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NASTY: A look at the best pitches from the Astros’ big three

Zack Greinke’s curveball, Justin Verlander’s slider, and Lance McCullers’ changeup are among the best of the Major Leagues.

MLB: Houston Astros-Workouts Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, the 2020 season is about to kick off and what has me very excited about is the Astros rotation. Justin Verlander is going to be the ace once again, Zack Greinke is going to have his first complete year as an Astro, and Lance McCullers Jr. is back from Tommy John surgery.

Regarding the Verlander-Greinke duo, both had a great regular season in 2019. JV won his second AL Cy Young and the latter dominated in 62 23 regular-season frames with the team.

Given the Astros will have what looks like one of the best, most solid trios in the league, I want to show you what they can do with their nastiest pitch. So let’s go for it...

Justin Verlander’s slider

JV’s slider has to be one of the best in the league in 2019. Among qualified pitchers, he posted the 10th highest usage percentage last year (28.4%) and—guess what?— he dazzled with that offering.

Opponent slugging percentage against that delivery went down for the third year in a row, just as his opponent batting average. The former went from .418 in 2017 to .330 in 2018 to an even better .274 in 2019, while the latter was .211 in 2017 then got better .186 the year after and kept improving in 2019 (.145).

Verlander knows what his slider can do and he’s taking advantage of that. Take a look at his slider percentage usage over the years...

  • 2008: 0.12%
  • 2009: 2.87%
  • 2010: 7.03%
  • 2011: 8.68%
  • 2012: 11.69%
  • 2013: 12.98%
  • 2014: 15.07%
  • 2015: 16.77%
  • 2016: 17.06%
  • 2017: 22.07%
  • 2018: 22.06%
  • 2019: 28.76%

Wonderful, right? The whiff percentage caused by his slider was 24.55% in 2019, the best of his career. And it’s climbed steadily since 2016. In part, that’s thanks to where Justin locates it. Here’s a glimpse at the major spots of Verlander’s slider throughout his career (via Brooks Baseball):

Zack Greinke’s curve

Zack Greinke is 36 years old, but his curve is still in his prime. In 2019, that delivery was good for a .139 average and a .241 slugging percentage. Those are elite numbers. In fact, out of 36 pitchers who threw at least 400 curveballs last year, the veteran righty was sixth in opponent slugging percentage, just behind Charlie Morton (.228) and Stephen Strasburg (.239), but ahead of Verlander (.259) and Clayton Kershaw (.364).

According to FanGraphs’ Pitch Value stat, Greinke’s curve was the fifth most valuable among qualified pitchers, with 16.1 curveball runs above average. That’s only behind Charlie Morton’s 25.3, Strasburg’s 23.6, Marcus Stroman’s 18.3, and Sonny Gray’s 16.9.

If I go to Baseball Prospectus’ pitch f/x leaderboards, I see that among pitchers with at least 200 curveballs thrown, Greinke’s is the one that generated swings at the highest rate: 54.01% (32.31% Whiff/Swing).

Also, it registered a .182 BABIP, the third-best mark in the MLB. But what does that mean? Well, with an 83.4 MPH exit velocity and a 15º launch angle on that pitch, you can assume it generates a lot of inoffensive flyballs. And that, my friend, is the case...

Lance McCullers’ changeup

Astros fans should be excited for having McCullers Jr. back. Recently, I wrote an article on encouraging facts about him, but let’s go deeper on his changeup.

Even though it wasn’t his best pitch before, it developed as a massive weapon for him. Among righties who threw at least 200 changeups in 2018, McCullers Jr. had the fifth-best mark in Whiff/Swing percentage: 42.51%. With less than 5% above, Strasburg led all mentioned pitchers (47.12%).

It was also good for a .205 BABIP, a .138 average, a .185 slugging percentage, and—pay attention—a league-leading .046 ISO! That means his rivals didn’t get to hit extra-base hits: he allowed only four doubles in 72 at-bats, with no triples and no home runs.

Lance McCullers’ changeup, Baseball Savant.