25 Things You Didn’t Know About Baseball

Jeff PassanMLB columnist

The information age turned baseball into a marketplace of knowledge, the Internet a giant warehouse that could provide answers for voracious debates without the peril of an overserved know-it-all at the bar spouting off everything he knows to be correct.

Even so, there remains a surfeit of unplumbed gems waiting to be extracted and spread to the masses. And thus was born this annual.

Here is the part where we acknowledge that, yes, many of these are extremely small sample sizes and say little to nothing about a player’s skills or his long-term prognosis and fine print, fine print, blah-blah-blah. This is supposed to be fun. Please take it as such.

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1. Aroldis Chapman is the hardest-throwing pitcher ever.

The hardest pitch Aroldis Chapman has thrown this season is 104.6 mph. (Getty)
The hardest pitch Aroldis Chapman has thrown this season is 104.6 mph. (Getty)

This is supposed to be 25 things you didn’t know about baseball, and everyone knows Chapman, the 26-year-old left-hander from Cuba, chucks a baseball at higher velocities than anyone in history. C’mon, Passan. You gotta do better than that.

Before all of the Chapmanian delights, a caveat: Much of the data in this column dates back to the introduction of the PITCHf/x system in 2006. There is a chance Aroldis Chapman is the hardest-throwing pitcher ever – nobody truly knows how fast Steve Dalkowski really was – but considering the growth industry-wide in velocity and Chapman standing a standard deviation higher than all his peers, it is a more-than-reasonable venture to anoint him champion.

All right. Let’s try this then.

Chapman’s average fastball this year is 100.4 mph. Not his hardest. His average.

And that’s the calculation from PITCHf/x. According to Dan Brooks, the brilliant proprietor of Brooks Baseball, Chapman’s fastball averages 101.2 mph. Brooks measures his readings from 55 feet, the release point of the ball, as opposed to the full 60 feet, 6 inches.

The hardest pitch he’s thrown this season is 104.6 mph, according to Brooks.

Chapman has thrown 386 pitches of 100 mph-plus, according to Daren Willman of the invaluable Baseball Savant. The rest of baseball has thrown 151.

Prior to this season, Chapman’s highest average fastball was 98.3 mph. That was actually third all-time, behind Joel Zumaya in 2006 (98.6) and Kelvin Herrera in 2012 (98.5).

Chapman’s average slider (88.7 mph) is harder than 10 starters’ average fastballs.

2. Yordano Ventura is the hardest-throwing starter ever.

Now, this is speculative. We can say, unequivocally, that the Kansas City rookie’s 97-mph average fastball is the fastest in the PITCHf/x era. It’s got more than half a mile per hour on the next-fastest offering, Garrett Richards’ 96.3-mph gas this year, and nearly a mile on the previous high, Ubaldo Jimenez’s 96.1 mph in 2010. Only 22 relief seasons have included 97-mph-plus fastballs.

Whether Ventura was faster than Walter Johnson or Bob Feller or Nolan Ryan depends on whether one believes the evolution of velocity in the game makes it likely that the freakishness of Ventura’s predecessors had as much to do with their peers’ lack of velocity as their own gifts. This is impossible to know. Gut feeling, though? Ace Ventura is the all-time champ, and to spit that sort of fire from a 6-foot, 180-pound body makes him the biggest freak of all.

3. Nobody has confounded hitters like Clayton Kershaw in more than a decade.

Clayton Kershaw is having a historic season. (AP)
Clayton Kershaw is having a historic season. (AP)

The last time a pitcher generated as high of a swing-and-miss rate as Kershaw’s 14.1 percent was 2004, with peak Randy Johnson and Johan Santana. In more or less every other statistical category, neither was as good as Kershaw this year, and it’s a shame he missed April, because otherwise we’d be arguing where in history Kershaw’s 2014 ranks – and it would be right up there with the very finest. Perhaps it already is.

Seasons in which pitchers have put up ERAs of 1.77 or better and WHIPs of 0.86 or lower in the last century: Bob Gibson in 1968, Greg Maddux in 1995, Pedro Martinez in 2000 and Clayton Kershaw in 2014.

