The Best Pitchers in Baseball and How to Find Them

As I began my 2018 draft research I asked myself a question; which pitchers have the chance of returning premium value? Everyone wants the next version of 2017 ​Luis Severino​. My strategy was to get 1 stud and then wait and grab as many talented, young arms as possible and hope that 2 or 3 panned out, as well as players in their 3rd or 4th season that’s hype has faded for any number of reasons. I set out to find the best way to crack the code and I want to share with you what I found.

First off, I want to take a look at the top 20 pitchers according to ​SIERA​. According to FanGraphs, ​Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) is the newest and, what many believe to be the most accurate way to measure the skill level of a pitcher. Unlike its predecessors FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and xFIP (expected Fielding Independent Pitching), SIERA does not exclude balls in play, but rather tries to explain why certain pitchers are better at limiting hits and preventing runs (https://www.fangraphs.com/library/pitching/siera/​).

I want to get a look at the SIERA leaderboard and see how it correlates with the focus of this article, Plate Discipline Statistics.

  • Note: All statistics shown are ​as of Friday, August 10

2018 SIERA Leaders(min 100 IP)

Player   SIERA Player SIERA
1. Chris Sale 2.36 11. Luis Severino 3.30
2. Max Scherzer 2.75 12. Corey Kluber 3.31
3. Justin Verlander 2.78 13. Jon Gray
3.31
4. Patrick Corbin 2.89 14. Charlie Morton  3.36
5. Gerrit Cole 2.90 15. Clayton Kershaw  3.40
6. Jacob deGrom 2.94 16. Zack Greinke  3.42
7. James Paxton 3.04 17. Masahiro Tanaka  3.45
8. Nick Pivetta 3.20 18. J.A. Happ  3.53
9. Carlos Carrasco 3.23 19. Aaron Nola  3.60
10. Trevor Bauer 3.23 20. Kenta Maeda  3.61

When looking at SIERA you can read it the same way you’d read ERA. The lower the better. Average SIERA sits around 3.8, whereas the average ERA is a bit lower at 3.75.  The SIERA leaderboard is filled with obvious guys that most baseball fans would be able to name if asked, ‘who is the best pitchers in baseball?’ However, ​Nick Pivetta, Jon Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, Aaron Nola, J.A. Happ, ​and​ Kenta Maeda ​would be pretty far down on the average fan’s’ list, if they even made it. I’m going to attempt to show you what skill(s) 90% of this group thrives in, and are a major reason for their success.

You see, if you really want to know how effective a pitcher is you need to understand how he’s getting guys out. Usually the best fantasy pitcher, and pitchers in general, are able to generate swings and misses. This isn’t always the case, but for the most part, control and stuff take the cake. This reigns especially true with young pitching talent. Rarely do we see a guy come in and effectively pitch to contact at age 23. Those pitchers usually take a little longer to develop and master their craft (​Dallas Keuchel​ and ​Kyle Hendricks​ both broke out at age 26). I’m not saying it’s easier to be a strikeout guy, but it’s a guys stuff’ that gets him to the show, their ability to adapt and hone their skill set is what keeps them there. Who’s honing their craft? For the answer to that question we turn to​ Plate Discipline statistics.

I began using Plate Discipline statistics on FanGraphs about 2 years ago. I always liked to refer to it but never used it as a focal point. Now, it’s one of the main criteria I use when evaluating pitching. ​Plate Discipline statistics tell us how often a pitcher induces swings and misses as well as contact in and out of the zone.​ It’s a great tool when prepping for the start of the season, building DFS lineups, as well as deciphering between which guy to scoop up off the waiver wire. Let’s get to it.

(*) – Indicates the number of times a player reappears on a leaderboard. 

Contact Percentage (Contact%)  – the number of pitches on which contact was made / the number of swings induced.

