The Player Who Hasn’t Struck Out by Jeff Sullivan May 7, 2018 On today’s edition of Effectively Wild, Ben Lindbergh and I had the opportunity to talk with Steven Brault. Brault is interesting, first of all, because he’s a major-league pitcher. In the grand scheme of things, there are not that many major-league pitchers, and surviving at the level requires one to be an expert at his craft. Aside from pitching, Brault is also a musician, and he co-hosts a podcast with teammate Trevor Williams. As an individual, Brault has a lot going on, but the reason we sought him out in the first place is because of his hitting. Brault has batted a total of 32 times in the bigs. He’s recorded seven hits, sure. But he also has yet to strike out. Presumably, you know enough to know that’s atypical. You already understood that strikeouts are on the rise, and that, on balance, pitcher-hitters are terrible. Brault is finding himself on the same list as names like Dizzy Dean, Heinie Meine, and Sloppy Thurston. It’s not that Brault is a hitter in the way that Madison Bumgarner is a hitter. Bumgarner stands out because of his power. Brault stands out because of his contact. Among active players with zero strikeouts, Brault is first in plate appearances, with 32. Carlos Rivero is standing in a distant second, with eight. This is how strikeouts have evolved over more than a century. FanGraphs has information going back to 1910. So, here are the league-average strikeout rates, split for pitchers and for non-pitchers: Pitchers are striking out more than ever. This is unsurprising, because non-pitchers are also striking out more than ever. In large part it’s because pitchers are throwing harder than ever. Hitting is just the toughest that it’s ever been, and there’s the additional effect of specialization — pitchers are spending almost all of their time trying to get better at pitching. Expectations for pitcher-hitters are appropriately but embarrassingly low. It’s why nobody minded that, as Gerrit Cole was busy striking out 16 Diamondbacks, he also struck out five times in his own five at-bats. Who cares about Gerrit Cole as a hitter? Gerrit Cole is a pitcher. You might say the Pirates have been at the forefront of not caring. Over the past two decades, the Pirates have had the National League’s worst-hitting pitchers. Over the past one decade, the Pirates have had the National League’s worst-hitting pitchers. This is all establishing the context in which Brault as a hitter has existed. Brault has a wRC+ of only 26, but then, for a pitcher, and especially for a pitcher on the Pirates, that’s pretty good. And it all comes down to the contact. Having grown up in San Diego, Brault used to idolize Tony Gwynn. He still tries to put the ball in play whenever he gets the chance. This is Brault’s spray chart, from Baseball Savant: Looking at that, you get a certain impression. Brault throws left-handed, and he bats left-handed, and for a lefty, that spray chart displays a slap-hitting tendency. You see so many balls hit the other way, which is a consequence of Brault staying back and just trying to get the bat on the ball. But don’t arrive at the conclusion that Brault must just be attempting swinging bunts. He’s already recorded four batted balls hit harder than 100 miles per hour. And, let’s go back to a recent game against the Cubs. The end of Brault’s first at-bat: That’s a sharp ground ball for a single. The end of Brault’s third at-bat: That’s a line drive to the gap that might’ve otherwise gone for a double. I skipped over the second at-bat. That’s because I want to show you some extra detail. From that at-bat, here’s the 1-and-0 pitch: Swing and a miss. It happens. That’s a pretty good cutter. Here’s the 2-and-2 pitch: Not only is that a sharp ground ball for a single. Look at Brault himself. Look at his swing mechanics. Earlier in the count, Brault used a high leg kick. With two strikes, he went to a toe-tap. That’s not unusual, for a hitter. Many hitters will adjust their mechanics in two-strike situations. But Brault is a pitcher before he’s a hitter. He just happens to be a pitcher with a real idea of how to hit. It’s a part of his job he takes seriously, which is already enough to distinguish him from many of his peers. Brault takes hitting seriously because he’s been good at it. In his last year as a two-way player at Regis University, he batted .397, with a team-low 5% strikeout rate. Over three summers in the collegiate Northwoods League, he batted .329. And when Brault had the rare opportunity to hit in the minors, he batted .419, which is to say, he went 13-for-31. He does have seven minor-league strikeouts, but, we don’t care much for minor-league stats when we’re talking about major-league performance. Brault hasn’t gone down on strikes in the majors. It doesn’t matter how small the sample is. Avoiding major-league strikeouts over any sample is an accomplishment. According to Brault, more than anything, he just wants to make sure he’s enough of a threat that the pitcher can’t relax. And there’s evidence now that Brault has forced his opponents to give him a second thought. In Brault’s first two years, he saw 87% fastballs, and he saw fastballs for every single first pitch. In this year’s limited sample, Brault has seen only 56% fastballs, and he’s seen his first handful of first-pitch offspeed deliveries. Brault has made pitchers treat him like he isn’t just any other pitcher. You could say it took two years, but really, it took 22 plate appearances. By then, Brault had made enough of an impression. Recently, the Pirates demoted Brault to their bullpen. What that means is that, until or unless Brault returns to the rotation, he won’t be batting multiple times a game. He might not be batting at all. On the other hand, Brault has shown the Pirates enough that he’s been used as a pinch-hitter on two separate occasions. It’s an option the coaching staff will have. Until at least Brault’s next plate appearance, the contact streak will live on. He hasn’t struck out, even though he takes some real swings. You might think it sounds so simple, but, no one else is doing it. For now, it’s only Steven Brault.