by Matt Korte

The best Reds pitches, #1-5

The much improved Cincinnati Reds pitching staff featured some of the top pitches in the league in 2019. I recently broke down pitches 6-10 along with those that just missed out of the top 10 in my previous article. In this article, I will delve into the top 5 pitches in the organization. Before we do that, here’s a refresher on how I have ranked the pitches, and what pitches were included in the last article.

Pitch Type Linear Weights

Quantifying the effectiveness of a pitch is not easy. Some pitches are inherently going to elicit certain results more than other pitches would. For example, fastballs tend to end in hard contact at a high rate, while curveballs result in ground balls more than most pitches. Situational context can play a huge factor as well. How many men are on base or how well a certain pitch sets up another pitch are hard factors to take into consideration.

The metric I’m using for this list is Pitch Value (or Pitch Type Linear Weights). Pitch Type Linear Weights assign a value to every pitch a pitcher throws over a season. The value is based on the result of each pitch, whether it be a hit, out, or a change in the count. The value comes from the difference in run expectancy before and after the pitch.

For every count (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, etc.) there is an average run expectancy. At the beginning of an at bat, the count is at 0-0 and run expectancy is zero. If Luis Castillo were to throw a changeup for a strike, the run expectancy for the batting team would go down, and his changeup pitch weight value would increase. If Castillo threw another change on the next pitch and gave up a single, the batting team’s run expectancy would shoot up higher as Castillo’s pitch value for his off speed pitch would decrease by that same amount.

Over the course of a season run expectancy values accumulate to total pitch type value. On top of giving us a cumulative number, Pitch Type Linear Weights standardizes runs at a per 100 pitch basis to make things equal between differing sample sizes.

For pitchers, the higher the number, the better. Zero is average for pitch value, so positive numbers are above average and negative numbers are below average. The range of pitch weight values varies depending on the type of pitch. Fastballs tend to give up more runs than other pitches, so their values have a limited upside at -1.5 to 1.5. Breaking balls and off speed pitches have a wider range of outcomes as the range spans -5.0 to 5.0.

Pitch Type Linear Weights is by no means a perfect stat, but gives us a good way to see how well (or poorly) a certain pitch limited run production. It is descriptive of what happened and not necessarily predictive. Let’s take a look at what pitches ranked the best in 2019. We’ll examine all current Reds pitchers, including the team’s new acquisitions.

In Part 1, we looked at Honorable Mentions and Pitches #6-10. Today, we’ll look at the five best pitches from 2019 for any pitchers on the 2020 Reds staff.

#5 — Pedro Strop’s Slider

Cracking the top five on his new team is Pedro Strop’s slider, which had a 2.37 wSL/C in 2019. Strop throws his slider twice as often as any other pitch and makes 44.9% of bats whiff at it. The right-handed reliever’s slider has a drop of 42.6 inches, 3.4 inches more than comparable sliders. That drop has helped Strop, especially in 2019 as he found more success keeping the breaking ball low and out of the strike zone. When his slider doesn’t drop, hitters are much more likely to make contact. What’s great about his slider is that it’s effective against batters on both sides of the plate with Whiff Rates both over 40%. The Reds acquisition of Strop has really flown under the radar compared to their other moves this offseason, but if Strop is able to sit down batters of all types with his slider, he won’t fly under the radar for much longer.

#4 — Sonny Gray’s Changeup

The fact that Sonny Gray has three pitches in this top 10 ranking speaks volumes to just how valuable he will be to the Reds if he continues his dominance from 2019. In said season, Gray’s change came in at 2.42 wCH/C, putting it at 5th in the major leagues amid starters. Now why haven’t we focused on Gray’s off-speed pitch more often? Because he throws it less than 5% of the time. While he may use it sparingly, Pitch Type Linear Weights value it near the top of the league. Should Gray be using his change more often? Looking at how his changeup has been valued historically, this seems to be more of an anomaly. 2019 was the first year his wCH/C reached over 0.67 and each of those seasons Gray has never utilized it more than 10.0% within his pitch mix. This means that 2019 was either a fluke, or Gray made significant improvement within the small sample size. One explanation may be that Gray was able to put more spin on the ball than he ever has in the Stat Cast era which led to the fastest version of his changeup at an average of 89.7 MPH. Only time will tell how Sonny Gray’s changeup will fair in 2020, but we all should hope that it produces similar results to the 2019 version.

