Baseball America asked big league managers to rate the best tools in each league in a variety of categories. One of those is "best fastball." But what does that even mean? Does it mean most effective fastball? Or is it more like an Olympic event, where it's simply a feat of strength, fastest pitch wins? (Which would be Aroldis Chapman for the gold.)
Here's how the big league managers rated the best fastballs:
You can see the complications here: We're comparing relievers to starters and velocity versus effectiveness. Ventura certainly throws hard, but he also has a 5.29 ERA; I don't see how he can be said to have one of the three best fastballs in the league, considering he's having trouble actually getting batters out with it.
Let's examine this a little deeper. If we're talking feats of strength, here are the highest average fastball velocities this season, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information:
Starting pitchers (minimum five starts)
1. Noah Syndergaard, Mets: 96.8 mph
2. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: 96.3 mph
3. Yordano Ventura, Royals: 95.9 mph
4. Matt Harvey, Mets: 95.9 mph
5. Kevin Gausman, Orioles: 95.7 mph
6. Gerrit Cole, Pirates: 95.6 mph
7. Joe Kelly, Red Sox: 95.5 mph
8. Jose Fernandez, Marlins: 95.5 mph
9. Garrett Richards, Angels: 95.3 mph
10. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: 95.2 mph
10. Chris Archer, Rays: 95.2 mph
10. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals: 95.2 mph
Relief pitchers (minimum 20 appearances)
1. Aroldis Chapman, Reds: 99.6 mph
2. Kelvin Herrera, Royals: 98.1 mph
3. Arquimedes Caminero, Pirates: 98.0 mph
4. Carter Capps, Marlins: 98.0 mph
5. Bruce Rondon, Tigers: 97.7 mph
6. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: 97.4 mph
7. Craig Kimbrel, Padres: 97.3 mph
8. Jeurys Familia, Mets: 97.1 mph
9. Jumbo Diaz, Reds: 97.0 mph
10. Dellin Betances, Yankees: 96.7 mph
Note that McGee, second in the AL poll, doesn't make the top 10. His fastball averages 94.6 mph. So why did the managers rate him so high? Well, McGee's fastball is not only effective -- batters are hitting just .181 against it -- but he throws it almost exclusively, 93 percent of the time. That's a pretty good pitch: Batters know it's coming and still have trouble hitting it. Even Chapman throws his fastball only 78 percent of the time.
Let's look at which fastballs have been hardest to do damage against. Note that both four-seamers and two-seamers are included here. I'm going to look at all pitchers who have thrown at least 500 fastballs this season, which gives us a list of mostly starting pitchers, along with a few relievers. Using wOBA (weighted on-base average), here are the most effective fastballs:
1. Johnny Cueto, Reds-Royals: .235
2. Steven Geltz, Rays: .240
3. Jacob deGrom, Mets: .243
4. Scott Kazmir, A's-Astros: .247
5. Kelvin Herrera, Royals: .248
6. Will Harris, Astros: .250
7. J.J. Hoover, Reds: .251
8. Hector Santiago, Angels: .258
9. Odrisamer Despaigne, Padres: .261
10. Justin Wilson, Yankees: .263
Note that Chapman doesn't make the top 10: He's 13th, behind several other relievers. Opponents are actually hitting .203 against his fastball compared with .143 against his slider, and he's walked 22 batters with his fastball, which raises his wOBA. Of course, his slider is so effective in part because the fastball is so good. Like I said, it's complicated.
Anyway, I wanted more starters, so here are the top 10 in wOBA allowed against their fastballs among starting pitchers: Cueto, deGrom, Kazmir, Santiago, Despaigne, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, David Price, Jesse Hahn and Dallas Keuchel. An interesting mix of some guys who throw hard and some guys who don't. Greinke and Keuchel have proven fastball command is more important than fastball velocity. Kazmir's fastball averages 91.3 mph, but batters are hitting just .188 against it with two home runs. But his fastball works in part because his changeup is so good, or said another way, because the two pitches play off each other so well. Still, when he throws his fastball, he gets batters out.
We could look at the best strikeout rates on fastballs, a category Chapman dominates: His K rate is 45.1 percent, meaning 45 percent of his plate appearances that end with a fastball end with a strikeout. The No. 2 guy is Zach McAllister of the Cleveland Indians at 32 percent. Scherzer and Chris Sale rank third and fourth, respectively -- impressive since most of the top 10 guys are relievers; deGrom, Santiago, Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Collin McHugh, Kazmir and Price are starters who rank in the top 20. Harvey and Clayton Kershaw rank 21st and 22nd, respectively, and Cueto is 25th.
Here's another way to rate best fastball: When in a hitter's count, how effective is it? The major league average wOBA in these situations is .451; when ahead in the count, major league hitters feast off fastballs. As an example, look at the Mets' young guns and their big fastballs:
deGrom: .437 wOBA allowed
Harvey: .437 wOBA allowed
Syndergaard: .577 wOBA allowed
Syndergaard has the best fastball velocity among starting pitchers, but when he has to come in with a fastball, he gets hammered; he ranks 153rd of the 156 pitchers who showed up in my search (at least 150 fastballs thrown in hitter's counts). The best starters in this category are Despaigne, Scherzer, Kershaw, Sonny Gray, Madison Bumgarner, John Lackey, Hahn and Cueto.
So how to define best fastball? In the "Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers," Bill James wrote there are four necessary characteristics: 1. It is thrown very hard; 2. It moves enough, or is thrown with enough deception, that it is difficult to hit; 3. The pitcher has some control over it; 4. The pitcher is able to throw it consistently over time. James said the first and fourth categories are the most important, since that's what we mean when we say "great fastball." It's why managers voted Ventura's fastball the third best in the AL, even though batters are hitting .319 and slugging .522 against.
I prefer results more so than pure velocity, but I get the argument. If Kazmir could throw only his fastball, he probably wouldn't fare as well as Chapman.
Here's my list of 10 best fastballs right now:
1. Aroldis Chapman. My only reliever on the list. My take is a lot of starters could throw 95-plus on a regular basis if moved to the bullpen, but whose fastball are you going to remember in 30 years?
2. Max Scherzer. Velocity plus movement plus results.
3. Johnny Cueto. Only average velocity (92.3 mph) but great command and deception, as batters are hitting just .180 against it.
4. Jacob deGrom. Averages 94.8, touches 98, and opponents are hitting just .194 against it.
5. Matt Harvey. Top-10 velocity and results; when he struggles, it's with the off-speed stuff, not the heat.
6. David Price. He's lost a tick from his 95-plus days but still averages 93.9 and spots it better than ever.
7. Chris Archer. One reason his slider is dominant is because of the premium velocity on his fastball.
8. Lance Lynn. He throws it 84 percent of the time -- only Bartolo Colon is on par -- and is 10th in wOBA allowed. His fastball averages only 91.5 mph, but he makes a living with it.
9. Garrett Richards. He gets late sinking action with big velocity, making it difficult for hitters to loft. Over the past two seasons, opponents are hitting .233 against it with just nine home runs in 679 at-bats.
10. Clayton Kershaw. Plus velocity (93.6) plus great deception with his delivery.
Honorable mention: Chris Sale, Zach Britton, Zack Greinke, Gerrit Cole, Kelvin Herrera.
That's my list. Who's on yours?