2018 Contact% Leaders​ (min 100 IP)

Player   Contact% Player Contact%
1. Chris Sale * 67.30% 11. Masahiro Tanaka *  71.40%
2. Patrick Corbin * 68% 12. Kenta Maeda *  71.50%
3. Max Scherzer * 68.90% 13. Luis Castillo  71.80%
4. Blake Snell 69.90% 14. Gerrit Cole *  71.90%
5. Lance McCullers Jr. 70.30% 15. Zack Godley  72.50%
6. Jon Gray * 70.50% 16. Justin Verlander *  72.60%
7. Jacob deGrom * 71% 17. Chris Archer  72.70%
8. Charlie Morton * 71% 18. Kyle Gibson  73.50%
9. Trevor Bauer * 71.10% 19. James Paxton *  73.50%
10. Carlos Carrasco * 71.30% 20. Cole Hamels  74.50%

According to FanGraphs, league average Contact% usually sits around 80%, though it seems this season to be somewhere between 78-79%. Lower contact% almost always correlates with higher strike outs. Unless for some reason a pitcher is able to generate swings and misses early in the count but struggle to put guys away by missing bats.  As you can see, 9 of the top 10, and 13 of the top 20 pitchers in SIERA are league leaders in Contact%. The further we delve into these statistics, the more you’ll notice their correlation to a pitcher’s success. The obvious ones, yes, but some that may surprise you. Those who appear on this list but are not leaders in SIERA (​Snell, Castillo, Godly, Archer, Gibson, Hamels​) have a ​BB/9 over 3 ​or a ​HR/9 over 1.4, or both​. That indicates a lesser ability to limit traffic on the basepath as well as runs.

Zone Contact Percentage (Z-Contact%) – The number of pitches on which contact was made inside the zone / number of pitches located in the zone.

2018 Z-Contact% Leaders​ (Min 100 IP)

Player   Z-Contact% Player Z-Contact%
1. Chris Sale ** 77.10% 11. Tyler Skaggs  82%
2. Max Scherzer ** 78.10% 12. Mike Clevinger  83.10%
3. Jacob deGrom ** 79.30% 13. Marco Estrada  83.30%
4. Justin Verlander ** 79.40% 14. Masahiro Tanaka **  83.40%
5. Luis Castillo * 79.50% 15. Patrick Corbin **  83.40%
6. Gerrit Cole ** 80% 16. Zack Greinke *  83.50%
7. Vince Velasquez 81% 17. Mike Foltynewicz  83.60%
8. Blake Snell * 81.30% 18. Kenta Maeda **  83.70%
9. Charlie Morton ** 81.30% 19. Sean Newcomb 83.70%
10. James Paxton ** 81.70% 20. Aaron Nola * 83.80%

70% of the top 10 pitchers in Z-Contact% are league leaders in SIERA. According to FanGraphs, league average Z-Contact% usually sits around 87%, though it may vary from year to year. 81% is excellent. 77.2% is where Pedro Martinez was in 2002.

  • The players with 2 (*) have appeared on each leaderboard thus far, showing their immense ability to limit contact. There’s obviously the guys you’d expect in Sale, Scherzer, deGrom, Verlander, Tanaka, and Paxton, who’ve proven in the past they have the ability to consistently miss bats in and out of the zone. They’ve established, some longer than others, that they are aces. Guys I didn’t expect to see here are the reasons this is such a valuable and eye-opening exercise.
  • Luis Castillo, Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Patrick Corbin,​ and ​Kenta Maeda ​are showing that they can miss bats even when they put the ball in the zone. These are the guys I like to target in trades and/or drafts. The guys people forget about by the time March rolls around or have gotten burned by in the past. We won’t forget.

Outside the Zone Contact Percentage (O-Contact%) – Number of times contact was made on pitches outside the zone / swings outside the zone.

2018 O-Contact% Leaders(min 100 IP)

Player   O-Contact% Player O-Contact%
1. Jon Gray ** 44.50% 11. Charlie Morton ***  54%
2. Carlos Carrasco ** 49.80% 12. Blake Snell **  54.30%
3. Trevor Bauer ** 50.90% 13. German Marquez  54.90%
4. Lance McCullers Jr. *  51.30% 14. Gerrit Cole ***  55.90%
5. Zack Godley * 51.30% 15. Masahiro Tanaka ***  56.40%
6. Kenta Maeda *** 51.60% 16. Nick Pivetta *   56.9% 7.
7. Max Scherzer *** 52.5%    17. Sonny Gray  57.10%
8. Chris Archer *  53.10% 18. Dylan Bundy  57.30%
9. Patrick Corbin *** 53.20% 19. James Paxton ***  57.40%
10. Chris Sale ***  54% 20. Kyle Gibson *  57.40%

According to FanGraphs, the league average O-Contact% is around 66%. Though with the change in approach league-wide the average seems to be between 64-65%. Either way, ​Jon Gray​ sits atop the O-Contact% leaderboard with an outstanding mark of 44.5% to date in 2018. If he continues to generate this kind of swing and miss stuff outside the zone he’d finish with the 2nd best mark of the decade, only ​Corey Kluber’s 44.9%​ in 2017 would be better.  This is our 4th metric (3rd Plate Discipline statistic) so far, and ​Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, ​and​ Kenta Maeda​ have made the top 20 each time.

