September 19, 2012
The Surprisingly Hard-to-Hit Pitches of 2012
If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for PITCHf/x leaderboards filled with info from Brooks Baseball for a while. And now that you have them—again, if you’re like me—you’re compelled to keep sorting columns in descending order, in every possible permutation, just to see what will rise to the top. Sometimes what rises to the top is a name you don’t expect to see. This is an article about a few of those names, and the pitches that plucked them out of obscurity and took them to the top of a leaderboard where no one would have expected them to be.
There are many ways to gauge the effectiveness of a particular pitch. One way is to see how often batters fail to hit the pitch when they attempt to. This leaves out a lot of information—how often they attempt to hit it, how well they do when they succeed, how well the pitch sets up a subsequent offering—but it is a quick-and-dirty way to assess unhittability. The most unhittable pitches—by this definition of “unhittable”—are pretty predictable. Cole Hamels has the most unhittable changeup. Zack Greinke (or Edwin Jackson, depending on your minimums) has the most unhittable slider. A.J. Burnett has the most unhittable curve. (That one might seem slightly less predictable, but even during his disappointing seasons, Burnett’s curve was always hard to hit.) Among relievers, if you set the thresholds low enough, Aroldis Chapman has the most unhittable fastball and the most unhittable slider. Aroldis Chapman is really hard to hit.
Swings and misses are sexy, but having one pitch that’s hard to hit doesn’t necessarily make a pitcher effective. In fact, in the cases of the following four starters, it definitely doesn’t. Here’s how you pull off one sexy pitch without putting together the complete package.
Four-seam fastball: J.A. Happ
How unhittable is it: Hitters have missed Happ’s four-seamer a quarter of the times they’ve swung at it. That’s the highest rate among the 38 starters who’ve thrown at least 1000 four-seamers this season.
Why it’s surprising: Because it’s thrown by J.A. Happ, who has a 5.08 ERA in his last two seasons and 300-plus innings. And because he doesn’t throw it that hard: Happ’s four-seamer averages 91.1 miles per hour. The average velocities of the other four fastballs in the top five: 93.8, 95.2, 95.3, 94.1.