MLB Metrics 101: The Most Unhittable Pitchers in Baseball
It's a hard thing to prove, but what they say about hitting a baseball being the hardest thing in sports certainly seems true. Hitting a round ball with a round bat isn't easy. Hitting the ball well is even less easy.
And some pitchers make it a lot harder than others.
This has always been the case, of course. But the cool thing about being a baseball fan today is that unhittable pitchers can now be discussed in specific terms. There's data that makes it possible to narrow down exactly who these pitchers are, as well as how and why they're so hard to hit.
The goal here is to do just that.
For this, the focus will be on starting pitchers who have logged at least 200 innings across the 2015 and 2016 seasons. This means relief pitchers will be out of focus—for now, anyway—but these standards still provide 127 pitchers to choose from.
Two abilities will be under the microscope: how well these pitchers avoid being hit and how well they avoid being hit hard. For more on how this will be determined, head to the next slide.
This slideshow will critique pitchers with stats that measure hittability, starting with three basics:
- K/9: Or, strikeouts per nine innings. Although crude, it's fine for getting a snapshot of how good a pitcher is at missing bats. The MLB average for the last two years is 7.93.
- BABIP: Or, batting average on balls in play. This measures how often balls in play go for hits. The MLB average over the last two years is .300. But since BABIP ignores home runs, there's also...
- HR/9: Or, home runs per nine innings. This is the quick-and-easy way to see how good (or bad) pitchers are at avoiding homers. The MLB average over the last two years is 1.10.
However, these basics only scratch the surface. Strikeouts can be of the looking variety. How often balls in play are fielded can depend on a pitcher's defense. How often home runs happen can depend on his home ballpark. Et cetera.
So to really get at how pitchers miss bats and manage contact, more specificity is required with:
- Whiff%: Or, swinging strikes per swing. This is taking a cue from FanGraphs' "Contact%," which tracks contact per swing, except it uses total swings and total misses figures from Baseball Savant. The MLB average over the last two years is 23.28 percent.
- Exit Velocity: Or, the speed of the ball off the bat. This is the most intuitive of the new batted-ball metrics that have come to light in the last two years. Hitters have hit the ball at an average of 88.8 mph since 2015. If a pitcher's exit velocity is south of that, he's doing something right.
To see these numbers for all 127 pitchers, go here.
It's a lot to take in, but these five stats provide the proper perspective for pinpointing pitchers who are good at missing bats and/or barrels to some degree or another.
There are 10 in particular who are worth focusing on. Their rankings are a judgment call based on the numbers they've produced as well as insight into where exactly those numbers stem from.
But first, some honorable mentions...
Rich Hill, Los Angeles Dodgers
Due to his modest 139.1 innings since 2015, Rich Hill didn't make the cut for an in-depth breakdown. But he easily would have with enough innings. He spins the ball like no other starter, creating unique action on his fastball and curveball. He's struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings with a 27.91 whiff rate over the last two seasons, and batted balls off him have averaged just 87.2 mph.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Madison Bumgarner is becoming increasingly tough to hit, posting a 9.8 K/9 and a 26.35 whiff rate over the last two seasons. He's nothing special when it comes to limiting hard contact, however. His average exit velocity since 2015 is a good-not-great 88.4 mph, and AT&T Park protects him from home runs.
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 American League Cy Young winner, fell back to earth last season. He collected fewer whiffs and gave up more hard contact. Still, an 8.1 K/9, 24.4 whiff rate and 87.3 mph exit velocity over two seasons are worth a shout-out.
Francisco Liriano, Toronto Blue Jays
Francisco Liriano is another talented lefty who's coming off a rough 2016 season. He was done in by his walk habit and a big spike in exit velocity. Despite that, his average exit velocity over the last two years is still a solid 87.5 mph. That comes with a 30.98 whiff rate, to boot.
10. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
|200 IP Rank||19||T49||T16||15||T-31|
It hasn't been impossible for hitters to square up Jacob deGrom. Especially not last year, when he had a .312 BABIP and .91 HR/9. He threw too many off-speed pitches down the middle, and hitters took advantage.
But it's no accident that deGrom, 28, is one of the best at missing bats. The New York Mets ace has a deep arsenal, throwing five pitches at least 10 percent of the time. Four of them—his four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup—draw whiffs on more than a quarter of the swings against them.
These pitches are not only nasty, but also hard to pick up out of deGrom's hand. New research from Jeff Long, Jonathan Judge and Harry Pavlidis at Baseball Prospectus sheds lights on how well pitchers disguise their pitches. The best at this in 2016 was Jon Lester, but deGrom placed high on the leaderboard.
