Excellent pitchers make excellent pitches. So I'm going to try something a little different today: I'm going to try to judge the best pitches I've seen so far in 2009. That is to say, based on my observations (and by no means am I watching every pitch of every game, let's just get that out in the open right away) and what I've read from batters and beat reporters, I'll weigh in on who's throwing the best fastball, the best curve, the best slider, etc.
While the pitchers on this list are not, for the most part, going to be languishing on your fantasy league's free-agent wire, at least we can begin to delve into why some of your favorites from the first three months of '09 have performed so well.
Best fastball: Josh Johnson, Marlins. For anyone who has ever had any question about whether Tommy John surgery works, may I present Josh Johnson? J.J. had the surgery in August 2007, and returned to the majors July 10 last season. Since then, he's made 29 starts and has produced an ERA of 3.09, a WHIP of 1.19 and has fanned 165 batters in 192 1/3 innings. The 6-foot-7 Johnson saw his fastball's velocity increase after the surgery, as he regularly lives in the mid-90s now and can crank it up to 97 or 98 in big spots. He's basically a fastball/slider pitcher (though he does occasionally flash a change), and his slider honestly isn't anything to write home about. But because it's 10 miles an hour slower than the gas, it keeps hitters honest.
Honorable mention: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez.
Best curveball: Adam Wainwright, Cardinals. Wainwright first made a national splash by closing for St. Louis during its improbable World Series run in 2006, but he always had too many pitches to be a reliever. However, guys who fit Wainwright's profile sometimes struggle because hitters can adjust off the fastball; since Wainwright doesn't overpower you with gas, you have more time to adjust. But when an Uncle Charlie this nasty comes calling, that doesn't matter. Wainwright goes fastball-slider-curve-change, and his slider is very good, but I think he gets the most posterized, deer-in-the-headlights looks on the deuce.
Honorable mention: Chad Billingsley, Wandy Rodriguez, Gavin Floyd.
Best slider: Ryan Dempster, Cubs. I wanted to put Zack Greinke's slider in this spot, because it's obvious that purely as a pitch, his is in another class. But the truth is as good as his slider is, Greinke doesn't throw it a ton, relying instead on an unfair combo of heat (he can hit 96 when he needs it), curve, slider and change. Dempster, on the other hand, is kind of a mystery to me: His fastball is borderline lousy, his splitter often leaves him for stretches, and yet he just tools along, a failed closer who keeps posting an ERA under four and fanning around eight hitters per nine innings. He mostly does it with his mid-80s slider that evidently looks very tasty to hit, but which dives down in the zone and either winds up being a swing-and-miss or a lazy grounder. This isn't a classic, thing-of-beauty slider, but I have to say: It's the best I've seen in 2009.
Honorable mention: Greinke, Joba Chamberlain, Max Scherzer.
Best cutter: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. It isn't close. I can't think of any starting pitcher who throws the cutter more frequently, and maybe only Mariano Rivera has had a better one that I can ever remember. Wonder why Doc Halladay is able to get so deep into games, and induce so many grounders (and broken bats)? Hey, he does have a nasty downward-breaking slider and a good curve. But that sideways-moving cutter is nasty, and he can paint either corner with it. Halladay's on the DL right now, and hitters are still swinging at his cutter.
Honorable mention: Nobody comes close.
Best change: Tim Lincecum, Giants. I know Johan Santana is supposed to be the greatest changeup artist going, and James Shields also has that ridiculous diving screwball action on his change. But the real revelation to me about Lincecum this year has been how dominant he is with that off-speed number that looks like his blazing fastball the first two-thirds of the way to the plate. To be fair, Lincecum's isn't a straight circle-change like Santana's, and reportedly is kind of a hybrid split-fingered pitch. But who cares? Combined with his high-90s fastball, it's vicious.
Honorable mention: Shields, Santana, Cole Hamels.
