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Who Had The Best Pitch on the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates Pitching Staff?

Where my pitches at?

MLB: New York Mets at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2018 season fades further into the rear-view, we can now look back and determine what went wrong and what went right with this year’s version of the Pittsburgh Pirates. First up: the best singular pitch of 2018.

As the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates fade into Bolivan, we are left to pick apart the season that was and try to make sense of it.

Part of that is picking out some fantastic individual performances and feats. Today, we will focus on the best pitch among all Pittsburgh Pirates hurlers with at least 20 innings pitched for the big league club.

Our criteria for such a judgement will be fast and loose. Rather than set a rigid set of criteria and rote-fully spit out a justification for calling a pitch the “best”, we will take a “Know it when we see it” approach, though we will use Fangraphs’ pitch values across the board. These values are intrinsically imperfect, but they serve as a good starting point. Here is some handy reading on how those are calculated.

Like any good pageant, we have to give props to the runners up before a winner can be crowned.

Second Runner Up: Richard Rodriguez’s Four-Seamer

Fangraphs wFB value: +18.3 | 14.9 percent Whiff rate; 19.8 percent called strikes; .258 xwOBA | -12.1 inches average horizontal break |

I’ve written before in this space about how Richard Rodriguez is the epitome of the two-pitch reliever. He carries a four-seamer and a slider in his tool belt. No more. No Less. No other pitch needed.

Rodriguez’s four-seam is a bit livelier than many other relievers, and that horizontal break — five inches higher than the MLB average — pushes his fastball to the upper tier of Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitchers’ ...pitches.

Tongue twisters aside, that life sets up his other pitch, the slider, which is no slouch. In fact, Rodriguez’s slider moves so well off of his fastball that only 17 were put in play for a paltry 86.7 mph in average exit velocity when offered immediately after the heat.

First Runner Up: Jameson Taillon’s slider

Fangraphs wSL value: +6.3 | 88.3 Avg. EV | 2392 rpm Average Spin Rate |

It is entirely possible that Taillon’s slider could have won this award based solely on what it represents: a tonal shift for the Pittsburgh Pirates in what they value in starting pitchers. Sure, it might have taken seeing two pitchers thrive when ditching the team’s ol’ reliable sinker-heavy, quick outs approach for the club to be spurred into action; but the team is spurred nonetheless.

Since adopting his slider, which carries good average exit velo and spin despite being introduced with regularity for the first time this season, Taillon has transformed himself into a dominant starting pitcher who is equally adept at missing more than his share of bats as he is getting outs on the field.

WINNER: Trevor Williams’ fastballs

Fangraphs wFB value: +21.6 | .282 wOBA against 3rd TTO | .123 ISO against |

Did any Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher get more out of their fastball than Williams in 2018? Likely not.

We must note that Fangraphs lumps together sinkers and two-seamers in its fastball value calculation, so all statistics herein will include the same. That +21.6 value ranked as the seventh highest among qualified starting pitchers this season, ahead of such luminaries As Aaron Nola, Blake Snell and others. He did not see a substantial penalty against the pitch when seeing a lineup for the third time, and hitters could not square him up, as his 20th best ISO against in baseball attests.

Williams worked the edges of the strike zone with his fastball at a 20.7 percent rate. That is good for only third best on the club for starters with at least 100 innings pitched. Ivan Nova actually led this charge wit ha 27.9 percent clip, with Taillon coming in at 24.4 percent.

However, WIlliams led this trio in “combined strike percentage” (I’m defining this here as total amount of called strikes and whiffs) on the edges at 35.7 percent. That’s a bit ahead of Taillon (34.3 percent) and a good measure from Nova (30.5 percent).

This nugget is yet another example of how Williams maximized his offerings. After all, there is inherently nothing striking about Williams’ arsenal:

However, even the meekest of pitches thrown with confidence, conviction and technique can serve as lion tamers.

In 2018, Trevor Williams stood in the middle of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ circus-like atmosphere and kept the beasts at the plate at bay with nothing more than his tried and true four-seamer buoyed by a dash of sink here and a bit of movement there. There was no flash, but there was command. There was no razzmatazz, yet his mid-to-late season heroics turned into a tall tale that Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe would admire.

His fastball was simply the best pitch of any Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher in 2018.