25 things you didn’t know about baseball
I have found baseball nerd heaven, and it is a place called FanGraphs.
Earlier this year, the invaluable repository for statistics unveiled its pitch-type linear weights. Do not be scared by the math jargon. The amount of information gleaned from a few clicks is spellbinding, the urge to delve in deeper addictive, and next thing you know it’s 1:30 a.m. and your boss is asking where your story is and, uh …
So anyway, this is what the statistical revolution has wrought: The ability to value every pitch thrown from the perspective of the pitcher and batter. A ball in a certain count has value, as does a strike and a hit and so on. Using data supplied from MLB.com’s incredible Pitch-f/x system – which records the velocity and break of every pitch and uses an algorithm to compute the type of pitch – FanGraphs breaks down the effectiveness of the pitcher and hitter on every pitch.
No longer do we need to rely on conventional wisdom to pinpoint the game’s best fastball hitter. The numbers tell us. Gone are the days when a general manager can make a trade and espouse its merits without an empirical review. FanGraphs brings proprietary knowledge into the hands of fans.
Even mathematical dimwits like me can figure it out. The game’s best fastball hitter, for example, is Albert Pujols(notes). By taking the result of every fastball he has seen this season and assigning a value to the outcome, the formula determines that Pujols has contributed 29.5 runs above average on fastballs alone.
Oh, there is plenty more, and you can have at it right here . Though before you do, look at the 25 points below.
Nerd or not, they’ll blow your mind.
1) The best fastball in baseball is 88.4 mph.
And it belongs to Jarrod Washburn(notes). He also throws a slider, cutter, curveball and changeup, but his average-velocity fastball is the dagger of the bunch. At 22.4 runs above average this year, it has been more effective than the fastest (Ubaldo Jimenez(notes)) and the slowest (Jamie Moyer(notes)). The most amazing part: Washburn’s fastball was actually 8.3 runs below average last year.
2) No starter this decade has thrown a fastball like Jimenez’s.
The Rockies’ right-hander’s average velocity is 95.9 mph, the highest since such data was compiled, in 2002. It’s not dipping, either. Jimenez’s average fastball velocity in his last start was his highest this season.
3) The fastest fastball in all of baseball kind of stinks.
The average velocity on Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya’s(notes) fastball is 99.3 mph. He throws it more than 80 percent of the time. It has been knocked around to the tune of 4.1 runs below average. The dream of an average 100 mph fastball may die in August, when, for the second time in two years, Zumaya is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery.
4) Somebody actually throws a slider more than 90 mph.
5) No one throws a changeup more than 90 mph.
Well, at least not until Neftali Feliz(notes) gets enough innings to count (and hopefully, by then, the Pitch-f/x algorithm – which, truth be told, is not 100 percent accurate – will have figured out that it’s not a two-seam fastball). For now, the hardest changeup among those who throw it more than five percent of the time belongs to Felix Hernandez(notes), at 89 mph.
6) The best pitch in baseball is a changeup, and you’ll never guess who throws it.
Tim Lincecum(notes) came up heralded for his blazing fastball and hammer curveball, and neither is close to his best pitch. Lincecum’s changeup has been 27.5 runs above average this year, the highest total for any pitch and almost double the second-best change, Brian Tallet’s(notes) 14-runs-above special. It’s not like Lincecum piles up the runs above average by throwing the changeup egregiously. His 5.62 runs above per 100 changeups thrown is also the best for that pitch.
8) The other best-pitch winners aren’t the ones you’d think, either.
Best curveball goes to Houston left-hander Wandy Rodriguez(notes) at 16.7 runs above average, just ahead of Adam Wainwright’s(notes) 16.5. Best slider is Ryan Dempster(notes), whose 15.6 runs-above-average pitch is well ahead of second-place Zack Greinke(notes).
Scouting myth: Liriano has lost the bite on his slider since Tommy John surgery. False. Liriano’s slider is actually 5.9 runs above average. His fastball is the problem. It’s the worst in the major leagues this season, 21.8 runs below average, and it has lost more than three mph since his breakout 2006 season.
As Santana’s fastball velocity declines – he’s down to 90.7 mph on average – he has increased his changeups thrown to nearly 31 percent, which, in years past, would be welcome. The problem? His changeup isn’t even a run above average per 100 thrown this season, whereas his career low is 1.58 per 100.
11) You do not need a good fastball to succeed.
Examples: Ricky Romero(notes) (5.5 runs below on his fastball, 9.4 runs above on his changeup), Wainwright (13.8 below fastball, 16.5 above curveball and 10.2 above slider), Dempster (12.9 below fastball, 15.6 above slider), A.J. Burnett(notes) (8.9 below fastball, 10.1 above curveball), Brett Anderson(notes) (6.1 below fastball, 11.1 above slider) and many others.
