My girlfriend isn’t much of a baseball fan. She’ll watch a game with me or tolerate discussion, but it isn’t something to which she would choose to devote thought absent my influence. This means that when I talk about baseball to or around her, she posits questions that to me, someone completely immersed in baseball fandom, have answers that just exist, but to her truly merit explanation. One of these centers around how I decide which game to watch nightly on MLB TV. I always simply say that I watch the game each night with “the most fun pitching matchup.” To me, and likely to most of my readers, that statement makes sense. But to my girlfriend, it logically elicits the question of what makes a pitcher fun. It’s time for me to tackle that question.
My definition of fun likely doesn’t mesh with that of the casual baseball fan. To me, the ideal fun game is a 1-0 final score with a combined 43 strikeouts with 11 walks and one hit. That doesn’t sound like what the average viewer wants to see. That meant the first step for me had to be figuring out what most people would consider fun in terms of pitching. My thoughts drifted to two individual pitches from the 2020 season that at least seemed to be the most appreciated by not just baseball fans but the internet as a whole as being paragons of fun pitching. The first of these was on the regular season’s final day when Jacob deGrom threw a pitch 102.2 mph (even though it was taken for a ball by the National League’s best hitter). In stark contrast, the other example of a viral pitch was Zack Greinke‘s 53.5 mph eephus that inexplicably makes people smile. Two very different pitches, yet they have a similarity: both are outliers.
So there’s the first half of the equation. Having pitches that are away from the norm is fun. This can be in the way of velocity, movement, or spin. Just being a deviation from the norm in this regard is a large portion of how fun a pitcher is. Yet, no matter how nasty a pitcher is, that’s never going to be the whole picture. Even Sean Steffy isn’t fun if his line every game is exactly league average. Results matter too. This leads to a more important question.
Does Fun Mean Good?
The short answer is no. The least fun thing a pitcher can be is average. Good is fun, of course, but bad can be fun too. A lot of strikeouts are fun, but the pitcher who whiffs no one is also fun. Ditto runs allowed and expected runs allowed. Walks are a bit different; it’s more fun to watch someone who doesn’t walk batters, but a pitcher who walks 6 per nine innings is also pretty good. In that case the increase gets more fun at half the pace than the decrease.
So What Stats are Used?
- xRA/9 (mix of ERA, FIP, xFIP, and xERA)
- Vertical Release
- Pitch Velocity
- Pitch Spin Rate
- Pitch Vertical Movement
- Pitch Horizontal Movement
- Pitch Usage%
- Number of Pitch Types
How Did I Rank Them?
Well, I created a few stats. The Results section uses the absolute values of the z-scores of each of the stats. These are averaged and multiplied by IP/GS to get Results Sum. The same process is used for the Pitches section with the tweak that each pitch type is weighted by how often the pitcher throws it. The averages are multiplied by Pitches/GS, then divided by (Pitches/GS)/(IP/GS) to get Pitches Sum. The two sums were added to get Fun Sum, then converted to the scale of a + stat, where 100 is average and higher is better. So I will be ranking on Fun+.
I’m not going to provide any of the actual results right now, as I’ll have a table at the end of this article of the full rankings (min. 40 IP). This section is for generalizations. The pitchers who do very well by this system seem to fit into at least one of two groups. They’re either elite K-BB% guys, or they’re guys with two or more great pitches. The system seems to select good pitchers as more fun disproportionately, likely due to the fact that they usually pitch deeper into games. The biggest thing, however, is that most of the pitchers that fans would expect to rank highly do rank highly. Which means:
How Did I Do?
This was mostly an experiment in seeing if I could statistically measure fun. I think it went pretty well. Not everyone I identified as fun by the formula is someone I would consider fun, but the inverse worked. The one thing I wish I could incorporate is a personality aspect. Someone like Greinke gets fun points from how he behaves. I can’t put that in a spreadsheet.
Before giving the final table, which will just show the overall Fun+ rankings, I wanted to list the most fun pitcher for each pitch type (min. 40 thrown and 40 IP). Remember these are weighted based on how often the pitch is used.
Four-Seam Fastball: Tyler Glasnow
Number one on my personal fun rankings, Glasnow throws his fastball a ton, 60.6% of the time, and hard, 96.9 mph. Just look at this thing. It’s ridiculous. He throws so high and hard hard, you have to wonder how anyone ever hits that.
Sinker: Ryan Weber
Weber isn’t a very good pitcher. But he throws really soft with a ton of vertical movement. And his sinker is used more than half the time. See what I mean for yourself.
Changeup: Sean Manaea
The big thing about Manaea’s change is its spin, or rather its lack of spin. 1104 rpm is well below average, giving it something of a different appearance in its movement. You almost don’t pick up on the fact that it’s moving.
Curveball: Adam Wainwright
Wainwright’s curve is high spin with massive drop. He throws it a good deal (38.3%). It’s always been a pretty pitch. It’s still a pretty pitch.
Cutter: Corbin Burnes
High velocity and spin paired with low horizontal break makes this a unique pitch. High use (31.5%) clinches it. This is something to behold.
deGrom’s slider is incredibly fast. He averages 92.5 mph. That was enough to easily top the field here. And essentially every batter he faced is topped too.
Splitter: Aníbal Sánchez
Not many guys throw splitters. The low velocity wins this title for Sánchez.
Thank you for reading everyone. Enjoy the final results. Remember, they’re calculated, these aren’t my opinions. Please don’t tweet your disagreements with it at me.