25 things you didn’t know about baseball

This is my favorite column to write each year. I plop down in front of the computer and spend 24 hours lost in Never-Never Nerd Land, also known as FanGraphs.com, the repository for just about every number a baseball fan needs – and doesn’t need – to know.

It’s my favorite because over the course of a season weird things happen, things that get overlooked. And it’s a kick to play gumshoe and extract these little nuggets of coolness that may provide insight into the game or leave you wondering what sort of egghead would spend his time plumbing such minutiae.

Trust me: It’s more the former. With a head nod to FanGraphs and the people at Baseball Info Solutions who provide the raw data from the last decade, here are 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball.

1. The hardest thrower in the game is a middle reliever, and it’s not Aroldis Chapman(notes).

Meet Henry Rodriguez(notes). No, not the former Montreal Expos power hitter. This is the little powder keg in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen whose average fastball sits at 98.0 mph. That’s some heat, but it’s the slowest of the fastest since Joel Zumaya(notes) threw 97.5 in 2008, and it doesn’t come close to the 99.6 Chapman averaged last season.

Neither, for that matter, does Chapman. He’s at 97.9 mph this year and could retake the lead from Rodriguez with a good outing. The three-time reigning champion in starter velocity, Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), currently sits 10th at 93.4, nearly three mph off his gas last season.

2. Two players haven’t popped out this season.

Nearly 650 times, Los Angeles Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick(notes) has swung and made contact. Not one of those balls lingered in the air before settling into an infielder’s glove.

Texas superutilityman Michael Young(notes) is at more than 750 contacts without a popout. Only twice in the past decade has a player qualified for the batting title and not popped out: Larry Bigbie in 2004 and Joey Votto(notes) in 2010.

It’s a staggering feat of skill mixed with a healthy dose of luck. The numbers back the skill part. Over the last six seasons, Young has popped out 21 times in 3,683 at-bats. Kendrick’s 2,350-at-bat career includes 11 popouts.

3. Votto’s ability to avoid popouts might be more impressive than Kendrick and Young’s.

The reigning National League MVP is following his perfect 2010 with a near-perfect 2011. He had the temerity to pop out once this year, giving him one in 1,010 at-bats over the last two seasons. It’s doubly noteworthy because Votto frequently drives the ball in the air, accumulating 130 extra-base hits during that span.

The king of popouts in 2011, Arizona Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young, has 38 in 472 at-bats. The player to whom Votto’s offensive numbers best match up, St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols(notes), has popped out 13 times this season – a huge outlier. Pujols pops up more than the gopher at Bushwood Country Club: 261 in 6,186 at-bats.

Votto has 10 in 2,089 at-bats.

4. Votto’s swing against fastballs is the single best weapon in baseball this year.

Votto is so good – and so anonymous – he deserves a little elucidation. FanGraphs calculates a metric called Pitch Type Values. Essentially, it assigns a run value for a hitter against each particular pitch as well as one for every type a pitcher throws. And Votto has blistered fastballs this season to the tune of 35.1 runs.

The best hitters for the other pitches:

Slider: Jose Bautista(notes), 12.1 runs
Cutter: Hunter Pence(notes), 10.0 runs
Curveball: Aramis Ramirez(notes), 9.5 runs
Changeup: Alex Avila(notes), 9.0 runs
Split-finger: Starlin Castro(notes), 3.8 runs
Knuckleball: Jayson Werth(notes), 2.9 runs

Fueled by a dominating cutter, Dan Haren's WHIP is at a career-low 0.98 this season.
(Getty Images)

5. The single best pitch in the major leagues this season is Dan Haren’s(notes) cutter.

The pitch of the moment is now the most effective, too. Haren has saved 34.1 runs this season with his cutter, which he started throwing in earnest two years ago with Arizona. Now he throws it on 48.5 percent of his pitches.

6. Hitters love Haren’s junk.

Because Haren’s command is so good – his 1.2 walks per nine innings ranks third lowest in the big leagues behind Roy Halladay(notes) and Josh Tomlin(notes) – he can goad hitters into thinking he’s always going to throw strikes. Haren doesn’t, of course, which adds up to swings on 36.8 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone, the highest number in the last 10 years. Hitters make contact on 67.4 percent of those swings, which is close to average and an indication that when Haren misses, it’s not by much.