Seasons in which pitchers have put up Fielding Independent Pitching metrics of 1.80 or better: Gibson in ’68, Doc Gooden in ’84, Pedro in ’99 and Kershaw in 2014.

Season in which a pitcher has led the league in strikeouts and put up at least a 7.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio: Pedro in ’99, Pedro in 2000 and Kershaw in 2014.

Back-to-back seasons in which a pitcher has held opponents to an OPS of .523 or lower: Sandy Koufax from 1963-65, Maddux from ’94-95 and Kershaw from 2013-14.

It’s easy to go on. There’s the great 51.8 percent groundball rate, the super-low .41 home runs per nine innings, the nonpareil command of every game, playing with hitters like they’re a yo-yo and he’s just walking the dog. All of it adds up to the best pitcher since Prime Pedro, who may well have been the best pitcher ever.

4. Zach Putnam throws splitters more than anyone ... maybe ever?

It’s too bad PITCHf/x didn’t exist when Bruce Sutter was pitching, because it would be interesting to see how Putnam stands up next to the innovator of the splitter, a pitch that has waned in popularity because of its supposed strain on the arm. The splitter is appreciating a renaissance of sorts, thanks to an influx of successful Japanese pitchers who employ it, though even their usage pales compared to Putnam, a 27-year-old White Sox reliever throwing it 56.4 percent of the time. It edges out Edward Mujica, who threw splitters on 56 percent of his pitches last season.

Even more fascinating from Putnam is how infrequently he goes to his fastball. With a slider he uses more than a quarter of the time, Putnam employs the fastball just 18.1 percent of the time, the lowest non-knuckleballer usage of a fastball. Heretofore a journeyman, Putnam has a 1.98 ERA.

5. Tyson Ross throws slider more than any starter since Randy Johnson.

Ross’ slider is a force of nature, darting like one of those balsa-wood toy planes, at a seemingly impossible angle. While pitchers are often wary of hurting their arms with too many sliders, the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific, and it certainly hasn’t scared off Ross from upping his usage significantly. He throws it 41.2 percent of the time, an amount that harkens back to the Big Unit’s prime. In 2004, Johnson went to the slider 43.6 percent of the time, and in 2002, it was 41.9 percent. Outside of those two seasons, Ross is the PITCHf/x era champ – and it dwarfs his previous high of 32.6 percent last year.

6. Lance Lynn is a four-pitch pitcher who throws one pitch.

Lynn’s breakout with the St. Louis Cardinals has been one of the season’s under-the-radar stories, and its sustainability does have some red flags in a low average on balls in play, a lower strikeout rate without a corresponding dip in walks and a crazy-low home run rate that doesn’t correlate with his groundball rate.

While Lynn always has relied on his two-seam fastball, he has practically turned into Bartolo Colon this season. Lynn has gone to his fastball on 79 percent of his pitches this season, second among starters to Colon’s 82.6 percent. One of every 10 pitches Lynn will twirl a slider. A curveball he used to unleash 22.2 percent of the time now comes every 8.3 percent. And he uses a changeup about twice a game. If there’s a saturation point for fastball usage, Lynn has yet to find it.

7. Burke Badenhop might be more hittable than Justin Bieber.

Fine. Probably not. And Bieber deserves a good jacking up, whereas Badenhop, a Boston relief pitcher, is but a victim of mediocre stuff and a pitch-to-contact approach. His 3.2 percent swinging-strike rate is the lowest in the last decade, nearly half a percent worse than Paul Quantrill. And the contact percentage on swings against Badenhop pitches is a stratospheric 91.9 percent. Only four seasons have had 90 percent-plus contact rates: Badenhop in 2012 and 2014, and Quantrill in 2004 and 2005.

The difference? Quantrill at least pounded the strike zone, working in it on about 60 percent of his pitches. Badenhop this year? Just 49.3 percent, with a contact rate on those out-of-zone pitches at 85.1 percent.

