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Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Approaches To Pitching

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Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Approaches To Pitching
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

I'll give you one guess as to who the best fastball hitter in the majors is.

Not only has Albert Pujols done the most destruction to heaters this season, but it's not even close.

Pujols is 4.07 runs above average against every 100 fastballs. The second-best fastball hitter of 2009, Indians catcher Victor Martinez, is 3.02 runs above average.

The gap between Pujols and Martinez is bigger than the gap between Martinez and 17th-place Derrek Lee (2.00 runs above average).

Pujols also excels on sliders (2.90 runs above average) and changeups (1.88 runs above average).

However, Albert Pujols does struggle a little bit with curveballs, coming in at .28 runs below average.

The best curveball hitter this season has been Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who is a whopping 5.85 runs above average against curves.

There's also a sizeable difference between Cano and second-place (Royals 2B Alberto Callaspo at 4.60 runs above average). The difference between Cano and Callaspo is greater than the difference between Callaspo and 11th-place Clint Barmes (3.37 runs above average.

Cano does a nice job with fastballs (1.59 runs above average), and is average against sliders (.09 runs below average), but has struggled with changeups (3.93 runs below average).

Pujols is having a career year against fastballs, and Cano is having a career year against curves, but their career numbers indicate they have been excellent against the respective pitches.

I wanted to take a look and see if Pujols' excellence against fastballs (but struggles with curves) and Cano's excellence against curves (but struggles with fastballs, which he was well-below-average against prior to 2009, and changeups) prompted opposing pitchers to pitch Pujols and Cano differently.

Both Pujols and Cano are very good hitters, so neither one gets pitched around very often. I was wondering if pitchers recognize the fact that their best hope against Pujols is to throw curves and their best hope against Cano is to throw fastballs and changeups.

Here's what Pujols has seen this year:

Fastball (mph) Curveball (mph) Slider (mph) Changeup (mph)

53.8% (91.7) 8.5% (75.6) 21.1% (83.9) 10.2% (83.0)

 

And Cano:

Fastball (mph) Curveball (mph) Slider (mph) Changeup (mph)

63.5% (91.2) 6.3% (76.7) 13.2% (82.4) 9.1% (82.5)

 

Thanks to Fangraphs.com, as always, for their excellent breakdown.

As you would expect, Pujols sees more curves and Cano sees more fastballs.

It's clear that the scouting reports that pitchers see mention Pujols' brilliance against heaters and Cano's excellence against breaking balls.

What surprised me is that Pujols sees far more sliders than Cano. Pujols is 2.99 runs better against sliders than Cano, yet he sees over 50 percent more of them.

What's probably happening is that Pujols is talked about as a "fastball hitter" and Cano as a "breaking-ball hitter," so pitchers throw Pujols a ton of sliders and curves while staying mainly with the fastball to Cano.

Cano is actually worse against sliders than fastballs, so it would make sense to throw him more sliders. Pujols is better against sliders than against any other pitch except the fastball, so while pitchers seem to understand to use the heater sparingly, they don't realize that throwing him a slider is nearly as bad an idea.

I did notice that Pujols sees faster fastballs than Cano, so it appears that only harder throwers try to challenge him.

The changeup data is also confusing. I suppose throwing Pujols a changeup makes a certain amount of sense: while he's good against changeups, he's worse against them than fastballs or sliders. If a pitcher just throws a fastball, slider, and change, the change is the logical choice.

Cano is another matter. The two pitches that he is worst at hitting (the slider and changeup) are only thrown to him 22.3 percent of the time. Compare that to Pujols, who sees them 31.3 percent of the time, even though he's more effective against both.

Cano is thrown a fastball 63.5 percent of the time, even though he does better against fastballs than any pitch other than the curveball.

Now, it could be that AL East pitchers have worse changeups and sliders than NL Central pitchers, which would probably make them less inclined to throw them to any hitter, regardless of how good the hitter is at hitting them.

Checking the data for all the Yankees' and Cardinals' hitters, that does seem to be part of it.

No Cardinals batter sees more fastballs than Cano, while three Yankees (Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, and Brett Gardner) do.

No Yankees batter sees more sliders than Pujols, while two Cardinals (Khalil Greene and Ryan Ludwick) do.

The Yankees' hitters do seem to see about 1 percent fewer changeups than the Cardinals' hitters. There's no real difference in curveball percentage.

I thought that maybe instead of just looking at the raw numbers, I'd look at where Pujols and Cano ranked among their team's hitters in terms of percentage of fastballs, curves, sliders, and changeups seen.

 

Pujols' ranks (out of 13):

Fastball Curve Slider Changeup

8 8 3 9

 

And Cano's (also out of 13):

Fastball Curve Slider Changeup

4 11 4 7

 

This data presents a new set of problems.

What one would expect to see for Pujols is to have pretty low fastball and slider ranks, and higher curve and changeup ranks. The inverse has happened here. Pitchers throw him an equal proportion of his favorite pitch (the fastball) and least-favorite (the curveball), when compared to their pitch selection against other Cardinals hitters.

The pitch they use the most to Pujols (relative to the normal usage pattern) is still the slider, which, as I mentioned before, has been only marginally more effective than the fastball.

The data seems to lead nowhere with Pujols. It could be that since he's the best hitter in the game, pitchers simply resolve to throw him their best stuff rather than worry about what Pujols is actually good at hitting, which is why his fastball, curve, and change ranks come out near average. 

Either that, or pitchers are being given incorrect scouting reports, or are ignoring the scouting reports.

Cano's data, perplexing with the raw percentages, does make a little bit more sense now. When comparing him to the rest of the Yankees, Cano actually sees a lot of sliders and very few curves. Since he struggles with sliders and hammers curves, that's a good approach for pitchers to take.

Beyond that, there's still the issue of Cano seeing just an average amount of changeups even though he's struggled terribly with them. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira see nearly twice the amount of changeups as Cano. Teixeira is average against changeups, and Swisher, while well below-average, is nowhere near as bad as Cano.

That just has to be a misperception on the part of pitchers, who must be given bad reports on Cano's ability to hit the changeup.

Overall, while we can see some evidence that Pujols and Cano are pitched to like they should be, the statistical data is inconclusive, and it could be that the scouting reports simply don't match the numbers.

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