This is my favorite column every year because it is all-inclusive. Numbers in baseball can overwhelm. Data can anthropomorphize into a scary monster. Acronyms can get so silly that I can list four (SIERA, SNLVAR, GORP, lgRFG) that look too absurd to be real when three of them actually are.
The goal here is to cut through the crap and cull numbers and facts that teach you more about the game. Sabermetricians do a wonderful job of that with high-level analytics and snazzy heat maps. This is different because it endeavors to deal in plain-and-simple facts presented accordingly.
I spent far more time than I'd like to admit browsing and sorting data at the wonderful repositories for such things, FanGraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com. They are invaluable resources for which every baseball fan should be thankful because they imbue knowledge, the sort that barely existed a decade ago.
Now, a few clicks, a keen sense of the sport's oddities and a healthy curiosity can deliver a world of information. So enjoy. I know I did.
1. This year alone, 98 players have popped out more than Joey Votto has his entire career.
When Votto's pop-out numbers went viral this year, they sounded too good to be true. None in 2010. One the following season. While he's been on the DL for most of 2012's second half, he remains stuck on nil again. Over his 2,523 career at-bats, Votto has had the temerity to pop out 10 times.
In 496 at-bats this year, Jimmy Rollins has 33 pop outs. In 315 at-bats, Brendan Ryan has 26. The jester list will soon reach triple digits.
Nowhere close to that list: the other player trying to join Votto, Howie Kendrick and Larry Bigbie – Larry Bigbie! – as those to qualify for the batting title without a single pop out. Votto's companion in popoutlessness: Derek Jeter, of course.
2. Should you bear witness to Jeter lifting a ball in the air, consider it baseball's version of Halley's Comet.
Jeter's love of the groundball is well-documented in these parts. (And in the accompanying mea culpa.) His lack of flyballs this year, however, borders on ridiculous. Most of these advanced metrics date back to 2002, so while the historical reference point is small, there is more than a decade of data. And Jeter's flyball rate of 13.5 percent destroys the previous low of 17.5 percent by Skip Schumaker in 2005.
Thing is, Jeter may not end the season atop the list. Twins outfielder Ben Revere is not far behind at 14.2 percent. It's not his only notable quality, either.
3. Nobody makes contact with balls in the strike zone quite like Ben Revere.
If a pitch is over the plate, Revere is not missing. Doesn't matter the pitch. When it's in the zone, he makes contact on 98.2 percent of his swings. That amounts to 15 misses for the season, and his percentage is the best, one-tenth of a percent ahead of Juan Pierre in 2006 and a half-percent better than Marco Scutaro this season.
4. Nobody makes contact pretty much at all these days.
We've covered the drastic increase in strikeouts before, though it bears repeating. Not only are strikeouts across baseball at an all-time high 7.43 per nine, but also the individual numbers are nuts. Aroldis Chapman is striking out 16.26 per nine, the best rate ever, and five more pitchers (Craig Kimbrel, Ernesto Frieri, Jason Grilli, Kenley Jansen and David Hernandez) now rank in the top 25 ever among pitchers with at least 40 innings.
Led by Adam Dunn's 33.6 percent strikeout rate, 15 players who currently qualify for the batting title have struck out in at least a quarter of their plate appearances. The previous high was 12 in 2010, and in 2003 there were only three such prowhiffic players.
5. All of that stands, unless you're talking about Aaron Cook, the strikeout jester.
Before Cook's command four-K performance this week, he had struck out seven hitters in 57 innings. His 1.11 strikeout-per-nine rate was the worst in baseball since 1955. Now he's at 1.6, behind Luis Aquino's 1.46 in 1992 for Kansas City and Nino Espinosa's 1.53 for Philadelphia in 1980.
Cook can take solace in not losing his title of ignominy this year. The next-worst rate is Derek Lowe at 3.42.
6. Aroldis Chapman has generated more swings and misses than Jered Weaver.
And Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Matt Harrison, Jeremy Hellickson, Josh Beckett, Erik Bedard, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Vogelsong and more than 100 other starters. Chapman has thrown 1,036 pitches this season. Hitters have swung at 508. They have missed 211. That 41.5 percent miss rate is 7 percent better than the next-best pitcher, Joaquin Benoit.
Oh, and for reference, Weaver has generated 204 misses on 979 swings,
7. Aroldis Chapman isn't the hardest-throwing player in baseball.
Meet Kelvin Herrera. Not only is he the hardest thrower this year, but also he's threatening to be the hardest ever. His average fastball of 98.6 mph is tied with Joel Zumaya's 2006 fastball for hottest ever. At 97.8 mph, Chapman is closer to Nate Jones (97.4) than he is Herrera.
