The best pitch in baseball is a well-located four-seam fastball. It is the rhythm guitar of pitching, the rock upon which the church is built. To establish the fastball first is fundamental; to pitch any other way is backwards.
Maybe you don’t need it at all.
In the late 20th century, rock and roll evolved into different popular forms that either de-emphasized the role of the guitar or eliminated it altogether. Some artists went forward and embraced electronic instruments; others went back in time and rediscovered the piano. Of the 603 pitchers who threw at least 250 pitches last year, 49 didn’t throw a single four-seamer. Many of them were quite successful. The anti-four-seamer crowd includes top relievers like Josh Hader, Camilo Doval, and José Alvarado, as well as elite starters like Corbin Burnes and Framber Valdez.
A sinker generally has more arm-side movement than a four-seamer, at the expense of some velocity. (Though not always.) A cutter breaks in the other direction, glove-side, at a still slower velocity, occupying a sort of middle ground between a fastball and a slider.
If you have both of those, what happens if you don’t have a four-seamer?
Last season, 24 qualified pitchers had a repertoire that was at least 20% each cutters and sinkers, while throwing a four-seamer less than 5% of the time. These pitchers are all special in their own way, and I spent more time than I would have liked trying to pick up a common thread that unifies them, so here’s the whole list, sorted by overall fastball usage:
The Non-Four-Seam Club
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
*Includes four-seamers, maximum 4.9%
First, and perhaps least interesting, are what I’d call the kitchen sink starters. These pitchers don’t have elite velocity, but what they do have is a varied, balanced repertoire of at least four pitches. They don’t throw hard, but they throw with basically every kind of spin and movement you can think of. Such a pitcher has no use for a four-seamer, because it’d be easy to hit.
You’ll find on this list a pair of Cy Young winners hanging on to the back end of their careers — Dallas Keuchel and Corey Kluber — plus a number of younger starters with varying degrees of effectiveness. Think Cal Quantrill, Dane Dunning, Clarke Schmidt, and Ryan Yarbrough. There’s also Martín Pérez, who’s been hanging on to the cliff face by his fingernails — and innumerable 93 mph sinkers — for about a decade now.
Then you’ve got some pitchers who are nominally throwing cutters that might be better described as sliders, like Aaron Loup. Of these 24 pitchers, Loup has the most widely varied sinker and cutter. The difference in average horizontal movement is 19.7 inches (second of 24); the difference in vertical drop is 11.2 inches (sixth), which is informed by an 8.6 mph difference in velocity (the greatest of the 24 pitchers). This is effectively a fastball/slider combo.
And we know that combination can be effective; Justin Lawrence combines heat and arm-side run with a sweeper with wild glove-side break. Two pitches diverged in a narrow wood, etc. It’s basically the prime Craig Kimbrel fastball/curveball prisoner’s dilemma approach, rotated 90 degrees. Loup, being left-handed and giving up several miles an hour of fastball velocity to Lawrence, needs a changeup to keep right-handed hitters honest.
Because these pitchers all have such varied fastball velocities and cutter shapes, it’s hard to pin down a theme or trend, but you can see which teams are targeting pitchers who don’t throw four-seamers. Drop the threshold for cutter usage to 10%, and three Rockies pitchers show up. That’s in addition to Quantrill, whom Colorado just acquired this offseason. That makes sense; in the thin air of Denver, you don’t want a pitcher throwing anything that doesn’t move.
Also of interest is Boston, which had five alternative-fastball pitchers among the 22 players who pitched at least 10 innings for the club last year. Four of them — Kluber, Richard Bleier, Brandon Walter, and Justin Garza — saw limited action and posted ERAs north of 5.00. Suffice it to say that experiment didn’t work.
But Josh Winckowski, who was acquired in the three-team Andrew Benintendi deal in 2021, was basically the highest-usage reliever in baseball last year. (He threw 84 1/3 innings, which would’ve put him in a three-way tie for most among relievers, but that total includes a one-inning opener start, so technically Winckowski finished third.)
Winckowski was pretty bad in the rotation in 2022, but after moving to the bullpen in 2023, he cut his ERA in half, from 5.89 to 2.88. Shifting to relief allowed Winckowski to increase the velocity on his sinker by two ticks, de-emphasize his four-seamer and changeup, and swap the usage profiles of his two major glove-side-breaking pitches — his slider and cutter.
In 2022, he threw his slider (85 mph, with hard vertical break) about once every four pitches and his cutter (88-89 mph, with above-average horizontal break) once every nine pitches. In 2023, he threw his cutter about a third of the time and his slider one-sixth of the time, increasing his total fastball usage to 73%.
Now, Winckowski still had a 7.5 mph differential between his sinker and cutter, which was the second-biggest gap, behind Loup, in the 24-pitcher sample. He also had the third-biggest differential in vertical drop and the fourth-biggest in horizontal movement. These were two clearly distinct pitches, rather than similar offerings that would veer in one direction or another at the last second. But as with all fastballs, effectiveness tends to improve with velocity.
Which brings up Alvarado.
Every other sinker/cutter pitcher at least has a show-me breaking ball or offspeed pitch, but Alvarado threw nothing but fastballs in 2023. The closest pitcher to Alvarado in terms of movement and effectiveness is Camilo Doval, who’s also the only pitcher in this group who throws as hard as Alvarado does. Doval has relatively modest differences in velocity and horizontal movement between his two fastballs, but more than 11 inches of vertical separation. Like Alvarado, he also throws his two fastballs in similar proportions, rather than using one to set up the other as a change of pace.
But Doval’s most-used pitch — not his out pitch, the pitch he threw more than any other last year — was not a fastball, but a slider. Alvarado hasn’t thrown a breaking ball since June 2022; he only threw 11 curveballs that entire year. The last time he threw multiple curveballs in an outing was May 25, 2022, which was his last appearance before being sent to the minors to figure himself out.
Two weeks later, Alvarado re-emerged as a fastball-only machine, and the best reliever on a Phillies team that’s been to the NLCS back-to-back years. Since his return, Alvarado leads all relievers (minimum 80 innings) in FIP. Among the 24 cutter-sinker pitchers, Alvarado ranked first last year in opponent xwOBA on fastballs and second behind Doval in wOBA.
What’s the secret?
Well, like I said, throwing hard. Alvarado has a significant velocity differential between his sinker and cutter — 5.6 mph — but his cutter still comes in faster than most pitchers’ sinkers, or even four-seamers. When everything comes in that fast, especially from the left side, it’s impossible to hit.
So maybe the conventional wisdom is right: A well-located fastball is the best pitch in baseball. And if the fastball in question isn’t a four-seamer, a pitcher might not need anything else.