  • Patrick Corbin’s​ overall Contact% has gone from 76.2% in 2017 down to 68% (-8.2%) this season. If Corbin makes 32 starts this season (same as 2017) he’s on pace to throw around 3,100 pitches. He’s been able to generate swings at a 46.6% rate. He threw around 3,000 pitches in 32 starts last season with an almost identical 46.5% swing%. Let’s say Corbin throws the same amount of pitches this season as he did in 2017. With a 8.2% improvement on Contact%, Corbin is on pace to induce roughly ​115 more swings and misses than he did a year ago. That’s a clear sign of a guy honing his skills and developing into a star.
  • Blake Snell​ had a Contact% of 74.7% in 2017 and is down to 69.9% (​-4.8%​) this season. He’s also improved by 7.3% in O-Contact%, going from 61.6% in 2017 down to 54.3 in 2018.
  • Kyle Gibson​ owns a career Contact% of 78.2% down to 73.5 (-4.7%) this season, as well as a O-Contact% that sits at 57.4%, down from a career mark of 64.6% (​-7.2%​).

Swinging Strike Percentage (SwStr%)  – The amount of times a pitch is swung at and missed / the number of pitches thrown.

2018 SwStr% Leaders(min 100 IP)

Player   SwStr% Player SwStr%
1. Max Scherzer ****  16.40% 11. Gerrit Cole ****  13.70%
2. Chris Sale ****  15.80% 12. Blake Snell ***  13.50%
3. Jacob deGrom ***  15.10% 13. Jon Gray ***  13.50%
4. Patrick Corbin ****  14.90% 14. Lance McCullers Jr. *  13.40%
5. Carlos Carrasco ***  14.10% 15. Chris Archer **  13.30%
6. Masahiro Tanaka **** 14.10% 16. Trevor Bauer ***  12.90%
7. Kenta Maeda ****  13.90% 17. Charlie Morton ****  12.80%
8. Luis Castillo **  13.90% 18. Dylan Bundy *  12.70%
9. James Paxton ****  13.80% 19. Luis Severino *  12.20%
10. Justin Verlander ****  13.80% 20. Cole Hamels *  12.20%

League average swstr% usually sits around 9.5%. 13.5% is excellent and ​16.3% ​is where Randy Johnson​ was in 2002 with the Diamondbacks.

  • Max Scherzer’s​ swinging strike rate is outrageous right now. The last time a SP finished the season with a rate over 16% was, well, Randy Johnson in 2002. ​Clayton Kershaw finished with a 15.9% rate in 2015, the 2nd highest finish since Plate Discipline statistics began being measured in 2002.
  • From 2007-2016 (10 consecutive seasons) ​Cole Hamels ​finished in the top 7 in SwStr%, he sits 20th in 2018.
  • Among starting pitchers with at least 700 IP since 2002 (Plate Discipline began being tracked) ​Masahiro Tanaka​ and ​Chris Sale​ have the highest SwStr% at 12.9% for their career. The two are just ahead of ​Max Scherzer​ and​ Johan Santana​ who own a career mark of 12.8. Randy Johnson’s is also 12.8, however, since tracking began in 2002 I think it’s fair to say The Big Unit’s career mark may be a bit higher.
  • Luis Castillo​ is that rare example of a guy who’s ability to generate swings as well as swings and misses has gone up from a year ago but his K% sits at 21.9%, down from 27.3% his rookie year. He’s even throwing 3.7% more first pitch strikes. The problem seems to be his inability to miss bats with runners on base. With the bases empty, Castillo is striking guys out 24.8% of the time. With runners on base that K% number plummets to 17.3% or 6.4 K/9. The skills are there and he’s a prime example of a guy to look for next year when most your league is staying away on draft day.

Zone Swinging Strike Percentage (Z-SwStr%) – The percentage of time a pitch was swung at and missed in the zone relative to the number of pitches in the zone.

Calculation:​ Z-SwStr% =  ​Z-Swing% – (Z-Swing%/100) * (Z-Contact%/100)
This stat is not on FanGraphs that I know of. I had to calculate it myself.