Herrera also threw the single hardest pitch in baseball this season at 102.8 mph. Chapman just missed that title at 102.7.
As for starters, Stephen Strasburg is the king this season at 95.7 mph, not far behind Ubaldo Jimenez's record 96.1 mph that he set in 2009 and matched in 2010. After adding an extra mph to his fastball this year, David Price is close behind Strasburg at 95.6.
8. Fernando Rodney is threatening to render Dennis Eckersley's mustache-and-mullet-fueled 1990 season to the reliquary.
Currently, Rodney's 0.77 ERA is the third best among pitchers with at least 50 innings, behind Rob Murphy's 0.72 in 1986 and Eck's incredible 0.61 in 1990. Eck finished that season giving up five earned runs in 73 1/3 innings.
Rodney is currently at five runs in 58 2/3. If he keeps his current pace, he'll finish the season with exactly 76 innings, and if he throws all zeroes, his final ERA will be 0.59.
It's not impossible. Rodney's current no-earned-run streak is at six innings, and he needs 14 more scoreless to pass Eck. His longest streak this year: 22 innings.
9. As great as his relief peers' accomplishments may be, what Brad Ziegler is doing this season is a hundred times more unfathomable.
The 32-year-old Ziegler already is something of a freak as an Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher. He's a pure sidearmer whose fastball floats in around 86 mph, the eighth-slowest among pitchers with at least 50 innings. To make up for his lack of velocity, Ziegler sinks the sucker like the Lusitania, sinks it so hard that he makes opposing hitters turn into Jeter.
Ziegler's flyball rate this season is 6.9 percent. That is not a misprint. Ziegler has thrown 712 pitches this season. Hitters have lifted 10 of those as flyballs. Nobody has popped out. Nobody has hit a home run. Nobody can do much with a Brad Ziegler sinker.
The previous low flyball rate also was owned by Ziegler – and it was 13.4 percent, nearly double. Ziegler, as you might imagine, also is on pace to set a groundball-rate record at 72.9 percent, a smidgen better than Jonny Venters' 72.5 percent last year. That makes another record he's close to doubling: groundball-to-flyball ratio, where his 10.5 will top Venters and Cla Meredith's 5.29.
10. Billy Hamilton has more steals than the top four stolen-base artists in the major leagues – combined.
That gem came from Jason Collette on Twitter the day Hamilton, the 21-year-old Cincinnati farmhand, broke Vince Coleman's minor league record with his 146th stolen base. Hamilton now has 148 steals, more than every major league team, and we could do 25 Hamilton facts if we were so inclined, but we'll stick with just a couple more via Twitter from the day he nabbed the record.
From Matt LaWell: "Hamilton also leads the Southern League and California League in steals."
And from Bradley Ankrom: "[H]e has more steals than 181 professional clubs; more steals than 129 clubs have attempts."
11. The player leading the National League in steals also is the UZR champion.
UZR is Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the two most well-known defensive metrics, along with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Neither is particularly renowned for its accuracy, though both tend to agree that Michael Bourn is mighty good in center field for the Atlanta Braves.
In fact, UZR has a Bieber-level crush on the entire Braves outfield. Bourn ranks first in baseball with 17.2 runs saved this season, Jason Heyward is second with 16.8 runs and Martin Prado is 12th with 10.3 runs.
12. The Colorado Rockies, on the other hand, make UZR and DRS want to vomit.
While UZR and DRS can clash, both have the Rockies as the worst-fielding team by far, with UZR at -37.1 and DRS at -73. Yikes.
Others tooting the sad trombone: Rickie Weeks at -15.6 UZR (second worst) and -26 DRS (by far the worst); Curtis Granderson at -16.2 UZR (worst) and -9 DRS (14th worst); and Derek Jeter at -13.6 UZR (fourth worst) and -16 DRS (second worst).
An aside: This is the portion of the program where I start handing out caveats. First: I am no sabermetrician. I never will claim to be. These numbers are strictly for fun and amusement. For example, the people who created UZR say that one year's worth of data isn't nearly enough to make a judgment about a player's defense. Frankly, defensive metrics have eons to go before they're anywhere close to judging fielding like offensive metrics do offense. Thus, use defensive metrics only in large quantities, or as a diversion when you commit a crime and want to confuse the police.
Second: 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. If he 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. And so on.
