CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The 2016 Cleveland Indians were supposed to be a team built on a strong staring pitching staff, and despite a few hiccups and unfortunate injuries along the way, the Tribe’s season has featured its fair share of superb work by the rotation.
But ever since the Indians acquired lefty Andrew Miller at the MLB Trade Deadline from the New York Yankees, Cleveland’s bullpen has been equally as dominant — if not more so — as their starting counterparts.
We knew there was no lack of talent on the Tribe’s staff — Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and more — but what makes each of them so productive?
Well, a great deal of their success comes from the pitches they throw. And in 2016, we saw quite an arsenal of lethal pitches thrown in the general direction of opposing batters by Cleveland’s hurlers. But which pitches of thousands thrown were the most effective?
Let’s take a look at some of the most dominant weapons Indians pitchers used to put away their opponents this season, at least based on how hitters fared against them, using statistical tools such as batting average, slugging percentage, average exit velocity, whiffs and more to break down the top 10.
And yes, we realize a pitch is often reliant on the sequence leading up to the event. For instance, a changeup without a fastball is just a really slow fastball. But when used in tandem with other pitches, a change can be deadly.
We’ll look at the following pitches under the umbrella of knowing a pitch mix can be just as vital as the pitch itself.
10. Andrew Miller’s Four-seam Fastball
Usage: 39.53 percent
Average MPH: 95.5
When it comes to breaking down Miller’s arsenal, let’s first preface by saying we’ll only look at his body of work as an Indians pitcher. Secondly, a look at the numbers indicates the southpaw’s heater is often overlooked when it comes to dominance. Sure, it’s easy to point to his wipe-out slider (we’ll get there), but his four-seamer is still capable of doing a ton of damage to opposing hitters.
PITCHf/x has tracked 140 fastballs thrown by Miller since his arrival in Cleveland, each averaging 95.25 MPH. Batters are hitting just .143 against the pitch with a slugging percentage of .214. The only thing keeping it from rising higher on the list is the 95.4 MPH exit velocity attached to the pitch, but for the season, giving us a much larger sample size, Miller’s four-seamer has averaged an exit velo of 91.8.
Miller doesn’t generate a ton of swing-and-miss with the heather (he uses it to set up his nuclear slider), but it can lock hitters up when they are looking for the dominant breaking pitch. And just five of the 13 hits he has allowed on the fastball have gone for extra bases.
9. Josh Tomlin’s Sinker
Usage: 6.83 percent
Average MPH: 88.46
Tomlin’s pitch arsenal is never going to be confused with some of the top arms on the Tribe’s staff, but the righty’s sinker/two-seamer has served as one of Cleveland’s most effective pitches in 2016. The pitch doesn’t necessarily have the same action as a typical sinker, but it’s close enough for PITCHf/x to characterize it as such.
The general use of a sinker is to generate ground balls and put a defense to work behind the pitcher. While Tomlin is much more of a fly ball hurler, the righty certainly relies on letting the hitters put the ball in play.
The pitch has only led to four swing and misses this season, but hitters have produced a below league average 87.7 MPH exit velocity on it this season, posting a .163 batting average and .286 slugging percentage vs. the offering.
8. Dan Otero’s Changeup
Usage: 10.31 percent
Average MPH: 84.06
Keeping the ball on the ground (61.7 GB%) has been part of Otero’s arsenal out of the bullpen this season. It’s worked quite well, as the righty has a 1.57 ERA and 2.36 FIP in 61 appearances for Cleveland this season.
Based on his results with the changeup (.032 average, .065 slugging percentage), you could argue that Otero should throw the pitch more often — he’s thrown it just 10.31 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net — but it’s hard to argue with the results, and perhaps throwing it more would make it less effective.
As it stands now, the righty’s change (89.9 exit velocity) has been one of the Tribe’s best offerings in 2016 and might be higher on the list if used more than just 107 times this season.
7. Trevor Bauer’s Curveball
Usage: 18.57 percent
Average MPH: 78.15
Bauer prides himself on trying to throw as hard as possible on every pitch, but his highest rated offering, at least when it comes to how good it has been against opposing hitters, has been his big breaking curveball.
The breaking pitch, which has averaged 78.15 MPH this season, has held hitters to a .135 batting average. The 89.9 MPH exit velocity attached to it is also on par with the league average this season, and Bauer’s hook has garnered 73 total swing-and-misses in 2016.
Additionally, the .233 slugging percentage against Bauer’s curve is the seventh-lowest in the Majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 2,000 pitches this season.
6. Danny Salazar’s Split-Change
Usage: 18.41 percent
Average MPH: 86.86
Most of Salazar’s whiffs this season have come on his four-seam fastball, which isn’t surprising considering how much the righty relies on the pitch, but the second-most swing and misses have been generated by his outstanding split-change.
