As baseball fans, we are in the middle of a battle between the old school fan that relies on his eyes and gut to make decisions about a player’s worth and the new, more analytically inclined fan that uses data to make a more informed decision about the same player. Debates rage about using stats like WAR and its usefulness to help compare players across eras have been heated and argumentative. It’s gotten to the point where it seems that we have to belong in one camp or another, not being allowed to belong in both schools of thought simultaneously (though many of us have figured out how to properly balance the two schools of thought).
So, when the question turns to player evaluation, that debate rages particularly hotly. Looking at a player’s stuff and telling whether it is “elite” or not become difficult. Case in point: during Nick Pivetta’s “best” season in 2018, his curveball was, according to the data available publicly, one of the best curveballs in the game. As Fangraphs calculates, it was the seventh best curveball in the game and a large part of why many thought that Pivetta would finally breakout. However, those who watched Pivetta actually pitch never considered his stuff to be that good, warned against such belief in a breakout and then had that belief play out in 2019. So again, the battle continued as to which was more reliable, data or gut feeling.
Luckily for us, during this last series against the Yankees, we were fortunate enough to see what elite looks like, particularly what elite pitches look like. During the final inning of Thursday’s game against the Yankees, I posed this question on Twitter:
Better out pitch:— Ethan Witte (@ethan_witte) August 7, 2020
It’s an interesting question because these pitches all got some big outs over the weekend. While Zack Wheeler and his hellacious slider is an impressive pitch, what we’ll focus on here is Hector Neris’s splitter and Aaron Nola’s curveball, both of which could arguably be classified as 80-grade pitches, those rare unicorns that can present themselves at any time and get the outs that are needed.
Let’s start with Neris’s splitter.
This was the biggest out of Thursday’s game, where in the 8th inning, Aaron Judge came on to pinch hit with two outs and a runner on third. Neris started him with two straight fastballs, something the broadcast noticed was surprising since most batters know that the splitter is the bread and butter Neris goes to most of the time.
But on the swing you see above, Judge is down to two strikes, knows the splitter is coming and STILL cannot hit the pitch. The change in speed is apparent, but that wicked downward movement is what sets the pitch apart. Watching Judge swing and miss so poorly doesn’t need any data to back up what your eyes are telling you....BUT LET’S DO IT ANYWAY!
In 2019, Neris’ splitter was ranked second among all relievers who threw a splitter in pitch value. It’s a nice way to back up the fact that yes, your eyes are telling you the truth: Hector the Protector’s split finger fastball is an elite pitch.
Now, this week wasn’t the only display of an elite pitch on the team.
Judge again, playing the victim, makes for a compelling video.
After watching Nola for a few years, it’s pretty easy to tell when he is going to be at his ace-level self on any given night. When the curveball is making hitters do this (watch Judge lock up there yet again), you know it’s going to be a long night for the competition. Sure, his other stuff needs to be on point as well, but when he’s on, his curveball can make hitters do this:
As anyone who has ever played the game knows, the curveball requires an immense amount of feel. Not having that feel could be problematic and lead to pitches left out over the plate to be demolished. Nola, to his credit, is usually “on” more often than not with the curveball, which has led to his success over the years. Need some data to back it up? Look back at that link that referred to Pivetta’s curveball being good. Who is at the top?
Nola’s break on his curveball has been particularly noticeable in his first two starts of 2020. It was a critical pitch for him this year, something he needed to get back to his 2018 self. Playing around with the arsenal tool found on Baseball Savant, we can find that his vertical movement on his curveball lost an inch of break from 2018 to 2019, something that may have explained why he was so wild last year. In the early going here in 2020, it seems that he has that extra inch of break back, explaining why he was so successful with it against the Yankees.
Getting back to the original point, on nights when each pitcher is working at the top of his game, they each possess a pitch that is among the best in the game. Nola may have already earned that national recognition, so maybe it is now time to champion Neris and his splitter. It’s an effective pitch and has already helped bail the team out once this year.