Last year, Milwaukee Brewers' pitcher Devin Williams became the first non-closer reliever to win the National League's Rookie of the Year award since the Reds' Scott Williamson did back in 1999. Williams proved to be one of the game's most reliable bullpen arms, as he finished 2020 with an incredible 0.33 ERA over 27 innings, a terrifying 17.7 strikeouts per nine innings rate, and an opposing OPS (On-Base + Slugging) of .339, a mark that genuinely looked like a typo the first time my eyes scanned his Baseball Reference page.
Williams' success in 2020 could be largely attributed to a number of things, but today I want to focus on his pitching repertoire. During the season he sported a fiery fastball that could register up to 97 miles per hour on a regular basis and could also be placed wherever he wanted it to go. And he also had a cutter, which while not used nearly as often, was still a great set up pitch and complement to his heater.
But if there's anything you might know about Williams, it's that he has this other pitch. For the better part of a year, fans from all walks of life have come together to describe this pitch as "nasty", "disgusting", and even "the greatest pitch ever thrown". So today, in honor of the start of the 2021 season just a couple days ago, I'm going to talk about that pitch.
Let's talk about THE AIRBENDER.
The first thing that will probably strike you about this pitch is probably the name. For those of us who grew up during the 1990s and 2000s, the name conjures up memories of the acclaimed tv show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show that notedly has nothing to do with baseball but is still pretty awesome despite that unfortunate oversight. Even if you never watched the show, or it's horrific movie tie in, the name just sounds cool. In a world where we allowed pitch names like "Curveball" and "Cutter" to exist, the name Airbender really sticks out as different and immediately interesting.
The first person to call Williams' pitch the Airbender was famed pitching expert, Rob Friedman, aka the Pitching Ninja. Friedman explained that the moniker came as a result of him getting tired of seeing people argue online as to whether the pitch was a changeup or a screwball. So Friedman decided to just give it a new name because while it holds some characteristics from both pitches, it's truly a whole other animal.
Here's a quick explanation as to how he throws this pitch. Williams first grips the ball like he's about to throw a circle change, meaning you essentially make an "ok" sign with your hand and then place your hand over the baseball so that your thumb and pointer finger are making a circle on the ball. However, the only two fingers that are really gripping the ball at release are his middle finger and ring finger. His pinky, pointer, and thumb are all just lightly touching the ball for stability.
Then, as Williams releases the pitch, he twists his wrist to one side so that he can create way more spin than is regularly shown on a changeup. This affect also makes the ball spin the opposite way you'd expect a right handed pitch to go, meaning the pitch sometimes wraps to the right, similar to a left handed slider.
According to Baseball Savant, Williams' average Airbender in 2020 clocked in at around 84 MPH, which was just over 12 MPH less than his average fastball. According to Fangraphs, his fastball to changeup (Airbender) speed differential was sixth highest in the league. Additionally, his Airbender sported a disgusting 2852 spin rate (Baseball Savant), up from 2625 in 2019. For those of you who don't know, spin rate helps determine how quickly a pitch spins and thus how much movement the ball might have. The higher the spin rate, it's said that the more difficult the pitch might be to hit. So with the Airbender sporting such a high spin rate, it's safe to say that this pitch is super difficult to track. Some even say that when the ball is released, the pitch resembles a fastball, yet it dives down quickly after. That could explain the high volume of swings and misses on the pitch.
Thanks to the Airbender's menacing combination of high spin rate and speed difference with the fastball, Williams finished last season with the league's lowest opposing batting average on a single pitch with .032 and the league's highest whiff rate on a single pitch with 61.1 percent (thanks to @SlangsOnSports for those numbers). Those marks dwarfed the league's second place pitch on both counts. Zac Plesac's slider sported the league's second lowest opposing B.A. at .069 and Tyler Glasnow's curveball caused the second highest whiff rate at 52.8 percent.
(Note: Whiff Rate is calculated by taking the number of pitches swung at and missed with the total number of swings in any given sample size. So in this case, for every 100 swings at a Devin Williams' Airbender, the batter will miss the ball 61.1 percent of the time.)
Everywhere you look, you can find more and more evidence that Williams' Airbender is the benchmark for most dominant single pitch in baseball, but can it stay that way? As I scan the landscape around MLB, a few pitches strike me as early candidates to steal Devin's crown in 2021. Of course we can't overlook Plesac or Glasnow, both of whom are poised to improve their chief pitches this year. Trevor Bauer might already have the league's best slider and could continue to make it more unhittable. And new Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura immediately impressed us baseball nerds with his dancing splitter.
All of this is to say that the race is wide open for best single pitch in 2021, and I'll be in the front row to see who comes out on top.
Featured Image Credit - FoxSports.com
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