There is a very good reason these numbers are seen by sabermetricians as total bunk, too: 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. I did not lay this out last year. I got criticized. It was suggested I talk with people who know better, so I did. And this is how Tom Tango, the great sabermetrician, explained it:
"You can think of boxing if you like. Say you are in a brawl with someone, and you know your best hand is your right. Are you only going to use your right hand? You need some sort of balance, maybe 2:1 right:left, so that, in the end, at those frequencies, they are equally effective. If you did 1:2 right:left, then at those frequencies, it would be a disaster."
In other words, take these numbers for what they are: rock candy for the baseball mind.
13. Andrew McCutchen feasts on fastballs.
The single best score among hitters is McCutchen with 32.1 runs off fastballs. The leaders in the other categories:
Slider: A.J. Pierzynski, 9.4
Cutter: Josh Hamilton, 8.0
Curveball: Prince Fielder, 10.6
Changeup: Buster Posey, 10.7
Splitter: Ryan Zimmerman, 3.8
Knuckleball: Freddie Freeman, 3.9
Clint Barmes, conversely, cannot touch a fastball. He is -16.8 runs. The rest of the chumps:
Slider: Delmon Young, -10.3
Cutter: Sean Rodriguez, -5.5
Curveball: Chris Davis, -10.1 (which is the lowest recorded number)
Changeup: Jeff Francoeur, -8.8
Splitter: Danny Espinosa, -3.1
Knuckleball: Bryce Harper, -2.1
14. Mike Trout sees 65.9 percent fastballs, the fourth most in baseball.
Why? Scouts have talked about Trout's preternatural ability to hit off-speed stuff, and the pitch-type numbers back it up. He's got the second most runs off sliders and changes and sixth most off cutters.
15. Trout also is an incredible bad-ball hitter.
How do you spend the first month of the season in Triple-A and end the year as perhaps the best player on the planet? Hitting off-speed pitches is a good start, and hitting bad ones is even better. On pitches classified as low and away, Trout is hitting a baseball-best .379 this season. Next on the list? Alex Gordon at .315. The major league average on such pitches is .211.
16. Trout is one of a dozen hitters with no weaknesses.
And, by no weaknesses, we mean neutral or positive pitch-type values. Joining him are some of the expected (Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez), plenty more from the next tier of hitter (Josh Willingham, Adrian Beltre, Paul Goldschmidt, Ben Zobrist), a few surprises (Dexter Fowler, Alex Rios, David DeJesus) and one web scion (Melky Cabrera).
Among pitchers, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez make sense. And then there are three rookies: Wade Miley, Jarrod Parker and Matt Moore.
17. Trout's teammate is the best bunter in the game.
Erick Aybar leads the major leagues with 15 bunt hits this season. Had 18 two years ago and 15 last year as well, and it's not like he's doing this with an excessive amount of tries, either. Aybar is running at a career-high 50 percent success rate this season.
Also quite impressive: Blue Jays center fielder Colby Rasmus, who is 7 for 7 on bunt-for-hit tries.
18. Speaking of best, behold David Price's fastball.
His 23.4 runs with the heater tops the chart of pitch-type values for pitchers. The others:
Slider: Madison Bumgarner, 20.6
Cutter: Scott Atchison, 10.3
Curveball: A.J. Burnett, 11.7
Changeup: Jason Vargas, 16.6
Splitter: Jeff Samardzija, 9.3
Knuckleball: R.A. Dickey, 22.9
Perhaps Nick Blackburn's trip to Triple-A will straighten out the issues that make his fastball the worst pitch of the season at -25.6. His contemporaries in mediocrity:
Slider: Rick Porcello, -14.9
Cutter: James Shields, -9.1
Curveball: Randy Wolf, -10.8
Changeup: Mike Leake, -12.0
Splitter: Jason Frasor, -4.2
Knuckleball: R.A. Dickey, 22.9
(It has to be best and worst if it's the only one, right?)
19. Bartolo Colon ate more meatballs, threw more fastballs than R.A. Dickey does knuckleballs.
Actually, before his PED suspension, Colon threw the second most fastballs of any starters since data collection began at 89.2 percent. The most? Him in 2009 at 90 percent.
The greatest practitioners of other pitches among starters this year:
Slider: Madison Bumgarner, 38.2 percent
Cutter: Dan Haren, 37.7 percent
Curveball: A.J. Burnett, 33.3 percent
Changeup: James Shields, 29.4 percent (and almost more than the fastball, which, at 31.1 percent, is the lowest for a starter in baseball)
Splitter: Carlos Zambrano, 21.4 percent
Knuckleball: R.A Dickey, 85.5 percent
20. Relievers are setting records for frequency of off-speed pitches thrown.
Nobody over the last decade has thrown sliders like Luke Gregerson is this year. He's at 67.3 percent, edging by Kiko Calero's 66.4 percent in 2006. Similarly, Jose Arredondo is tempting fate by throwing a splitter 56.2 percent of the time.
