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2018’s Top 10 Pitchers: A Review

Heath researches what the top hurlers from 2018 have in common.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Heath, what’s the purpose in researching aces? I mean, everyone knows these guys are aces. Why does it matter?

I’ll tell you why. The more I get into the baseball game, the more I want to understand baselines. And sure, most hurlers aren’t going to offer 8.8 wins above replacement (holy Jacob deGrom). But I still think there is value in seeing what it is the cream of the crop does well.

So without further ado, here are 10 observations of the best 10 hurlers from 2018 (according to WAR):

1 Jacob deGrom (8.8 WAR)

2 Max Scherzer (7.2)

3 Justin Verlander (6.8)

4 Patrick Corbin (6.3)

5 Gerrit Cole (6.3)

6 Trevor Bauer (6.1)

7 Luis Severino (5.7)

8 Aaron Nola (5.6)

9 Corey Kluber (5.6)

10 Carlos Carrasco (5.3)

Heck of a list. After Carrasco it drops to Blake Snell (4.6). So we are dealing with the only 10 qualified guys that were 5 WAR guys in 2018. Of note is Chris Sale, who was worth 6.5 WAR despite only pitching 158 innings in 2018. Every other hurler in the Top 10 managed at least 175 13 (Bauer) and that was on the low end of things—the next lowest was Severino at a whopping 191 13 innings. Anyway, for the purposes of these observations, we’ll exclude Sale and deal with the 10 guys above.

Observation #1

Jacob deGrom is a beast, despite the Mets’ ineptitude. Aside from Clayton Kershaw’s 8.5 WAR in 2015, you have to travel back to 2011 to find a pitcher over 8.0 WAR. That guy? Roy Halladay at 8.3 WAR. Pretty darn good company for the guy whose team just added Robinson Cano to bolster the offense. That, and the Mets are rumored to be in the market for J.T. Realmuto. I’m taking the “over” on deGrom’s (actual) win total of 10 from last year.

Observation #2

Justin Verlander’s 29.1% ground ball rate sticks out like a sore thumb. Only Scherzer (34.3%) and Cole (36.0%) are anywhere near him, and they aren’t really close. On average, this group of 10 guys looked to be between 44-46% when considering ground ball rate. Verlander, Scherzer, and Cole were the exceptions.

Conversely, when you sort for qualified hurlers from last season, Verlander’s 51.4% fly ball rate is tops in the entire league. That’s right, it’s not a typo. Verlander allowed a higher percentage of fly balls than any other qualified starter in the MLB in 2018. Probably why his HR/9 was at 1.18. That doesn’t sound high on its own, but it was the worst of the Top 10 and the only one over 1.0 aside from Corey Kluber (1.05). Something to note, maybe.

The good stuff is this: Verlander was one of only 15 starters to generate 20.0% or more soft contact in 2018. No. 1 on that list? Jacob deGrom. No. 2? Max Scherzer. I found it interesting that the other fly baller on this list (Gerrit Cole) was all the way down at 30th in the MLB in generating soft contact (18.6%). In fact, deGrom, Scherzer, Nola, Verlander, Severino, and Cole all ranked inside the Top 30 in the MLB with regard to soft contact. Corbin (47th), Bauer (50th), Kluber (53rd), and Carrasco (57th) were a good bit behind. That’s maybe not good news for Corbin, whose 41.7% hard contact rate was the second-highest among qualified hurlers in all of the MLB (only Cole Hamels was worse). Corbin may miss the humidor next season...

Observation #3

On the whole hard contact thing, Corbin wasn’t the only Diamondback hurler to be notable. Corbin was second behind Hamels, but Zack Greinke ranked seventh (41.0%) and Zack Godley ranked 10th (38.4%). So of all qualified starters in 2018, three Diamondbacks pitchers ranked inside the Top 10 with regard to hard contact allowed. That just sounds nuts to me. Perhaps this is a smart organization making full use of the humidor? Or the writing is on the wall for all three guys? It’s a bit strange to me that all three of these pitchers allowed more hard contact than ever before in 2018 with the humidor. Godley basically jumped six percent from the year prior, Greinke by five percent, and Corbin a whopping 10 percent (though if you looked at two years ago it would only be three percent). Still, you get the idea. Even Robbie Ray (king of hard%) jumped by four percent over his 123 23 innings in 2018. Surely this isn’t a coincidence? I’ll have to sprint down this rabbit-hole at a later date.

Observation #4

Hard contact all by itself isn’t a death knell, apparently. Sure, there were three quality Diamondbacks inside the Top 10, but there was also Carlos Carrasco at seventh-most (38.9%) and Corey Kluber at 15th-most (36.6%). Trevor Bauer was 20th (35.9%) and Luis Severino was 23rd (35.2%). So along with Corbin, Carrasco, Kluber, Bauer, and Severino all rank within the Top 23 qualified starters with regard to hard contact allowed. Put differently, five of the Top 10 pitchers according to WAR allow a bunch more hard contact than you probably thought. To me, this speaks to looking at the entirety of a pitcher’s profile. Hard contact all by itself shouldn’t mean anything.

