When I was looking at this leaderboard of zone percentage (the percentage of pitches in the strike zone to a hitter), two things jumped out.
The first was that Pablo Sandoval saw way fewer strikes than anyone. I took a look at the reasons for that in this article.
The second thing I noticed was that Ken Griffey Jr. and Melky Cabrera were on the first page of the leaderboard.
Griffey ranks 24th and Cabrera 29th out of 167 qualified players.
That makes very little sense.
See, two types of players don't see many strikes. The first is great hitters who pitchers don't want to pitch to, and the second is free swingers who will chase pitches out of the zone.
Pablo Sandoval is the only hitter who fits in both categories in the present day.
Below Sandoval, you have some great hitters (Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau, Lance Berkman, Joe Mauer, Mark Teixeira, Chipper Jones, etc.) and some free swingers (Chris Davis, Alfonso Soriano, Hank Blalock, etc.).
You also find guys who aren't great hitters or free swingers, but still fall into the category of hitters who shouldn't see many strikes.
Because they are one-tool power guys who will crush a fastball if it's left over the plate.
So you get guys like Chris Duncan, Nelson Cruz, Jay Bruce, Matt Holliday, and Kendry Morales on the list as well.
Griffey and Cabrera don't fit any of these molds.
Griffey is hitting .222/.342/.404. He's got some power in his bat, but his bat speed has tumbled and he struggles with curves and changeups.
He is, however, a disciplined hitter who won't chase bad pitches.
Cabrera's hitting .285/.347/.439. He's not a bad player, but he doesn't have the sort of power that would make pitchers want to avoid him. He also is disciplined at the plate.
If there's a pitcher out there who is scared to come in the strike zone to Ken Griffey Jr. and Melky Cabrera, he doesn't belong in the major leagues.
Cabrera and Griffey also both chase a below-average number of pitches out of the strike zone, so pitchers probably don't think they can get them to chase pitches.
There are three possibilities for why Griffey and Cabrera don't see many strikes.
1.) It's just a random variation of luck; pitchers just happen to miss their spots a bit more.
2.) For some reason, pitchers are either afraid to throw them strikes or think they can get them to chase pitches, despite the data to the contrary.
3.) Other stats can explain it.
I can't speak to either of the first two scenarios, both of which are somewhat possible, but I sure can investigate the third one.
First, let's look at Ken Griffey Jr.
The Mariners, as a team, see the fifth-fewest pitches in the zone, at 48.1 percent. At 46 percent, Griffey is quite a bit below that, but it could be that the Mariners just have drawn wilder pitchers and that contributes.
However, Griffey sees the fewest first-pitch strikes on the team, just 47.3 percent. He's seen fewer pitches in the zone than anyone else on the team besides Russell Branyan (Mike Carp, Guillermo Quiroz, and Mike Sweeney also saw fewer, but didn't have enough at-bats to qualify).
In a real surprise, Griffey sees fewer good pitches than Ichiro. Ichiro is more in the Sandoval realm of bad-ball hitting, so you'd expect pitchers to just throw the ball off the plate and get him to chase. Apparently, that's not the case.
I thought the explanation might have something to do with pitch selection. Griffey doesn't hang in with curves and changes well anymore, so maybe he gets a lot of those. Curves and changes are harder to control, so then he'd get fewer pitches in the zone.
It was a nice theory, but it's wrong.
Griffey actually sees more fastballs than anyone on the team but Ronny Cedeno. He gets them two-thirds of the time.
Apparently, the book on getting Griffey out is to throw fastballs out of the zone.
That makes no sense to me, and I don't know why anyone would try to get Griffey to chase a fastball when he doesn't chase pitches and he's good at hitting fastballs. That's about the worst approach a pitcher can take.
But hey, it's easy for me to say that sitting at home, right?
Anyway, the way Griffey's being pitched to doesn't make any sense to me, and if you have any idea why pitchers are doing this, I'd love to hear it in the comments. For now, it's a mystery.
Does Melky Cabrera's low zone percentage make any more sense?
Well, the Yankees see the second-fewest pitches in the zone in baseball, so that's a start.
However, when you consider some of the great hitters the team has, it's obvious why pitchers would be averse to throwing the ball over the plate.
When you consider how great the AL East pitching is, it's tough to imagine that the Yankees would really be facing a bunch of wild flamethrowers.
Indeed, the rest of the AL East teams are more middle-of-the-pack in zone percentage, while two other teams in the Mariners' division (Texas and the Angels) are first and fourth, lending credence to the idea that Griffey sees pitchers with worse command than average.
The Yankees zone percentage is dragged down by predictably low figures from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (and Cody Ransom, in his few ABs). Pitchers want to pitch around A-Rod and Teixeira. That makes plenty of sense.
Melky Cabrera sees fewer pitches in the zone than anyone else on the team.
Free swingers like Robinson Cano and Angel Berroa see far more good pitches to hit.
As with Griffey, this makes little sense on the surface.
Again, I decided to test out the "he sees more offspeed pitches, which are harder to control" theory.
Cabrera doesn't have the completely frustrating pitch type split that Griffey does, but he sees pretty much an average number of fastballs (the easiest pitch to control) and curveballs (the hardest pitch to control).
What's interesting is that Cabrera sees very few sliders and a lot of changeups.
Cabrera has historically struggled against changeups and done well against sliders, but that's reversed this year. It could be that the book on him is that he can't recognize the changeup and will chase it as it sinks out of the zone.
Cabrera has corrected that flaw and improved from a terrible changeup hitter to an average one this year. Obviously, the scouting reports don't change overnight, so pitchers may still approach him without knowing Cabrera's made an adjustment.
That's the only explanation I can come up with, and it's semi-satisfactory. If any Yankee fans know more about why Cabrera sees so few pitches in the zone, I'd love to hear it.
Ken Griffey Jr. and Melky Cabrera are useful players, but they certainly aren't stars. Pitchers, however, are pitching to them with so much caution that you'd think they were fearsome power guys.
Even looking at all sorts of numbers and scouting data, it's tough to come up with a real conclusion as to why these two unspectacular players receive such odd treatment.