Hitting a baseball is hard. It becomes an even more difficult task when they’re thrown by men that get paid to do so. Major League hitters have been trained to combat the success of their counterparts by identifying the ideal pitches to hit. Usually, those are pitches that are thrown down the middle. However, if we disregard location, it’s apparent which pitch type is the easiest with which to make loud contact.
Diving into the Pitcher List archives unearthed an article written in 2019 by Nick Gerli that revealed the stats behind hitter performance against each pitch classification.
It became abundantly clear that fastballs allowed the worst outcomes (.356 xwOBA vs. .285 on offspeed pitches vs. .268 on breaking pitches), permitted the loudest contact (89.8 mph vs. 86.1 mph vs. 87.2 mph), and induced the fewest swings and misses (19.8% Whiff% vs. 31.2% vs. 33.6%). These stats are now expired, but the point still stands – hitters should be attacking fastballs.
With that being said, it stands to reason that pitchers would be joyous to have the ability to force hitters to forego that advantage. A pitcher that got fewer swings on fastballs, without changing their pitch usage, would do a better job of avoiding negative outcomes and hard contact.
It also follows that if hitters aren’t swinging at fastballs, then they must be swinging at secondary pitches, further increasing the positive outcomes for the defense. What if we could identify pitchers of this ilk?
Doing so would not only create a list of interesting names to target in fantasy, but would also help us get an idea of pitchers that are able to overcome their personal deficiencies by maximizing the effectiveness of their arsenals.
Whether that be a pitcher with a mediocre fastball having a lot of success because hitters are attacking their offspeed pitches or a pitcher that steals strikes with their fastball before forcing hitters to chase their breakers, the pitchers identified are benefitting from poor swing decisions.
It’s worth considering if the pitcher or the batter is the one controlling the lack of swings on fastballs, but when you consider that pitchers induce similar swing decisions across large sample sizes, it’s evident that it is a skill rather than luck.
The method used to identify the pitchers with the ability to keep batters from swinging at their fastballs was quite simple. First, set an innings pitched and fastball rate minimum to obtain a worthy sample size. The IP minimum was set at 145 IP to weed out pitchers that didn’t face a lot of batters and the FB% minimum was set at 40% to filter out pitchers that threw an inordinately low amount of heaters. From there, sorting by fastball swing rate revealed the list of names below, each of whom had a FB Swing% below 43%.
An exciting and polarizing name in the fantasy baseball world, Cobb is an anomaly. He teased his potential during his Rays days but has since struggled to stay healthy. A resurgence in 2021 with the Angels was once again hampered by poor health, but a free agent deal with the magic pitching dust-dealing Giants breathed new life into his hype.
Despite entering his mid-30s, Cobb added two miles per hour to his fastball velocity, exciting pitching gurus and Giants fans alike. While he was able to relatively maintain his health, the bad luck bug bit him with a .338 BABIP and a 68% LOB%. Some of that can be attributed to the poor defense behind him, but it’s hard not to expect more fortunate events in 2023.
Outside of a harder fastball and an impressive ground ball rate (64.6%), what makes Cobb so successful? If you read the intro, then you know exactly where this is going. The right-hander threw his sinker 43% of the time but batters swung at the pitch just 37.4% of the time.
It wasn’t for a lack of strikes either, as he tossed the pitch in the zone at a 57.1% rate (82nd percentile). In comparison to his secondary pitches, the splitter was his second-favorite pitch to throw (41.5%) and saw swings on 56.5% of them while his tertiary pitch, a curveball (15.3%), induced swings 34% of the time. It’s difficult to attribute the lack of sinker swings to the increased velocity or his deceptiveness, but he has witnessed a sub-40% FB Swing% in each of the past four seasons, supporting the idea that it’s a sustainable skill.
Alex Cobb, Filth. 😷
7Ks thru 5. pic.twitter.com/82u49WV687
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 10, 2022
What does this mean going forward? It means we can trust Cobb’s success. The sinker is a called strike machine (29.2%, 96th percentile CS%), allowing him to get away with poorly placed fastballs that would usually get crushed. His splitter, nicknamed “The Thing,” is one of the best in the game, coming in at the highest velocity (89.6 mph) among all splitters, earning it a 77th percentile PLV (5.10).
The curve is also great, sporting a 40.5% CSW (95th percentile). There are rumblings that he is adding a cutter and slider to his pitch mix, incorporating horizontal movement that his arsenal sorely lacked. The addition of those pitches has helped him boast an 18/2 K/BB ratio in four Spring starts and further increases the likelihood he has a huge 2023 campaign.
