I may be referring to myself more than I’d like to admit when I suggest that as human beings, we’re probably not as open as we should be to such things as nuance when seeking answers to big questions. We tend to like things that are simple because we’re pretty simple ourselves. Unfortunately, the simplest answer doesn’t necessarily share very much in common with the most accurate answer.
In baseball, this is best represented by our collective curiosity over what we consider to be the best pitches. Water cooler conversation was practically invented for conversations sparked with questions along the lines of: “Who do you think has the best curve ball in the Majors?”
Pitch type linear weights, a statistic available on the pitcher profile pages on Fangraphs, attempt to answer such questions by measuring the impact each pitch has in run expectancy. That sounds more complicated than it is, but if you understand how batters tend to do worse with a 0-2 count than a 2-0 count, you can understand that each and every pitch has a calculable impact on run scoring. Since we can understand and label the type of each pitch that is thrown, we can also add up the sum of that pitch’s impact through an entire season.
For instance, you can say that Brandon McCarthy has the best slider in baseball because that pitch has resulted in a total sum of more than five runs every 100 times it’s been thrown this season. By this measurement, Yu Darvish has the best change up; Luis Mendoza has the best curve ball; Anibal Sanchez has the best sinker; Kevin Millwood has the best split finger fastball; Blake Beaven has the best cutter; Chad Billingsley has the best two-seamer; and Kris Medlen has the best four-seamer.
Unfortunately, none of that is actually true. Yes, those pitches have resulted in creating negative run expectancies for batters, but to look at the pitch itself is to totally ignore what may be the most important part of a pitcher facing a batter: the pitch chain, or the sequence of pitch types delivered to the batter. In other words, it’s far more complicated than merely looking at the impact that one pitch has on the opposition’s run expectancy.
I mentioned that Kris Medlen is judged to have the best four-seam fastball in Major League Baseball by pitch type linear weights, but Medlen’s fastball, on its own, is far from impressive. It leaves the right-handed pitcher’s hand at an uninspiring average of 90 miles per hour. It doesn’t move especially more than any other pitcher’s fastball and it doesn’t have a cloaking device that makes it disappear to batters attempting to make contact.
In fact, forgive me for the following analogy, but Medlen’s fastball is the Turtle to his repertoire’s Entourage. What the fastball has going for it is his other pitches. It’s the almost palpable threat that it might be a change up or a curve ball. This is what allows Medlen to throw an 87 miles per hour fastball on an 0-2 count in the middle of the strike zone, and have it hand cuff the batter, as he did during Sunday’s start against Justin Turner of the New York Mets.
There’s no way that this pitch is not swung at by a Major League batter if he didn’t previously see an exemplary change up before facing what would otherwise be a giant meatball on the inside part of the plate.
Here’s that change up in action against a right-handed batter:
And here it is against a left-handed batter:
Aside: Look at where David Ross sets up for that pitch, and please let me know if you’ve ever seen a more accurate off-speed breaking pitch in your entire life.
Both of the above change ups are delivered with two strikes to the batter, but what makes the pitch so effective is that Medlen is willing to throw it in any count. Whether behind, even or ahead in the count, the Braves starter will go to his change up between 24% and 32% of the time against left-handed batters; and between 12% and 13% against right-handed batters.
This has resulted in an insanely high 48% whiff rate. In almost half of the swings that batters have taken against Medlen’s change up they’ve missed the ball completely.
Here is his whiff rate with his change up:
Here’s his foul rate with his change up:
This is probably a mistake pitch, given where we see Ross set up for it, but it does a good job of showing the ridiculous movement on his curve ball in comparison to the change up:
Aside: It’s quite likely that my favorite thing in baseball is a pitcher fooling a batter to the degree where he moves away in fear of the pitch hitting him, and it lands for a strike anyway.
Again, we see that much like his change up, Medlen is not afraid to throw his curve ball in any situation. Whether behind, even or ahead in the count, the right-hander will go to his hook between 14% and 20% of the time against left-handed batters; and between 18% and 24% against right-handed batters.
All of this adds up to look as though Medlen has three very dominant pitches, but the success of each is dependent on the others to establish it. Yes, his change and curve have batter-fooling movement, but without the threat of the fastball, which he has a tremendous ability to locate, the movement wouldn’t mean much at all. The same holds true for his off-speed and breaking pitches.
Kris Medlen and his success this season is a prime example of a pitcher who optimizes the talent he possesses. While we might look at animated GIFs of the pitcher making batters look foolish, and see his positive linear weights for each pitch type in his arsenal, his incredible run isn’t so easily explained by the results of any single part of his repertoire. He owes his success to the use of all three in combination, which collaborate to create a viable threat to the batter that he could be facing any one pitch in any situation.
This is maddening to the batter, pleasing to the pitcher, and it leaves spectators with jaws dropped, not only because of the sheer beauty of his individual pitches, but also over how complicated it is to explain the effectiveness of each. So, while it may be a negative part of human nature to gloss over complexities in search of the easiest answer possible, we also possess the inherent ability to appreciate beautiful things. In this sense, Kris Medlen’s fastball, change up and curve ball represents the best and worst in all of us.