Going Deep: Which Hitters Were Money Against Multiple Pitches in 2018?
In mid-January, Ben Palmer wrote a fantastic article on Pitcher List highlighting five pitchers who boasted multiple Money Pitches in their arsenal in 2018.
Coined by Pitcher List founder Nick Pollack, a Money Pitch must cumulatively surpass a 40.0% chase rate, 40.0% zone rate, and 15.0% swinging strike rate. The central idea is that a go-to pitch should be able to do it all: induce weak swings out of the zone, earn called strikes, and get whiffs. Pitchers who can strike this balance across multiple pitches are more likely to be successful in the long run.
This got me thinking: Why don’t we look at hitters through a similar lens? After all, pitchers who rely heavily on one good pitch are generally performance fragile and inferior to those with multiple plus offerings. By the same token, shouldn’t a hitter who relies solely on crushing fastballs for his success be more prone to volatility and even performance regression?
While Palmer’s Money Pitch article focused on pitchers, this analysis will evaluate which hitters had “Money Swings” on multiple pitches in 2018. For sample sizes purposes, the spectrum will narrow to three basic pitch types: fastball, offspeed, and breaking. Readers can consult Baseball Savant for additional details behind the composition of each pitch type, but generally, fastballs comprise four-seamers, two-seamers, and cutters; offspeed offerings are changeups and splitters while breaking pitches are curveballs and sliders.
The next step is to derive the appropriate variables and thresholds. The Money Pitch criteria won’t suffice for hitters because it ignores the most important skill in batting: hitting the ball hard. As a result, I settled on a three-pronged Money Swing system that includes xwOBA, exit velocity, and whiff rate (measured as swings and misses divided by total swings). xwOBA is meant to proxy overall performance, while exit velocity directly addresses batted ball authority and whiff rate analogs plate discipline and strikeout tendencies.
Hitters inflict substantially more damage on fastballs, with a median xwOBA of .356 in 2018 compared with .285 for offspeed and .268 for breaking. Unsurprisingly, exit velocity follows suit, tracking at 89.9 MPH median for fastballs, 86.1 for offspeed and 87.2 for breaking. However, most of the variation in xwOBA results from swing and miss rather than batted ball tendencies, as hitters are nearly 70% more likely to whiff on an offspeed or breaking pitch than a fastball.
In terms of threshold setting, I decided that a hitter generates a Money Swing if he exceeds the 75th percentile in xwOBA and exit velocity and the 50th percentile in whiff rate.
Why 50th percentile in whiff rate rather than 75th? Because there’s a clear give and take in hitting approach, and it’s exceedingly difficult to post upper-tier exit velocities along with elite whiff rates. For instance, the correlation coefficient between exit velocity and whiff rates on fastballs was 0.30 in 2018, indicating that hitters begin to sacrifice exit velocity if they prioritize contact and vice versa.
There were seven hitters who had Money Swings against multiple pitch types in 2018, with one special player displaying that ability against all three pitch types.
It won’t come as a surprise that Anthony Rizzo is one of the most balanced hitters in baseball, employing a double dose of contact and power that leaves pitchers squirming. This approach allowed Rizzo to post four consecutive seasons of 30-plus HR and .380-plus OBP from 2013 to 2017, though his overall production dipped slightly in 2018.
Yet Rizzo did not sacrifice his approach as he combined elite performance on offspeed and breaking pitches along with above-average results on fastballs. Impressively, Rizzo exceeded the 89th percentile in xwOBA, exit velocity and whiff rate for both offspeed and breaking pitches. This balanced style signals that a bounce-back season might be in the cards for Rizzo.
Despite bringing home serious hardware as the National League Rookie of the Year in 2018, I was a bit surprised to see Ronald Acuna and his 25.9% strikeout rate on this list. However, it looks like Acuna, despite recently turning 21 years old, possesses a veteran command of offspeed and breaking pitches. His 87th and 71st percentile respective performances on whiff rate are particularly impressive, as most young players come into the league and immediately struggle against the slow and bendy stuff.
Acuna also performed admirably against fastballs on the whole with a .393 xwOBA, however, his whiff rate of 26.5% was only in the 10th percentile, keeping him from the elusive third Money Swing.
Rockies shortstop Trevor Story took a massive step forward in 2018, cutting his strikeout rate from 34.4% in the previous season to 25.6%. The increased opportunity to hit the ball in play resulted in a vigorous 37 home runs, 108 RBI and .567 slugging percentage.
The key behind Story’s surge was a dramatic improvement on offspeed and breaking pitches, increasing his xwOBAs on them by .185 and .077 points respectively. Story shifted from being very bad at breaking pitches to average, while he went from very bad to one of the best in the game against offspeed stuff. The fact that Story is now an average whiff-rate hitter is a huge development and instills confidence that he’s for real.
Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor has cemented himself as a fantasy stud and perennial MVP candidate, displaying a rare combination of power, speed, and batting average ability since his 2015 MLB debut. One of the traits that makes Lindor such a good hitter is his ability to drive different pitches around all parts of the zone. As a result, Lindor displayed Money Swings on both fastballs and breaking pitches in 2018, while narrowly missing the cut on offspeed pitches with an exit velocity that was just below the 75th percentile cut off.
Lindor’s impressive 95th percentile offspeed xwOBA of .392 and 97th percentile whiff rate of 15.7% indicate that pitchers should think twice before grooving a changeup in the strike zone to him.
Few will be surprised to see Mike Trout‘s inclusion on this list. Baseball’s best player has nary a weakness and is able to hit any pitch to every part of the ballpark.
What makes Trout so special is that he absolutely destroys offspeed and breaking stuff, pitch types that most hitters struggle with given the respective leaguewide .285 and .268 xwOBAs against them. But not Trout. He is in the 99th to 100th percentile on both offspeed and breaking in terms of xwOBA and exit velocity. And don’t worry, Trout also crushes fastballs, with a .431 xwOBA performance on those.
Trout is also the only player in baseball to post xwOBAs north of .400 on all three pitch types. In fact, no other hitter was above .375 xwOBA across the board. Trout’s one bugaboo was a mid-50s percentile performance in fastball exit velocity, but I think we can forgive him for that.
Is Anthony Rendon the most underrated player in baseball? I think so, considering he accumulated 13.0 fWAR over the past two seasons (sixth in baseball if you’re counting — better than Altuve, Yelich, and Arenado), yet is rarely mentioned among baseball’s elite. Rendon is such a complete hitter, combining strong exit velocities with a plate discipline skill set that would make Joey Votto blush.
Rendon is particularly adept against offspeed pitches, ranking in the 90th-plus percentile against them in xwOBA, exit velocity, and whiff rate in 2018. Rendon also earned Money Swing honors on fastballs and was ever so close on breaking pitches, missing the full sweep by a mere 3 percentile points on breaking pitch exit velocity.
I hope Rendon garners more attention in 2019 because he truly deserves it.
You honestly didn’t think we’d get out of here without mentioning Mookie Betts, did you? The Boston Red Sox outfielder likely possesses baseball’s best combination of bat speed and pitch recognition, enabling him to hit for a considerable amount of power despite his diminutive size.
A testament to his overall dominance, Betts posted a 94th-plus percentile xwOBA against each pitch type in 2018, while his lowest whiff rate performance was in the 72nd percentile. He was also in the 85th-plus percentile in exit velocity on each pitch.
Remember when I said that hitters generally must sacrifice contact ability for increases in batted ball authority? Betts is the exception to this rule. I’m not sure we’ll see a hitting season as dominant as Betts’ 2018 for a long time.
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)