Observation #5

Holy swinging strike rate. Now we are onto something. If you sort for SwStr% on Fangraphs, you’ll find some familiar names. Let’s take our Top 10 and see how they rank with regard to this statistic:

1 Jacob deGrom (5th)

2 Max Scherzer (1st)

3 Justin Verlander (6th)

4 Patrick Corbin (2nd)

5 Gerrit Cole (7th)

6 Trevor Bauer (9th)

7 Luis Severino (13th)

8 Aaron Nola (12th)

9 Corey Kluber (16th)

10 Carlos Carrasco (3rd)

Hot damn. Maybe I should just ignore all pitching statistics except for swinging strike rate? Now I’m curious about the guys who had excellent swinging strike rates but weren’t in the Top 10 in WAR...those guys are: Blake Snell, Luis Castillo, Dylan Bundy, German Marquez, and Jon Gray. Interesting grouping. Maybe I can dive into those guys at a later date. For now, let’s just say that elite pitchers can make hitters swing and miss. Duh, right?

Observation #6

Holy chase rates, Batman! Of the Top 10 pitchers in WAR, six of them finished inside the top nine when it came to chase rates generated by opposing hitters (O-Swing%). Nine of our 10 were inside the Top 25 in chase rate, while our 10th guy (Bauer) finished 33rd overall. So the best pitchers get hitters to chase their stuff outside of the zone. Duly noted.

Observation #7

This doesn’t have anything to do with the Top 10 guys (according to WAR) but Dylan Bundy is interesting, man. I know, I know. Bundy allowed 41 homers last year and posted a 5.45 ERA. But he also got hitters to chase 33.5% of the time (12th-best) and posted a healthy 12.7% swinging strike rate (10th-best). That’s intriguing, no matter how many home runs he allowed. Similarly, Luis Castillo’s 13.5% SwStr% (8th-best) and 33.3% chase rate (16th-best) are encouraging. Unfortunately for us, both of these gentlemen play in extreme hitter’s parks. It makes me wonder what their away splits are like (more on that at a later date, too). Andrew Heaney, Jameson Taillon, and Zack Wheeler all also rank inside the Top 30 in swinging strike rate and have very healthy chase rates. In fact, Taillon (11th), Wheeler (13th), and Heaney (14th) all fall inside the Top 15 in O-Swing%. Pretty interesting stuff.

Observation #8

We’ve established that these elite 10 pitchers get hitters to chase outside the zone. But they also don’t let hitters touch the ball when chasing. Carlos Carrasco was the best in the MLB in O-Contact% last year. And eight of our 10 WAR guys ranked inside the Top 14 in this regard. The other two finished inside the Top 25. So of the Top 10 pitchers with regard to WAR, all finished inside the Top 25 in O-Swing% in 2018. Know who else is on this list? Dylan freaking Bundy, 12th-best at 56.8% (sandwiched between Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander). We just have to solve Bundy’s gopheritis and then it’s game on, son.

Observation #9

When you sort by F-Strike%, the 2, 3, and 4 guys all finished inside the Top 10 in WAR (Nola, Severino, Verlander). deGrom (7th) and Scherzer (10th) weren’t far behind. Carrasco, Corbin, Bauer, Cole, and Kluber were all inside the Top 25. So of our elite 10, all finished inside the Top 25 with regard to getting a first-pitch strike.

So who is the first guy on the list (inside the Top 25 of F-Strike%) that also has a double-digit SwStr%? We’ll exclude the guys who get strikes but don’t have swing-and-miss stuff: Mikolas, Porcello, Fiers, Gonzales, Quintana, Leake, and Hendricks are such guys. So other than our Top 10 WAR guys, these guys get strikes on the first pitch AND have some swing-and-miss to their game: Zack Greinke, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, Jose Berrios, Mike Clevinger, Jameson Taillon, and Jon Gray. Pretty awesome list. Heaney keeps popping up!

Observation #10

Of the Top 10 WAR pitchers, a whopping seven of them ranked inside the Top 10 with regard to contact allowed. Blake Snell was tops in the MLB (66.6%), Luis Castillo was ninth (72.6%), and Jon Gray was 10th (72.7%). So two through eight were our Top 10 WAR guys (Corbin, Scherzer, Carrasco, Bauer, deGrom, Cole, Verlander). Nola was 13th, Kluber 21st, and Severino 22nd. So this was pretty obvious, but the elite guys didn’t allow a lot of contact in 2018. And in case you were wondering, YES, Dylan Bundy was on the list! Bundy’s 74.7% contact rate was the 19th-best mark in the MLB. Heaney was 23rd, too. Apparently I need to do some deep pitcher dives and find some diamonds in the rough for 2019, eh?

I hope something on this list surprised someone, somewhere. I had fun poring through the numbers. Now let’s all go nuts for Dylan Bundy, Luis Castillo, and Andrew Heaney!