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Over the weekend, New York Post writer and Baseball Prospectus subscriber Joel Sherman e-mailed the BP crew looking for some help in confirming a suspicion he had about the Yankees for an article he was writing. Joel suspected that the Bombers lacked hitters who could handle top-shelf pitching. After I ran some numbers for him, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at all major-league hitters and see who feasts on weaker pitching and who fares especially well against stronger pitching.

Using Baseball Prospectus’ 2012 PECOTA projections as a proxy for a pitcher’s true talent level, I’ve defined “strong pitching” as all pitchers with a 3.50 PECOTA ERA or better and “weak pitching” as all pitchers with a 4.50 PECOTA ERA or worse. Then, I calculated a hitter’s TAv when he faced each type of pitcher in 2011 (using a simplified TAv formula that doesn’t take into account ballpark or league or any of the advanced stuff).

First, let’s take a look at the hitters who feasted on weak pitching in 2011:

Player

PA vs. “Weak”

TAv vs. “Weak”

Full-Season TAv

Jose Bautista

227

0.365

0.361

Miguel Cabrera

233

0.338

0.356

Mike Napoli

115

0.391

0.349

Prince Fielder

254

0.375

0.335

Ryan Braun

240

0.342

0.333

Matt Kemp

224

0.367

0.332

Adrian Gonzalez

261

0.362

0.329

Joey Votto

232

0.350

0.328

David Ortiz

198

0.375

0.324

Jacoby Ellsbury

256

0.346

0.312

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The best hitters should, logically, perform best against weak pitching, and what we wind up seeing is (predictably) a veritable “who’s who” of the game’s best hitters. What we should be more interested in is which hitters overperform their usual production when facing weak pitchers the most:

Player

PA vs. “Weak”

TAv vs. “Weak”

Full-Season TAv

Difference

Mike Stanton

191

0.397

0.299

0.098

Curtis Granderson

223

0.390

0.306

0.084

Billy Butler

175

0.360

0.285

0.075

Nelson Cruz

162

0.343

0.270

0.072

Jason Heyward

140

0.320

0.248

0.072

Danny Valencia

199

0.305

0.234

0.071

Josh Hamilton

155

0.364

0.293

0.070

Ben Zobrist

239

0.350

0.283

0.067

Peter Bourjos

181

0.328

0.262

0.066

Ryan Ludwick

182

0.303

0.238

0.065

Emilio Bonifacio

199

0.334

0.270

0.064

Erick Aybar

188

0.316

0.256

0.059

Omar Infante

214

0.302

0.244

0.058

Brett Gardner

205

0.314

0.257

0.057

Alcides Escobar

168

0.280

0.223

0.057

This list is much more interesting. The likes of Joey Bats and Miguel Cabrera have fallen off, but there are still some very notable names at the top of the list. Mike Stanton, one of the brightest young hitters in the game, and Curtis Granderson, one of 2011’s biggest breakouts, lead the pack. Other elite or near-elite hitters join them on the top-15 list, including Butler, Cruz, Hamilton, and Zobrist.

Of course, demolishing bad pitching isn’t necessarily a bad thing unto itself. After all, if the hitter can merely hold his own against good pitching, he’ll be just fine. What is potentially worrisome is the hitter who can take advantage of weak pitching but struggles against superior competition. This next list shows us the players with the most extreme combination of overperforming against weak pitching and underperforming against strong pitching:

Player

PA vs. “Strong”

TAv vs. “Strong”

PA vs. “Weak”

TAv vs. “Weak”

