The 5 Toughest Pitchers in the AL East

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via AP Image

I have a checklist I go through when I study an opposing pitcher. The first thing I look at is velocity — how hard a guy throws and how well he mixes speeds. Anywhere from 50–60% of the pitches I see are fastballs, and most of those are in the strike zone. So those are the pitches I really need to do damage with.

Next, I look at a guy’s arm slot — the angle he releases the ball from. Then I look at his secondary pitches. What’s his go-to off-speed pitch? Does he throw it for strikes? What’s his out pitch — the one he throws to finish you off when he’s got two strikes on you? What does he throw when he’s behind in the count, or with runners in scoring position?

And so on.

When I’m studying the guys in my own division, I’m mostly looking at guys I’ve seen a lot of over the years. I don’t watch much film on CC Sabathia anymore because I’ve faced him close to 100 times. I pretty much know what I’m going to get. I’ll just check recent tendencies to see if he’s mixing in anything new. Same with Rick Porcello, who I’ve faced more than 50 times — mostly in the last couple of years since he’s been in Boston.

But every off-season, I expect to get a few new guys to study because when there are big-name free agents or guys on the trading block, I almost always expect them to end up in the American League East. There are too many teams in this division that aren’t afraid to spend money. So on top of guys like CC, who’s been here for a while, you always have guys like Porcello — and most recently Chris Sale — joining the division.

I wasn’t happy to see the Red Sox land Chris Sale, but I wasn’t that surprised, either. He’s a frontline ace. If you have a chance to go after a guy like that, it’s a no-brainer.

So in breaking down the toughest pitchers in the AL East, I’ll start with him.

Chris Sale (2 for 27, .074 against, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs, 11 K’s)

I think what makes Sale so tough is that he’s really unpredictable. He has the ability to mix his pitches and throw them all for strikes, but he also mixes velocities within those pitches, which is something that you don’t see a lot of guys do with very much success.

People hear the word command and they think about pitch — about working the strike zone or painting the corners. But command is just as much about velocity as it as about placement. Every now and then you’ll see a guy who can throw a slider from 82 to 88 mph, or who has an 87-mph changeup that he can drop down to 82 mph when he wants to bury it.

Sale has the ability to vary speed like that with all of his pitches — especially his fastball, which he can throw anywhere from 89 to 99 mph.

Earlier this season when I faced him, he threw me a couple of 92–93 mph fastballs early in the count, and then he dialed up back-to-back sliders in the 78–80 mph range.

This is where the chess game gets really good.

I’m sitting there with a 2-and-2 count, and I’m pretty sure a fastball is coming next. But that’s the thing about Sale: It’s already enough of a guessing game to try to figure out what he’s going to throw, and then there’s a second layer of also having to guess how hard he’s going to throw. It gives him a special kind of advantage.

So the next pitch comes in, and I’m right. It’s an 89-mph fastball, which is at the lower end of his range. I foul that pitch off, as well the next one, an 80-mph slider.

Then he comes at me with this:

A 95-mph heater, the fastest of the at bat, six mph faster than the one I had seen two pitches earlier. If that pitch comes in at 92–93 mph, maybe I foul it off and stay alive. But when you get into the mid- to upper-90s, each mph makes that much more of a difference. Everything looks fast.

Another guy who comes to mind who can command all of his pitches and is able to throw each of them at varying velocities is Justin Verlander, when he’s at his best. But pitchers are always experimenting with different ways to throw off a batter’s rhythm and timing. Marcus Stroman is doing that this season. But he’s not doing it with velocity. He’s doing it in other ways.

Marcus Stroman (9 for 27, .333 against, 2 HRs, 4 RBIs, 5 K’s)

I’ve fared pretty well against Stroman in the past, but he’s a different guy this year. He’s made some changes. He’s mixing in different leg kicks and varying his windup. He’s already tough to hit because his stuff is so electric. But when he adds a pause or a stutter to his motion, it gives him a whole different advantage.

We saw a preview of this in the World Baseball Classic this year.

