By Rob Friedman, aka “Pitching Ninja”
FOX Sports MLB Analyst
Last week we focused on the National League Cy Young contenders. Now let’s take a look at the American League race, which has been back and forth for most of the season, with Shane McClanahan, Dylan Cease and Justin Verlander making their cases.
Each of them has pitched brilliantly this year, but there’s one pitcher who has pulled away from the pack and established himself as the clear frontrunner.
1. Ponce de León has nothing on Justin Verlander.
At 39 years of age, pitching in his 17th season and coming off Tommy John surgery, Verlander should be on the back end of his career. A sure first-ballot Hall of Famer, Verlander has been one of the most dominant pitchers of his generation, but most of the baseball world questioned whether he could come back and be anywhere near the same pitcher as he was before his injury.
Instead of fading away, however, Verlander is having perhaps the best season of his career on the mound. He leads the major leagues with a 1.78 ERA, which is the lowest of any American League pitcher with at least 157 innings since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 ERA in 2000 (widely considered one of the most dominant seasons by a pitcher in major-league history).
Relying mostly on his still-overpowering fastball as well as a wicked slider and hammer curveball, Verlander has three pitches that each have a batting average against under .200.
For a supposedly “aging” pitcher, Verlander’s fastball still is a weapon. In fact, his heater, which still touches 99 mph, ranks as the most valuable fastball in baseball in terms of run value.
Verlander’s slider has a 35% whiff rate and is a critical part of his arsenal because of how well it works off his elevated fastball. This overlay shows how tough that combination is for hitters.
Lastly, because Verlander likes to throw his fastball up in the zone, hitters also must respect his curveball, which starts out looking like a high fastball but can drop into the zone due to its huge 12-to-6 downward break.
This outstanding pitch arsenal, combined with Verlander’s brilliant strategic mind and vast experience, creates an elite pitcher who can attack hitters in so many ways it’s virtually unfair to them. He can surgically dissect batters with his tremendous command or simply overpower them — either way, he’s going to beat them because, most of all, Verlander loves to compete and win.
2. Dylan Cease is the author of a true masterpiece.
Cease is the owner of the most valuable pitch in baseball: a virtually unhittable slider. His slider is such an integral part of his pitch arsenal that he wrote a poem about it, “O’ Slider Slide.”
Cease’s slider has an amazing 45.1% whiff rate this season, and he throws it nearly 43% of the time — even more than his electric fastball, which averages nearly 97 mph and can touch 100.
Cease’s slider is simply vicious:
When you combine that ferocious slider with Cease’s upper-90s fastball, you almost feel sorry for hitters.
Cease’s knuckle curve is also an important part of his arsenal, and he can use it to “tunnel” off elevated fastballs, even fastballs that end up way out of the zone. This causes hitters to sometimes give up on the knuckle curve because it looks like a ball out of hand and then drops sharply into the strike zone.
Cease also can work in an absurdly slow changeup that is 20 mph or more slower than his fastball. Talk about getting hitters out in front!
Here’s Cease’s changeup grip and a guest appearance by his cat.
3. Shane McClanahan can paint with the best of them.
McClanahan has had a breakout season for the Rays. Sugar Shane has a 2.13 ERA and is second in baseball in WHIP at 0.86, behind only Verlander.
McClanahan has an overpowering fastball that touches 100 mph, but he isn’t just a thrower. He can absolutely paint with the heater.
Not only does McClanahan throw diesel, but with his hammer curveball (.142 batting average against), fierce slider (46.4% whiff rate) and baffling changeup (45.7% whiff rate), he has one of the most dominant pitch arsenals in all of baseball.
McClanahan’s nasty curveball:
McClanahan’s beautiful changeup:
And here’s an overlay to show how McClanahan’s slider and changeup work together to humiliate hitters.
Sugar Shane also has the ability to KO his opponents, like another “Sugar Shane”:
4. Fabulous Framber is the new definition of quality.
Consistently dominant, Framber Valdez just set the major-league record with his 25th consecutive quality start.
Framber’s curveball is one of the keys to his success. It’s one of the best curves in the game; hitters are hitting only .147 against it with over a 45% whiff rate this season.
It’s a pitch that can totally embarrass hitters.
That curveball is a big reason why Valdez is 16-5 this year with a 2.57 ERA.
Shohei Ohtani is a category all his own.
Ohtani is a unicorn and, fittingly, is in a category all by himself. He leads the majors in strikeouts per nine innings among qualified starters with 11.9 K/9 and has jaw-dropping stuff on the bump.
Ohtani’s splitter remains one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball, with a 49.1% whiff rate. You can see what makes this pitch so tough when combined with his upper 90s/100 mph fastball.
Shohei’s slider is the second-most valuable pitch in baseball (behind Cease’s slider) and has video game-like movement, averaging over 85 mph with almost 14 inches of horizontal break.
And let’s not forget Shohei’s incredible shiny new toy,a turbo sinker that he somehow added in the middle of the season. It’s a pitch so filthy that all José Altuve can do is laugh at how unfair it is.
So it’s not surprising that Ohtani won my Twitter poll of which AL starter has the filthiest stuff:
Rob Friedman is an MLB pitching analyst for FOX Sports whose work has been featured on many Major League Baseball broadcasts. Follow him on Twitter @PitchingNinja.
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