When the Seattle Mariners traded Brandon Morrow to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Brandon League and a prospect, a lot of people were mystified, since Morrow seemed to have the ability to start. There were a few explanations from the Mariners' end, but one in particular came from executive Tony Blengino. I'll pull from Jerry Brewer:
Tony Blengino, the special assistant to the general manager, showed Jack Z statistical analysis that revealed League's split-finger fastball was the best swing-and-miss pitch in baseball.
During the 2009 season, Brandon League's splitter missed more bats than any other individual pitch. For every three swings batters attempted against it, two of them missed. It sounds unfathomable but it's true, and that fact made Mariners fans feel better about the exchange.
Ever since the League revelation, I've personally been greatly interested in swing-and-miss rates. I'm biased in favor of pitchers, and there's no better result than a whiff. Like you, I've been aware of certain dominant pitches, like Ryan Madson's changeup and Tim Lincecum's changeup and Cole Hamels' changeup. But Thursday, STATS ... STATS LLC? ... released something more comprehensive. If you click on that link, what you'll see at the top are the best individual swing-and-miss pitches over the last three seasons.
Kenley Jansen's had baseball's most unhittable heater. Two whiffs for every five swings. Terrific. Nick Masset's had baseball's most unhittable curve, which, okay, that's not who I would have guessed. Brandon League's splitter is in there above all other splitters, and Javier Lopez's cutter leads all other cutters, and Ryan Madson's changeup leads all other changeups.
But none of those have been baseball's most unhittable pitch overall. With a swing-and-miss rate of 68.8 percent - or a contact rate of 31.2 percent - it's Jonny Venters' slider that wins the medal. Greg Holland and Sergio Santos show up with impossibly unhittable sliders as well, but theirs haven't matched Venters'. For every ten swings batters have attempted against Venters' slider, seven - seven! - have missed.
It's funny, because last June, Grant Brisbee penned a love letter to Jonny Venters' sinker. It's a blazing sinker, with more tail than a Brontosaurus. So he throws that too. But, the slider. I guess you could call it a complementary piece, but statistically it kind of steals the show.
For Venters, it's a versatile weapon. He can use it against lefties.
He can use it against righties.
He can use it against good hitters.
He can use it against bad hitters.
And he can use it against tall hitters and short hitters, too, but you can just go ahead and take my word for it. Jonny Venters isn't afraid of throwing his slider to anybody, in any count, and for good reason: it's wicked. Maybe it just looks like another good slider to you, but the numbers say it's a hell of a lot more than that.
As I was researching this piece, I came across a couple notable sequences from Venters' 2011 season. On April 8, he fell behind Raul Ibanez 1-and-0. He came back with three consecutive sliders, all of which Ibanez missed. On April 19, he gave Marcus Thames three consecutive sliders, all of which Thames missed. Additionally, on September 9, David Freese swung through three Venters sliders in the span of four pitches. It's dangerous.
Another thing I learned: in 2010, as a rookie reliever for the Atlanta Braves, Venters had 93 strikeouts in 83 innings, with a 1.95 ERA. In 2009, as a starter between double-A and triple-A, Venters had 98 strikeouts in 157 innings, with a 4.42 ERA. From 2010's spring training:
If Proctor begins the season on the disabled list, the Braves will have two available spots in their bullpen when they make their final roster decisions. One of those spots could be filled by the left-handed Venters, who didn't seem to hurt his cause while allowing the Mets one earned run in his one-inning appearance.
Good idea to keep Venters. Good idea to put him in the bullpen. Conversion's worked.
Jonny Venters does have an incredible sinker. Jonny Venters does maintain a turf-destroying ground-ball rate. But Jonny Venters' slider ... it doesn't get better than Jonny Venters' slider. It's been the most unhittable pitch in baseball since Venters first arrived, and there's no good reason to think it'll bequeath its crown in 2012.