#3 — Michael Lorenzen’s Changeup

Michael Lorenzen settled in to a setup role last year in the Cincinnati bullpen, and a large part of that was because of his changeup. Now his third-most utilized pitch, Lorenzen’s change registered a 2.64 wCH/C last year, making the pitch the 16th-best changeup among relievers. His off-speed pitch clocks in nearly 10 MPH slower than his fastballs, which helped him limit batters to a .168 wOBA off of the pitch in 2019. Using it more against lefties than righties, Lorenzen’s changeup moves away from left-handed batters, making them miss the pitch more often. Lorenzen was one of the best in the MLB in terms of Hard Hit % and a large part of that was due to batters’ meager 22.0 Hard Hit % against his changeup. He limited batters’ Barrel % to 2.4 on the changeup as well. He will look to continue the pattern of weak contact against his change in 2020 with the hope of limiting runs just as efficiently.

#2 — Luis Castillo’s Changeup

I fully expected this pitch to be the best of the best. With a 2.87 wCH/C, Luis Castillo’s infamous changeup was the second-best in the majors in 2019. This all speaks to how great the Reds’ number one pitch was in 2019, not that Castillo’s change wasn’t up to snuff. 2019 was the first season that Castillo threw his changeup more often than his four-seamer, and the pitch reached new levels. His Whiff% on the pitch went up 5 percentage points to 48.0%, all while he limited batters to a career low 19.7 Hard Hit %. Batters swing at the pitch 57.8% of the time and are missing on close to half of those swings. It’s no surprise that he has a 47.0 K% on the pitch. Hitters have not been able to figure out Castillo’s off-speed pitch thus far, and no signs point to that happening in 2020.

#1 — Robert Stephenson’s Slider

Robert Stephenson broke onto the scene in 2019 in large part due to his slider. The breaking ball came in at 2.93 wSL/C, good enough to be the 12th-best slider among MLB relief pitchers. Stephenson delivered his slider 57.1% of the time and registered a 52.1 Whiff%. In comparison, his 2018 slider only made 40.8% of batters whiff in the smaller sample size. Much like the other sliders in this ranking, Stephenson made hitters miss when he kept it low and outside of the strike zone. When batters found a way to make solid contact on the pitch, it was because he left it in the strike zone. Opponents who swung at his slider in the zone made contact 72.0% of the time, but when chasing they only connected 20.3% of the time. Stephenson yielded an amazingly low .176 wOBA off of his slider in 2019, outperforming his xwOBA of .198 by a small margin. For the Reds’ sake, let’s all hope that Stephenson’s slider continues to limit runs better than any other pitch in their organization.

The 2019 Redlegs did a great job of focusing on each pitcher’s best weapon and making that a larger part of their arsenal. After observing the best 10 pitches on their staff, this philosophy worked in 2019, and should continue to work in the year to come.

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Matt Korte is a lifelong Reds fan despite living most of his life in Michigan. The first five years of his life were spent in Cincinnati, but Matt became a lifetime fan when revisiting Cincinnati and watching Brandon Phillips hit a grand slam to defeat a Barry Bonds led Giants team in 2007 with his father. He hopes to one day see a Cincinnati sports team advance in the playoffs for the first time in his lifespan. A recent BS and MBA graduate, Matt currently works at Concordia University Ann Arbor as the Assistant Sports Information Director. When not working, you can find him consuming as much Reds, Bengals, fantasy sports, Star Wars, and Survivor content as possible. You can catch Matt on Twitter at @MKorte7815 where he can be found discussing all of the above.