Baseball, on the other hand, has seen a marked increase in swings on pitches outside the strike zone. Batters swung at one of every six such pitches in 2004. This season, they’re hacking at 30.4 percent of pitches that miss the zone. Contact percentages have gone up commensurately – from 53.7 percent in 2004 to 68.2 percent today – which may not indicate a newfound eagerness to swing as much as a more accurate measurement of what’s really a strike since computerized pitch tracking via PITCHf/x’s was implemented in 2006.

7. The knuckleball is dead.

Long live the knuckleball? The prospects don’t look good. The best knuckleball this season is that of New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey(notes), and it’s minus-5.4 runs saved. Dickey’s fastball, that 84.4-mph zoomer, actually has saved 10.3 runs.

The rest of the best pitches this season:

Fastball: Justin Verlander(notes), 32.3 runs
Slider: Clayton Kershaw(notes), 21.4 runs
Curveball: Wandy Rodriguez(notes), 15.0 runs
Changeup: Cole Hamels(notes), 23.5 runs
Split-finger: Edward Mujica(notes), 11.3 runs

8. Not even two stints in the minor leagues this season could save Edinson Volquez(notes) from having the worst pitch in the big leagues.

Hard as always at 93.8 mph, Volquez’s fastball shouldn’t be the disaster it is. But it’s tough to argue with minus-21.4 runs, and his brethren in helplessness may want to consider spending the offseason refining these particular pitches:

Slider: J.A. Happ(notes), minus-10.3 runs
Cutter: Clayton Richard(notes), minus-7.9 runs
Curveball: Luke Hochevar(notes), minus-8.7 runs
Changeup: Bronson Arroyo(notes), minus-9.4 runs
Split-finger: Carlos Zambrano(notes), minus-6.0 runs
Knuckleball: Tim Wakefield(notes), minus-10.7 runs

9. Anybody who doesn’t throw Alfonso Soriano(notes) a full diet of breaking balls is cheating himself.

Soriano deserves congratulations on leading the major leagues in futility against both the slider (minus-17.0 runs, with the next worst Casey McGehee(notes) at minus-10.6) and curveball (minus-7.7 runs). It is remarkably difficult to be that bad, and just plain remarkable that he’s being paid $18 million to be that bad.

His teammates in dubiousness:

Fastball: Alex Gonzalez(notes), minus-28.6 runs
Cutter: Omar Infante(notes), minus-5.5 runs
Changeup: Derek Jeter(notes), minus-7.6 runs
Split-finger: Werth, minus-2.3 runs
Knuckleball: Curtis Granderson(notes), minus-2.6 runs

Derek Jeter's batting average has rebounded to .297 in 2011 after a rough 2010.
(Getty Images)

10. Even if Jeter can’t hit a changeup, he can hit everything else

Seriously! The Captain isn’t excelling against any particular pitch, but he’s more than holding his own among the other six:

Fastball: 3.5 runs
Slider: 2.7 runs
Cutter: 0.8 runs
Curveball: 4.4 runs
Split-finger: 0.7 runs
Knuckleball: 0.8 runs

11. The heir to Rob Deer can’t even luck into an infield hit.

Poor Adam Dunn(notes). Just give him a squibber. An excuse-me check swing that takes a benign roll down the third-base line and settles inside the chalk. Anything, please. The guy has 60 hits in 363 at-bats this season, and not one of them is an infield hit. Yes, he is a massive human being, and anyone who watches him run down the line gets arthritis by proxy, but the man needs something, anything. The last player to qualify for the batting title with no infield hits was Jack Cust(notes) in 2007.

12. Mark Teixeira(notes) is a choker.

Well, this year at least. Teixeira owns the second-worst FanGraphs’ “Clutch” score, calculated by comparing his Win Probability Added to a leverage-neutral version of the metric. It’s meant to separate performance in important situations from those who succeed in blowouts, and that’s Teixeira this season. Only Kurt Suzuki’s(notes) minus-2.49 is worst than Teixeira’s minus-2.18

The two highest-rated in the Clutch metric: Bobby Abreu(notes) and Johnny Damon(notes), two former Yankees.

13. The BABIP gods’ sacrificial lambs this season: Teixeira and Evan Longoria(notes).

BABIP (batting average on balls in play) historically hovers around .300. Anything above connotes good luck. Anything below means an unfair spell. BABIPs of .229 (Longoria) and .231 (Teixeira) are simply unfair, the sort of misfortune that can ruin a great player’s season.

