Identifying Baseball’s Most Unhittable Pitches, So Far

Advancements in baseball research, and in our understanding of the game, have made it more difficult to be satisfied with a statistic. More and more, we’ve become aware of the holes, of the problems, of — sometimes — the game-theory considerations. Batting average was left behind when people realized singles and doubles aren’t the same thing. On-base percentage isn’t as good as park-adjusted on-base percentage. It’s great to have wRC+, but what was the quality of competition? To what extent did a hitter get lucky or unlucky? Everything can always be questioned, infinitely, and we’ve all become more able to perform the questioning.

Below I’m going to present a statistic that would’ve made me the happiest about six or seven years ago. Below, we’re going to review this season’s most unhittable individual pitches, as determined by contact rate against. After all, what better way to show which pitches are great and which pitches aren’t, than by looking at how often they’re hit by swings? Is this not one of the ideal measures of dominance?

Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Most of us get that now. All pitches thrown are interconnected, all having something to do with one another. It isn’t fair to just strip them of context and examine them independently, because they’re not independent. There’s also the matter of counts, and the matter of when a pitch is and isn’t being thrown to miss a bat. Sometimes pitchers want contact. Some other times, a pitch is effective because hitters don’t try to swing at it in the first place. To isolate one pitcher’s pitch is to leave a lot of the story out. Why is a pitch good, or not good? Is a slider better because of the same pitcher’s fastball? If Pitcher B has a really good changeup, what if Pitcher A threw that same changeup? What if Pitcher B only ever threw changeups? Once you start thinking about game theory, it’s almost impossible to stop the train from rolling. Everything is complicated. Everything can be argued for the rest of your waking days.

But my response to all that today is: whatever. Sometimes it’s just fun to look at what’s been an unhittable pitch. A less-interesting alternate headline would’ve been, “Identifying the Pitches That’ve Been Hit the Least Often, So Far.” All this is going to be is a contact-rate leaderboard, but you could learn something from it, even if you don’t learn everything. In short, this stuff is fun to think about, even if the reality is more complex than we might like.

Numbers were compiled from Brooks Baseball and from the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. I combined all individual pitches thrown by both starters and relievers, then I eliminated all those that hadn’t yet been swung at by hitters at least 50 times. So, the numbers you see below come with a 50-swing minimum, which is arbitrary but good enough for me. Contact rate is simply contact over swings, or if you prefer, non-whiffs over swings. Against all pitches, hitters generally make contact about four out of every five times they offer.

Now then, the most unhittable pitches of 2013 through August 20:

  1. Danny Farquhar curveball, 32.7% contact
  2. Jordan Walden slider, 39.4%
  3. Aroldis Chapman slider, 44.3%
  4. Pedro Strop slider, 44.3%
  5. Josh Outman slider, 44.9%
  6. Aaron Loup changeup, 44.9%
  7. Patrick Corbin slider, 45.1%
  8. Boone Logan slider, 45.5%
  9. A.J. Ramos changeup, 46.2%
  10. Phil Coke changeup, 46.3%

As you’d expect, we don’t see any fastballs, seeing instead a bunch of put-away pitches thrown for the very purpose of making batters miss. There are six sliders, three changeups, and a curveball, and the curveball in the lead is in the lead by a bunch. You’ll also notice that there are nine relievers and one starter, with Corbin’s slider leading the way among guys who see the first inning. Relievers tend to get more whiffs, because relievers want to get more whiffs. Starters try to be more efficient, which makes Corbin’s slider all the more remarkable.

Probably, you want visuals, so here are visuals of the top five, plus a Corbin bonus.

PATRICK CORBIN SLIDER

  • 297 swings
  • 163 whiffs

CorbinSL.gif.opt

JOSH OUTMAN SLIDER

  • 107 swings
  • 59 whiffs

OutmanSL.gif.opt

PEDRO STROP SLIDER

  • 106 swings
  • 59 whiffs

StropSL.gif.opt

AROLDIS CHAPMAN SLIDER

  • 61 swings
  • 34 whiffs

ChapmanSL.gif.opt

JORDAN WALDEN SLIDER

  • 66 swings
  • 40 whiffs

WaldenSL.gif.opt

DANNY FARQUHAR CURVEBALL

  • 55 swings
  • 37 whiffs

FarquharCU.gif.opt

Clearly, we can be the most comfortable with Corbin’s sample size. Farquhar is 14 consecutive batted curveballs away from dropping out of the top ten completely. But this post is also specifically about looking back, and if we take something from the numbers, it’s that Farquhar probably won’t encounter a stretch of 14 consecutive batted curveballs. While it might not in truth be baseball’s most unhittable pitch, that’s what it’s been to date, as hitters have to think about Farquhar’s mid-90s fastball and low-90s cutter. The curveball has been a big reason for his 2.16 xFIP, which is the fifth-lowest in the majors.

