25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball: Bryce Harper vs. Ted Williams

Chris Davis leads the major leagues in home runs this season. (Getty Images)
Chris Davis leads the major leagues in home runs this season. (Getty Images)

Never has there been a better time to understand baseball and the minutiae that defines every game. We know the speed of every pitch and the speed of the ball off the bat. We know how far fielders run and how fast they run and how far they throw and how fast they throw. You want it, they’ve got it. Modern baseball is Amazon for the curious.

Trying to scrape together 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball, then, gets tougher and tougher every year. Thankfully, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Savant, Hardball Times, Brooks Baseball and StatCorner all exist. They’re run by people evermore curious, and their incredible insight, thirst for numbers and indispensible databases inspired much of this column. So enjoy the information dump that follows and know that it's but a fraction of the knowledge being traded among the inquisitive who find the intricacies of the game as fascinating as the game itself.

1. Scoring in baseball is way, way up, and home runs are flying like the ball is juiced.

Earlier this month, Jon Roegele at the Hardball Times noted that after four years of a depressed run environment, scoring exploded in August to 4.49 runs per game after not eclipsing 4.3 per game once in the previous 17 months.

With September nearly complete, the numbers are even more staggering: Roegele said teams are averaging 4.63 runs per game in September, the highest per-game total since 4.78 in August 2009. Considering the last three Septembers have been far and away the lowest-scoring months of the year – last season, run scoring in September was barely above 3.9 runs per game – this is especially curious.

In his story, Roegele tried to isolate all of the potential variables. He has been a pioneer in noting the drastic lowering of the strike zone, and it has correlated with less offense. Well, the zone was lower than ever in August. There's a similarly slight correlation with pitch velocity and offense. Velo was higher than ever in August.

Next to no correlation exists with batting average on balls in play, so the .302 average in August probably didn't explain much, especially since it has slipped back to .300 in September. And while Roegele believes there might be a slight difference in runs per game due to temperature – he plans on studying it more closely at the end of the season – he's not ready to attribute much more than .015 runs per degree to it, and the gap in runs year-over-year is far higher than the temperature change.

The one piece of the equation that made sense is the rate of home runs hit per fly ball. While the correlation isn't strong, one certainly exists, and after August 2015 posted the highest HR/FB rate in the last five years, September 2015 has gone even higher: 12.8 percent, meaning more than one of every eight fly balls is landing over a fence. It's the highest number since FanGraphs started tracking the statistic in 2002.

Now, it's worth noting: This is about seven weeks of data. Plenty of other statistics in this column will fall under the small-sample-size warning. There could be noise in the data neither Roegele nor anyone else has noticed. A half-dozen executives around baseball, though, could not explain the phenomenon when queried about it. Maybe, one suggested, it's the influx of offensive talent finally drawing even with the pitching. And, sure, if this continues next season, perhaps we're entering a golden time for offense.

The more enjoyable explanation is that the ball is juiced. Alas, four big league pitchers asked whether they noticed anything different about the ball said they didn't. So squelch the conspiracy theories for now and enjoy baseball's return to a sport with some action.

2. Bryce Harper is the having the best age-22 season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 – and one could make an argument it's even better.

We could do 25 Things You Didn't Know About Bryce Harper rather easily, frankly, but tying together Harper and Williams seemed about right. Joe DiMaggio's amazing .346/.412/.673 season at 22? Great, but not as great as Harper. Jimmie Foxx's .335/.429/.637? Can't even compare it.

Bryce Harper is batting .415 in September. (AP)
Bryce Harper is batting .415 in September. (AP)

Going into the last 10 days of the season, Harper is hitting .341/.472/.669, and he's doing it against the nastiest stuff in the history of the sport. The average fastball Harper has faced this season is the second highest ever: 93 mph, according to PITCHf/x data on FanGraphs. Only Cubs rookie star Kris Bryant has seen funkier cheese: 93.1 mph

Among the fastballs and sinkers and sliders and cutters and changeups and splitters and curveballs, the repertoires Harper faces nightly certainly best what Williams saw. And though it's impossible to measure the quality of the competition, Williams played before integration and before the Latin American influx. MLB was only half as big in 1941 as it is now, and each team used just eight or nine pitchers regularly, so calculating the watering down of expansion vs. the much better player pool isn't easy.