The metric xBABIP (expected BABIP) takes into account other peripherals and guesstimates what a player’s BABIP should be. Longoria’s xBABIP this season: .308. Teixeira’s: .302.

And perhaps an explanation for why Teixeira is choking: crummy luck and nothing more.

14. Todd Helton(notes) is ripping line drives at a rate we haven’t seen in years.

Old Man Helton – at 38, he’s the third-oldest everyday player in the major leagues – has hit line drives on 28.2 percent of his balls in play this season. It’s the best number since 2003, when Mark Loretta(notes) lashed liners 30.7 percent of the time, Brian Roberts(notes) did it 30.2 percent and, yes, Helton went at a 28.8 percent clip.

15. Anybody who hits a pitch by Jonny Venters(notes) into the air should take a bow before running to first base.

Three of every four balls put into play against Venters kill grass. His 75 percent groundball ratio is unprecedented going back a decade, the closest thing to it Brandon League’s(notes) 72.9 percent in 2006, when he pitched in fewer than half the games of Venters.

16. Tyler Clippard(notes) is the flyballingest pitcher of all flyball pitchers

Clippard is like Bizarro Venters. His 18.1 percent groundball rate is the lowest of the last decade. The closest was Russ Springer’s(notes) 19.2 percent rate in 2009. And yet Clippard’s 1.54 ERA is second among pitchers with at least 60 innings. The best? Venters at 1.10.

Nobody strands baserunners like extreme flyball pitcher Tyler Clippard.

17. Clippard broke one of FanGraphs’ metrics.

To calculate LOB%, the number that indicates how good a pitcher is at stranding runners, you use the following formula:

(H+BB+HBP-R)/(H+BB+HBP-1.4*HR)

Calculate that for Clippard, and it comes out to 101 percent. And it’s sort of difficult to leave more runners on base than you actually allow.

In reality, just three baserunners of Clippard’s have scored this season – and only one by his doing. Early in the season, Sean Burnett(notes) let two runners inherited from Clippard score. On May 24, Clippard walked Craig Counsell(notes), then gave up a home run to Rickie Weeks(notes).

Aside from those four runs, all other eight Clippard has yielded have come on solo home runs. The nine home runs, multiplied by 1.4, comes out to 12.6 – higher than the 12 runs he has allowed and, thus, accounting for the 101 percent LOB%.

The highest before Clippard was Lance Carter, who in 2002 put up a 98.8 LOB% over 20 1/3 innings. Pat Neshek(notes) was Clippardian in 2006, giving up nine runs on six homers and posting a 97.1 strand rate. Texas reliever Koji Uehara(notes) ranks second to Clippard this season at 94 percent.

18. There is a pitcher who almost never throws a fastball, and he’s not a knuckleballer.

Though Andy Sonnanstine(notes) is now at Triple-A, his numbers from his time in Tampa Bay this season were too laughable to ignore. Not his 2.6 strikeouts per nine (the worst since Chad Bradford’s(notes) 2.58 in 2008) nor his 2.6 home runs per nine (yes, he had as many homers allowed as strikeouts).

No, it was Sonnanstine’s disappearing fastball that did it. As a rookie in 2007, he threw it 51.4 percent of the time. The next year, as he helped the Rays to the World Series, he cut back to 32.7 percent fastballs. In 2009, he pared it to 23 percent, and last season it was at 14.1 percent. This year? All of 2.4 percent. Sonnanstine took Haren’s cue, increasing the use of his cutter to 64.6 percent this season.

Perhaps he was trying to mirror the success of the two non-knuckleballers who throw the fewest fastballs: Mariano Rivera(notes) (12 percent) and Roy Halladay (23.7 percent).

19. Justin Masterson(notes) is the most predictable starting pitcher in the last decade.

Masterson throws his fastball 84.4 percent of the time – nearly as much as Rivera throws his cutter. The pitcher that previously relied on his fastball the most was Carlos Silva(notes), who threw it at an 83.9 percent clip in 2005.