Full-Season TAv

Total Difference

Mike Stanton

145

0.217

191

0.397

0.299

0.180

Curtis Granderson

147

0.228

223

0.390

0.306

0.162

Emilio Bonifacio

147

0.180

199

0.334

0.270

0.154

Ryan Howard

102

0.153

227

0.305

0.283

0.152

Ryan Ludwick

135

0.157

182

0.303

0.238

0.147

J.P. Arencibia

126

0.135

159

0.279

0.239

0.144

B.J. Upton

115

0.174

236

0.312

0.262

0.138

Billy Butler

128

0.235

175

0.360

0.285

0.126

Nelson Cruz

122

0.218

162

0.343

0.270

0.124

Alex Gonzalez

128

0.144

202

0.268

0.219

0.124

Aaron Miles

101

0.141

177

0.265

0.236

0.124

Mark Ellis

122

0.148

149

0.272

0.223

0.124

Alberto Callaspo

126

0.186

174

0.304

0.269

0.118

Danny Valencia

162

0.189

199

0.305

0.234

0.117

David Ortiz

152

0.261

198

0.375

0.324

0.114

This list might even be more interesting than the previous one. While there are some hapless hitters like Aaron Miles and Mark Ellis present, as we’d expect, there are quite a few stars here as well. Gone are Wonderboy and Zorilla, only to be replaced by Big Papi, Ryan Howard, and B.J. Upton. Stanton and Grandy still top the list, though, as not only are they Millwood-mashers, but they essentially transformed into Alberto Gonzalez and Eli Whiteside when facing the game’s elite hurlers this past season.

While all of this is very interesting, it’s important to keep in mind that we shouldn’t try to draw any concrete conclusions from this data. While I’ve narrowed my lists to hitters who logged at least 100 plate appearances against both strong and weak pitching, we’re still dealing with incredibly small sample sizes. Additionally, it’s unclear just how repeatable these numbers are. Just because a hitter struggled against great pitching in 2011 doesn’t necessarily mean he will do so again in 2012.

When evaluating young players, scouts will sometimes express concerns that a player struggles against stronger competition and has put up the numbers he has by succeeding against lesser talent, capitalizing on their mistakes and taking advantage of their less-than-stellar stuff. While this can be a legitimate concern for players coming up through the minors or coming over from Japan or another non-United States nation, it’s not as clear how worrisome this is for players who are already in the major leagues. While a hitter who struggles against top-notch competition in Double-A is likely to struggle against any and all major-league pitching (after all, even Miguel Batista is better than most Double-A hurlers), a major leaguer who struggles against the Roy Halladays of the world but is fine against Joel Pineiro may still be able to put up good or even great numbers on the whole (and for a lot of fantasy players, that final season line is all that matters). After all, they’re already playing in the majors and will be facing plenty of Pineiros.

Of course, this kind of thing could limit a player’s upside and definitely could have implications for major-league clubs. After all, if a player struggles against top-notch pitching, he’d certainly be a candidate to be examined more closely and may benefit from putting some extra work with the team’s hitting coach and player development staff. A team could also choose to deploy a player differently, sitting him out some games, if they know he struggles against top pitching.

All said, take the data itself with a grain of salt, but it does raise some interesting points and certainly gives us something to think about.

