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How Whiff-y Are The Rays' Pitchers?

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 07:  Pitcher David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays starts against the Texas Rangers September 7, 2011 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 07: Pitcher David Price #14 of the Tampa Bay Rays starts against the Texas Rangers September 7, 2011 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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I don't know much about popular culture, so you'll have to tell me: is there a New Hot Thing out there at the moment? I know Jeremy Lin has quickly become the new Tim Tebow, but when it comes to anything outside sports, I'm at a loss. I'm actually somewhat proud of the fact that I know who Adele is, but that's around where my knowledge base evaporates.

I bring this up because in recent weeks, I've quickly become addicted to the New Hot Thing in the saber-sphere: the Brooks Baseball player cards. Brooks Baseball has always been a great tool for evaluating pitchers on a game-by-game basis, and we include their charts in our game recaps frequently. They've taken their site a step further, though, and their player pages are a treasure trove of Pitch F/x data.

In particular, I like to look at the stat Whiffs/Swing. In general, the more swings and misses a pitcher generates, the more strikeouts they should get. FanGraphs lists a pitcher's total Swinging Strike rate, but there aren't many places where you can find swings and misses broken down by pitch type. Brooks Baseball and the Joe Lefkowitz Pitch F/x Tool are the two places to find this data, but since Brooks has manually classified pitches, I feel more confident in their pitch classifications and results.

Why should we care about swings and misses? Whiffs are a good proxy for a pitch's "nastiness", and they can help us understand the strength of a pitcher's arsenal. Does Pitcher X only have one good out-pitch? Or is his entire repertoire above average? Is he using his pitches correctly? I may be a nerd, but I find this stuff fascinating.

Below the jump, you'll find the Whiff/Swing data from Brooks Baseball for the majority of the Rays' pitchers. But before you peek ahead, vote in the poll...who do you think has the single "nastiest" pitch on the Rays' pitching staff*? I'm curious to see how many people will be correct.

*At least, according to 2011 data.

If I had to answer that question, I probably would have guessed James Shields' changeup or David Price's fastball. Or if you want to deal with smaller samples, Matt Moore's fastball.

It turns out, I was pretty far from the truth.

Top 5 Pitches (min. 100 pitches thrown)

Pitcher Pitch Count Whiffs/Swing
Fernando Rodney Changeup (CH) 161 46.15%
Kyle Farnsworth Slider (SL) 178 38.38%
James Shields Changeup (CH) 1003 37.46%
Joel Peralta Splitter (FS) 249 34.57%
Brandon Gomes Curveball (CU) 149 34.55%

Four of the top five pitchers are relievers, which shouldn't come as a huge surprise; relievers are able to kick it up a notch since they only have to throw for short bursts, and they normally don't have to face hitters multiple times during the same outing. But still, that is an outstanding whiff rate for Fernando Rodney's changeup. If he can gain a modicum of control this season, that changeup could make him a dominant late-inning weapon.

But if you guessed James Shields in the poll, you weren't entirely wrong; Shields' changeup did have the best whiff/swing rate for any starting pitcher on the Rays last season.

Top 5 Pitches, Starting Pitcher Edition (min. 100 pitches thrown)

Pitcher Pitch Count Whiffs/Swing
James Shields Changeup (CH) 1003 37.46%
Jeremy Hellickson Curveball (CU) 319 34.43%
James Shields Curveball (CU) 757 34.24%
Jeremy Hellickson Changeup (CH) 909 33.21%
Jeff Niemann Curveball (CU) 509 27.92%

Surprise! Not only did Shields have the best pitch at generating whiffs on staff, he also had the third-best pitch. And despite his low strikeout rate, Jeremy Hellickson had an excellent changeup and curveball last season; those pitches both featured wide platoon splits, though, and were much more effective against right-handed hitters. This is somewhat backwards, considering that pitches with vertical pitch movement are normally best against opposite-handed hitters, so hopefully this should improve going forward.

Also notable: David Price doesn't even make the list. All five of his pitches generated around 21-22% swinging strikes, so even though he doesn't have one pitch that rates highly, his overall arsenal is still dominant.

You can find the full dataset in this Google Doc, including the platoon splits for the starting pitchers. There are all sorts of interesting things to find in this data beyond what I've already pointed out, so here are a couple shorter observations:

  • Since Matt Moore was only up for a handful of starts, we don't have a large sample on him so I would take his whiff rates with a grain of salt. Even then, though, Moore had a 24% whiff/swing rate with his fastball (200+ pitches thrown), a higher rate than any other starting pitcher on the Rays last season. Brandon Gomes was the one other pitcher on staff to have a whiff/swing rate that high (24%, 350+ pitches).
  • Wade Davis's best pitch was his slider, and it topped out at 20% -- around 25-30th best on the list. Ouch.
  • The worst fastballs on staff? James Shields (9.6%) and Fernando Rodney (8.8%).
  • Burke Badenhop looks pretty darn awesome, as his two out-pitches (change, slider) both hit 30% whiffs/swing last season. His third pitch is his sinker, and he uses that to get batters to pound the dirt.
  • Anything else you want to share? Have fun playing with the data.