter out of any debate because he's only thrown three all year. With that in mind, his slider takes over as the most swung at pitch, evident by it's 19.35 wiff percentage. Scherzer leans heavily on his four-seamer, but when he needs a go-to out, the numbers say he goes to his slider. 

Stephen Strasburg

Best pitch: Change up

This one's no secret. Strasburg's change up has always been lethal, and the numbers show it plenty of love. A 3.1 pVAL is his best by far, and the Swing and Contact numbers back up the claim. What's especially important here is that there's a fair sample size for all, minus the two-seam. Through four starts, Strasburg has evenly distributed his breaking balls, but the change up has been his bread and butter. 

As if you needed any more convincing: a 0.00 batting average against his change up. 

Brooks Baseball lists Strasburg's two-seamer as a sinker because of the similar movement on each pitch. No matter - the change up still takes the cake with a 22.92 wiff percentage. 

Gio Gonzalez

Best pitch: Changeup, barely 

This is the closest one yet. Interestingly enough, Gonzalez's change has much better Swing percentage numbers, while his curve has better Contact percentages. pVAL gives the slight edge to the change up, that's probably has something to do with the fact that he's thrown more change ups than curves. 

Still, it's neck and neck. The change garners a .071 batting average against while the curve generates a .091 baa. It's splitting hairs, but hey, that's what analytics is all about! 

These two graphs echo what the FanGraphs board said: it's really six one, half-dozen the other with Gonzalez. It's not groundbreaking, but interesting to see nonetheless. A case could easily be made for Gio's curve, but for now we'll say that his go-to pitch his the changeup. 

Tanner Roark

Best pitch: Changeup, by a mile

It's pretty terrifying when your number four starter is capable of a 15-strikeout game like Roark's last outing. His numbers across the board are pretty pedestrian - except for his changeup. Both his pVAL and his pVAL/C (the latter adjusted to a value per 100 pitches) on the change dwarf any of his other pitches, and the Swing and Contact numbers do the same. Even for a contact pitcher, 18.8 SwStr% is pretty good. 

The only batting average against that's lower than his change is his four seam, which he barely throws (only 15 on the year so far). Also, not to be a wet blanket, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, the numbers show that maybe Roark should stay far away from his curveball. 

This one is as obvious as they get. It's the change. Moving on. 

Joe Ross

Best pitch: Slider

This may come as a surprise to some fans, but to those who watch Ross a lot, it's anything but. Sure, he's a sinker ball pitcher and a pretty good one at that. But his most effective pitch - the one he uses to get outs - is his slider. Granted, sinker balls are meant to be hit into the dirt while sliders are intended to miss bats, but still. The sliders' Swing and Contact percentages alone suggest an incredibly effective pitch, let alone when you compare it to his sinker or his change.

A .200 batting average against is impressive, while the .273 against the sinker is just okay, especially as his primary pitch. The .429 against the change is a victim of sample size, so exhale Nats fans.

Like previously stated, it doesn't make a lot of sense to compare a sinker and a slider when it comes to swings and misses. The slider alone, though, at 20.35% is a very good pitch. 

So there you have it, Nats fans. Your rotation thrives on the changeup mainly, with a little bit of slider on the side. 

RELATED: State of the Nats: Wins piling up, but tough stretch awaits

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Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper's 2018 Home Run Derby win by the numbers

Bryce Harper is the 2018 Home Run Derby champion.

In his home ballpark, Harper put on a show Washington won't soon forget.

He ran through a division foe in the first round in Freddie Freeman, took out a strong, hefty lefty in the semifinals in Max Muncy and then hit nine home runs in 47 seconds in the final minute of the final round when it seemed like he had no chance. On the second swing of his 30 seconds of extra time, Harper launched a bomb to deep center field to win.

And while winning the Home Run Derby in his own ballpark is an impressive feat on its own, the numbers behind his victory make it all the more impressive.


He is just the third hometown winner of the Home Run Derby in the history of the event. Todd Frazier did it most recently in 2016 in Cincinnati, and Ryne Sandberg won at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 1990.


Harper won each of the first two rounds with 13 homers. He didn't need his full time in either of the first two rounds.

446 & 441.

Harper's first two home runs of his first-round matchup against Freeman traveled farther than any of the Braves' superstar's dingers.


In the semifinals, Harper only hit three homers in the first minute, but then blasted 10 in his next 11 swings. That's called efficiency.


In the first round, Harper hit five of the 10 longest home runs of anybody in the field.


Harper hit 45 bombs en route to claiming the title. Here's a visual representation of all of them.

That's also how many dollars cheaper Nats tickets will be... oops!


That's John Wall's number and this is him celebrating his fellow D.C. sports superstar's victory.