12) The largest separation between fastball and changeup is 15.6 mph.
Oakland starter Dallas Braden’s(notes) 87.9-mph fastball looks a lot meaner alongside a changeup that toddles in at 72.3 mph. The only pitcher with a slower changeup is Cincinnati reliever Danny Ray Herrera(notes), whose numbers are exempt because, at 5-foot-6, he qualifies for the gnome division.
14) Mixing pitches isn’t overrated. It isn’t integral, either.
Los Angeles left-hander Clayton Kershaw’s(notes) fastball has the second most runs above average, and he throws it 72.9 percent of the time. It’s still not close to the highest. Colorado starter Aaron Cook(notes) fires fastballs – of the sinking, two-seam variety – 85 percent of the time. And with good reason: His slider and curveball are both around 2½ runs below average per 100 thrown.
15) One person has three pitches that are among the five best in runs above average.
More evidence that Dan Haren(notes) is the business: He’s got the best splitter in baseball (7.2 runs above average), the fourth-best cutter (13.7 above average) and the fifth-best fastball (19.3 above average).
The book on Howard is the same as ever: throw breaking balls, watch him chase. This year, he’s seeing more than ever. Only 45.2 percent of pitches thrown to him are fastballs, and 26.7 percent are sliders, more than seven percent over his career average. Newsflash: Howard is hitting 8.1 runs above average off of sliders, second in the major leagues to Shin-Soo Choo(notes). Want more evidence? Howard’s 1.7 runs above per 100 sliders seen is better than his 1.25 per 100 fastballs.
17) More pitchers need to learn the split-fingered fastball so they can get Pujols out.
Superman is fallible after all. While only 2.6 percent of the pitches he sees are splitters, Pujols can’t hit them. For the last four years, he has been below average with them, and this year could be the worst: 4.89 runs below per 100 seen. Scouts have this one pegged: Only seven players have faced a higher percentage of splitters.
Upton is 25.2 runs above average hitting fastballs. The only better fastball hitters are Pujols, Kevin Youkilis(notes) and Michael Young(notes). Upton is 13 runs below average hitting sliders. No one is worse. Pitchers throw Upton sliders 23.9 percent of the time. It should be more like 40.
19) Hitting a fastball is not imperative. Just ask the Pittsburgh Pirates.
You figure that during the Pirates’ fire sale they would manage to upgrade offensively from their former shortstop, Jack Wilson(notes), whose anemic 11.2 runs below average on fastballs personified the franchise quite well. But no. They replaced him with Ronny Cedeno(notes), who in just over 200 at-bats is 17.9 runs below average. His 3.46 runs below per 100 fastballs is the worst in baseball, and scouts recognize it: Cedeno sees almost 70 percent fastballs because he can’t touch them.
Only David Eckstein(notes), Luis Castillo(notes), Jason Kendall(notes) and Denard Span(notes) see a higher percentage of fastballs than Figgins’ 69.5 percent. Difference is, they can’t hit them. Figgins is 14.5 runs above average against fastballs.
21) Pitchers may well amp up for good hitters.
Pujols, Miguel Cabrera(notes), Mark DeRosa(notes) and Billy Butler(notes) have one thing in common: Each has faced an average fastball of 91.7 mph. Pujols, Cabrera and Butler are their teams’ best hitters, which could be interpreted as pitchers saving their top-shelf stuff for the toughest out. Or maybe it’s the opposite: managers saving their hardest-throwing pitchers for use with the team’s best hitters. Either way, the players that face high-end velocity tend to skew toward good.
Morales, in limited playing time last year, was 7.84 runs below average per 100 curves seen. This year: 5.13 above per 100, the best in baseball.
How only 7.5 percent of pitches to Rowand last year were curveballs – and how the number has averaged 8.7 percent the last six years – is inconceivable considering Rowand can’t hit one worth a damn. He’s been above average once in the last eight years, and finally pitchers are throwing him more curves than anyone else – 13.3 percent, highest in baseball – with which he’s doing nothing: 2.31 runs below average per 100.
Like his Giants teammate Rowand, he cannot hit a curve. His 6.85 runs below per 100 is worst in baseball among hitters with 200 plate appearances.
25) Six players in baseball do not have a weakness on a specific pitch.
As you know, Pujols isn’t one of them. Joe Mauer(notes) is an easy guess, and it would be correct. Same with Cabrera, who has the privilege of being the only player above average in all six categories – knuckleball included. Torii Hunter(notes) just makes it, one-one hundredth a run in the black on curveballs, and his center field peer Adam Jones(notes) joins him. The two National League representatives come from the Central Division. Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto(notes) is a monster. The other is not. He hits .292. He slugs .386. He is the epitome of utility. The final player without a weakness: Skip Schumaker(notes).
Just proof that even the most fun numbers do lie a little.