" Ricky Nolasco, Marlins: If you've read anything I've written about starting pitching this year, you probably know I've stayed on the Nolasco bandwagon throughout, perhaps over-stubbornly. When he was getting shellacked in April and into May, I kept writing I thought he was a bounce-back candidate. When he got sent to the minors, I wrote that it would be a short stay, and he'd return with a vengeance. I was convinced by his stupidly high batting average against on balls in play and stupidly low strand rate that he was the unluckiest pitcher in baseball, and that things would turn around. Well, turn they have: In three starts since his return to the bigs, Nolasco has 18 strikeouts and four walks in 18 innings. He looked nearly unhittable in a rain-shortened outing against the Red Sox on Thursday. It won't all be wine and roses, because that Marlins defense stinks. But Nolasco deserves to be owned in more than 65 percent of leagues.
" Tommy Hanson, Braves: Hanson spooked a bunch of owners by allowing three homers in his first big league start and five walks in his second, but he also missed a heck of a lot of bats. Also, in his third start, against the Reds on Thursday, he threw six scoreless innings, allowing only three walks. Hanson has an ace's arm, but I think he'll probably wind up producing a 2009 season a lot like Clayton Kershaw's from '08: occasional flashes of brilliance and high strikeouts, but unnecessarily high pitch counts and a few outings that make you scratch your head. He has way more upside than a heck of a lot of pitchers who are owned in more leagues, though. Right now, Hanson is available in 65 percent of leagues.
" Nick Blackburn, Twins: Blackburn is so Twins. Low strikeout total (39 in 93 1/3 innings), respectable WHIP (1.25), good enough control to get batters to put balls in play, and good enough defense behind him to have that work out to the tune of a 3.09 ERA. His BABIP is a little low (.275), so some slightly tougher times could be ahead, and he most certainly does not fit the classic favorable fantasy starting pitcher. But he also hasn't allowed more than three earned runs in a game since May 16, and has only allowed more than four in a game once this year. He doesn't dominate, but he doesn't get blown out.
" Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks: Webb felt pain in his shoulder after playing catch late last week, and had to scrap plans for a bullpen session Friday. Instead, the Diamondbacks sent him back to Arizona for an MRI, the result of which wasn't known as of this writing. However, the fact that Webb has had 2˝ months off, has taken it extremely slow in his recovery and now is feeling pain again makes a lot of observers believe the problem isn't muscular, but rather structural. The idea that Webb will return to the majors around the All-Star break is officially laughable; it's not going to be a shock to hear that he needs some kind of surgery in the next few days. If I own him in a fantasy league, I'm still holding onto him (on my bench) for the next few days to hear the results of the latest test. But the waiver wire might not be far away.
" Chris Young, Padres: Young tried to pitch through his sore right shoulder over the past month, but it didn't go well. In his final two starts before going on the DL last week, Young allowed 10 runs, 10 hits and six walks in 7 1/3 innings, while striking out only one. Tests didn't show anything structurally wrong with his shoulder, but the Padres haven't announced whether they expect him to return immediately when he's eligible. If he bounces back quickly, Young could rise on this list again, but for the moment, I'm expecting a somewhat longer absence.
" Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox: Dice-K made this list last week, but he bears a repeat mention. I wrapped up my summary of Matsuzaka in my last column by saying, "One more terrible outing and I won't be surprised to see the Sox send him to the minors to figure things out." Lo and behold, he allowed eight hits, four walks and six runs against the Braves this weekend, and has been banished to the disabled list. I don't think this is any kind of short-time stay, either. Reading between the lines of what Terry Francona said Sunday, it sounds as if Boston would like Dice-K essentially to start spring training all over again. He's probably not worth owning in a shallow mixed league right now. We can revisit this again once we hear what's up with him on his rehab.
Comings and goings
" Roy Halladay is scheduled to throw off a mound Tuesday, and if all goes well with his sore groin, he could be activated in time to pitch Sunday against the Phillies. In the meantime, Brett Cecil was recalled to take Halladay's turn Saturday, and he was decent against the Nationals, allowing three runs, eight hits and a walk while striking out four in seven innings. The Jays also called up Brad Mills to replace Casey Janssen in their rotation, but Mills allowed four runs in 3 2/3 innings in his big league debut.
