A certain type of Major League slugger fascinates me more than the rest. He’s the dude who stands up there, waggles his bat aggressively, has an extreme leg kick, and then still manages to pull a high-grade fastball. These guys are seemingly on one leg as the pitch is hurled at them and still manage — somehow — to be ready to hammer it before it crosses the plate.
The slugger that immediately comes to mind is Gary Sheffield. The Sheff, who clubbed 509 home runs over his 20+ year career, possessed the most notorious and aggressive waggle of them all; the cap of his bat would be pointed almost directly at the pitcher as the ball was coming at him. Yet because of his other-worldly hand speed, Sheffield was still able to get the barrel of the bat to the baseball. Check this out to see what I mean:
Sheff manhandled inside fastballs thanks to some of the fastest hands in the game. In honor of his third appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, I thought it would be fun to find out which hitters used their lighting fast hands to mash the hardest inside heaters in 2016.
What pitches meet the criteria?
Over 700,000 pitches were thrown across the Major Leagues in 2016. To investigate the idea posed above, I subset the database to include only those pitches which were (1) thrown over 95 MPH by the pitcher, (2) located on the inner 15% or further inside of the plate, and (3) swung at by the batter. Below is a strike zone plot of those pitches; the red dots correspond to the fastballs that were contacted in play for a hit, and the gray dots correspond to those balls that were either swung at and missed, foul tipped, or put in play for an out.
All pitches on the graph are inside: the right side of the graph shows inside pitches to lefties, and the left part of the graph shows inside pitches to right handed batters. Left handed batters accounted for only 40% of total pitches seen in 2016, so it makes sense that there are generally fewer dots on the right hand side of the graph.
First, the graph shows that hitters swung at some wildly inside pitches this season. Those 95 MPH+ inside pitches, located a foot above the zone? Might want to lay off those. Same to the fastballs that almost hit the ground and the ones that are about a foot inside.
You’ll also notice that, predictably, the farther inside the fastball, the less likely the hitter is to have success. But there’s also a significant amount of red on that graph, both for lefties and righties, meaning that certain hitters — at least every once and a while — had success by swinging at these pitches. So, the next question is:
Who saw the most of these pitches, and who swung most often?
Let’s see which hitters bite at these pitches most often. Below is a table that shows the list of the hitters who saw these pitches the most and their corresponding number of swings.
Because the criteria for inclusion in this analysis are restrictive, the “Total Pitches Seen” number for any given hitter is not particularly high. (A starter might see over 2,500 pitches in a season.) However, there are a number of hitters that, when these types of pitches come their way, don’t seem able to keep from swinging.
Perhaps these are the hitters we are looking for! One might hypothesize that the guys who swing the most at these pitches have the most success, and that they have success because they have fast hands. The first few guys on the list — Abreu, Bryant, and Donaldson — certainly pass the eye test. To find out, let’s take a look at another piece of the puzzle.
Who had success on these pitches?
My thought with this exercise was not to see who swung at these pitches, or even who collected hits on these pitches in 2016; it was to see who could hit these balls hard — like Gary Sheffield. In order to isolate “hard” hits from the bloop singles, I removed all hits where the word “soft” appeared in the event description contained in the raw data.
This distinction is subjective and predicated completely on the manually-recorded description of the event in the data. Of course, batted-ball exit velocity would make this a much more exact science, but MLB hasn’t released individual at-bat tracking data to the public. So, for this analysis, “hard” hits are considered singles/doubles/triples/home runs that do not include “soft” in the event description. (There are other hard hit events, such as line outs, that are more difficult to detect in PITCHf/x and have been excluded here.)
Below is a replication of the same table, but with an added column for Total “Hard” Hits.
The hitters who swung at these pitches the most did not necessarily have much — or, interestingly, any — “hard” hits on these baseballs in 2016. For example, reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant did not record a “hard” hit on any of these pitches last year. So, who were the leaders in “hard” hits? Below is another table which shows the 2016 league leaders in “hard” hits off of 95 MPH+ inside pitches.
Importantly, no hitter was successful very often; that’s to be expected since these pitches are hard to hit. But we’re getting somewhere, since we’ve appeared to isolate (1) a group of good fastball hitters and (2) a number of hard hit baseballs. The 22 home runs definitely fit that bill.
Of the “hard” hits, which were on the wildest pitches?
Let’s further dig into the location of some of the wildest “hard” hit balls. Below are two tables, one for all “hard” hits and one for home runs only, by notable accomplishment.
There are some pretty good fastball hitters listed on these tables and the ones above. For example, Ryan Howard has a notoriously quick bat, and although he’s not nearly the hitter he used to be, still managed to collect a hit on a 101.5 MPH inside fastball this season.
This exercise came to mind because I loved watching Sheffield hit. Thus, the best part about identifying these unusual events is marveling at them on video. However, since videos of singles — like Howard’s single on a 101 MPH fastball — are hard to come by on the internet, we’ll have to settle for watching the home runs that we’ve identified as particularly rare.
Here’s that Denard Span home run — which happened to be a game winner — where the heater almost hit the ground. Those are some fast reflexes!
Next, here’s that Evan Longoria dinger on the 97 MPH pitch located at the inner top of the strike zone. That pitch probably breaks most hitters’ bats, yet because of a short, ultra-quick swing, Longoria hit it for a dinger.
And finally, here’s the Joc Pederson home run from September 10, which was both the most inside and the hardest thrown home run in our sample. Somehow, Pederson was able to keep this ball in fair territory:
We endeavored to identify the hitters who have fast hands by isolating those players who enjoyed success on hard, severely inside pitches in 2016. To some degree, I think we accomplished that. The group of hitters listed throughout this article — Piscotty, Betts, Pedroia, Hosmer, and the like — are, by and large, excellent fastball hitters who pass the eye test for having lightning quick hands and bats. Hosmer and Pedroia even throw in excellent leg kicks!
But there are certain other factors at play that tamper with the results, the most relevant of which being a hitter’s ability to guess. A hitter might rely on his ultra-quick hands to catch up to the inside fastball thrown over 95 MPH, or a hitter could have average bat speed and simply guess correctly on that particular pitch. Joc Pederson can hit any pitcher’s fastball, but I would imagine he did a bit of guessing on the home run shown above. We don’t have the data to know for sure, so this simple caveat will have to do.
But overall, the hitters we’ve identified are those types that I’ve admired since I was a little kid: unafraid — like Gary Sheffield — to swing violently in an attempt to punish hard, way-too-inside heaters.