Looking at Cobb from afar reveals a pitcher with the complete package. He has an above-average strikeout rate (23.9%), induces loads of ground balls, and has a pitch mix that’s improved by his ability to get hitters to swing at the pitches he wants them to.
On top of that, his ERA estimators suggest a step forward in 2023 after he underperformed his xFIP by a wide margin (3.73 ERA vs. 2.85 xFIP). He also had another full offseason visiting the Giants’ cheating lab, so who knows what he brings to the table in 2023? This is a pitcher taking advantage of every aspect of pitching, and you’ve got to believe it continues in 2023.
It took a decade, but we finally got the season we were promised when Pérez was a top prospect in the minors. He broke out with an All-Star season at the age of 31, pitching to a 2.89 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP across 196.1 IP with a 20.6% K%. Returning to his original team in Texas likely wasn’t the culprit that sparked this success, but rather his ability to consistently locate his fastball and changeup while forcing swings on the latter.
It’s excruciating to buy into a pitcher that relied so heavily on location and changeup feel, especially one that doesn’t have big strikeout numbers, but there’s plenty to suggest that Pérez could maintain his success in 2023.
The southpaw featured three pitches 87% of the time. Those three, in order of usage rate, were a sinker (34.9%), a changeup (27.5%), and a cutter (24.5%). Occasionally, he utilized a four-seamer (8%), curveball (4%), and slider (0.7%), but considering the confidence level of computer pitch identification, those can be disregarded as pitches that were misidentified or that aren’t integral to his arsenal.
Additionally, the cutter wasn’t considered a fastball in this study because it had a very clear differentiation from the sinker, and with the method with which sliders are being thrown in the 2020s, could be considered a hard slider.
While the lefty’s overall swing rate was low, affording him called strikes on 18.8% of pitches (91st percentile), it was his sinker that stood out among the rest. The heater was offered at just 40.7% of the time, the lowest of his trio of primary pitches (CH: 53.3%, CT: 46.5%). With that, Pérez was able to keep hitters off his mediocre, low-90s sinker (4.64, 41st percentile PLV) without sacrificing his ability to throw strikes with it.
With hitters now attacking his secondaries more often, those pitches played up even further. Even though the underlying metrics don’t paint his change (4.70, 51st percentile PLV) or cutter (4.82, 25th percentile PLV) as special pitches, they produced great results overall. In other words, compared to other changeups or cutters, they didn’t stand out, but because Pérez was forcing hitters to swing at those pitches as opposed to his sinkers (which generally allow louder contact), his overall results were better than expected.
Martín Pérez, Winner by TKO (95mph Two Seamer). 🥊 pic.twitter.com/fHWQSaCPZJ
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 22, 2022
It’s clear that few fantasy managers believe that Pérez’s 2022 is repeatable (317 ADP in Draft Champions drafts on NFBC since the beginning of March). That’s almost guaranteed to be true, at least at that level, but that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to be an improved version of himself.
As previously mentioned, this is a pitcher that lives on the edge of the zone, relying on the feel of his pitches and his ability to locate them. Understanding the way batters attacked him last year reveals where a lot of his batted-ball success is rooted.
He doesn’t have to rely only on the unquantifiable aspects of his game but, instead, can take advantage of hitters’ swing decisions. Will he carry a sub-3.00 ERA across 190 innings again in 2023? Most likely not. However, his pitch mix is ideal for inducing grounders (53.9%), he’s a workhorse, and he maximizes his arsenal by keeping batters away from the pitch with which they’d have the most success. Don’t count him out just yet.
The only pitching prospect success story to emerge from the Kansas City farm system in recent years, Singer took a step forward in 2022 and many are predicting a full breakout in 2023. The 26-year-old right-hander reached new heights, recording a 3.23 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP across 153.1 IP while striking out 24.2% of batters.
The most appealing aspect of that line is that the ERA was fully supported by his ERA estimators (3.23 xFIP). The main gripe analysts seem to have with Singer is that he’s mainly a two-pitch pitcher and neither one is truly elite.
The sinker, his primary pitch (54.3% usage), was a good pitch in 2022. Its 32% CSW was in the 89th percentile and it produced a 4.82 PLV (73rd percentile). Unfortunately, it didn’t induce a lot of grounders (54.7%), force swings and misses (5.6% SwStr%), or massively reduce hard contact (28.7%, 67th percentile HC%).
What it did do was get batters to stare at it. They swung at the pitch just 40% of the time, allowing Singer to steal called strikes at a 26.5% rate (90th percentile). That ultimately meant that batters were forced to make contact with his slider.
The slider, his secondary pitch (38%), was his out pitch. It produced an inordinate amount of strikes (68.5%, 87th percentile) thanks to an 18.3% SwStr% that most likely resulted from hitters attacking it instead of the sinker. Batters swung at the pitch 14% more often than they did on his heater. The impact of the increased amount of swings on the breaker allowed Singer to force swings on pitches out of the zone.