8. Jake McGee throws his fastball more than anyone ever.

OK, we’re not quite as confident in the “ever” here as we are with Ventura. Presumably there was some guy in the 1920s who never learned to throw an off-speed pitch or someone in the 1940s who took advantage of wartime competition with a superior heater. It’s eminently possible someone has thrown more than 96.6 percent fastballs, McGee’s rate this season. Mariano Rivera annually topped that number with his cutter

Still, it says something not just about McGee’s confidence in his gas but the quality of it that a batter can step in, know exactly what’s coming and still do nothing with it. Opponents are hitting .191/.244/.247 against McGee.

9. The most valuable fastball in the game this year belongs to a reliever.

Jake McGee prefers one pitch over any other. (USA TODAY Sports)
Jake McGee prefers one pitch over any other. (USA TODAY Sports)

Based on the previous 109 words, McGee was a pretty easy guess, and a correct one. How we came to that conclusion necessitates an explanation from last year’s version of things you didn’t know.

I am no sabermetrician. I never will claim to be. The following numbers are strictly for amusement, not to claim any grand, sweeping truths.

We are about to delve into something called Pitch-Type Linear Weights. This is where FanGraphs assigns a win probability to every pitch a player sees or a pitcher throws. If a batter takes a ball on a fastball, his fastball score improves slightly. If he hits a home run off a curveball, his curveball score jumps. If he grounds into a double play on a slider, his slider score drops. Same for pitchers. Slider for a strike: good for the slider total. Fastball hammered for a triple: yikes for fastball.

There is a very good reason these numbers are seen by sabermetricians as total bunk: They are taken in a vacuum. They don't take into account fielding or pitch sequencing. They are strictly, simply what happens on each particular pitch, and thus they have next to no predictive value. 

In other words, take these numbers for what they are: rock candy for the baseball mind. Make sure to brush your teeth after these: The best and worst players on each pitch, as show by runs accounted for on each particular pitch.

Jake McGee

20.9

Fastball

-30.0

Colby Lewis

Clayton Kershaw

21.5

Slider

-10.0

Robbie Ross

Felix Hernandez

24.3

Changeup

-11.2

Drew Hutchison

Corey Kluber

20.9

Curveball

-12.0

Eric Stults

Adam Wainwright

22.6

Cutter

-9.0

Brandon McCarthy

Masahiro Tanaka

14.2

Splitter

-7.5

Miguel Gonzalez

 

10. The best hitter in baseball this season is Andrew McCutchen on fastballs.

Here are the top and bottom hitters on each particular pitch:

Andrew McCutchen

29.8

Fastball

-17.6

Matt Dominguez

Mike Trout

13.1

Slider

-9.7

Garrett Jones

Miguel Cabrera

13.7

Changeup

-9.3

Jason Kipnis

Anthony Rizzo

11.6

Curveball

-7.9

Gerardo Parra

Michael Brantley

4.7

Splitter

-3.4

Lonnie Chisenhall

Jose Abreu

9.3

Cutter

-5.4

Desmond Jennings

 

11. Hitters swing at Phil Hughes pitches more than anyone, and it’s not close.

Perhaps it’s because Hughes is throwing the most first-pitch strikes since Brad Radke in 2005. Going up a strike or inducing contact on 72.6 percent of first pitches puts the pitcher in an advantageous position, one Hughes has parlayed into a career year. Hitters have swung at 56.9 percent of Hughes’ pitches – nearly 2.5 percent better than the next best since such data was tracked, Jon Lieber in 2004, and 4.1 percent higher than his runner-up this season, Clayton Kershaw – because Hughes has eliminated the walk as a possibility.

This seems like a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation – just how long was it before hitters realized their best chance at beating Hughes was to swing? – but it all stems from his control-and-command mastery. Prior to this season, Hughes’ career-high swing percentage was 50.0. Now advance scouts are reporting back to their teams: swing on Hughes, because with just 16 free passes this season – a walk rate of less than 0.7 per nine, the lowest since Carlos Silva’s nine-walks-in-188-inning season for the Twins a decade ago – hitters won’t be trotting 90 feet to first base.