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tlpacker
1/30
On your first two tables, I think the labels of Full Season TAv and TAv vs. "Weak" need to be switched. Very cool article.
derekcarty
1/30
They were, and they've been fixed. Thanks.
mswain784
1/30
Were any guys better against the strong pitchers than the weak ones?
derekcarty
1/30
Yes, there were a few, as we might expect to see based on pure random variation, but it was encouraging that their numbers were much fewer than those who were strong against weak pitching and weak against strong pitching. While 93 players had a "Total Difference" greater than 0.050 (starting with Stanton, Grandy, and Bonifacio), just 3 had a "Total Difference" less than -0.50: Paul Konerko, David DeJesus, and Carlos Beltran. Just 18 total were on the negative side of the ledger, compared to 141 on the positive side.
hessshaun
1/30
Great article. Anyhow, I would love to see the other end of the spectrum. Who kills Strong pitchers? The players who make me think are Stanton and Arencibia. They are still under 1000 career plate appearances which means they have some time to adjust before they are the player they are. What that means, I don't know, but it makes me wonder if it could be a good thing?
derekcarty
1/30
The top 15 vs. "strong" pitching in 2011: Jose Bautista Pablo Sandoval Paul Konerko Chris Young Neil Walker David DeJesus Elvis Andrus Justin Turner Carlos Beltran Hanley Ramirez Scott Sizemore Adam Kennedy Carl Crawford Hideki Matsui Michael Morse All actually performed better versus strong pitching than they did overall. That's unlikely to continue, but it may speak (to some degree) to their general ability to hit strong pitching better than their peers.
hessshaun
1/30
Thanks. Interesting.
jfranco77
1/30
It seems to me this could be a list of "good" hitters that were a bit unlucky. If they keep up their production against strong pitching and do what they should against weak pitching, they could see an overall bump. Not sure how actionable it is for most of these guys, but maybe Walker and Young. Also, can't believe Nick Swisher didn't make the list of people who crush weak pitching. Just from watching a lot of Yankee games, he seems like a prime example of what Derek is talking about.
gtliles82
1/30
If I read the first table correctly, it appears Cabrera was better against elites. I'd be interested to see the leaders by the measure.
derekcarty
1/30
I just posted it in response to the last comment :) Cabrera, though, did not make the list. It appears he was worse against both weak and strong pitching, but worse against strong than weak. As we're dealing with small sample sizes, this kind of random variation is bound to occur for some players.
Scott44
1/30
One factor for Stanton, I think, is age relative to experience. You can expect a younger player, like Stanton, to be exposed by the game's elite, whereas it might show something different for someone like Granderson (who is already in his prime) and hasn't been able to make adjustments against the game's best.
aaronbailey52
1/30
I've always wondered if talent disparities such as this directly contribute to the perception of clutchiness. A guy that pounds the back end of the rotation and flails against the front end, will sure look like a winner with his overall season line, and draw the admiration fans, but watch him suck in the playoffs. The best playoff batters are the ones who can hit the best pitching. I'd like to see similar work done in search of an apparent clutchiness factor.
prs130
1/30
Agreed. Also not clutch: a lefty slugger who can't hit quality lefty relievers. This is a guy who will inevitably underperform in a high-leverage moment, assuming that (i) the opposing manager can accurately recognize a high-leverage moment, and (ii) he has a LOOGY available.
BurrRutledge
1/30
Very interesting. Adding same vs. opposing handedness of pitchers as an independent variable would / could really raise the importance of this study.
jthom17
1/31
I have have seen the number of PAs required for various stats to stabilize -- However, I have never seen it for TAv. I assume it is lower than BA -- Is it such that these number of PA are meaningful?
derekcarty
1/31
Check out the bottom of this article, the section entitled "Correcting Misconceptions about the Use of these Numbers": http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=14215 Basically, there's no magic number of PA where a stat becomes meaningful. They're always meaningful--it's the degree to which they're meaningful that changes. That said, I would think these are relatively insignificant, in the terms that we normally think about these things. I'll run the numbers on when TAv "stabilizes" one day, although even then, you couldn't just look at these 100-200 at-bats for these players and make a judgment. Splits are a complicated thing that people often misunderstand, which would make for a good article unto itself. Basically, you can't just take a subset of a player's production and ignore everything else that he does. For example, you can't just look at a hitter's stats versus left-handed pitchers and make a judgment about his ability to hit lefties. His stats against right-handed batters need to be taken into consideration as well. After all, while some of the variables are changing, we're still dealing with the same player. As I said, it's a little complicated and worthy of a full article, but that's the general idea. Sorry if this response was more than you bargained for :)
JoshuaGB
1/31
Interesting article Derek. It would also be interesting to run these numbers with the Billy Beane teams that made the playoffs but couldn't succeed once they got there. One reasonable theory for the A's playoff collapses is that the OBP and TTT focus works better against weaker pitching, and the playoffs are filled with studs on the mound.