" CC Sabathia had to come out of his start Sunday because of biceps soreness. The Yankees don't think it's serious, and don't plan on testing his arm any further, which makes it sound like Sabathia won't need to miss a turn in the rotation. But considering how many innings Sabathia has pitched the past few years, any inkling of discomfort in his arm does raise questions.
" Erik Bedard is on the DL with shoulder soreness, but the good news for his fantasy owners is that tests haven't revealed anything structurally wrong with his shoulder. The team tentatively hopes to have Bedard return in the last day or two of June, but it should be mentioned that Bedard is infamous for staying out longer than his teams expect him to.
" Kevin Slowey has discomfort in his right side, which has caused his next start to be pushed back from Thursday to Saturday. He'll face the Cardinals instead of the Brewers.
" Scott Kazmir was strong in his rehab outing for Triple-A Durham on Monday, giving up one run and five hits in six innings. The St. Petersburg Times estimates that Kazmir could return to Tampa's rotation after one more minor league outing.
" Ervin Santana was expected to start for the Angels on Tuesday against the Rockies. However, according to the LA Times, he felt discomfort in his forearm during a bullpen session Sunday, so the team put him on the DL instead. Santana would be eligible to return Friday, but there's little reason to expect the Angels would have disabled their star righty unless something was wrong. Sean O'Sullivan, who pitched seven strong innings in his big league debut last Tuesday, will return from the minors and pitch against Colorado in Santana's place Tuesday.
" John Smoltz will make his much-anticipated debut with the Red Sox on Thursday against the Nationals, taking Daisuke Matsuzaka's rotation spot. Smoltz's velocity is probably four or five miles per hour off what it was a couple of years ago, which means he'll have to rely on his nasty slider and guile a lot more. There might be some bumps in the road at first, though Washington might represent a nice way to ease back into things.
" The Indians pushed back Carl Pavano a few days because of shoulder soreness. The bloom might be off the rose just a bit, as Pavano has allowed 15 runs in his past 9 2/3 innings, but perhaps that's related to the arm discomfort. Pavano makes a pretty big start (for him and for Cleveland) on Wednesday against the Pirates. If he's going to have any trade value for the Indians, he'd better start getting back on track.
" Josh Outman had to leave his start Friday because of a flexor strain in his elbow, and he figures to miss his next start. The A's don't seem to think a DL stint will be necessary, but they probably will play it safe with the young lefty. Gio Gonzalez might get called up to make a start in Outman's place.
" After getting drilled by the Tigers on Saturday, Dave Bush told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he's been dealing with shoulder soreness for the past few weeks. There's a chance Bush could wind up missing a turn or even going on the DL; either way, I've removed him from my top 80 for now.
" Chien-Ming Wang allowed three runs in five innings against the Nationals last week, whereupon Joe Girardi continued to endorse him as a member of New York's rotation. Phil Hughes still waits in the wings.
" The Rangers activated Matt Harrison from the DL and he pitched fairly well Wednesday against the Astros, allowing three runs, six hits and three walks while fanning three in five innings.
" Alfredo Figaro made his big league debut with the Tigers on Saturday, going five innings and earning a victory over the Brewers. It was a nice outing: He struck out seven, walked two and allowed eight hits. Figaro isn't known as a top-notch prospect, and isn't at all a fireballer; Milwaukee was stymied by a bunch of off-speed stuff. For that reason, I'm not really even considering Figaro in AL-only leagues just yet, though he looks like he'll stick in place of Dontrelle Willis for now.
" Eric Milton is nearing the end of his rehab stint for an injured back, and is expected to rejoin the Dodgers' rotation this weekend, perhaps forcing the team to remove Jeff Weaver from starting consideration. The team also recently called up James McDonald to pitch in the bullpen, but considering how well he threw in the minors, there's a chance he could get into the starter mix soon, too.
" Kyle Davies, who was momentarily the subject of many outraged ESPN Conversation posts early in the season, was sent down by the Royals this weekend to Triple-A Omaha. He has a 5.76 ERA in the majors so far this season.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.