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Boston’s Best Tools: Best Breaking Ball

We looked before at the best fastball on the team and found many able candidates. As we look at best breaking ball, the choices are even more daunting since we have all the same candidates and then a wide range of pitches from each of them. For this piece, I am including change-ups though they are not strictly a breaking ball (they typically exhibit similar movement to fastballs, rather than true "break") because they are used in similar proportion and to similar effect. Additionally, I don’t think I will be doing a change-up only segment in this series and I wouldn’t want to miss the chance to look at some of the great changes our pitchers throw. Conversely, I am not considering cutters because they have a high level of classification error and they are also, to some extent, not true breaking balls, but a fastball variation.

To avoid making this segment into a small tome of analysis, I am going to limit the pitches we consider by taking only the most successful pitches by Fangraph’s Pitch Values. The table below shows the best six highlighted.








Daniel Bard





Daisuke Matsuzaka







Clay Buchholz







Jon Lester







Two of the pitches come from the early favorite for the best stuff segment, Jon Lester. Lester already had the best fastball of any starter by my analysis, but his curve and his change up are among the best pitches of any type on the 2011 Red Sox roster. His curveball has had far and away the highest overall value these past three seasons at 18 runs above average. Strangely, he doesn’t have the highest value per 100 pitches with his hook. That honor goes to Daniel Bard’s slider, worth 2.91 runs above average/100 pitches. As a reliever Bard has a significant advantage over Lester on a per pitch basis. Third by overall pitch value, we have Daisuke Matsuzaka’s slider, though it gets a quick disqualification since it hasn’t had a positive value since 2008, when it was pretty awesome. Actually, that pretty much applies to Matsuzaka in general. Fourth is a tie between that Lester change piece and Clay Buchholz’s slider. That probably surprised me the most because I would think Buchholz would get more value out his change, which is fifth on our list and still quite an awesome pitch. It hasn’t matched his slider though and I would like to see why. In fact, per 100 pitches Buchholz’s slider has been the second most effective pitch at 1.35 runs above average/100.

Pitch values are useful for helping us narrow our focus, but I don’t think they are accurate enough to decide this issue. When looking at fastballs, velocity plays a big role and that is also true of breaking balls. However, it is harder to say what a good velocity for a breaking pitch is because the difference in speed is such an important factor. After all a change up is just a slow fastball by movement. Two of the best pitches per 100 show us just how confusing the velocity issue is. Daniel Bard throws his slider at 84.1 mph on average, an insane 13.6 miles slower than his average fastball. Buchholz, however, has a paltry 5.5 mph difference between his average heater and his average slider. Yet, they both get great results. Bard actually has more of a differential on his slider than his change, which helps explain why he uses the slider so much more and gets more value out of it as well. As you would expect the better changes ups get more differential, but once again Lester’s has the lesser differential and yet the higher value (7.8 mph difference compared to Buchholz with a 13.2 mph difference). Our best pitch by value, Lester’s curve has the decency to be unambiguous. His curve get a phenomenal 15.5 mph differential. I almost feel bad for those opposing hitters. Almost.

So now we need to consider movement. Once again, we will look at the movement compared to the average movement for similar pitches. This time, though, we need to consider usage as well. Breaking balls are meant to trick hitters and they depend on appearing to be one thing than changing. If a pitcher throws his breaking ball to the wrong location or at the wrong time it can be a good pitch to hit, but used wisely it is a potent weapon.

First up, let’s look at that devastating Lester curve ball. Jon does appear to be little bit higher on his release with his curve, but his release point grouping is amazingly tight. One look at his Pitch/FX season data and you can see he is a master of repeating his delivery. It is a little surprising that he has basically average movement horizontal (3.9" of movement away from lefties) and slightly less than average vertically break (-4.9 inches of drop). We might expect to see some kind of crazy motion sideways or down, but I think the secret to why this seemingly run of the mill curve (by movement, at least) is so effective lies in the next pitch we are looking at: Lester’s change.

Lester throws an unusual change up that breaks in toward the left handed hitter significantly (9.2", 1.4" inches better than average) and drops less than average (-4.9", 1.3" less than average) The two pitches are close to mirror images, giving him a curve he can use away against lefties and a great change to use away against righties. Both pitches tail away from the opposing hitter. There is just one thing though: he throws the curve to both righties and lefties! So while lefties have to deal with an off-speed pitch diving away from them, righties have to handle a pitch that dives away from them and that curve with the 15.5 mph difference from the fastball. And they call that a platoon advantage? While Pitch/FX shows some change-ups to lefties, it is used sparingly if at all (it could well be a classification issue, a major danger with Lester and his and "two seamer" which has near identical movement to his change).

Buchholz’s slider is a bit easier to understand. It has less than average horizontal break (1.3", 1.2" less than average) and much more than average rise (5.9", 4.6" more than average) combined with its above average velocity, it is very different than the average slider, it breaks less, comes in faster and hardly drops at all. Since it comes in fast, he can throw it to the left side of the plate to both RH and LH hitters, making righties reach away and jamming lefties inside. That usage is similar to Mariano’s cutter, and that makes since. Clay’s slider is a sort of anti-cutter, sliding rather than diving, while also acting like a fastball. Unlike Lester, Buchholz appears to use his second best breaker against batters of both hands, typically keeping his change away. As most fans already know, it has great drop, compared to both his fastball and the average change. It is 3.1" below the average change and 5.4" below a Buchholz fastball. In a sense, it is almost a splitter. It breaks in to righties less than average by 3.4" Against righties he varies its location more, relying on that fantastic speed differential and killer drop.

Last, we have Bard’s slider. We have already seen the speed differential from his fastball is awesome. On top of that he adds some of the best sideways movement you will find. His sliders break an amazing 8" away from righties, a full 5.5" inches better than average. They also drop a bit more than average (-.5"/1.3")Thanks to that fantastic sliding action Bard throws this pitch 22.8% of the time, more frequently than any of the other breakers we looked at. He throws it primarily one side of the plate, the left, or inside to lefties and away from righties, but he does vary the location more against righties. As the results above indicate, Bard uses his slider to great effect, keeping hitters from sitting back on his dominating fastball.

So who has the best breaker? I am going to go against the pitch values to some degree and pick Buchholz’s change. Change ups typically rely so much on the speed difference, but Buchholz’s has that AND major drop off. He throws it with almost as much frequency as Bard’s slider and to both LH and RH batters. It is also the easiest pitch for me to close my eyes and visualize. I can see it now and it is definately not getting put in play. There are no bad choices here, though. Nearly every pitcher on the staff has a great secondary pitch or two.

What do you think?