Among starters, here are the most reliant on each pitch:

Slider: Ervin Santana(notes), 37.6 percent
Cutter: Haren, 48.5 percent
Curveball: Rodriguez, 37.2 percent
Changeup: Rich Harden(notes), 38.6 percent (though his is more a split-change; for a true change, it’s Chris Narveson(notes) at 34.7 percent)
Split-finger: Freddy Garcia(notes), 21.4 percent
Knuckleball: Tim Wakefield, 92 percent

Among relievers:

Fastball: Matt Thornton(notes), 88.4 percent
Slider: Carlos Marmol(notes), 65.1 percent (plus seven other relievers who throw sliders more than 50 percent of the time)
Cutter: Rivera, 88 percent
Curveball: Daniel Schlereth(notes), 47.9 percent
Changeup: Ryan Madson(notes), 32.4 percent
Split-finger: Jose Arredondo(notes), 48.4 percent
Knuckleball: N/A

20. Six guys have hit every pitch well this season.

It’s no surprise Jose Bautista, Prince Fielder(notes), Miguel Cabrera(notes) and David Ortiz(notes) have positive Pitch Type Values against all the pitches they’ve faced. It’s a big surprise that Casey Kotchman(notes) and Yunel Escobar(notes) are the other two.

Only two hitters have stunk against every pitch. (And one of them isn’t Adam Dunn! Bless the curveball, against which he’s 2.2 runs ahead.) Shortstops Orlando Cabrera(notes) and Yuniesky Betancourt(notes) are the winners in the couldn’t-hit-a-softball sweepstakes.

21. Chris Getz(notes) is the weakest hitter since Felix Fermin

To calculate a player’s isolated power, subtract his batting average from his slugging percentage. Getz, the Kansas City Royals’ backup second baseman, carries an ISO of .028. And if he can steal enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, he’ll likely end the season with the worst number since Fermin’s .023 in 1989.

As unsightly as Getz’s 83 singles among 91 hits looks, it pales next to the worst season ever. In 1909, Billy Sullivan, the Chicago White Sox’s catcher, had 43 hits, 40 of which were singles, the remaining of which were doubles. His ISO of .012 is the most unbreakable record in baseball.

Mark Reynolds has 28 home runs but has not made a positive impact at third base.
(Getty Images)

22. Mark Reynolds(notes) might be worse at defense than Chris Getz is at hitting for power.

Defensive metrics remain far less convincing than their offensive brethren. That said, they match up well with scouting reports that compare Reynolds to a statue at third base – and, in some cases, say a statue would actually be an improvement.

Ultimate Zone Rating says Reynolds has given up 21.9 runs with his glove this season. The Defensive Runs Saved metric is even worse – it measures it at minus-32 runs. Of the 228 balls in Reynolds’ zone this season, he has made just 139 plays, his 61 percent rate the worst by nearly 5 percent.

23. The best defensive player in baseball for the second straight year is … Brett Gardner(notes)?

Gardner led baseball with plus 25.7 UZR last season. This year he’s at 18.3, and how Gardner saves more runs in left field than any of the great shortstops or center fielders casts skepticism on any system, including DRS, which has Gardner and Angels standout center fielder Peter Bourjos(notes) atop the league with 20 runs saved. Gardner has snagged more balls out of his zone (91) than every player but Justin Upton(notes) and Austin Jackson(notes).

24. If Livan Hernandez(notes) keeps this up, his pitches are going to set time in reverse soon.

In the non-Wakefield-starters division, here is where Livan’s pitches rank:

Fastball: Slowest (83.8 mph)
Curveball: Slowest (66.3 mph)
Slider: Fifth slowest (78.9 mph; Arroyo, at 75.2 mph, is the champ)
Changeup: Sixth slowest (77.5 mph; Barry Zito(notes), at 74.4 mph, is the champ)

25. Fear the beard. Just not the one you think.

Brian Wilson(notes)? So passé. Over the last half-decade, nobody has destroyed right-handed hitting like Giants setup reliever Sergio Romo(notes) is this season. His 47.9 percent strikeout rate against right-handed batters is the highest since Brad Lidge(notes) struck out 50.3 percent of righties in 2004. And Romo’s 0.48 FIP (Fielding Indpendent Pitching) vs. right-handers is the best since Eric Gagne’s steroid-addled 2003 season, in which he broke FIP by posting a -0.04.

Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
Ken Griffey Jr.’s son likes one athlete more than dad
Duke basketball spends eye-popping amount on travel plans
Hockey star’s inspirational message to kids

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 25, 2011