And though stifling hard contact isn't deGrom's best ability, he does have one pitch hitters struggle to punish: his slider. As one of the hardest sliders on record, it's a fine example of the so-called "Warthen slider." It's yielded only five extra-base hits since 2015.
In short, deGrom is a guy with great stuff and an idea how to use it.
9. Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
|200 IP Rank||30||T79||7||T47||10|
The strikeout rate pictured here doesn't do Carlos Martinez justice. He whiffed 9.22 batters per nine innings in 2015 and was right there again with a 9.26 K/9 in the final two months of 2016.
The key is the sheer quality of the St. Louis Cardinals ace's stuff. He works in the mid-90s with both his four-seamer and sinker. His changeup checks in with elite arm-side fade and his slider checks in with elite glove-side run.
The electricity in the 25-year-old's arsenal also comes in handy with managing contact. Martinez spends most of his time working low in the zone, an approach that results in a steady stream of ground balls.
The flaw in Martinez's game is his command. He's not great at repeating his release point. Take that in tandem with the movement he has to control, and you get a sub-optimal recipe for strike throwing.
But given what happens when they actually swing, hitters are best served keeping their bats on their shoulders when facing Martinez anyway.
8. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
|200 IP Rank||3||T84||T33||26||T39|
One of the takeaways here is that Stephen Strasburg is great at striking hitters out. A true shocker, I know.
The Washington Nationals ace is blessed with a power arm and great stuff. He still throws his fastball in the mid-90s and has a changeup with elite arm-side fade and a curveball with sharp glove-side run.
And while it may not be seen as much in 2017, last year Strasburg featured a low-key filthy slider. It had velocity that, among starters, only Noah Syndergaard could match. That gave him four primary pitches that avoided the bat on over 20 percent of the swings taken at them.
The 28-year-old also deserves credit for his deception. He was better than deGrom and not much worse than Lester at disguising his pitches in 2016. His pitches aren't just nasty. They're also hard to pick up.
And despite his high BABIP, Strasburg's contact management has gotten better. He used to bunch his pitches together. He's since moved his fastballs higher in the zone, where he's established something of an exit velocity safe haven.
Now, if only he could stay healthy...
7. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
|200 IP Rank||21||10||T65||24||T22|
Justin Verlander seemed finished as an ace in 2014. Then he got healthy again.
“Now it’s like it used to be,” he told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “Things are coming back to me. I’m feeling a lot like my old self.”
This was even before Verlander's velocity came back with a vengeance in 2016. He was throwing his four-seam fastball harder than he had in years, and his slider harder than ever.
To boot, the veteran Detroit Tigers ace also gets exceptional spin on his pitches. It's no wonder each of his pitches has a whiff/swing rate over 20 percent since 2015, with many whiffs coming inside the zone.
Dingers are Verlander's vice, and that can be chalked up to his aggressiveness with his fastball. His preference is to use it to attack hitters up in the zone. They've been known to attack right back.
So how does he also manage low exit velocity? Mainly because he doesn't overdo it with the kind of mistake pitches that are easiest to square up. The 34-year-old also gets plenty of pop-ups in the infield.
Vintage Verlander went away for a while. Now he's back.
6. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
|200 IP Rank||13||36||28||12||14|
How does a guy with even better exit velocity than Verlander also struggle with home runs?
That's Corey Kluber's penance for not adjusting to the league's adjustment. He hasn't changed his location patterns from his Cy Young season in 2014. He's still mostly low-and-lower. Trouble is, hitters hit the low pitch for power a lot better now than they did then.
Otherwise, Kluber's approach works like gangbusters.
The Cleveland Indians ace is yet another maestro at disguising pitches, and the stuff he disguises is legit. He works off a four-seamer and sinker combination with low-to-mid-90s velocity. His best pitches are his slider, which has unreal glove-side run, and his cutter, which isn't much worse in that department.
And while hitters can hurt Kluber within the zone, one of his strengths is getting hitters to chase outside the zone. Even when hitters make contact on those swings, their batted balls average a meager 81.9 mph.
So, heaven help the league if he becomes less predictable.
5. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
|200 IP Rank||6||T72||T55||9||T20|
What is it that makes Chris Sale so tough to hit, you ask?
Well, have you seen his stuff?
The Boston Red Sox's newest ace has spent much of his career working in the mid-90s with his fastball. Then there's the action that he gets on his pitches. His four-seamer, sinker, changeup and slider all boast elite horizontal movement.