Williams' numbers are indisputable: .406/.553/.735. Harper is out-homering him 41 to 37. Williams struck out 27 times in 456 at-bats. Harper struck out 30 times in April and another 92 since.

The fact that we're comparing him favorably to one of the greatest seasons ever, of course, shows just how incredible Harper is and why he deserves the National League MVP award even if his Washington Nationals are a disappointment. Here's one more enjoyable tidbit: Harper is hitting .415/.551/.954 with 10 home runs in September, an OPS 160 points higher than the next best, Chris Davis.

3. Zack Greinke owes much of his amazing season to his ability to leave runners on base.

Of the 7,000 or so seasons turned in by starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title in the live-ball era, only three have a better strand rate than the Los Angeles Dodgers' co-ace this season: John Candelaria in 1977, Doc Gooden in 1985 and Billy Pierce in 1955. To calculate the number, FanGraphs doesn't just scrape the LOB number at the end of the game but uses a formula with baserunners and runs allowed.

The average LOB percentage in baseball this season is 72.3 percent. Greinke's is 86.6. While Greinke has hovered near 80 percent in recent seasons, this is ridiculous even for him. What batters have done against him with runners in scoring position backs up the number: They're hitting .149/.240/.236, with the batting average and slugging percentages the lowest in the major leagues.

All this adds up to a number more amazing than Greinke's 1.65 ERA: He is allowing just 1.73 runs per game, the fourth-best figure in the live-ball era, behind only Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.45), Gooden in '85 (1.66) and Greg Maddux in '95 (1.67). Greinke has allowed only two unearned runs this season, and whether there is some sort of mental acuity that allows him to forget errors much in the same way he has worked himself out of jams – or much of this is luck – is something worth following into next season.

Still, it's worth noting that according to Baseball Prospectus' new statistic, Deserved Run Average, which tries to apportion every bit of a pitcher's performance to things as granular as the temperature and quality of opponent, Greinke has suffered the single most damage of any pitcher by his fielders this season. Baseball Prospectus' defensive metrics are harder on the Dodgers' defense than those at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference – and all defensive metrics are worth questioning – so this is a YMMV situation. But if Greinke and Clayton Kershaw really are getting dinged by their fielders as much as DRA says, it makes their brilliance all the more incredible.

4. Jeurys Familia throws the hardest split-fingered fastball ever, and it's not close.

Familia, the New York Mets' dynamic closer, started throwing his variation of a splitter in August. Once he saw how it jellied hitters' legs next to his high-90s fastball, he has thrown it almost 30 percent of the time this month, according to Brooks Baseball. The average velocity: 93.2 mph. The previous hardest splitter, according to FanGraphs, was John Smoltz's at 90.3 mph.

5. Matt Harvey is throwing harder now than he did before Tommy John surgery.

Warning: This does not happen for most pitchers coming off Tommy John, so for everyone who wants to get a prophylactic TJ so they can throw harder, please don't.

As for Harvey, the gains are minuscule. His fastball in 2013 averaged 95.8 mph. Today, it sits at 96. He and teammate Jacob deGrom throw the hardest slider among starters today, at 89.7 mph. It's 0.2 mph less than Harvey's in '13. His curveball is quicker than ever at 83.9 mph – second behind Matt Clement's 84.5-mph deuce in 2003 – and Harvey's changeup at 88.6 mph is among the 15 hardest ever.

6. Matt Harvey still is not the hardest-throwing pitcher in New York. Or the second hardest.

First place goes to teammate Noah Syndergaard, whose average fastball of 97.1 mph breaks Yordano Ventura's year-old record of 97 mph for best starter velocity. Also ahead of Harvey: Yankees starter Nathan Eovaldi, whose average fastball of 96.7 mph this year ranks third ever. Eovaldi, who had Tommy John in high school eight years ago, is on the DL with elbow inflammation.

