I’ve been on something of a fastballs-down-the-middle kick recently. I hadn’t realized that it was possible to be so bad at hitting them until I looked into Wil Myers and his flailing ways. Then I started looking at a few underperforming hitters, and I was shocked by how many batters were missing middle-middle fastballs. Pitchers are throwing fastballs less often than ever before, and they’re designing new breaking balls every offseason. Meanwhile, some batters can’t handle a straight pitch in the center of the hitting zone. Baseball is weird sometimes!
Looking into these center-cut whiffs was baffling. There were a decent number of Jacob deGrom and Chris Sale fastballs on there, sure, but there were also plenty of replacement level relievers. Does the pitcher even have anything to do with it? Sure, Clayton Kershaw used to be great at throwing down the middle, but he’s thrown 96 pitches over the heart of the plate this year and gotten a paltry four swinging strikes. Aroldis Chapman excelled at it in 2016, but he’s thrown 43 of them this year and gotten only five swinging strikes. What if it’s a batter-centric phenomenon? Could it just be that batters sometimes miss because baseball is hard, regardless of pitcher?
Ha, no. Silly Ben. If you watched the 2018 playoffs, you’d already know: Josh Hader is the absolute king of throwing down the middle and coming out unscathed, and it’s not even close. Hader’s fastball is a magic trick, a sleight of hand performed on batters. In your head, he’s probably getting all his strikeouts at the very top of the strike zone or even a little above that, getting hitters to swing at pitches they can’t do anything with. That’s true, of course, but he’s also beating hitters when he messes up.
You’ll want some numbers, because I’ve been describing everything with words and a sense of wonder so far. Let’s do it! Hader has thrown 53 pitches in Zone 5, the center of the strike zone, this year. Five were sliders; the remainder were fastballs. Batters, for the most part, swing at pitches down the middle. As a whole, hitters have swung at 76.2% of down-the-middle pitches this year. It’s a little higher for fastballs (78%) and much higher with two strikes (96%). You’re not sneaking a pitch by someone when you throw it down the middle, or getting strikes because you found a part of the plate the hitter wasn’t looking for. You’re coming after them where they want to swing.
Of the 53 pitches Hader has thrown down the middle, he’s gotten 45 swings, good for an 85% swing rate. With two strikes, batters have swung at every single pitch he’s thrown down the middle. To put it mildly, batters haven’t had much success making contact with these pitches. Of those 45 swings, 20 got nothing but air, a preposterous 44.4% whiff-per-swing rate. That might just sound like a number, so stop and think about it for a second. Nearly half the time that Josh Hader throws a pitch right in a batter’s wheelhouse and gets a swing, the batter is coming up empty. Half the time!
Think of a great fastball in baseball. 2018 Jacob deGrom? His fastball got misses on 32% of swings. 2017 Craig Kimbrel? He clocks in at 39.8%, a colossally impressive number. 2016 Aroldis Chapman, the man who was good enough that the Cubs traded Gleyber Torres for a half-season of dominance? He checked in at 33.3% (and 40.3% in 2015). These are dominant seasons we’re talking about, some of the best pitching seasons this century. Josh Hader gets more whiffs on his fastballs right down the middle than these guys got overall.
Hader’s fastball is fast, sure, but it’s not pushing 100 or anything. He’s averaged 95.8 mph so far this year, decently above average. He gets a good amount of rise — 10 inches before accounting for gravity — but that only puts him in the 90th percentile of all pitchers across baseball. Telling is all well and good, but this is the kind of thing you need to see. Let’s do a lightning round of All-Stars missing Hader’s fastball down the middle.
Max Muncy isn’t pleased he missed this one — a tick and a half slower than Hader’s normal fastball, this is about as good of a look as you’ll ever get:
Jeff McNeil is a contact god, and Hader misses his location badly. The result? Still the same, with bonus helmet-toss action:
Ronald Acuña almost looks befuddled when he misses, as if some spell was cast on him mid-swing:
Kris Bryant? Thanks for dropping by, I guess:
Josh Bell eats fastballs for breakfast. In general he does, anyway. Not this particular fastball, though, on this particular day:
Look at these pitches, and you can see how hard pitching is. Hader misses his target on almost all of these. It’s not as though he intends to throw them right down the middle. Look at the result of these pitches, though, and you can see how easy pitching is for Josh Hader. Even when he misses location, the best batters in baseball can’t deal with it.
This is the part of the article where the ‘but’ comes in. You know what I’m talking about. This batter’s newfound plate discipline is great, BUT there are warning signs. This pitcher learned command, BUT batters might adjust. The case of Aroldis Chapman throwing down the middle is instructive. Chapman lost a ton of effectiveness when down in the count. Batters sat on mistakes over the middle of the plate and didn’t worry about offspeed pitches, and that changed the equation. Could that be Hader’s weakness?
Hader has thrown 11 fastballs down the middle with hitters ahead in the count this year, which isn’t exactly a robust sample. Let’s add in 2018, which gets us up to 42 pitches. Here, we’re concerned with whiffs per swing because batters take a lot more strikes when ahead in the count, so total pitches is probably the wrong denominator. Hader has generated nine misses out of 34 swings, a 26.5% whiff rate. That’s a lot worse — maybe we’ve found his Kryptonite!
There’s only one problem with that analysis: 2019 Hader is getting a lot more whiffs than 2018 Hader did. Blending the two together loses something unique about his 2019 performance. Just for comparison, Hader got misses on 29.6% of swings down the middle last year. This year, again, he’s at 44.4%. Maybe blending the two years together isn’t as good of an idea as we’d hoped. If we look only at 2019 fastballs, Hader’s down-the-middle, behind-in-the-count whiff rate is 43%, hardly indistinguishable from his overall performance.
The fact that Hader is so different between 2018 and 2019 is, I think, the real issue. The sample sizes inherent in looking at something like this are tremendously low. It’s not just that Hader has thrown only 43 innings so far this year. We’re not even looking at the whole performance — we’re looking at a tiny subset of pitches. There simply isn’t enough data. How can we know if this is really how good Josh Hader is?
There’s really not much to say about that. The sample size is too small. The odds are against him continuing to make people miss at this level. No one has ever done anything like it before, and that’s a good sign that there’s risk of regression. I guess what I’m saying is, enjoy it while you can. No one would tell you that Hader is going to keep getting whiffs 45% of the time on fastballs right down main street. What I can tell you, though, is that it’s pretty great experiencing it as it happens. Josh Hader’s fastball makes me laugh giddily. Whether that continues or not, it’s pretty awesome at the moment.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.