That affords him plenty of whiffs, but don't overlook his low exit velocity. Like Kluber, one of Sale's specialties is getting hitters to chase. That's when hitters average just 82.4 mph exit velocity when they make contact.
So why the high BABIP and HR/9? In a word: circumstances.
Sale has spent the last two seasons pitching in front of a Chicago White Sox defense that was mostly terrible. Adding to his misery was U.S. Cellular Field, a notorious bandbox. The lefty's career HR/9 on the road (0.66) is a fraction of his career HR/9 at home (1.15).
Consider this a warning: Neither of these things will be a problem in 2017.
4. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
|200 IP Rank||4||12||T78||3||T12|
Max Scherzer may be 32 years old, but his arm is alive and well.
His fastball has been sitting in the mid-90s and spinning as well as almost any fastball in the last two seasons. Throw in a preference to challenge hitters up in the zone, and it's no wonder the Washington Nationals ace collects more fastball whiffs than anyone.
Meanwhile, Scherzer's slider and changeup have improved as swing-and-miss pitches since 2015. Although both pitches have good velocity in the mid-to-high 80s, they still manage to disappear shortly before reaching the hitting zone. Ugly swings ensue.
Alas, Scherzer has only himself to blame for the dingers. Few starters attack the zone more aggressively than he does. His stuff allows him to mostly get away with that, but his habit of grooving pitches has gotten worse. Hitters have punished him accordingly.
So, a guy with two Cy Youngs, two no-hitters and a 20-strikeout game is tough to hit every which way. Go figure.
3. Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
|200 IP Rank||26||3||4||25||T1|
What makes Jake Arrieta so tough is not so much that he throws hard, but that he basically doesn't throw anything without movement.
Sinkers, sliders and curveballs have accounted for about 90 percent of Arrieta's pitches over the last two seasons. His sinker has solid arm-side run. His slider has the velocity and glove-side run of a cutter—and, indeed, should arguably be referred to as such. His curveball drops as much as Adam Wainwright's.
When the Chicago Cubs ace has each pitch working, it's a beautiful symphony of movement. Swings and misses are one obvious benefit. The big one, however, is weak contact.
While there's really only one spot where Arrieta hasn't regularly jammed hitters over the last two seasons, he does have a specialty. He works low and lower with his three primary pitches, resulting in a steady stream of ground balls. Those only average 83.5 mph off the bat. With Chicago's infield defense, those are free outs.
After his dominance diminished in the latter half of 2016, Arrieta is going into 2017 with questions to answer. But when a pitcher has been this good for the better part of two years, the benefit of the doubt is easier to give.
2. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
- Noah Syndergaard: 98.81 mph
- Stephen Strasburg: 96.45 mph
|200 IP Rank||7||T97||15||7||8|
So, about Noah Syndergaard's BABIP. That's not helped by the .334 mark he posted last year, which had more to do with the Mets defense than it did his pitching.
What Thor is all about is no big secret. He has the fastest four-seamer and sinker on record for starters. And thanks to the length of his 6'6" frame, his stuff appears even faster. The gap between him and the next-best starter in perceived fastball velocity is laughably large:
The "Yeah, but" is that Syndergaard's fastballs aren't great at missing bats. But hitters certainly have to guard against them, and that makes them easy pickings for Syndergaard's secondaries.
Those are also mighty. Like his fastball, his slider and changeup are the hardest on record for starters. His curveball isn't, amazingly, but it's a good change-of-pace pitch with decent glove-side run.
The 24-year-old can be hurt on pitches down the middle at the knees and the belt, but that's about it. His exit velocity in all other zones is just 85.4 mph. And whether it's inside or outside the zone, he has no trouble missing the bat entirely.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
|200 IP Rank||2||T15||3||1||T1|
In a way, it's actually funny that Clayton Kershaw is so tough to hit.
But, yeah. About that three-pitch mix.
It starts with the fastball, which works in the low-to-mid-90s with elite rise. He then favors his slider, which is one of the hardest thrown by a lefty starter. Then there's his curveball, which is 20 mph slower than his fastball and one of the biggest droppers on record.
And thanks to some other new statistics revealed at Baseball Prospectus, we now know more about how these pitches work together. It turns out Kershaw is one of the kings of flight time differential and the king of post-tunnel break.
Translated: He's excellent at changing speeds (that's his curve at work) and his pitches do a lot of moving after the point when hitters must decide whether to swing.
There's no blaming hitters for only being able to hurt Kershaw when he makes mistakes right down the middle. And whether it's in the zone or outside the zone, his stuff is tough to hit in the first place.
There's only one Kershaw, and he's the best there is.