12. Grass is afraid of Dallas Keuchel.

Keuchel is the groundball champion of 2014, and it wasn’t even close, with his 63.5 percent rate more than 6 percent higher than runner-up Tyson Ross. Keuchel is the groundballingest left-hander this century, with only Mark Mulder previously exceeding 60 percent, and finds himself in elite worm-burning company. The only pitchers with higher single-season ground ball rates: Derek Lowe, Brandon Webb, Tim Hudson and the erstwhile Fausto Carmona.

13. If grass is afraid of Dallas Keuchel, it cowers at Zach Britton, who ought to be called the Fescue-cutioner.

Britton’s groundball rate this season is 76.7 percent. That is the highest in the PITCHf/x era, better than Brad Ziegler’s crazy 75.5 percent in 2012. It is another example, too, of how Buck Showalter is smarter than the rest of us – how he took a starter, transitioned him to the bullpen, ignored that he has pretty much none of the typical closer qualities; Britton doesn’t throw hard or strike out many – and gave him a shot anyway. Thirty-six saves and a 1.70 ERA later, he’s got his closer at the back of a frightening bullpen that helped the Orioles salt away the AL East for the second time in three years.

14. The Mariners should play four outfielders and three infielders when Chris Young is pitching.

Mariners pitcher Chris Young could be helped by a crazy strategy. (Getty)
Mariners pitcher Chris Young could be helped by a crazy strategy. (Getty)

Warning: This is strictly a theory, a complete spitball, not backed by any sort of data. There are a lot of smart people with better access to statistical treasure troves and greater analytical ability who could see if something like this has any merit. It may turn out to be bunk.

But considering the defensive shifting that takes place these days, and the shifting idea of positioning, perhaps there are some scenarios in which it would make sense to move an infielder to the outfield and take advantage of the fact that nobody induces fly balls like Chris Young. And by nobody, we mean nobody – no starter, no reliever, no one.

Young’s fly-ball rate this season of 58.7 percent is the pièce de résistance – higher than the two previous top marks of 56.4 and 54.5 percent, both owned by Young as well. If he has this tendency, then – if his groundball rate really is stable at under 30 percent – it at least warrants a look as to whether it’s worth teaching Kyle Seager or Chris Taylor or Robinson Cano to help patrol the outfield. Yes, flyballs already are turned into outs more frequently than groundballs, but those that land tend to do significant damage. So if the scenario is right – possibly when the bases are empty – it could make sense.

Of course, the argument could be made that opening up the infield like this is the equivalent of no-doubles defense – also known as let-singles-through defense. Young, however, is a unique pitcher with a unique skillset, and, at the very least, it warrants consideration.

15. Whoever is playing the Astros should play four outfielders and three infielders when Chris Carter is batting.

Same principle, different guy. Carter’s 26.3 percent groundball rate this season is the lowest in baseball since 2006, when Frank Thomas, king of the air out, shot 23.5 percent of his balls in play on the ground. Carter is tremendously slow, another advantage for infielders who would need to cover more space, and his propensity to generate pop-ups doesn’t hurt, either.

16. The 10 savviest baserunners are Ian Kinsler, Anthony Rendon, Hunter Pence, Joe Mauer, Alex Gordon, Adam Jones, Mike Trout, Brock Holt, Austin Jackson and Chase Utley.

FanGraphs tracks a neat little statistic using Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) data that tries to quantify baserunning. It uses multiple components. Stolen-base success rate matters, of course, but so does taking an extra base – like going first to third or second to home on a single, or scoring from first on a double.

Now, the word savvy is very objective, and admittedly this is a very arbitrary exercise. The 10 players above have the highest baserunning-run totals for players under 20 stolen bases. Guys like Kinsler (15), Rendon (16), Trout (15) and Jackson (19) are close enough to the vicinity to be disqualified, and because the first three happened to be top-of-the-order hitters, the incentive to steal bases isn’t nearly as great. Pence, Gordon, Jones and Holt, similarly, are wonderful athletes who happen to blend it with top-notch baseball acumen. Mauer and Utley are simply brilliant baseball minds who understand the game as well as any.