It’s just a slight hesitation, like a pump-fake in basketball.

But it’s enough to get a hitter off balance.

So many pitchers work on having a repeatable motion. But Stroman has enough confidence in his stuff, and in his ability to locate his pitches, that he’s not afraid to deviate from his normal delivery.

Stroman also spins the ball as well as anybody in the game. The main thing that you want to do as a hitter is to pick up ball spin out of a pitcher’s hand early. And when a guy spins the ball really hard like Stroman, it can be tough to pick up and adjust to what you think the ball is going to do. Throw in a higher-than-normal leg kick, or a slide step, or that pump-fake of his, and there’s suddenly a lot of information to process in basically a split second.

Hitting is all about timing.

Stroman is one of the best at throwing that off.

Dellin Betances (2 for 15, .133 against, 0 HRs, 3 RBIs, 4 K’s)

I’ve never faced Aroldis Chapman. But having to see Dellin Betances out of the Yankees’ bullpen can’t be any easier.

He’s just a force. He’s like six-foot-eight, so sometimes it feels like he’s just reaching out and setting the ball in the catcher’s glove. He has a fastball that can top out at 100 mph, and an 87-mph breaking ball that starts out looking like it’s coming right at you and then drops right into the strike zone.

Imagine seeing a couple of fastballs at 99–100 mph, then getting this dropped on you:

It’s the most basic way to set a hitter up — nothing fancy. But he has the tools to execute it perfectly.

There’s not a lot to analyze or break down with Betances. He’s one of those guys who just gets hitters out. I mean, opposing batters are hitting .169 against him in his career, and just .122 this season.

Those numbers don’t lie.

Craig Kimbrel (1 for 5, .200 against, 0 HRs, 0 RBIs, 2 K’s)

Craig Kimbrel is another one of those guys who, like Betances, really only throws two pitches. He has a 97–98 mph four-seam fastball that can top out at over 100 mph, and a breaking ball that he throws in the mid- to upper-80s. But even if you guess right and think you know what’s coming, if he locates it, you’re still not going to hit it. That’s how good he is with those two pitches.

He showed that when he struck out the side to earn a save against us earlier this season:

His location on all three out pitches in that sequence was on point. He got Corey Dickerson to chase a fastball up and away, then he painted the corner with a breaking ball to Kevin Kiermaier, and then he dialed up a 99-mph fastball outside to catch me looking.

Now, he definitely got the benefit of a couple of calls from the plate umpire on me and Kiermaier, but that’s all part of commanding the edge of the strike zone. Even if I had gone after that 99 mph fastball, that’s a tough pitch to catch up to when it’s off the plate like that. And with a 2-and-2 count, that’s just a great pitch.

Zach Britton (5 for 19, .263 against, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs, 4 K’s)

You’re probably wondering where my boy David Price is on this list. Well, I didn’t include him because I didn’t want to go too Red Sox heavy. Plus, he’s been out for most of the year, and I wanted to discuss the toughest guys to face this season.

But I’m going to break my own rule and include Zach Britton — even though he’s out right now — because he was on some special kind of run before he went on the disabled list. The guy has converted 54 consecutive saves, which is tied for the AL record. At one point last season, he went 43 straight relief appearances without allowing an earned run.

And the most impressive thing is that he’s basically done everything with one pitch.

He has a good breaking ball, but he only throws it about 10–15% of the time, so it’s not a pitch that hitters worry about. It’s his sinker that gives guys nightmares. Coming out of his hand, it looks good — it looks hittable, like it’s coming right for the zone. Plus, it’s coming in at 96–97 mph. So it almost looks like a fastball.

Then, when it gets about five feet away from the plate, the bottom falls out. It just disappears.

Even if you make contact, more often than not, you’re just going to beat it straight into the ground, which usually makes for an easy out.

In terms of a closer having one pitch that’s so dominant, Britton is a lot like Mariano Rivera. I mean, Rivera is in a class by himself in baseball history … but if Britton can come back and pick up where he left off with that ridiculous sinker, he could one day be considered in the same category.