2012’s Most Unhittable Pitch (By a Starter)

Shortly after the Mariners made the mistake of trading Brandon Morrow for Brandon League and another guy, it was noted by the Mariners’ front office that, the season before, League had thrown baseball’s most unhittable pitch. No pitch in baseball, apparently, generated a lower contact rate against than Brandon League’s splitter, and that gave us Mariners fans something to look forward to. What it actually wound up doing was give us something to complain about all the time, but no matter. That was the first I’d personally heard of a most unhittable pitch, and I fell in love with the concept. What better measure of dominance than whiffs over swings?

Of course, we all understand that pitches don’t exist in isolation. That year, League’s splitter was baseball’s most unhittable pitch, but it wouldn’t have been so if League only ever threw his splitter and never threw his fastball. There’s a lot of game theory stuff at play, so isolating individual pitch types is a little improper and misleading. Still, it’s a fun exercise, and I’m about to indulge. So we’re all about to indulge.

Just recently Baseball Prospectus folded in PITCHf/x leaderboards, based on Brooks Baseball data. I found myself navigating the leaderboards this afternoon, and I grew curious about 2012’s most unhittable individual pitch. I decided that I only wanted to look at starters, because relievers throw fewer pitches and have very different jobs. I also decided that I wanted a minimum of 200 pitches thrown, to weed out some small-sample noise. Not that there isn’t still noise, and not that I’ve made any correction for game-theory data or count, but whatever, I knew what I was getting into. This left me with a pool of 632 pitchers and pitch types. The pitcher and type with the lowest contact rate: Stephen Strasburg, changeup, 46-percent contact.

PITCHf/x recorded Strasburg throwing more than 400 changeups this season. Batters swung at 219 of them, and of those swings, 119 completely whiffed. Less than half the time batters swung at Strasburg’s changeup did their bats so much as touch the baseball in flight. It’s not far and away the most unhittable pitch in the sample, but the gap between first and second does appear wide enough to hold through the end of the year. It’s not like Strasburg is going to be throwing anymore changeups.

For good measure, Strasburg’s change also generated a grounder two out of every three times it was put in play. But, as noted before, it was very seldom put in play, so I don’t know how much this matters. It was a good pitch, is the point.

The predictable thing to do here would be to show .gifs of Strasburg generating swinging strikes with his changeup. He did that very often, and the .gifs would allow you to visualize what the pitch looks like, if you can’t recall it off the top of your head. Instead I’m going to show you .gifs of the two times Strasburg’s changeup was hit for a home run. You can still visualize what the pitch looks like, but now it’s all been turned on its head! Wacky!

The first batter to take Strasburg’s changeup deep was Jose Bautista, and there’s hardly any shame in that.

The second batter to take Strasburg’s changeup deep was Tyler Colvin, and there’s some very limited shame in that. Although it’s not like Colvin identified the pitch out of the hand and hit the living crap out of it.

I still can’t figure out how that swing made that ball leave that yard, but it did, and I suppose one of the lessons here is that even a very good pitch can be drilled for a home run and nothing is automatic. Baseball’s most unhittable pitch — by a stater — was not actually unhittable.

Strasburg has a good changeup — this we know. This we basically just confirmed. It stands to reason that a big part of the pitch’s effectiveness is that the hitters have to look out for the heat and the slurve. Strasburg is known for his high-90s fastball, and he’s always had this devastating breaking ball, and including a changeup is some degree of unfair. What’s interesting is that people weren’t really talking about Strasburg’s change as a weapon at the time he was drafted. Strasburg said in college he just sometimes mixed the pitch in. This draft report essentially labels the change as inconsistent. Quote:

Nitpickers may look at the secondary offerings as being just average and his command needing a little refinement, but none of that will keep him from being atop just about every Draft board.

Strasburg’s long thrown a changeup, but it never got the attention that his fastball did, or that his breaking ball did. He does indeed have a very good fastball and a very good breaking ball, but his changeup looks to have been baseball’s most unhittable regular pitch by a starter in 2012. Ending be damned, this was a pretty good season for Stephen Strasburg.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

37 Responses to “2012’s Most Unhittable Pitch (By a Starter)”

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  1. Petetown Matt says:

    Bautista just slaughters changeups. Would be cool to see how hitters hit based on pitch type.

    Is that a thing?

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  2. Jackson says:

    @Pete, in the 2011 Bill James handbook, there’s a section on the players with the highest stats against certain pitches. Like I remember Jonny Gomes was the best in the NL against curveballs.

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  3. AustinRHL says:

    You don’t see a lot of changeups with that much lateral movement.

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  4. Sabermetric Solutions says:

    Those are some very beautiful .gifs. Keep up the good work.

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  5. Miles says:

    The problem this year with that unhittable pitch by League is 1) catchers can’t catch it and 2) umpires can’t see it and call it a ball. Umpires squeezed the heck out of the pitch and forces League to throw up in the zone this year. He got rocked. When League throws his splitter to catchers who can actually catch it (unlike Miguel Olivo) it can be a excellent pitch.

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  6. John C. says:

    Wow, in that Bautista .gif, it’s amazing that he was able to keep that ball in fair territory. Look where he hits it – it looks pretty clearly well inside, but he opens up so far it might as well have been down the middle.

