The best pitches in the Yankees rotation

Yanks' slugger proposes bunting to beat the shift
Prospect Profile: Zach Nuding
(Sabathia by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty; Pineda by Leon Halip/Getty)

Inspired by the excellent Red Sox blog Over the Monster, today I’m going to take a look at which Yankees starting pitchers throws the “best” pitch among each pitch category. As there are a variety of factors involved in determining a given pitch’s overall effectiveness, “best” in this instance is going to be subjective. In the interest of simplicity, I’m ranking the hurlers by their respective Whiff rates, as the ability to generate a swing-and-miss is probably the most transparent indication of pure stuff.

All of the data in the tables you’ll see below is from the 2011 season, and should be mostly self-explanatory. I’ll be the first to admit that a one-year sample is less-than-ideal, but I tried to run a three-year search and didn’t take to that request too kindly. The columns headed by “w” and “w/100” are the pitch type’s linear weights (representing the total runs that a pitcher has saved using that pitch) and linear weights per 100 pitches (the amount of runs that pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown), which provide some level of insight into a pitch’s relative level of effectiveness but should not be analyzed in isolation, as they are subject to the whims of both sequencing and BABIP.

Four-Seam Fastball

And right off the bat we have a prime example of the problems one can encounter with pitch type linear weights. If you sorted this table by wFF, Phil Hughes would come out on top. How on earth is that possible, you are likely asking yourself. I’m not entirely sure myself, as I don’t think anyone that saw Hughes pitch last year thought much of his fastball. However, he did get some people out, and presumably the vast majority of those outs came via his four-seamer, because, as you’ll see later on in this post, everything else he threw last season was pretty awful, at least by pitch type linear weights. Lending further credence to this notion is the fact that Hughes yielded a .282 BABIP on ground balls on his heater, compared to a .360 BABIP on ground balls on the curve, .444 on the cutter and .556 on his changeup.

As far as Whiff% goes, it should be quite heartening to see that the Yankees’ two newest rotation acquisitions outperformed everyone else in the rotation by a rather substantial margin. While both will likely see a decrease in their Whiff rates with the move to the AL East, at least they’re starting from a high baseline.


We know Ivan Nova threw a slider more than 3.9% of the time last season and so this table is a bit misleading. However, the pitch did become one of the keys to his improved second-half performance, and so there may be a case to be made for Nova having one of the better sliders on the team. Of course, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia might have something to say about that. In any event, the Yankees’ front four in the rotation all boast pretty big-time sliders; bad news for opposing lineups.

Sinker/Two-Seam Fastball

While Pineda probably threw some two-seamers last season, I’d surmise that some of his four-seamers may have been misclassified, as a 10.6% Whiff% rate on a two-seamer/sinker is pretty damn high when you consider league average is 5.0%-5.4%. Not to mention the fact that the player with the best wFT/100 in MLB last season (Doug Fister), had a 5.4% Whiff% on his two-seamer. Sabathia probably has the best sinker on the team, although Kuroda is in that conversation as well if he can get his GB% back above 45%.


It should surprise no one that Sweaty Freddy had the best changeup on the team given his slow-slower-slowest approach, although Sabathia’s is also pretty great. No one else in the rotation has a particularly effective one, although Burnett’s did generate a slightly above-average Whiff% last year. Surprisingly, despite a rather diverse arsenal, Hiroki Kuroda is the only starter on the team that doesn’t throw a change at all. However,  in his case he presumably partially makes up for it with his splitter, which can function like a hard change.


No surprises here; Burnett’s curve is the only thing keeping him away from the glue factory, but as everyone knows you can’t get very far with one working pitch. Nova’s curve is probably best described as a work-in-progress; while there were times in the second half that Phil Hughes looked like he was employing a harder (and more effective) curve and other times where his curve looked terrible. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about Hughes needing to improve his curveball to become an effective Major League starter.


Still not sure how Hughes’ cutter went from well above-average (11% Whiff% in 2009; 11.5% Whiff% in 2010) to nonexistent last season. No one on the team really employs the cutter with any regularity.

Split-Fingered Fastball

The splitter is a fun pitch that Yankee fans don’t get to see too often, and this coming season we may have two members of the rotation featuring one (albeit in very different forms). Prior to Freddy Garcia, the last Yankee starter I can think of off the top of my head that threw one is Roger Clemens (Ed. Note: Jose Contreras threw a forkball, which is kinda like a splitter but slower). Per linear weights, neither Freddy nor Kuroda fared all that well with their splitters last season, but they still generated plenty of whiffs with the pitch.

So who boasts the best pitch in the Yankee rotation? Probably either Sabathia, with his heater or slider, or Pineda and his heater. I certainly wouldn’t argue against any of those three.

Yanks' slugger proposes bunting to beat the shift
Prospect Profile: Zach Nuding
  • STONE COLD Austin Romine

    Corey Lidle threw a splitter so did Randy Johnson albiet his was a split-change-up.

  • STONE COLD Austin Romine

    As an aside since Bartolo Colon is no longer with the Yankees , I would have loved to see how his 2-seemer ranked among the other Yankees starters last year.

    • jjyank

      That would be interesting. Without the data to back that up, I would have to think it would be the best, just using the eyeball test. His two-seamer was straight nasty last year.

    • Larry Koestler

      I did something of a variation on this post at the end of December, and if you added Colon to the two-seamer/sinker table above he’d have been second in both wFT at 4.8 (which was actually the 7th-best wFT in the AL last season), as well as wFT/100, at 0.61 (9th-best in the AL).