7. A dozen Mets pitchers this season have thrown 95 mph or harder.

Here's a great nugget from Daren Willman of Baseball Savant: The Mets have thrown 4,693 pitches 95 mph-plus this season. That's nearly a quarter of all pitches they've thrown. The previous high was Detroit in 2009 with 4,270. Syndergaard accounts for 1,314 of them, which is 60.4 percent, the highest rate of any pitcher, besting Ventura's 59 percent last season

8. The Yankees are the hardest-throwing team in baseball.

And almost the hardest-throwing ever. The 2014 Marlins came in one-tenth of a mile per hour ahead of the Yankees' average fastball this season of 93.3 mph. Between the Yankees' fastballs and their heavy slider usage, there's no question: This is a power-pitching staff. Their 24.8 percent slider usage is the fourth highest by a team since PITCHf/x's introduction in 2002.

The runners-up in velocity this year: Cleveland (93.2 mph – and with hitters swinging at 49.5 percent of Indians pitchers, the stuff isn't only nasty, it's amazingly tempting), Royals (93), Mets (92.9), Pirates (92.8).

Aroldis Chapman has thrown harder than 101 mph 153 times this season. (AP)
Aroldis Chapman has thrown harder than 101 mph 153 times this season. (AP)

9. Aroldis Chapman is losing velocity.

Poor Chap is down from 100.3 mph on his average fastball last season to a measly 99.5 this season. Still, Willman said, Chapman has thrown 153 pitches at 101 mph-plus this year. Every other pitcher in baseball combined has thrown 128 such pitches in the last four seasons. If only everyone could lose velo like Chapman.

10. In half a season, Giancarlo Stanton hit three times as many balls 115 mph-plus by himself than every other team has the entire season.

So, Giancarlo Stanton is a monster, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds of NFL tight end masquerading as a baseball player to show everybody else in the game how weak they really are. Before this season, it was difficult to quantify, even though every scout would claim Stanton hit the ball demonstrably harder than everyone else.

Then came MLB's wonderful Statcast system, which tracks the exit velocity on balls and brought some context to Stanton's superstardom. He was the only player to hit a ball 120 mph; he did that twice. Sixteen more times a ball came off Stanton's bat at 115 mph-plus, according to Baseball Savant. The next closest: Carlos Gonzalez, whose six account for all of the Rockies'.

Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo have three apiece. No other player has more than two, no other team more than four. Eleven teams don't have a single 115 mph-plus swing and six have only one, according to Baseball Savant's data. It's worth noting: That set is incomplete, with MLB not releasing exit velocity on every ball in play. It's enough, though, to understand that Stanton is a freak of the highest order.

11. Ender Inciarte is completely unshiftable.

The Diamondbacks' outfielder is the epitome of spray hitter. According to FanGraphs, he pulls the ball 33.8 percent of the time, hits it up the middle 33.3 percent and goes opposite field 32.9 percent.

12. Francisco Cervelli is a magician who convinces umpires that balls are strikes.

Pitch framing is an age-old technique by which catchers use their sleight of hand to convince umpires that balls caught outside the strike zone actually crossed the plate. Nobody this season has done it better than Cervelli, the Pirates' replacement for Russell Martin, himself an expert framer. Data from StatCorner shows Cervelli getting called strikes on 10.8 percent of pitches outside PITCHf/x's strike zone. The only other catcher in double digits: the White Sox's Tyler Flowers, at 10.1 percent. Between the balls made strikes and the percentage of strikes that are not called balls, Flowers actually gets 1.84 calls per game compared to Cervelli's 1.83, according to StatCorner.

13. The slider is far and away the most effective pitch in baseball, and it's not even close.

Understanding FanGraphs' pitch-type linear weights isn't an easy thing, so here is a dummy's version to accompany the full explanation. Every pitch in a game has a value. The value changes depending on the situation and the outcome. The count is part of the situation. Depending on the situation and the outcome – a hit, an out or otherwise – a value gets assigned to every single pitch.

It must be noted: something like this ignores the value of sequencing pitches. Say a pitcher throws a fastball high and inside to set up a strikeout slider low and away. The fastball gets a negative value and the slider positive, even though the former might have made the latter more effective. There are flaws to this.