While we’re here, we might as well take a look at the other end of the spectrum, just for funsies. The top three most hittable pitches of 2013, through August 20:

  1. Ryan Dempster sinker, 98.6% contact
  2. Aaron Harang changeup, 97.5%
  3. Bronson Arroyo four-seamer, 95.7%

I have not prepared .gifs of those, nor do I ever intend to.



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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.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Richard
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Richard
2 years 10 months ago

I’m not even sure how a 98.6% contact rate happens.

MacB
Guest
MacB
2 years 10 months ago

I agree, that is ridiculous. I am just going to assume that the 1.4% of sinkers that didn’t make contact consist of the ones he threw at ARod.

mario mendoza
Guest
mario mendoza
2 years 10 months ago

HR derby pitchers don’t have 98.6% contact rates.

Mister
Guest
Mister
2 years 10 months ago

Hmm, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an outright whiff during a home run derby…

Yolo
Guest
Yolo
2 years 10 months ago

There are no strikes in HR derbies..

mgraves
Guest
mgraves
2 years 10 months ago

The more pressing question is, “Why isn’t that man pitching for the Twins”?

stan
Guest
stan
2 years 10 months ago

There are a lot of good pitchers who try to induce contact with certain pitches because they can get easy outs that way.

Neil Weinberg
Editor
2 years 10 months ago

Who are the next few starters and where do they rank?

snack man
Guest
snack man
2 years 10 months ago

What about Josh Lindblom’s curve? Isn’t that at 42.8%

Anon
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Anon
2 years 10 months ago

I have not prepared .gifs of those, nor do I ever intend to.

Spend less time writing and more time on .gifs.

dan
Guest
dan
2 years 10 months ago

Where did Chris Sale slider rank?

Patrick
Guest
Patrick
2 years 10 months ago

Where do the curveballs of Jose Fernandez and Adam Wainwright fall?

Michael
Guest
Michael
2 years 10 months ago

After reading this, I immediately tuned into the A’s vs. Mariners game just in time to watch Danny Farquhar end the game on a sweet curveball strikeout. How appropriate.

john
Guest
john
2 years 10 months ago

of the 1.4% of non-contact on dempster’s sinker, it was four pitches that were up and in to a certain yankees hitter.

Tim
Guest
Tim
2 years 10 months ago

I suspect gifs of hitters swinging through the most hittable pitches would be extremely valuable. Or at least funny.

yaboynate
Member
yaboynate
2 years 10 months ago

These gifs would totally be worth the agonizingly slow load time on this particular computer to which I am obligated to use at this particular location.

Cus
Guest
Cus
2 years 10 months ago

Can we look at this historically in some way? Maybe by separately looking at the top 10 swing and miss change-ups/sliders/curves since 1970 or something? That would be a real treat.

RobM
Guest
RobM
2 years 10 months ago

I had a similar thought, although it might not be as interesting as we think. The approach to hitting has changed quite dramatically over the past two decades, resulting in an overall trend in an increase in strikeouts. My guess is the list would be almost exclusively dominated by pitchers of very recent vintage.

olethros
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olethros
2 years 10 months ago

Especially since PitchF/X data only goes back to 2002.

Jasper
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Jasper
2 years 10 months ago

Really good article Jeff. Can’t wait to be hanging with the bros watchin a game with one of these players and spew these facts like a nerd.

bgburek
Member
bgburek
2 years 10 months ago

I’m surprised that Kershaw’s curveball isn’t up there since most seem to think that its one of the best pitches in baseball. I’m assuming hitters can make contact on his curveball, but have difficulty getting behind it and turning it into a line drive or deep fly ball.

Travis L
Guest
Travis L
2 years 10 months ago

Hitters have a .142 OPS against balls put in play on Kershaw’s curve this year. .071/.071/.071 triple slash.

It “only” has about a 15% swing and miss rate in the zone, but a 60% swing and miss rate outside the zone.

PitchFX has him throwing about 2x as many sliders as curves. Does he throw a slider, or is this a mis-classification?

wlent
Member
wlent
2 years 10 months ago

98.6% contact is ridiculous.. Looking forward to seeing him out of the rotation. Sinker pitchers pitch to contact but that much..? Good lord.

Daniel T
Guest
Daniel T
2 years 10 months ago

Yeah Jordan Walden also throws gas at 97-100mph which makes his slider that much more unhittable. great read by the way

RobM
Guest
RobM
2 years 10 months ago

I was going to post something similar, although not specifically about Walden. The slider and the changeup, which dominates the list, are effective because in most cases they live off the fastball.

Sam
Guest
Sam
2 years 10 months ago

His pitch may not be the nastiest, but that gif is the nastiest looking of the ones posted. There’s a ton of movement on that ball

Moves Like Munenori
Guest
Moves Like Munenori
2 years 10 months ago

It starts off the plate inside and ends up in the opposite batters box.

Questioning McQuestionson
Guest
Questioning McQuestionson
2 years 10 months ago

One thing that springs to mind is that these seem to be evaluated in a vacuum, without context of sequencing, the other pitches these guys have, etc. Do those factors get taken into account in this fun study?