Bryce Harper hit an absurd 19,058 feet of home runs during the 2018 Home Run Derby. That's more than the 5k you ran last year.


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With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

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With All-Star Game in Washington, Bryce Harper looks back on baseball life, ahead to uncertain future

It's quite possible that, despite nearly a decade of being in the spotlight, gracing the cover of magazines and operating as a transcendent star in the sport of baseball, Bryce Harper's attention-drawing powers reached their apex this week in Washington as the 2018 All-Star Game took center stage at Nationals Park.

Harper has played in plenty showcase games before, he's participated in the Home Run Derby, he was the first overall pick in 2010. But this time the Midsummer Classic is in his professional baseball hometown and he is the primary ambassador for both the team and league. 

Oh, and this is also a pretty big year for his future. The 25-year-old is just months away from being one of the most sought after free agents in the history of the sport and perhaps soon the highest paid.

Harper took it all in stride on Monday as he held court in a club level ballroom at Nationals Park on South Capitol St. He knew the questions about his future were coming and he had answers for every single one of them.

Some of those questions included:

Do you ever have guys on other teams try to recruit you?

Has it ever crossed your mind how odd it would be to play somewhere else?

Do you have a relationship with [Yankees star] Aaron Judge?

One reporter didn't even finish his question before Harper sniffed it out.

When you shaved your beard [on June 19]... 

Harper: ..."it was because the Yankees were in town, right. You got it," he said sarcastically. "My beard was getting too long. My wife wanted me to trim it and it was a good idea."

Harper has by most accounts become closed off in recent years. His personality has been withdrawn. He famously began his first spring training press conference earlier this year with a written statement and a warning that any questions about his free agent future would result in him walking out of the room.

At least for a day, Harper was his old and congenial self. Though, he did explain why his personality has changed with the media in recent years.

"I think I've gotten older. I'm not going to say the same things at 16 that I do at 25," he said. "There were things that people did in college that they don't want people to know about. There are things that I've said in the media at 16 or 17 that I guess I was real about. I can't take them back and I don't want to."

Harper has been able to operate throughout the first half of the season while saying very little of substance to the media. The fact his batting average has dipped to just .214 has given him extra reason to put up walls.

As Harper addressed the media, he didn't offer any trademark one-liners, but he did get introspective about his life as a baseball player and his role as the face of the Washington Nationals.

He spoke glowingly about the franchise and the city, about how much he enjoys seeing the same faces every day, from his teammates to those in the front office to stadium employees and security guards. He shared his appreciation for the fans and area kids who look up to him.

The All-Star Game taking place in D.C. offered Harper a chance to reminisce. As Harper looked ahead to the Home Run Derby, he rattled off the most memorable homers he has seen at Nationals Park. 

He mentioned Jayson Werth's walkoff homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NL Division Series. He brought up the time Michael Morse hit one to the top of the Red Porch in left-center and the many times Adam Dunn cleared the third deck in right field.

Harper was asked about his the pressure of playing host and the duress of struggling in a contract year. He told a story from his days at the College of Southern Nevada that put it all into perspective.

"I got absolutely dominated for two weeks prior to our season opening before fall ball. I'm sitting there at 16 years old, I just got back from Team USA," he recalled.

"I got punched out like nine or 10 times in probably a matter of about 12 at-bats against my own team... I sat down and was like 'you know what, I don't want to do this. I want to go back to high school. I want to enjoy those moments and do that.' But I knew that I couldn't do that. I sat down and they said 'you can't come back, you tested out.' I said 'okay, you've gotta cowboy up.' I needed to do what I needed to do. A week later, we started our fall ball season and I went deep in my first at-bat at Cashman Field. The rest is history, I guess you could say."

If Harper had indeed been able to go back to high school, his draft status would have changed. He never would have been drafted first overall by the Nationals in 2010.

Harper feels the pressure of playing in junior college ball with his draft status on the line, playing against guys who were four or five years older than him, was the toughest thing he has done in baseball. It prepared him for all of these moments, just like the media scrutiny did over the years.

"It was only what, [eight] years ago? It's those moments that make you who you are," he said. "I'm 25 years and old and I play this game of baseball every day. What pressure do I have to feel?... It's the game that I love to play. I'm getting chills [right now]. There's nothing greater than running out there wearing No. 34 and being Bryce Harper and loving the game that I play."

Harper remained patient and upbeat for the over 30 minutes that he addressed the media. He was soaking it all in and trying to embrace the attention he was receiving.

But it was one of those questions from above that provided a dose of reality to set in. When asked if it would be strange to play for another team, he reminded the reporters present of what could very well happen this winter.

"It's always a possibility [I leave]. I think that everybody knew that at the beginning of the year, that this could possibly be my last year in D.C. Everybody knows that. There's no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that it's a possibility, but I'm not really focused on that," he said.



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