The Other Most Unhittable Fastball

Sometimes baseball makes things easy. According to the Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards, there have been almost 1,500 individual fastball types thrown at least 500 times by different pitchers since we were first able to track these things in 2008. Which has been the most unhittable fastball, determined by whiffs per swing? Well, Aroldis Chapman’s four-seamer, obviously. It’s been the most unhittable fastball, in large part because it’s also been the fastest fastball. Chapman throws harder than anyone’s ever been able to throw in the major leagues, at least that we know of. When batters have swung at his fastballs, they’ve missed more than 36% of the time.

Sometimes baseball makes things hard. After Chapman’s fastball, who comes in second? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Craig Kimbrel. I’ll give you another hint: It’s not, I don’t know, Sean Doolittle. Pick a pitcher! It’s not that pitcher. Unless you already know the pitcher, in which case, I can only assume that you cheated. The second-most unhittable fastball has been thrown by Nick Vincent.

Vincent has thrown both four-seamers and two-seamers, but we’re focusing on the former, here, a pitch he’s thrown more than 1,100 times. The pitch averages a decent amount of rise, but it’s nothing extreme. The pitch averages a decent amount of horizontal break, but it’s also nothing extreme. Vincent’s four-seamer over the years has averaged 90.6 miles per hour, which is faster than you can throw, but slower than Jon Niese has thrown. The thing about Vincent’s fastball is it’s pretty much ordinary. Except for the fact that it is not, which you can see in this table.

Unhittable Fastballs, PITCHf/x Era
Pitcher Fastball Whiff/Swing%
Aroldis Chapman Four-seam 36.4%
Nick Vincent Four-seam 34.3%
Carl Edwards Jr. Four-seam 33.7%
Darren O’Day Four-seam 32.8%
Yimi Garcia Four-seam 32.3%
Craig Kimbrel Four-seam 31.2%
Takashi Saito Four-seam 31.1%
Ernesto Frieri Four-seam 30.9%
Brad Boxberger Four-seam 30.8%
Hong-Chih Kuo Four-seam 30.2%
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

More than a third of all the swings have missed. Obviously, that’s extreme for any fastball, and while Vincent doesn’t have the slowest fastball in the table, he doesn’t have Darren O’Day’s funk. Vincent has a little funk, with his delivery making things particularly hard on right-handed hitters, but he’s a lot more three-quarters than sidearm, and a three-quarters delivery is fairly conventional. Vincent’s there because he’s there, and the sample size is no longer small. It’s a weapon, perplexingly.

If you wanted to look at things a different way, I can make it all even better! This has measured unhittability by whiff rate. What about fastballs with the lowest in-play rate on swings? When batters have swung at a Nick Vincent four-seamer, they’ve put the ball in play just 18.5% of the time. That’s the lowest rate in the entire sample, and second place — Chapman — is all the way up at 21.9%. That’s an enormous separation, showing that Vincent’s fastball both misses bats and generates fouls. It hasn’t made Vincent the most dominant reliever around, but he has been more successful than you’d probably assume.

This has considered the entirety of the recorded era. We don’t have to do that. Focusing just on the most recent season, there were almost 600 fastball types thrown at least 200 times by different pitchers. Here’s that whiff-rate leaderboard again:

Unhittable Fastballs, 2016
Pitcher Fastball Whiff/Swing%
Nick Vincent Four-seam 37.2%
Zach Britton Sinker 36.8%
Rich Hill Four-seam 34.6%
Carl Edwards Jr. Four-seam 34.1%
Jeurys Familia Four-seam 34.0%
Aroldis Chapman Four-seam 33.3%
Grant Dayton Four-seam 33.0%
Dellin Betances Four-seam 32.7%
Justin Wilson Four-seam 31.2%
Matt Strahm Four-seam 30.8%
SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Vincent takes over the lead, edging out Zach Britton’s impossible sinker. This wasn’t the best season Vincent’s ever had — over his 60 appearances, he coughed up 11 homers — but in between the dingers, Vincent’s fastball was getting whiff after whiff. Though that’s a little bit of damning with faint praise, whiffs tend to be more reliable than home runs, and Vincent at least looked like himself in this one regard. Just last year, Nick Vincent threw the most unhittable fastball in the sport.

As is frequently the case, this is so for a couple of reasons. One, the fastball is pretty good, as Vincent is able to locate it with regularity. But this is also about the broader repertoire, and Vincent’s fastball usage. Last year, Vincent threw 39% four-seamers. Over the whole PITCHf/x era, he’s thrown 34% four-seamers. More than half of his pitches have been cutters, meaning the fastball hasn’t been his primary weapon. This is why guys like O’Day, Sergio Romo, and Luke Gregerson have been able to post some impressive heater whiff rates, given what their heaters actually look like. But Romo’s fastball hasn’t reached 20% whiffs. Neither has Gregerson’s. Vincent is up well past 30%. He has done things differently, maximizing his 90 ticks.

Here is a Nick Vincent fastball blowing past Jose Bautista.

Here is an identical Nick Vincent fastball blowing past Jose Bautista.

Vincent tends to elevate his four-seamer, and elevated four-seamers tend to get two things. They get swinging strikes, and they get hit in the air, and when balls get hit in the air, sometimes they cover a great distance. Vincent’s four-seamer is an extreme fly-ball pitch, and this is in part where the home runs have come from. It’s the ugly, unsightly downside, but one shouldn’t necessarily overreact. Opponents just slugged .405 against Vincent’s four-seamer, but over his whole career the mark is a tremendous .270. The whiffs have never abandoned him, and that’s a strong foundation. Any number of reliever careers are built atop fastballs that are tricky to hit. Aroldis Chapman has one of those. Craig Kimbrel has one of those. Dellin Betances has one of those. And Nick Vincent has one of those. You might not think about him again for as long as you’re a baseball fan, because he has a way of going unnoticed, but it turns out he’s been trying to be noticed for years.

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.

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White Jar
7 years ago

I used to hear Mark Grace comment on Diamondbacks broadcasts about how big of a difference late movement versus early movement had on him as a hitter. Just looking at these two GIFs, it appears to the naked eye that this pitch has some wicked late movement.

7 years ago
Reply to  White Jar

Same thing on Mets broadcasts. For Keith Hernandez, late movement on good sliders and good cutters are the most often spoken about because of the inability of the hitter to make solid contact.

7 years ago
Reply to  DavidBowser

I mean, that’s what made Mariano Rivera so good. His cutter broke so late you literally didn’t have time to react or even know if it was the cutter or 4-seamer.

7 years ago
Reply to  burts_beads

It would be great if someone (with better access to stats than I) could quantify which pitchers have the best Late Movement and give them a bump in the Eno Arsenal score ratings, or something.

7 years ago
Reply to  burts_beads

It was Mariano… you knew if it was a cutter or 4-seamer!! 😉 (Hint: It was a cutter)

7 years ago
Reply to  DavidBowser

Tigers broadcasts have Jim Price saying “late movement” like a mantra every game. It feels like there’s just certain perfect blends of spin, spin angle, release and velocity that just uniquely break late, or seem to. Help us Trevor Bauer.

7 years ago
Reply to  DavidBowser

Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims has never uttered the words “late movement…” likely because he has no idea what it looks like. Sims just says, “oh man! What a pitch! How about that…”