The splitter-change combo has become Salazar’s most trusted out pitch, inducing 102 whiffs with the pitch in 2016.
Opposing hitters haven’t had much success against the changeup, hitting just .128 with a .244 slugging percentage this season. Salazar has also limited batters to an exit velocity of 88.6, below league average.
If the righty is able to return from his forearm strain to appear out of the bullpen for the Indians during the postseason, he is expected to exclusively use his fastball and changeup, his two most utilized pitches in 2016.
5. Carlos Carrasco’s Curveball
Usage: 15.38 percent
Average MPH: 89.93
Breaking down curveballs and sliders can get tricky. Sometimes a pitcher might only use one, but will vary the speeds and movement a bit to give hitters a different look. PITCHf/x funnels pitches into categories based on the speed and movement, so occasionally a pitcher with a wide arsenal (say, Trevor Bauer) will be difficult to pinpoint.
But operating under the data we have, Carrasco’s curve has been tremendously effective this season.
The curveball has limited opposing hitters to a .161 batting average and .269 slugging percentage. And while it has only generated 57 total whiffs this season, batters have managed a meager 87.2 MPH exit velocity against it, making Carrasco’s hook one of the Tribe’s most deadly pitches in 2016.
4. Cody Allen’s Knuckle-Curve
Usage: 37.05 percent
Average MPH: 85.15
Indians closer Cody Allen is known for his ability to come out of the bullpen firing 95-96 MPH heaters, but the righty is truly dominant when he is able to command his knuckle-curve for strikes.
This season, Allen’s breaking ball has generated 77 total swings and misses with an average exit velocity of 85.7 MPH, limiting hitters to a .133 batting average and .193 slugging percentage.
Batters typically gear up for Allen’s heat, which he throws 62.4 percent of the time this year, but when the righty is capable of dropping the knuckle-curve in for strikes, it creates a lot of buckled knees and locked-up hitters.
3. Carlos Carrasco’s Slider
Usage: 15.20 percent
Average MPH: 88.50
Our first pitcher to show up on the list twice, Carrasco’s slider makes an appearance near the top.
Thrown a bit harder than the curveball, the slider has more horizontal movement, which generates a lot of confusion for opposing hitters, who hit just .179 against the pitch in 2016. The slider also limited batters to a .295 slugging percentage and an impressive average exit velocity of 82.4 MPH.
After using his slider over 22 percent of the time last year, Carrasco utilized it a little less this season (15.2 percent), opting to throw more curves and changeups than last season. However, the slider, which was used to strike out 33 hitters in 2016, was still good enough to rank in the top third of our list.
2. Andrew Miller’s Slider
Usage: 60.47 percent
Average MPH: 84.60
Of course, you knew its as only a matter of time until Miller’s iconic strikeout of Khris Davis with the slider — I mean, the dude fell down trying to hit it — made an appearance on our list.
It comes as no surprise the devastating pitch is among the best any Indians pitcher has thrown this season, picking up 31 strikeouts, an average exit velocity of 83.3 MPH and a .150 batting average against it since coming over from New York.
No other pitch is as aesthetically pleasing to the eyes as Miller’s wipe-out slider, and if there was an award for that, the left-handed reliever would probably win it. However, a few mistakes with the incredible pitch has led to 12 extra-base hits (six homers) against it this year, which keeps it from taking the top spot.
But let’s face it, there are few pitches a hitter would rather face less than Miller’s slider late in a ballgame.
1. Corey Kluber’s Slider/Curveball
Usage: 19.85 percent
Average MPH: 84.60
Remember when we discussed pitches that don’t fall into convenient categories? Kluber’s breaking ball certainly applies. And that’s not a bad thing.
The pitch has more speed and horizontal movement than a typical curveball, but it’s uniqueness doesn’t exactly match a slider either. For that reason, PITCHf/x has always struggled to funnel the results into just one pitch. So, let’s just take a look at each set of data.
On pitches categorized as curves: .108/.178, 172 whiffs, 96 Ks.
On pitches categories as sliders: .211/.295, 123 whiffs, 37 Ks.
When combining the two areas, it reveals a .160 opposing batting average and .237 slugging percentage vs. the offerings in 2016. Additionally, Kluber’s 83 MPH average exit velocity against pitches characterized as sliders or curves is the fourth-lowest in the Majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 2,000 pitches.
There’s no question, the ace’s breaking ball is one of the biggest reasons he remains a leading candidate to win the 2016 American League Cy Young Award.
Now that you’ve seen the numbers, who do you think threw the most dominant pitch in 2016?