  • Mike Myers

    2 Seam and sinker is the same pitch? I didnt know that. So, Wangs sinker was a 2 seam with a lot of downward movement?

    • Larry Koestler

      Hey Mike,

      I didn’t realize that either until last summer. I would highly recommend reading this post:

      Ask the Experts: Lucas Apostoleris and Josh Weinstock answer our PITCHf/x questions

      • Mike Myers

        cool, thanks.

    • LA Sean

      A two seamer is thrown like a normal fastball but with a two seam grip (index and middle fingers slightly inside of the parallel seams) and holding the ball a little bit deeper in your hand to generate more spin. The sinker is thrown exactly the same except I believe you put more pressure on your middle finger to generate more spin on one side of the ball to create a downward effect.

  • Ellis

    I would love a post on different pitches and what they actually are – tbh I can’t tell the difference between a sinker/4-seamer/2-seamer/splitter. Maybe a breakdown with how they’re held, how they move, and who has the best one in the majors?

    (such an article may exist out there somewhere – anyone have a link?)

    • Jonathan

      I don’t have a link but:
      4 seamer: A 4 seamer is a straight fastball gripped with the two fingers going across the seams twice; once at the top of the fingers and middle of the fingers. This is what Robertson/Joba throw most of the time.

      Sinker/2 seamer: They are the same. It’s gripped with the two fingers almost entirely on the seams that are running vertically vs the 4 seamer where the seams are running horizontally. This pitch is usually a little slower with sinking action and a skilled pitcher can put pressure on the middle finger more than the other to get it to run back away from his glove hand (think Bartolo/Maddux throwing his 2 seamer at a lefties thigh, only to have it run back over the plate). To get it to cut you can either put pressure on the index finger, or hold it like a slider/curve where you have the seams running vertically but you have both fingers on one seam, depending on your preference. The desired effect is late movement downwards to induce ground balls for the sinker, and late movement in or out on the cutter/2seamer. With a great one like Rivera’s or Wang or Webb’s back in the day the pitch “breaks” so late and looks so much like a fastball that the hitter cannot adjust in time. His brain tells him the pitch will be in a different place than it ends up.

      Splitter: A splitter is where the pitcher jams the baseball between his middle and index fingers and throws it like a fastball with the same arm action. The desired effect is a pitch that looks just like a fastball but falls off a cliff when it reaches the batter. Clemens/Schilling/Papelbon all threw/throw splitters. If you watch the Open Thread video Mike posted a couple of days ago with Roger Clemens striking out 15 against the Mariners in the ALCS, the pitches that drop off are splitters.

      Hope that was some help.

  • MattG

    All the analytics, and everything I’ve read about Pineda supports my theory that he will adapt to Yankee Stadium. This article shows me that he has more weapons at his disposal. We will find he is able to adapt and thrive in any environment.

    • Jonathan

      I’m not doubting he’ll succeed…but all the data shows is he throws basically a 2 pitches. What about that says he’s the kind of guy who will adapt and has a lot of weapons? He has two great weapons. Once again, I think he’ll succeed but I don’t see him “adapting” to YSIII by throwing more sinkers suddenly coming up with a competent change up to battle the lefties and the porch. Perhaps I understood what you meant. Could you clarify what you meant by saying you think he’ll adapt?

      • MattG

        This data shows that his change, cutter, and two seam fastball are all quality pitches, and he just hasn’t used them. Combined with other circumstantial evidence, I am confident that he has more in his arsenal than he has shown, simply because he hasn’t needed other offerings yet (pitching in Safeco, primarily). That other circumstantial evidence shows pretty specific platoon splits, in where he has limited HR/FB vs left-handers and on the road.

        When asked about pitching in YS, he also responded accordingly, saying he just needs to keep the ball down and everything will be fine. If you look at this data, the splits, scouting reports, and more, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it really will be just that easy for him.

      • Bo Knows

        Not true, there is more data, supporting that while he might be a majority two classification pitcher (fb, slider) he is more than just a two pitch pitcher.

        *note he does throw his changeup 11% of the time against lefties

        An excellent article on a Rays blog draysbay, found evidence that suggests that while Pineda throws a large percentage of FB’s they are not all the same.

        Pineda may be capable of drastically altering the movement of his FB’s to fit the situation. He is throwing some that are very similar to cutters, some that tail in, some with dramatic rise, and some with more sink. That is an advanced skill, for any pitcher, and if Pineda has that kind of mastery over his Heat, this guy is a true monster in the making.

  • Daniel

    Great post larry. Would love a follow up on the bullpen as well, Would be great to see Mo’s cutter and D-Robs curve and change.

  • Monterowasdinero

    I love CC’s changeup. So effective against righties in hitter’s counts. A big weapon for the big guy.

    I know this is about rotation pitches but Cory Wade will throw a changeup with the bases loaded and a 3-1 count on a batter. That is a great weapon to have.

    • MattG

      Yes, and doubly so because it makes the fastball on 3-2 that much harder to hit.

  • mark

    I would love to see how Mariano’s cutter would rank. And, D-Rob’s pitches, as well.

  • mikeNicoletti

    Is there any chance of getting the numbers on Hughes’ curveball after he reworked it during mid-season? When he came back it was noticeably less loopy and thrown harder.

    • Larry Koestler

      Hi Mike,

      Hughes’ curve in April 2011:

      Selection 12.6% Vel. 72.5mph pfx_x 6.61 pfx_z -6.21 Whiff% 11.5%


      Selection 22.7% Vel. 74.8mph pfx_x 6.92 pfx_z -6.94 Whiff% 9.2%

      Post-DL his curve was definitely thrown harder, and had a bit more vertical bite.

  • Andrew J.

    Would like to see a post like this for the relievers last year.

  • RetroRob

    “No one on the team really employs the cutter with any regularity…”

    That’s true, well outside of the man (sorry, diety) who throws the greatest cutter ever.

    Couldn’t resist. : -)