Friday, August 27, 2010

The Best and Worst Fastball Hitters

There is an awesome leaderboard over at where you can check out the best (and worst) hitters by pitch type. What stats like 'wFB,' 'wSL,' and 'wCB' do is that they calculate the number of runs scored above average a hitter attained against that particular pitch. The wFB/C and wSL/C stats look at runs above average per 100 pitches, so wFB/C would be looking at runs above average per 100 fastballs.

If you look at the leaderboard for the past three seasons combined, Albert Pujols, Kevin Youkilis, and Mark Teixeira come out on top as the best fastball hitters in the MLB. In the past three years, Pujols gained 121.6 runs above average against the fastball, while Youkilis and Teixeira gained 99.8 and 94.1 runs above average respectively.

A look at heat maps of run value against the fastball would give the best look at how these hitters fared against the heat. However, I wanted to create plots showing a measure that most readers will understand intuitively. Let's take a look at Pujols, Youkilis, and Teixeira in contact percentage against fastballs (percentage of fastballs they swung and made contact off of):

It looks like Pujols is by far better at making contact against fastballs from right-handed pitchers than the other two. Teixeira is a switch-hitter and it definitely shows in these plots, as he is the better hitter of the three against left-handed pitchers' fastballs. He makes contact on fastballs equally well against both RHP and LHP. Also, notice that the eye of the heat maps for all three hitters against LHP fastballs are relatively the same, but that Teixeira makes contact off of fastballs from RHP that are more to the right (outside for RHH) than Pujols or Youkilis, who make contact off RHP fastballs more inside. Again, this is because Teixeira is a switch-hitter while Pujols and Youkilis are exclusively right-handed. Whereas Pujols and Youk make contact in the left part of the zone against RHP, Teixeira bats left-handed against RHP instead, and so makes more contact in the right part of the zone.

Let's see how these guys' swinging strike percentages look against fastballs:

Remember that these are the best fastball hitters in the game today, so there's just blue all over in terms of swinging strikes. Looks like Pujols and Youk whiff a bit on high fastballs and inside fastballs from RHP, as well as high and outside fastballs from LHP. The switch-hitting Teixeira actually looks like he is more susceptible to swinging at low fastballs against both handed pitchers, but again, these swinging strike zones are very good compared to every other batter.

Now let's look back to the leaderboard to see the worst fastball hitters in the game according to Fangraphs. These turn out to be Jason Kendall, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Kurt Suzuki among qualified players, getting -40.5, -32.1, and -31.4 runs below average against fastballs respectively. Let's take a look at how they fared in terms of getting contact off fastballs:

All right-handed hitters, these look different from the Pujols/Youk/Teixeira plots earlier. The one that stands out the most is definitely Jason Kendall, who just can't seem to make contact off of fastballs, especially from LHP, barely making contact 50% of the time when the fastball is right down the middle of the plate. Betancourt can make some contact off of RHP fastballs while Suzuki has a decent epicenter against LHP fastballs, but bear in mind that contact doesn't necessarily entail that they're making good contact. Fastballs are arguably the easiest pitch in the game to get contact off of, and the best hitters can get around fast enough to make solid contact. Pujols/Youk/Teixeira make a lot of contact, but also get wood on the ball, all three being some of the top power hitters in the game, presumably getting most of their success off fastballs.

Let's take a look at how the worst fastball hitters fared in swinging strike percentages against fastballs:

It looks like part of the reason that Kendall can't make contact off fastballs down the middle of the plate is because he keeps missing them, as you see some lighter blue in swinging strikes down the middle as well as low and inside against RHP. This is different from both Betancourt and Suzuki, who swing and miss at high fastballs out of the zone, where Betancourt is particularly vulnerable against high LHP fastballs and low and inside RHP fastballs.

Admittedly, there are better plots to make in order to capture the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of hitters against certain pitch types. Plots I may experiment with in later posts will almost certainly include slugging percentage per balls in play (SLGBIP as opposed to BABIP) to show how much power the best hitters against a certain pitch get per ball they put in play.

But for now, these plots of contact percentage and swinging strike percentage clearly show who are the better and worse of the fastball hitters among these six. I did keep the swinging strike percentage plots at a lower maximum (which is why you see all the shades of blue) because fastballs typically induce the least amount of swinging strikes compared to other pitches (especially changeups). This will allow you to compare the best and worst hitters in terms of contact% and swinging strike% later between different pitch types if I do other posts for other pitches, as the color scales will remain the same to allow for a fair comparison.

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