That said, according to FanGraphs, sliders across baseball have been worth 412 runs to pitchers this season. The cutter is the second-best pitch at 109 runs and the changeup third at 24. Fastballs, on the other hand, are responsible for minus-512 runs, curveballs minus-15 and splitters minus-one.

This is about standard. Fastballs are always the most-hit pitch – and not just because they're the most thrown, either. In the run value per pitch, slider is best and fastball worst, too.

14. Joey Votto still never pops out.

Quick reminder on Votto, a 25 Things staple: Once a year, in each of the last five years, has the Cincinnati Reds star recorded an infield popout. In his career, which spans nearly 4,000 at-bats and more than 3,000 balls in play, Votto has popped out 14 times. Sixty-one players, including Nelson Cruz, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, have popped out more this year than Votto has in his entire career. Brian Dozier has 37 this year alone. Same with Votto's teammate Todd Frazier.

15. Votto has some competition for King of No Popouts.

Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich is the only regular in baseball this season who hasn't popped out to an infielder. With nearly 1,000 career balls in play, Yelich has popped out once.

Unlike Votto, much of that is because Yelich puts the ball in the air with such rarity. For a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder, Yelich hits the ball on the ground like a slap-hitting speedster. His 14.8 percent flyball rate this season is the third lowest in FanGraphs' database, behind Ben Revere's 2012 and 2014 seasons.

16. Derek Norris has 23 infield hits.

That's eighth in baseball for the San Diego Padres catcher, ahead of A.J. Pollock, Lorenzo Cain, Jason Heyward, Adam Jones and Mike Trout. It's the most by a backstop since 2004, when Jason Kendall had 24, and more than twice as many as the next catcher, Russell Martin and Salvador Perez, each of whom have 11.

Victor Martinez is the anti-Norris: one of only 10 regulars since 2003 with just one infield hit. In 2007, the immortal Jack Cust became the only player since the turn of the century to go a full season without an infield hit.

17. Here's the one thing on this list you do know.

Your eyes lie plenty, but when it comes to those who hit the ball hardest, they're probably right. Baseball Info Solutions, which provides FanGraphs with most of its data, keeps track of balls hit hard, medium and soft without using Statcast's exit velocity. Among those who qualify for the batting title – Stanton thusly not included – here are the top 10 in each of the three categories:

Hard: J.D. Martinez, Chris Davis, David Ortiz, Matt Kemp, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Brandon Belt, Joey Votto

Medium: DJ LeMahieu, Ben Revere, Dee Gordon, Erick Aybar, Brett Gardner, Angel Pagan, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Vogt, Alcides Escobar, Cameron Maybin

Soft: Billy Burns, Kevin Kiermaier, Jose Reyes, Kevin Pillar, Jean Segura, Alexei Ramirez, Starlin Castro, Carlos Santana, Derek Norris, Jason Heyward.

18. Medium-hit balls isn't the only category in which DJ LeMahieu leads baseball.

LeMahieu, the Colorado Rockies' All-Star second baseman, has one of the game's oddest profiles. He's oddly large for his position at 6-4 yet has only one of six sub-.100 isolated-power seasons by a Rockies regular this century. LeMahieu's profile reflects that well.

No regular pulls the ball less than LeMahieu's 20.8 percent, and none hits it opposite field as much as his 39.5 percent. Accordingly, pitchers believe they can beat him with hard stuff: the 67 percent fastballs he sees is the highest rate in the game. The scouting reports may well be true; LeMahieu has a negative pitch-type value on fastballs this year, according to FanGraphs.

No one in baseball pulls the ball more than Brian Dozier. (Getty Images)
No one in baseball pulls the ball more than Brian Dozier. (Getty Images)

19. Brian Dozier needs to be shifted every play.

Dozier is the Minnesota Twins' All-Star second baseman, and he's pretty much the opposite of LeMahieu. He has pulled the ball 61.2 percent of the time he's put it in play, more than 6-percent higher than second-place Chris Davis. (Just so Davis doesn't seem like the perpetual bridesmaid, as he now has been three times in this column, he leads baseball in home runs.) Dozier is the pull-happiest hitter since Tony Batista, whose 63.4 and 62.6 percent pull rates in 2003 and '04 have stood the test of time.