Still, it takes great instinct to know when to take an extra base and when to hold. Sometimes the sample will affect that – players on first, for example, will see a high (or low) number of well-hit balls that will impact their willingness to go. So even though speedsters Ben Revere and Dee Gordon are indeed on top of the list, with nearly one win above replacement each due to baserunning, the Savvy 10 show great wheels aren’t imperative to gleaning value on the basepaths.

17. Baseball’s pace-of-play issue is worse than you realize.

Friend of the program Dave Cameron from FanGraphs passed along this bowl of ugly: After five straight years of an average pace between pitches around 21.5 seconds, according to PITCHf/x data, the last three years the numbers have jumped to 22.1, 22.6 and 23.0. Take that extra 1.5 seconds for the 700,000 or so pitches per season, and that is way too freaking long.

The actual answer is harrowing: 292 hours or, as Dave says: “Two hundred and ninety-two hours per year of standing around deciding what pitch to throw. That's over seven extra minutes per game added just since 2010. And it's not like it's just a few outlier teams driving everything up; the Blue Jays – thank you, Buehrle and Dickey – are the only team in MLB this year taking less time between pitches than what the average was in 2010.”

Ultimately, the issue comes back to pitchers. They are the ones who hold the ball; they are the ones who start the play. Umpires can monitor hitters who fuss with their batting gloves because of proximity. The pitcher stands 60 feet, 6 inches away, and it is incumbent on him to be more like Mark Buehrle, like R.A. Dickey, to embrace in full the fact that pace of play does matter and is a priority.

18. Carlos Santana hit the fastest pitch for a home run this season. It was 99.7 mph.

Carlos Santana can get around on a fastball. (USA TODAY Sports)
Carlos Santana can get around on a fastball. (USA TODAY Sports)

Yordano Ventura threw the gas that Santana punished. Not a surprise.

That tidbit, along with the next three, come from Willman of Baseball Savant.

Reed Johnson hit the slowest pitch for a home run this season. It was 62.2 mph. Paul Maholm threw it. Kind of a surprise. But not as big of a surprise as Reed Johnson hitting it. That was May 14. He hasn’t homered since.

Pitchers who don’t throw Carlos Gomez absolute garbage on the first pitch are suckers. Gomez, according to Willman, hacked at the first pitch 325 times this season, nearly 50 more than the next-most-impatient hitter.

John Gibbons needs to take a replay course from Joe Girardi. The Yankees are 21 for 26 in replay challenges this season, the highest success rate among teams and nearly triple the Blue Jays’ 31 percent, achieved by Gibbons failing on 31 of his 45 challenges.

19. Brandon Kintzler and Chris Hatcher have thrown more than 50 innings and not induced a single popup.

Kintzler is a groundball pitcher. That makes a little sense, though it’s still crazy, 150 recorded outs and nary a popup among them. Hatcher completely defies reason. He’s a power guy, the sort who can live up in the strike zone because batters pop up pitches like that. Not with Hatcher. He is like the Joey Votto of pitching.

Votto, remember, has popped out 13 times in more than 4,000 major league plate appearances. Despite his paucity of playing time this season, Votto did pop out once. The popupless this season: Joe Mauer, Shin-Soo Choo, Howie Kendrick and Christian Yelich.

20. Freddie Freeman is hitting more line drives than anyone ever.

This might be the “ever” with which we feel least confident. What’s called a “line drive” is ultimately subjective, based on data scouts at BIS. The Braves, for what it’s worth, do not have a line-drive rate out of line with the rest of baseball, so nothing stands out as far as scout error, though perhaps they don’t hit as many line drives as a team, and the data inflates them on the whole, too.

Either way, it’s a pretty fair bet that Freeman hits the ball hard and often – 31.3 percent, according to the data. Though, in truth, line-drive rate doesn’t necessarily translate into raging success in reality as much as it does in theory. The previous highest line-drive rates: Mark Loretta in 2003, Brian Roberts in 2003, James Loney in 2013 and Todd Helton in 2003. Daniel Murphy and Nick Castellanos’ 2014 seasons are sixth and seventh, respectively.

