The 10 best pitches of 2012 (part II)

Stephen Dunn

It probably would have been less deceptive to title it the five best pitches of 2012, but you're already here, so you might as well read it.

Welcome to part two of this rigorous scientific study, which is neither rigorous nor scientific. You can find part one here.

Let's start by giving an honorary mention to Mariano Rivera's cutter, which almost won the top spot despite being thrown just 129 times in eight innings this season. It's probably still the best pitch in baseball, and it will be on the list until Rivera retires in 2030. But considering it didn't see a lot of time in 2012, it's a just-miss.

Oh, shut up, Miller. No one asked you. On to the list.

5. Clayton Kershaw's curve

This is the part where I let you in on a secret: I'm a Giants fan. You can read about how my mom didn't give me a choice about it here. One of my very first games was the Joe Morgan Game. Have you even heard of the Joe Morgan Game? If you're not a Giants or Dodgers fan, probably not. It's when Joe Morgan hit a home run for a third-place team that made a second-place team stay in second. And for decades, it was one of the greatest moments in San Francisco baseball history, which almost explains why Giants fans still light cars on fire when they win the World Series.

So I'm biased. Horribly, irreparably biased. I do not like the Dodgers. I can dial it back when I write about them here -- all this is about sports, and it's all kind of silly, you know -- but the rivalry still feels real and intense and personal to me when I'm watching the games.

And with two outs and the bases loaded against the Dodgers, Gregor Blanco came up to face Clayton Kershaw. It was a big at-bat.

Here's how it ended:


In the heat of the moment, Giants vs. Dodgers, with the division potentially on the line, I had the only reaction possible: I laughed. Snorted and guffawed out loud as the Giants wasted a chance to add more runs, and I'd do it again. Because what else can you do with a pitch like that? You were expecting a game of baseball, and suddenly a game of spaceball -- with space rules and space baseballs made from space materials from space -- broke out. After that brief second, it was back to baseball.

It was a pitch so good that it made a Giants fan laugh out loud at a Dodgers' triumph. That's how good Kershaw's curve can be.

3. Justin Verlander's fastball (tie)
3. Aroldis Chapman's fastball (tie)

Oh, I know it's a weenie move to have a tie. It's not like there was a numerical voting system. But hear me out. The fastball is the pitch that makes baseball the game it is. If Kershaw were to throw that curve 100 times every game, it wouldn't have the same effect. Hitters would look for the hangers, drive the ones that loop into the strike zone, and spit on the rest. Pitching starts with the fastball.

So there have to be fastballs near the top of the list. The two best fastballs are Verlander's and Chapman's. I know that Verlander's isn't even the fastest average pitch among starters -- and I really came close to putting David Price on here instead -- but Verlander's fastball has a mythic quality to it. He'll start in the low- to mid-90s, then he'll ramp up, ramp up, and before you know it, it's the eighth inning and he's throwing a hundred.

Does the sequence and permutation of his triple-digit fastballs make a difference when it comes to winning baseball games? Hell, I don't know. But it gets bonus points on a subjective list like this, because it's the kind of pitch you know people will be talking about in 50 years.

Verlander's fastball was 110 miles per hour, it was. He threw it uphill, in the snow, not like these sissies today with their robo-arms and nanobots repairing their tendons after every game. And when the game got close to the end, Verlander would throw it 115, sometimes harder. Nope. They don't make 'em like Verlander anymore.

And if that's true about Verlander, it's true about Chapman, who averaged a 98-m.p.h. fastball. Think about that. Averaged a 98-m.p.h. fastball. A couple of relievers came close to that, like Kelvin Herrera, but Chapman's still at the top. And he's the one with the fastball that can touch 103, which is as fast as any pitch in baseball history.

I mean …

If I had to take a reliever for my team in 2013, I'd take Craig Kimbrel. If I had to take one pitcher to convert someone who doesn't care about baseball, it would be Chapman. That's the best way I can put it, and if that doesn't meet the "best pitch" criteria because of linear weights or whiff rate, well, to each his own. But I don't know what else to tell you.

The reason these two are tied is because they represent the spectrum of great fastballs, starter and reliever. Verlander's is like a fine, 20-year-old scotch that's been aged to perfection, with just the right amount of smoke and peat. You get to savor it, appreciate its nuances over a long stretch. Chapman's is a 6-oz. shot of the stuff right before you get in a fight with the bouncer because you're trying to enter a wet-T-shirt contest on the top of the bar even though there is no such contest going on.

They both have their place, depending on your mood that day, and I'm not picking between them.

2. Stephen Strasburg's curve

I almost forgot about Strasburg. I compiled this list by searching the PITCHf/x leader boards at FanGraphs, and I forgot to include pitchers who didn't qualify for the ERA title. Not sure why Strasburg wasn't on there. Should probably write a column investigating why that didn't happen, but that's for another day.

Adam Wainwright's curve was a late cut from the list. A.J. Burnett's knuckle-curve is purty when it's on, as is James McDonald's curve. Gio Gonzalez has a tremendous curveball. My biggest regret might not be with leaving Felix Hernandez or David Price off the list -- though I feel dumber just by typing that sentence -- but rather with leaving off the popsicle-sticks-in-a-coffee-grinder delivery of Chris Sale, which produces a gorgeous slurve. There were too many pitchers and too many pitches.

But Strasburg's is different. If you've never watched Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, go do that now. Since then, I had never seen another pitcher with the kind of stuff that made me nostalgic for that game. Strasburg does it just about every time I watch him. Really, every one of his pitches could have made the list. His change is gross, and his fastball hops. But his curveball does this:


It's not the hardest curve in baseball -- Lucas Harrell? -- but it's still a very, very hard curve. And it's a tight curve. And it's an impeccably controlled curve. It's the best curve.

It's always worth watching how it all started, too:

1. R.A. Dickey's knuckleball

I don't know if this qualifies as an obvious pick or a surprise pick by now. But it's the right pick. Knuckleballs are deceptive, tricky pitches, but so are all other pitches. The whole point is to deceive. A fastball that arrives quicker than it should, or a slider that isn't recognize until it's too late … the whole point is to make the hitter's eyes relay false information. Pitching is a duplicitous art.

And there's nothing more deceptive than a pitch that moves in ways that even the pitcher can't predict. Each knuckleball is a tiny little Hessian, hired to do a job that might backfire horrifically on its employer. But the best ones usually do the right amount of murder and looting.


Dickey's isn't the traditional flutterer. It's a hard, controllable pitch, and that's one of the things that makes it the best. He doesn't know exactly where it's going, but he can put it in the strike zone with regularity.

But there's one more reason why it's clearly the best. You see the Strasburg piece up there? There's a Kerry Wood mention. That's probably not a coincidence, even though it seems like it. Pitches like that can be hard on elbows. But the knuckler isn't. 100 pitches? 120 pitches? Whatever, man. It's a knuckleball. Three days' rest? Extra innings? Go for it. It's a knuckleball.

Are you worried about tearing your UCL? Dickey doesn't even have one. Doesn't need it for that pitch. It has everything, from effectiveness to legendary back story. And that's why it's clearly -- CLEARLY, AND I EXPECT THERE TO BE NO ARGUMENT -- the best pitch in baseball right now.

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