Bryz
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Jeff addressed that by saying it wasn’t really fair to judge these pitches independently. This post is basically just saying “Here are the most unhittable pitches and what they look like.”

TapRat
Guest
TapRat
2 years 10 months ago

Are you a troll or did you not read the article? The entire lead-in was spent addressing this very point (and the fact that he was not going to try to address it in this article).

Questioning McQuestionson
Guest
Questioning McQuestionson
2 years 10 months ago

Was reading on my phone, actually, and I didn’t get the entire article. Sorry Jeff. I do enjoy your work a lot.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 10 months ago

If you don’t read the entire article, whatever the reason, don’t comment.

dfives
Guest
dfives
2 years 10 months ago

What about the weakest contact (ground ball%+ low contact rate% or something) for pitches?

Cidron
Member
Cidron
2 years 10 months ago

Given the nature of roles, this article would have been nice had it been divided into two articles, or at least segments – closers/relievers (short) as well as starters/long relievers (3+inning expected).

binqasim
Member
binqasim
2 years 10 months ago

what about handed-ness? incidentally you have only posted gifs of hitters of same handed-ness as pitchers. what about pitches that do well against opposite handed-ness?

snack man
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

I wish Strasburg were on the list. Not because i want to see his name but because i wish he was as “on” this year as he was last. However, I’ll take the 6.5 GB/FB ratio.

Stathead
Guest
Stathead
2 years 10 months ago

Harvey’s pretty “on” and he’s not on this list.

olethros
Guest
olethros
2 years 10 months ago

Neither are Kershaw, Wainwright, Verlander, Felix, Scherzer, CC, etc. High swing & miss rate on a single pitch /=/ overall success as a pitcher.

Hideo Name-O
Guest
Hideo Name-O
2 years 10 months ago

lol, CC

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
2 years 10 months ago

I could make a case that it would have been better just to show the number of whiffs rather than % with an arbitrary cutoff, but the article is fine as it is.

DCN
Guest
DCN
2 years 10 months ago

This is the first I was aware that there was a pitcher named Josh Outman, and it is perfect that he is a lefty reliever: there were eight games in which he recorded exactly one out. Need an out? Call Outman.

Bob Walk
Guest
Bob Walk
2 years 10 months ago

Yeah, tell me about it.

Carp, Salmon, and Trout
Guest
Carp, Salmon, and Trout
2 years 10 months ago

Have you been hurt in a serious fishing accident? Call the law offices of Carp, Salmon, and Trout.

Frank Robinson
Guest
Frank Robinson
2 years 10 months ago

Nah, I’ll stick with Saul.

Jesse Pinkman
Guest
Jesse Pinkman
2 years 10 months ago

Better call him.

Rusty Kuntz
Guest
Rusty Kuntz
2 years 10 months ago

Doug Fister gave me the Stubby Clapp. Can you guys help me???

olethros
Guest
olethros
2 years 10 months ago

Rusty Kuntz and Ugly Dickshot have a support group for you.

Homer Bailey
Guest
Homer Bailey
2 years 10 months ago

So when do you call me?

Grant Balfour
Guest
Grant Balfour
2 years 10 months ago

The only way my name would be worse is if I were named GrandSlam HomeRun.

Phil
Guest
Phil
2 years 10 months ago

Unless you are a very patient hitter

Drew
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Allow Grandslam

Hideo Name-O
Guest
Hideo Name-O
2 years 10 months ago

Stephen T. Shitballer

Drew
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

What about called strikes on certain pitches?

Has this already been done or is it not relevant?

mario mendoza
Guest
mario mendoza
2 years 10 months ago

Are curveballs less stressful on the arm than sliders?

Hideo Name-O
Guest
Hideo Name-O
2 years 10 months ago

Yes, generally speaking. It’s a less complex movement for the shoulder and elbow. I have exactly no evidence to support this but I would expect that pitchers who started throwing their slider when they were in the professional ranks with experienced knowledgable coaching staff supervising their mechanics have less injury trouble than pitchers who develop them predraft – while everybody and their sister has tried to throw a curveball and probably used it in a game.

dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt
2 years 10 months ago

Not being obtuse, but what’s the difference between a “swing” and a “whiff”? Does the former imply contact while the latter does not?

Hurtlocker
Guest
Hurtlocker
2 years 10 months ago

It’s funny that Danny Farquhar throws an un-hittabe pitch yet his ERA is 4.68. Hitters must be teeing off on his other pitches.

Moves Like Munenori
Guest
Moves Like Munenori
2 years 10 months ago

He had a few blow-ups early on. He’s been dynamite lately.

Radivel
Guest
Radivel
2 years 10 months ago

The best thing about this article was that I learned there’s a strikeout pitched named Josh Outman. What a great name, haha. “Time to call the Out Man!” I’d have far less confidence in Josh Walkman.

Hideo Name-O
Guest
Hideo Name-O
2 years 10 months ago

Josh Walkman has all that sweet, sweet Sony money he doesn’t need your confidence.

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