There are a lot of things we just don’t know one month into the MLB season. Among them: Whether hyped rookies are good, whether the Mets and Angels actually have it figured out this time, whether scoring is going to hit an all-time low. We don’t know who is actually good or how the season is going to go, generally. So let’s not pretend we do.
What we can already identify are breathtaking, jaw-dropping, involuntary-gasp-inducing pitches. Starting pitchers have thrown their best offerings more than 100 times now, plenty of time to assess the nastiest and most important thus far in 2022.
The Toronto Blue Jays lured Gausman away from San Francisco this offseason to replace AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and so far that is looking brilliant. If you’ve been following Gausman’s superb start, the thing you probably know is that he has yet to walk anyone or allow a home run through five starts and 31 2/3 innings. Pretty good plan! Should stick with that!
One of the biggest reasons he’s been able to pull that off is a diabolical splitter. The pitch has been a centerpiece of his repertoire for a long time — especially since 2019 — but is on another level this year.
He basically throws the pitch to the same corner of the plate over and over again, sometimes close to the zone, sometimes in the dirt. And hitters have no answer for it. They are chasing almost 70% of the splitters thrown outside the zone, and whiffing on 52% of swings against it in general.
Some things just don’t need to be a surprise. The pitch that the Milwaukee Brewers ace leaned into in his Cy Young-winning 2021 campaign is back and better than ever. Bearing in at 95 mph, it goes pretty fast for a regular fastball, much less one that swerves at the last moment.
It just became his primary pitch for the first time last season. Now he’s throwing it even more — 57% of the time — and the league is batting a whopping .136 against it.
3. Dylan Cease’s four-seam fastball
4. Carlos Rodon’s four-seam fastball
Following in Burnes footsteps? It’s possible these former Chicago White Sox teammates could ride unhittable fastballs into Cy Young contention in 2022. Bendy, knee-buckling secondary pitches get all the love, but if your fastball can function as a weapon on its own, you have a serious leg up.
Cease and Rodon, now a member of the San Francisco Giants, are riding high on fastballs right now. And the fastballs are crushing hitters’ spirits by … riding high. Both pitchers consistently pump gas up toward the top of the zone and challenge batters to catch up. With both throwing upper-90s heat, it usually doesn’t work out well for hitters.
It’s worth noting that even with similar fastball profiles, their approaches are not exactly the same. Cease uses his fastball only slightly more than his slider, preferring a more even mix to throw off timing and keep batters on their back foot. Rodon deploys what you might call a more traditional mix, throwing the four-seamer about 64% of the time and then sprinkling in his slider at the most devastating moment.
5. Joe Ryan’s four-seam fastball
Then there’s Joe Ryan. The upstart Minnesota Twins starter, in his first full season in the majors, is a huge reason the AL Central race has flipped since opening day. Ryan’s 1.63 ERA through five starts is also heavily reliant on a fastball … but his goes about 92 mph.
Why does it work? Ryan appears to have perfected an exceptional blend of deception and command. As the Athletic’s Eno Sarris has described in detail, Ryan’s arm comes forward in such a way that his elbow seems to block hitters’ view of the ball until the last second, when it explodes toward them. From that lower arm angle, Ryan throws the pitch almost exclusively up in the zone, so that it appears to rise as it approaches the plate.
It leads to a lot of flummoxed swings. And when they do make contact, hitters tend to pop it up — the most harmless form of contact.
6. Kyle Wright’s curveball
Atlanta Braves starter Kyle Wright has emerged as perhaps 2022’s most significant rotation revelation. The fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft seemed stalled out, stuck in the minors and battered each time he reached the majors, perhaps destined for a bullpen role.
But this season, he has looked like a totally different pitcher. Firing this curveball more than any other pitch — about a third of the time — Wright has rolled out a dominant five-start reintroduction campaign. The curveball, he told the Athletic, was his best pitch during his wildly successful college career at Vanderbilt.
Returning to it, it seems, has put his career back on a star-level track.
7. Alek Manoah’s sweeper
The sweeper is all the rage in MLB this season, and few hurlers throw it better or more often than Toronto’s barrel-chested future ace. Trust me when I say his sweeper is statistically strong, but that doesn’t capture the appeal.
All you need to understand why this pitch is so deadly is at least one functioning eyeball.
8. Patrick Sandoval’s changeup
9. Jesus Luzardo’s curveball
If you’re looking to be a nasty pitch hipster, to get ahead of the game and stan a potential ace who hasn’t totally made his name yet, Sandoval and Luzardo are two good options. Sandoval is a bit overshadowed by the other star power on the Los Angeles Angels, but his changeup has literally not allowed a hit yet. He’s thrown it 88 times, and 26 plate appearances have ended on it. No hits.
It has also racked up the highest whiff rate of any major-league pitch thrown that much this year, at 57.8%.
Luzardo, meanwhile, appears revitalized after a trade to the pitching-savvy Miami Marlins. An exciting pitcher who throws hard, works quickly and mixes up his delivery, he also makes people swing like this.
He’s using his curveball nearly as often as anyone in the game, and for good reason.
10. Brad Keller’s slider
Here’s one that wouldn’t easily come to mind as the league’s nastiest pitch, but it sure pops up on every leaderboard so far. The Kansas City Royals starter has posted a ridiculous 1.74 ERA thus far with an even more ridiculous, straight out of the early 20th century strikeout rate of 5.52 batters per nine innings. None of that is likely to continue apace, but Keller might really be on to something with a slider that figures prominently in his arsenal.
This is mostly what hitters do with it. They have not been able to square it up this season, hitting .071 and slugging … .071 against it. If you’re counting, that is three singles and nothing else in 149 tries and 45 plate appearances that have ended on it.