2018 Z-SwStr% Leaders(min 100 IP)

Player   Z-SwStr% Player Z-SwStr%
1. Max Scherzer *****  15.44% 11. Tyler Skaggs *  11.80%
2. Chris Sale ***** 14.50% 12. Charlie Morton *****  11.70%
3. Jacob deGrom **** 14.40% 13. Masahiro Tanaka *****  11.40%
4. Luis Castillo ***  14.40% 14. Kenta Maeda *****  11.30%
5. Justin Verlander *****  14.30% 15. Mike Clevinger *  11.30%
6. Gerrit Cole *****  13.80% 16. Lance Lynn   11.20%
7. Vince Velasquez *  12.80% 17. Jake Odorizzi   11.20%
8. James Paxton ***** 12.80% 18. Sean Newcomb *  11%
9. Blake Snell **** 12.50% 19. Luis Severino **  11%
10. Marco Estrada * 12.20% 20. Chris Archer ***  11%

I’m not sure what the average is since I can’t find the data anywhere, but if league average for overall SwStr% is 9.5%, I can only assume ​league average sits around 8%. This exact exercise we are doing right now is the reason experts were all over Luis Castillo heading into draft season. Imagine what he’s going to be able to do once he stops throwing and starts pitching.

  • Think about this; the top 5 guys (that includes my boy Luis Castillo) induce swings and misses on more than 14% of the pitches they throw IN the zone! That’s just downright nasty.
  • Scherzer, Sale, Verlander, Cole, Paxton, Morton, Tanaka, and Maeda have now appeared in the top 20 for each metric we’ve explored.

Now, I didn’t go through each stat and choose the ones where these guys were top dogs. I made a layout of the stats I wanted to focus on, did the research, and now I’m sharing it. It just so happens that the same guys keep popping up. Maybe that means something? Yes, it does. Simply, they are the best in baseball at missing bats and limiting balls put in play. If any of the guys who’ve appeared multiple times throughout this exercise aren’t experiencing success, it means they are walking too many guys, giving up too many home runs, not going deep enough into games, or, in Castillo’s case, not inducing swings and misses with two strikes.

Outside the Zone Swinging Strike Percentage (O-SwStr%) – The percentage of time a pitch was swung at and missed outside the zone relative to the number of pitches outside the zone.

Calculation:​  O-SwStr% = ​O-Swing% – (O-Swing%/100) * (O-Contact%/100)

2018 O-SwStr% Leaders ​(min 100 IP)

Player   O-SwStr% Player O-SwStr%
1. Carlos Carrasco *** 18.50% 11. Zack Godley **  15.30%
2. Max Scherzer ******  17.20% 12. Chris Archer ****  15.10%
3. Patrick Corbin *****  17.20% 13. Dylan Bundy **  14.90%
4. Chris Sale ******  16.90% 14. James Paxton ******  14.80%
5. Kenta Maeda ****** 16.10% 15. Blake Snell *****  14.20%
6. Jon Gray ****  16% 16. Corey Kluber *  14.10%
7. Masahiro Tanaka ******  15.90% 17. Cole Hamels **  13.80%
8. Jacob deGrom *****  15.80% 18. Gerrit Cole ******  13.70%
9. Lance McCullers Jr. **  15.70% 19. Charlie Morton ****** 13.70%
10. Trevor Bauer ****  15.50% 20. Justin Verlander ****** 13.50%

This stat shows a pitcher’s ability to not only make hitters chase outside the zone but their ability to miss bats while doing so. Though it’s not officially a measured statistic, it is one of my favorite statistics.

Again, it’s not found on FanGraphs, or anywhere else that I know of. If Z-SwStr% and O-SwStr% do exist, please let me know, though I feel I spent too much time on these last two stats to find out they’re out there. I had to do the math player by player like in the old days.

  • My theory on why Z-SwStr% and O-SwStr% are not an official statistic is due to their relativity to the amount of swings and misses induced on only pitches a pitcher throws in OR out of the zone; whereas SwStr% focuses on the number of induced swings and misses out of 100% of pitches thrown.

The league average here is going to be a bit higher. These are the pitches that pitchers set hitters up for. Offspeed pitches down or away, fastballs up, or up and in. Hitters are going to miss these pitches at a higher rate. We know that each pitcher on this list is able to mix speeds with their fastball, most of whom are able to throw in the mid-high 90’s with accuracy. Each has devastating offspeed, whether it be a curveball, slider, change, what have you. After calculating the O-SwStr% for the 92 pitchers in this field, it seems the average sits around 10%.