21. Nick Castellanos is having an all-time horrid fielding season.

While scouts pegged the rookie as a clear position-switch candidate, Miguel Cabrera’s move to first base cleared the way for Castellanos’ entry into the lineup. The result: -31 Defensive Runs Saved, the fourth-worst total since BIS started calculating the total in 2003.

By now, it’s clear I’m not the biggest fan of fielding metrics. Still, plenty of smart people value them, so it makes sense to give them equal time. Here are the best and worst at each position, according to the two most common metrics, with DRS first and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) second.

Russell Martin

11

C

-14

Travis d'Arnaud

Adrian Gonzalez

11

1B

-11

Jose Abreu

Ian Kinsler

19

2B

-15

Rickie Weeks

Andrelton Simmons

27

SS

-24

Yunel Escobar

Josh Donaldson

20

3B

-31

Nick Castellanos

Alex Gordon

26

LF

-11

Chris Coghlan

Juan Lagares

28

CF

-20

Dexter Fowler

Jason Heyward

34

RF

-19

Torii Hunter

N/A

 

C

 

N/A

Adam Rosales

5.9

1B

-7.0

Jon Singleton

Dustin Pedroia

17.9

2B

-12.4

Jose Altuve

Andrelton Simmons

15.9

SS

-17.1

Yunel Escobar

Chase Headley

18.9

3B

-16.4

Nick Castellanos

Alex Gordon

21.9

LF

-10.6

Michael Morse

Juan Lagares

18.8

CF

-20.7

Dexter Fowler

Jason Heyward

25.3

RF

-18.6

Torii Hunter

 

22. Ben Revere needs to stop hitting flyballs so he can break his own record.

Revere in 2012 posted the lowest flyball rate since BIS tracked such data at 14.5 percent. He’s at 14.7 percent this season. And yet somehow the Phillies’ tiny center fielder has a bigger home run rate this season than nine players, going yard on 2.6 percent of his flyballs.

23. Ben Revere is so awesome he merited another Thing, because he does not swing and miss.

From Willman: “Ben Revere has 249 swing-and-misses in 1,995 at-bats since 2010. Fifty players this year have that many swings and misses. Revere has swung and missed only 75 times this season in 595 plate appearances, while 124 players have struck out at least 75-plus times this season.”

Revere’s excellence comes from his contact rate: 97.2 percent on pitches in the strike zone, which remains behind contact maven Juan Pierre’s 98.1 percent. Some other cool plate-discipline factoids.

Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter swings on fewer than half the pitches in the strike zone and fewer than one-third of the pitches he sees period. For reference, notorious free swinger Vladimir Guerrero swung at 90.4 percent of pitches in the zone and 61.4 percent overall in 2004.

Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval swings at 47.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the second-worst figure over the last decade behind A.J. Pierzynski’s 49.6 percent season in 2013.

Victor Martinez connects on 88.7 percent of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone. Those ahead of him: Juan Pierre and Marco Scutaro, neither of whom will be confused with the power-hitting Martinez.

24. Alex Gordon is baseball’s clutchest player and Torii Hunter the unclutchest.

FanGraphs calculates a metric called Clutch that tries to illustrate a player’s production in high-leverage situations. Gordon is joined at the top of the list by Denard Span, Trout, Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey. The ones who have folded: Hunter, Sandoval, Carlos Gomez, Matt Kemp and Jhonny Peralta.

25. The BABIP gods smote Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann.

While sport-wide the defensive shifting hasn’t significantly lowered batting average on balls in play, two of the Yankees’ highest-paid players find themselves sporting .235 averages on balls in play. Not quite as bad as Aaron Hill’s .196 BABIP in 2010 but troublesome nonetheless. Since joining the Yankees, Teixeira’s BABIP has cratered, with .302, .268, .239, .250, .156, .235. Any recipe for success does not include those numbers. McCann’s last three seasons: .234, .261, .235.

Maybe they’re unlucky. Maybe it’s shifts. Maybe it’s their aging skillset. Whatever the case, Teixeira and McCann have a combined six years and $114.25 million remaining on their deals.

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