20. Lance Lynn has turned into Bartolo Colon.

While Lynn always relied on his fastball, he has thrown it 85.3 percent of the time this season – even more than Colon's 83.5 percent. Lynn always has been fastball-heavy – he was at 79 percent last season – but this sort of usage pattern looks more like a reliever than a starter, particularly one who can throw four pitches.

The highest fastball use among a reliever this season? Orioles closer Zach Britton, who throws his turbosinker 90.3 percent of the time.

21. Nobody since Randy Johnson has thrown as many sliders as Tyson Ross.

Plenty of pitchers shy away from the slider because of the concern that excessive usage will damage their elbow. Ross, the San Diego Padres' ace, throws with no such concerns. After using his slider on 41.2 percent of pitches last season, he has upped it to 41.9 percent this year. Since PITCHf/x came along, only Johnson's 43.6 percent usage in 2004 was higher among starters. Relievers are a different story. Sergio Romo is at 59.6 percent sliders this year, and nine more relievers – including the Yankees' destructive duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances – have exceeded Ross' rate

22. The Royals strike out less than anyone since 1950.

All the credit on this one goes to FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, whose oeuvre is telling you things you didn't know about baseball. As Sullivan wrote about the soon-to-be AL Central champions, it's not that they're striking out less than teams in the '30s or '40s or '50s or, hell, even the '90s. Compared to their contemporaries, they're simply far less whiff-prone. Kansas City's 15.5 percent strikeout rate this season is more than 2.5 standard deviations below average. The 2002 Angels were the previous lowest at 2.44.

23. The Los Angeles Angels are the best team to pitch for and Pittsburgh's PNC Park is the best place to pitch.

So said Baseball Prospectus' DRA. Jonathan Judge, one of the creators of DRA, explained in an email what might have placed three Angels pitchers – Garrett Richards, Joe Smith and Hector Santiago – in the top three of pitchers benefitting from DRA factoring in multiple categories for every pitcher.

"They have a pitcher-friendly stadium, good defense and above-average catcher framing," Judge said. "Very few pitchers have those three advantages. As you can see from the DRA Runs table, most pitchers have to compensate for below-average performance in at least one of those three areas, and some more than one."

One of the categories is "Stadium." The three pitchers who get the most runs added: Jorge De La Rosa, Chris Rusin and Kyle Kendrick, all Rockies. Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, meanwhile, are the two lowest, and Jeff Locke and A.J. Burnett are fifth and sixth, respectively. "Once you control for quality of opposing batters, catcher framing, defense and other factors like DRA does," Judge said, "Pittsburgh is the most pitcher-friendly stadium this year."

One final test for DRA: What does it think of the NL Cy Young race?

Going into Thursday, it had Zack Greinke at 7.31 wins above replacement, Clayton Kershaw at 7.27 and Jake Arrieta at 7.26. Sounds about right.

24. Wade Miley's issues this season were far less his fault than probably even he realized.

Miley is a 28-year-old left-hander for the Boston Red Sox whose numbers this season look a lot like last season, actually. His 4.34 ERA is identical, his hits per nine are close and his walk and strikeout rates both have dipped. If he didn't play in Boston, DRA thinks those numbers would be far better.

The formula adjusted Miley up nearly 20 runs because of external factors. From the stadiums in which he played to below-average fielding and framing to difficult opponents and schedule, Miley got nailed everywhere but one category: temperature, where colder is better for pitchers.

Granted, this is old hat for Miley. Last year, when with the Diamondbacks, he ranked eighth in baseball with 14.52 runs adjusted up.

25. The American League East is still a monster, even if it doesn't look like one.

Nobody this season has faced a harder group of hitters than Masahiro Tanaka, according to DRA's opposing batter category. And for a further glance, here are the opposing OPS for every pitcher, with Boston's Eduardo Rodriguez on top, Tanaka .001 behind and three more pitchers from the East among the top seven. Considering the state of Tanaka's elbow, getting even close to 150 innings against this sort of competition makes his season that much more impressive.