The slider had a 41.6% O-Swing% (87th percentile), revealing the pitch’s ability to take advantage of its increased swing rate. While his PLV on the pitch was above average (5.20, 63rd percentile), it doesn’t accurately reflect how much damage the pitch did because there were fewer options for hitters to attack and they were reaching out of the zone to hit them.
Brady Singer, Filth. 😷 pic.twitter.com/qeMVBgIw8K
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 23, 2023
It will probably take Singer developing his changeup (7.5% usage, 10th percentile PLV) to fully break out in 2023, but it’s become apparent that he’ll be more than serviceable with his current pitch mix. It’s partially due to the fact he’s a ground ball machine (52%) and is above-average across the board, but is also due to his ability to force hitters to swing at his spinner.
In a great ballpark and likely surpassing 160 innings this season, Singer’s a great option to be a solid starter after pick 150 (182 ADP in Draft Champions drafts on NFBC since the beginning of March). If managers are concerned about the lack of depth in his arsenal, they should consider the fact that nobody wants to swing at the pitches they should when facing him.
A 6’4″ right-hander, Dunning has had a short career of being basically a replacement-level pitcher. Since being traded to Texas prior to 2021, he sports a mid-4.00 ERA with a 21% K%. Nothing special. As of now, he’s on the outside looking in of the Rangers rotation and doesn’t appear to be the first option when the inevitable injury clears a spot. However, he deserves his due after barely qualifying for this list by tossing 153.1 IP with a fastball usage of 40.2%.
The 28-year-old found a lot of success by stealing strikes with his sinker. The pitch returned a 90th percentile, 26.4% called strike rate as batters offered at it just 41.2% of the time. Taking advantage of his opponent’s lack of aggression, Dunning forced swings on his slider (27.8% usage, 42% Swing%), changeup (20%, 57%), and cutter (11.6%, 39.4%).
While none of them stood out in terms of PLV, rating out in the 2nd, 43rd, and 30th percentile respectively, the fact that batters were swinging at those pitches instead of his sinker created better outcomes for Dunning and the Rangers.
Dane Dunning's 5Ks in 2 innings. pic.twitter.com/WsQNqCzSfP
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 30, 2022
Whether it be because of the lack of previous success or the lack of a role on the pitching staff, nobody should be targeting Dunning in their fantasy drafts. However, don’t disregard him as a sneaky streamer in deep leagues in August when he takes on a team with a poor offense. He forces hitters to swing at his secondaries, inducing grounders at a 56.5% rate. He will have his moment in the sun in 2023.
Last, but certainly not least, Gallen has gone from exciting prospect, to breakout pitcher, to disappointing ace, to consensus top-25 starter. 2023 saw him finish the season on the hottest of streaks as he produced a 1.49 ERA in 14 starts during the second half. If he’s not already on your radar or if you’re not enough of a Gallen Gal, let this be the last word that convinces you to buy in.
Zac Gallen hasn't allowed a run in over 40 innings.
Does he continue that streak tomorrow? #ULTRAMoment pic.twitter.com/J03SaITg0Z
— MLB (@MLB) September 10, 2022
Despite featuring an average, mid-90s fastball over 48% of the time, batters are scared to swing at it. Just 41.5% of his four-seamers were offered at, and it allowed Gallen to get away with a 23.6% called strike rate (96th percentile). The pitch is not overwhelming in any aspect, but batters were unwilling to take a hack, and that made Gallen an elite pitcher because he features a bevy of elite secondary pitches.
Here are his secondaries with their usage and swing rates:
The first three are clearly his bread-and-butter pitches. The curve held a 95th percentile, 5.39 PLV, the changeup produced a 91st percentile, 62% PLUS%, and the cutter boasted an 88th percentile 5.28 PLV.
It’s apparent that Gallen loves his secondaries, that they’re all enticing pitches, and that their success is improved because hitters are forced to swing at them. Each of those pitches also benefitted from hitters chasing them, as they all had an O-Swing% greater than 75% with the hook leading the way at 44.7% (96th percentile). There’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case going forward.
There aren’t many fantasy managers avoiding Gallen in 2023, and it’s easy to understand why. He’s a strikeout pitcher (26.9% K%) with the ability to eat innings and he has a deep arsenal. Everyone should have even more confidence in his ability to succeed in 2023 because of how he utilizes his pitch mix to keep hitters from producing ideal contact. As long as hitters continue to lay off the heater and attack the secondaries, they’ll be chasing their tails all year.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by: Chris Corr (@Chris_Studios on Twitter)