  • Patrick Corbin​ throws 65% of his pitches ​outside ​the zone, by far the highest O-Zone% on this list. However, He’s able to induce swings at a 36.7% rate. As of August 10, Corbin has thrown ​2,338 ​pitches this season. ​1,519 (65%)​ pitches have been outside the strike zone. Of those 1,519 pitches, hitters have swung at 557 (36.7%) of the pitches outside the zone. Of those same 1,519 pitches outside the zone, Corbin has induced 261 swing and misses (17.2%)​. This means ​11.18% of Corbin’s TOTAL pitches are swinging strikes OUTSIDE the zone. By far the highest mark among qualified starting pitchers.
  • Let’s go the other way. Of the 2,338 pitches Corbin has thrown, Only 819 (35%) have been IN the strike zone. He’s generated 531 swings on pitches in the zone, 88 of which have been swing and misses (10.8% Z-SwStr%). That means only 3.78% of Corbin’s total pitches have been swinging strikes in the zone, whereas 11.18% have gone for swinging strikes outside the zone. Add the two together and you get Corbin’s 14.96% SwStr%.

Conclusion
Who’s honing their craft? Which pitchers have the best chance at returning premium value? 

We’ve found the answers to these questions throughout this exercise. How? Using Plate Discipline statistics.

Plate Discipline statistics​ give us an overall look at how well a pitcher is limiting contact and generating swings and misses in and out of the zone. I developed Zone Swinging Strike percentage (Z-SwStr%)  and Outside the Zone Swinging Strike percentage (O-SwStr%) to give you a look at where pitchers are generating swinging strikes.

  • You’ve got pitchers like ​Carlos Carrasco, Patrick Corbin,​ and​ Jon Gray​ who’ve been able to generate twice the amount of swinging strikes outside the zone than inside the zone.
  • There’s guys like ​Luis Castillo, Vince Velasquez, Tyler Skaggs, ​and​ Mike Clevinger, whose success is as highly dependent on generating swings and misses in the zone as it is out.
  • Sale, Scherzer, deGrom, Cole, Verlander, Corbin, ​and ​Paxton​ who, after studying these statistics, it’s fair to say are currently the 7 best pitchers in baseball. It’s up for debate, but we’ve built a strong argument here.
  • The best pitchers in baseball limit contact and generate swings and misses, and do so with runners on base as well as the bases empty. ​Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Patrick Corbin, Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom,​ and ​James Paxton​ lead baseball in​ SIERA.​ 5 of the 7 are in the top 20 on every statistic shown. Corbin and deGrom are in the top 15 in 6 of the 7 statistics. For fantasy purposes, Plate Discipline statistics should be one of the main criteria used when evaluating pitchers.
  • Blake Snell ​and ​Trevor Bauer​ are having fantastic breakout seasons. Snell is in the top 20 in each statistic outside of SIERA where he sits at 24th. Bauer appears on 5 of 7 statistical leaderboards and is looking like a top-3 AL Cy Young candidate.
  • Charlie Morton, Masahiro Tanaka,​ and​ Kenta Maeda​ appear in the top 20 in all 7 statistics. Morton has been a horse for the Astros, though he’s being outshined by teammates Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (both made each leaderboard).
  • Kenta Maeda​ and ​Masahiro Tanaka​ have had their fair share of dominant outings this season. Tanaka, however, struggles with the longball, giving up 1.83 HR/9. Only Dylan Bundy appears on any of these leaderboards and has a higher HR/9 at 2.07. Maeda has given up 25 hits and 16 runs in his last 22 ⅓ innings, putting a big damper on an overall very solid season to date.

I hope this gave you some insight into the how useful and telling Plate Discipline statistics can be. It takes time to use them effectively in fantasy but they come in great handy when prepping for your fantasy draft, creating DFS lineups, or deciphering between which players to take a shot.

I will revisit these statistics in the offseason and have a draft prep article based on the findings. I believe we will be able to find great value using Plate Discipline statistics.

Note: ​Jack Flaherty​ has moved into the leaderboards since reaching 100 IP over the weekend. When I revisit this exercise at the end of the season, he ​will be mentioned as a pitcher to target heading into 2019.

Ryan Starcevich

@RyanStar25

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Ryan Starcevich

Written by 

Teacher, Coach, and Fantasy Baseball Addict. Chicago sports fan but not bias when it comes to fantasy sports. Numbers are numbers and that's that.

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