Hendricks, Kershaw, Arrieta and Hill boast major pitches that arguably rank among MLB's best
By Jack Baer
As the National League Championship Series shifts back to Chicago with the Cubs up, 3-2, four of the best pitchers in the league are set to start if the Dodgers manage to force a decisive Game 7.
Kyle Hendricks, Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, and Rich Hill can all be ranked as elite pitchers, but there is also something notable about the combination of the four that makes this series so appealing to pitching fans. It could be argued that their combined arsenals sport the best fastball, slider, changeup and curveball in baseball. Here is an argument for each of them, backed by Statcast™ data.
Hitters registered a .133 batting average and .232 slugging percentage against this pitch during the regular season, both the best marks in the league, and it's easy to see why when you dive into the numbers.
Among pitchers that allowed 100 balls in play off their changeups, Hendricks was No. 2 in the league in average exit velocity with a mark of 83.2 mph, behind only Marco Estrada at 82.5 mph. Hendricks was also No. 2 (minimum 500 changeups) in whiff rate on his changeup at 22.25 percent, after only Jeremy Hellickson at 24.76 percent.
It's an amazing pitch, or perhaps even two pitches. Hendricks explained on Thursday that similar to a four-seam and two-seam fastball, he also mixes up his changeup depending on if he's facing a left- or right-handed hitter.
"The changeup is basically two also, because I'll throw one to righties -- it will cut -- and one to lefties that fades. In essence, they're doing the same thing to both hitters, going away from their barrel, but they're obviously opposite action on them, so I would say they're two different pitches. But they're still both changeups, just two different ones."
In summary, Hendricks' changeup -- or changeups -- gets whiffs better than all but one other in the league and induces soft contact better than all but one other in the league. And he's found a way to be able to throw it no matter which box the batter is standing in. That's how you get a pitch that is, right now, the best of its kind in baseball.
Kershaw's slider misses bats as well anyone's, but the major benefit it carries is it gives the lefty something to play off his fastball. The ace threw all of 13 changeups this season, basically one every other start, so having the slider might be the one factor preventing batters from cheating on the fastball and sitting on a curveball that, while very pretty, doesn't regularly hit the strike zone.
It's the pitch that makes both of Kershaw's other major pitches work so well, and it's been doing that since the first week he started throwing it, back in 2009.
Back in 2011, during Kershaw's first NL Cy Young Award year, his catcher, A.J. Ellis, told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick why the slider is so important.
"It gives him a pitch off his fastball," Ellis said. "The curveball is so sharp with so much break, a lot of hitters give up on it, and it's only a quality result if it's a called strike. They don't swing and miss it. The slider looks like a fastball for so much longer, and the hitter has to make a decision to swing or not. The hitter has to respect that."
That importance to the rest of Kershaw's arsenal belies what were already elite numbers for his slider, starting with batters having a .139 average against the pitch, the best mark of any starter who's thrown more than 500 sliders. He also came in at No. 4 in MLB in whiff rate (minimum 500 sliders) with a 23.4 percent mark, behind only Ken Giles, Max Scherzer, and Noah Syndergaard.
For our purposes here, we're combining Arrieta's four-seamer and sinker into one umbrella of fastballs, since many other starters use the same combination to induce weak contact. The two combine to form 64.79 percent of his pitches, with the sinker increasingly taking up a larger share in the past three years.
Like Hendricks' two changeups, Arrieta's combination allowed a lower batting average (.199) and slugging percentage (.305) than any other combination of four-seamers, two-seamers and sinkers in baseball.
Arrieta's sinker does what good sinkers do: It creates ground balls and soft contact. Arrieta's 87.5-mph average exit velocity allowed on his sinker is the lowest mark among qualified starters that threw the pitch at least 500 times, and 56.79 percent of the balls were on the ground.
That ability to induce weak contact helped Arrieta win the Cy Young Award last season and remains a major part of his game, even if he has become more homer and walk prone this season. Of course, there is another fastball on the Cubs that would be statistical malpractice to not mention: that of Aroldis Chapman.
We all know Chapman's eye-popping velocity, but let's run through Chapman's fastball stats and where they rank among MLB's fastballs (minimum 750 thrown): average velocity, 100.87 mph, first; swinging strike rate, 17.19 percent, first; spin rate 2,546 RPMs, third; exit velocity, 88.5 mph, 17th; batting average against, .150, first; slugging percentage against, .194, first.
Arrieta might have an argument for the best fastball repertoire among starters in the league, but Chapman remains the king of relievers. And it isn't close.
Hill is a unique starter, and his sheer level of curveball usage is the primary reason why after a decade in the Majors that eventually landed him with the independent Long Island Ducks in 2015, he put up a 2.12 ERA this season. No pitcher, possibly ever, has used his curveball quite so often and effectively as Hill has in a rare age-36 breakout season.
After Hill signed a Minor League deal with the Red Sox last season, pitching guru Brian Bannister figured that his curveball was easily his best pitch, so why not throw it basically every other time? The result is that Hill had the highest curveball rate on record (data goes back to 2007) during the regular season at 47 percent.
Hill's spin rate on his curve, 2,833 RPMs, makes it the second-fastest spinner in the league and just a hair behind No. 1 Gio Gonzalez (2,843). That means Hill's pitch should get movement like almost no other.
Despite that movement, which should conceivably make the pitch harder to reliably throw for strikes, Hill will throw the pitch in any count and to any batter. And it's not like hitters have been succeeding just by holding back against the pitch and waiting for the fastball, because he also got more called strikes than any pitcher in baseball with his curveball with 191.
The ways Hill's curveball can astound don't stop there. He also enjoys switching up his arm angle so a curve will break horizontally, adding another wrinkle to a pitch hitters haven't figured out. The effectiveness of Hill's curveball isn't contained to just his curve's numbers. Even though his four-seamer only comes in at an average of 90.68 mph, 171st out of 194 pitchers to throw 500 four-seamers this year, it also ranks in the top 10 in whiff rate.
Hill's fastball has mediocre velocity, and it got more swings and misses on a rate basis than Scherzer's. While the pitch's high spin rate could explain that, the simpler explanation is that it comes from hitters having to be so prepared for Hill's curve. Just like Kershaw, Hill's best pitch not only has elite numbers, but it also makes the rest of his arsenal even more deadly.
Jack Baer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.