And with Mariano Rivera out for the season, Arizona reliever Bryan Shaw tried to be Mo 2.0. Aside from Rivera in 2009-11, nobody has thrown a higher percentage of cutters than Shaw's 82.4. The next-highest this year is Atchison at 53.9 percent.
21. Whatever you throw: Try to make sure Jason Kubel doesn't swing on the first pitch.
On the 22 first pitches Kubel has put into the field of play this season, his OPS is 1.727. The next highest is Edwin Encarnacion at 1.465. Carlos Beltran has a bigger, if not sufficient, sample size at 63 at-bats with a 1.413 OPS.
22. Cross your fingers Albert Pujols actually swings at 3-0 pitches.
He's 0 for 7 on them this season. Two lineouts, two groundouts, three flyouts. No other player has put as many 3-0 balls into play as Pujols – only he, Adam LaRoche, Billy Butler and Kubel have five or more – and Dunn and Heyward are next on the list of 3-0 futility at 0 for 4.
The best? A pair of catchers: Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters, both 3 for 3.
23. Matt Holliday gets an awful lot of pitches inside, and it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Pitchers pound Holliday more than anyone with 49 percent of pitches classified as inside. The next highest is Alex Rodriguez at 41.4 percent. Holliday led the league last year, too, at 44.6 percent to runner-up Ryan Braun's 37.5.
Here's the thing: This year, Holliday is OPSing .854 on inside pitches and .942 outside, a demonstrable difference, sure, but not the sort deserved by, say, Nick Swisher, who's hitting .120/.305/.217 on inside pitches but sees them just 27 percent of the time.
Even more: Holliday swings and misses on 29 percent of swings in the middle of the plate and outside, while his swing-and-miss rate inside is 17.9 percent.
24. It might be time to acknowledge Austin Jackson as some sort of BABIP freak.
BABIP, for those who lead normal lives, is an acronym for Batting Average on Balls In Play. The seminal work of Voros McCracken told us that a struck ball falls into the field of play on average about 30 percent of the time; the rates differ for groundballs, flyballs and especially line drives, but a BABIP over .340 or so tends to connote a lucky season.
Austin Jackson's BABIP in 2010: .396.
Austin Jackson's BABIP in 2011: .340
Austin Jackson's BABIP in 2012: .389
It's not like Jackson's line-drive rate is absurd. In his rookie season, it was 24.2 percent and ranked third in baseball. Last year, it was 16.8 percent and 122nd. This year, it's 21.8 percent and 59th.
Maybe Jackson has some special bat-wielding capabilities that turn him into a BABIP god. Maybe he is blessed by some divine power to serve balls where they ain't. Maybe he should buy a lottery ticket.
Whatever the case, Jackson may have broken BABIP, and it's as fun to try and figure out how as to see him do it.
25. The worst player in baseball is …
We always save the worst for last because sabermetrics isn't always about celebrating achievements and accomplishments. Numbers give us something tangible with which we can judge a player against his peers, against his predecessors, against Babe Ruth if we truly want. The preferred tool today is Wins Above Replacement. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference both have proprietary versions; each is marred by its inclusion of defensive metrics but good enough to give a decent idea of what's what.
And they agree: The worst player in baseball this year is Kansas City outfielder Jeff Francoeur.
FanGraphs says he has been worth -1.7 WAR, which means by using a replacement-level player – some bum from Triple-A – the Royals actually would have won two more games. B-R is even harsher: The site has Francoeur at -3.0 WAR, which ranks as the 11th-worst season for an offensive player since 1901.
With a dreadful August and September, Francoeur could threaten the season both sites agree is the worst ever: Jerry Royster's 1977 with Atlanta, a -3.7 FanGraphs and -4.1 B-R debacle. The utilityman hit .216/.278/.288 and, the metrics say, played brutal defense. Francoeur isn't that bad, at .240/.287/.372, with a major league-leading 14 outfield assists, but as Wil Myers sits at Triple-A with a .311/.389/.603 line, 35 home runs and the title of best hitting prospect in the minors, it cannot be anything short of maddening for Royals fans to swallow where part of the cost of their ticket will go.
Kansas City owes Francoeur $6.75 million in 2013.
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