    Strasburg’s “changeup” is 91mph, which means it’s a solid ML fastball (with a ton of movement). The one Bautista smoked was clearly up too high, but it’s still impressive that Bautista hit it out. I think the real problem with Strasburg’s changeup is that he often has trouble throwing it for strikes. If the batter can pick it up and lay off of it (easier said than done) then he can get ahead in the count.

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  7. vivalajeter says:

    Are you able to look at the same data, but isolate it to only include a starter’s primary pitch? Strasburg does have a great change-up and he can still get K’s even if hitters know it’s coming, but without his fastball it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

    I’d have to think that his fastball and Dickey’s knuckleball are two of the toughest primary pitches to hit, but it’d be interesting seeing a top-10.

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  8. Daniel says:

    I’d like to see some info on Darvish’s slow curve…

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  9. Brendan says:

    FWIW, I remember hearing a scouting report (or maybe a couple) of Strasburg in college saying that his change up was above average but he couldn’t throw it because he was so good that college hitters just saw it as a normal fastball and were right on it. College hitters weren’t good enough to catch up to his upper 90s fastball, so the change up just wasn’t effective against them.

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  10. Shauntell says:

    Man, I can’t believe Colvin hit that one out. That was a one-handed lazy ass swing…

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    • AlexL925 says:

      If I remember correctly, that was just one of TWO he hit off Strasburg that night (though the other was not off a changeup).

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  11. Devon says:

    How is Dickey’s 80 mph knuckler not on this list?

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    • davisnc says:

      It’s not a list, and Dickey’s 80 mph knuckler was not the pitch selected for analysis based on the methodology that was clearly laid out in the above post. You ask very good questions! Hope this was helpful.

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  12. monkey business says:

    The Bautista/Stras .gif is amazing. Two beautiful performances (though one a little more productive than the other).

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    • Kampfer says:

      That was indeed a very cool gif. Stras missed his spot, but it was extremely in at 90mph. Unless the count is 3-1 or something that is usually a good-neutral pitch. But Bautista managed to somehow turn on the pitch and the moment it left his bat we all knew it was gone(from the gif the batted ball seems to be going to the left-center instead of down the line, just a masterful piece of hitting).

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  13. Alex says:

    Colvin actually has a pretty good swing there IMO. If you watch the slow-mo version, his swing is terrific until he takes his hand off of the bat. But his hand doesn’t come off until the ball has left the bat, and so it doesn’t affect it.

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    • Phantom Stranger says:

      Agree, Colvin’s swing is unorthodox looking because it’s so long on that particular pitch, but he keeps it in the right swing plane and at the correct angle from the ground while bending over.

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    • MGL says:

      Interestingly, your hand can come off the bat – in fact, both hands can come off the bat – prior to making contact, and it will have almost no effect on the force imparted on the baseball…

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  14. Pie IX says:

    Is it possible that his changeup looks so good in part because we’re not counting all of his changeups? I could imagine a scenario where he doesn’t get good movement on the pitch and it gets classified as a fastball. And obviously those would be his worst changeups and most likely to get hit.

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    • J W says:

      Nope, PitchFX sort of “cheats” when it knows a pitcher’s repertoire. I don’t think I’ve seen any of Strasburg’s changeups classified as fastballs this year.

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    • Nack says:

      (I wrote this before reading your comment, but I think we should expand on this possibility.) – I’m hearing more and more about pitchers using more than one kind of changeup. This could be why strasburgs change is so good. Because its not a single pitch…maybe.*(Nationals fans who study him closely might be able to answer that, or speculate about it) I heard Felix Hernandez had three. I believe Dave Cameron said that somewhere. Is it the grips they change? Like circle change-up, or palmball changeup etc. or the amount of force the fingers apply to the ball, or perhaps they just throw with slightly different arm speeds?

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  15. Tom says:

    “Of course, we all understand that pitches don’t exist in isolation. That year, League’s splitter was baseball’s most unhittable pitch, but it wouldn’t have been so if League only ever threw his splitter and never threw his fastball. There’s a lot of game theory stuff at play, so isolating individual pitch types is a little improper and misleading. Still, it’s a fun exercise, and I’m about to indulge. So we’re all about to indulge.”

    I think this is a very astute point and something overlooked in a lot of places in sabermetrics. While it is nice to attempt to take context out of each individual outcome, you can’t do it completely. And people often confuse something contextual not being measurable on an aggregate level with it not existing at all (“lineup protection is a myth”, “pitching to the score/situation is a myth”)

    And on a semi-related note it makes Mariano Rivera’s career even that much more ridiculous.

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  16. DD says:

    Per Chipper Jones in May 2012:

    “Verlander’s got a good change-up, but his is a circle change that just kind of fades away,” Jones said. “(Strasburg’s) is a 90-plus mph split that falls off the table. When you’re going up there getting geared up for 95, 96 mph and he throws you 90 and the bottom drops out of it, it’s a pretty lethal combination.”

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  17. Tim says:

    joey bats was straight sitting change in that gif

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  18. Andrew says:

    Nailed it, go me. 2nd guess was Sale’s slider.

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  19. Ninjasports says:

    That Strasburg change-up is gross. Visit

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