The Unluckiest Man on the Face of the Earth?

Last Wednesday, Trevor Bauer had a rough start. In six innings, he struck out 10 Padres, but that’s where the highlights ended. He walked four and gave up three home runs, pushing his season total to 17 homers allowed. They were all solo shots, which limited the damage, but still: three home runs isn’t a good day’s work. After the game, Bauer was understandably defensive:

Now, “little mistakes” are hard to measure. Consider this titanic Manny Machado blast, for example:

Mistake? Maybe. But how do you define a mistake pitch? That was an 82.6 mph slider, roughly two ticks faster than Bauer’s average for the pitch. Per Statcast, it had 16 inches of total break (against spin-less movement), roughly 1.5 inches less than his average slider breaks. He left it over the plate, but not excessively so; five inches above the bottom of the zone. He doesn’t locate sliders there often, but the previous three had resulted in two swinging strikes and a pop out.

So was this a sublime effort by Machado or a bad pitch by Bauer? I’d lean towards the former — though Bauer would have a better argument on his pitch to Victor Caratini later in the game. But that’s hardly a scientific way of looking at it, and I wanted to do at least slightly better. Otherwise, how will we evaluate Bauer’s claim that he’s the unluckiest man on the planet, at least when it comes to home runs?

I set out three criteria for a mistake pitch. First, it needs to be more or less middle-middle. If we’re looking at any pitch in the strike zone as a potential mistake, the term loses meaning. If a pitch is straight down the middle, it passes my first filter. Otherwise, for our purposes, it’s not a mistake.

Second, it needs to be a bad pitch regardless of location. If you throw your nastiest slider, with absolutely ludicrous horizontal break, and the batter manages to hit it anyway, I don’t care where it was located; that’s not a mistake. Similarly, if you reach back for some extra velocity to throw it past the batter and they still crush it, it’s hard to say that was a mistake.

For my first cut of “mistake pitches,” I looked for middle-middle pitches that had lower velocity than that pitcher’s yearly average for the pitch, as well as less total movement than their yearly average. If you leave one right down main street, and it’s both slow and straight, that sounds like a mistake pitch to me. Which pitchers have thrown the most meatballs? I’m glad you asked:

Most “Mistake” Pitches, 2021

This is mostly a function of volume. Throw more pitches, and you’ll near-automatically throw more pitches that fall below your own average. You’ll also locate more in the middle of the zone. It’s a numbers game. This list doesn’t mean much — but for what it’s worth, Bauer is tied for 25th with 43.

A more important question: which pitchers have given up the loudest contact on their mistakes? Here are the 10 pitchers with the highest extra base hit rate on “mistakes,” minimum 20 mistakes:

Most-Hit Mistakes, 2021
Pitcher Mistakes XBH%
Patrick Sandoval 21 19.0%
Matt Shoemaker 27 18.5%
Matt Peacock 22 18.2%
Caleb Smith 29 17.2%
Shane McClanahan 31 16.1%
Ryan Thompson 26 15.4%
Jordan Montgomery 34 14.7%
Jesús Luzardo 21 14.3%
Riley Smith 30 13.3%
Kenta Maeda 23 13.0%

Bauer doesn’t appear in the top 10. In fact, he’s not anywhere near the top 10. You could argue that he’s the luckiest pitcher in baseball by this definition. Of the 43 mistakes he’s thrown — if you use this definition of mistake — not a single one has turned into an extra-base hit. No pitcher who has thrown more mistakes has escaped without damage — Kevin Gausman has also thrown 43 mistakes with no bad news to show for it.

I’m tempted to leave it right here. “Man thinks he is extremely unlucky, but is actually extremely lucky” is one of the oldest tales in the book. But that’s not really fair, because my definition of mistake can be changed. Let’s run through a few of those now.

First, why use a pitcher’s own metrics rather than league average? I actually think that’s a slam dunk, and I’m not going to compare them to league average at all in this investigation. Are exactly zero of Jacob deGrom’s fastballs mistakes? Every single one has been faster than average. Is every single one of Marco Gonzales’s fastballs, even the best one he’s thrown all year, a potential mistake? That doesn’t sound right either.

I’m going to stick to comparing a pitcher to themselves, but I do think that there’s space to disagree with my speed and movement definition. If we look only at movement, the list looks a bit different (with a minimum of 30 mistakes, because there are roughly 50% more mistakes this way):

Most-Hit Mistakes, 2021
Pitcher Mistakes XBH%
Kyle Freeland 32 21.9%
Adam Plutko 45 15.6%
Jesús Luzardo 40 15.0%
Bryse Wilson 34 14.7%
Ryan Thompson 44 13.6%
Matt Wisler 32 12.5%
Richard Rodriguez 33 12.1%
Sean Doolittle 33 12.1%
Cody Poteet 33 12.1%
Jarlin García 34 11.8%

I can kind of buy this definition, because I don’t really care if your slider was a single mile per hour faster than average if you got your hand around it and threw a cement mixer that didn’t break. Major league hitters are really good; if you throw them something that doesn’t bend much and is right in their wheelhouse, they tend to hit it. Bauer isn’t as extremely lucky here, but he’s on the lucky end of the spectrum; 4.5% of his 88 mistakes have turned into extra bases, 39th percentile among pitchers with at least 30 mistakes.

One last one: what about movement for secondary pitches and velocity for fastballs? For this one, I grouped cutters with offspeed pitches, because they’re closer to sliders than anything else, and a cutter that spins ineffectively right down the middle of the plate is generally a bad pitch. I’m not sure if this hybrid definition makes sense, but here’s the top 10 again, with minimum 20 mistakes once more:

Most-Hit Mistakes, 2021
Pitcher Mistakes XBH%
Kyle Freeland 31 19.3%
Shawn Armstrong 22 18.2%
Matt Moore 22 18.2%
Miguel Diaz 24 16.7%
Trevor Richards 33 15.1%
Eric Yardley 20 15.0%
Zack Littell 20 15.0%
Ryan Thompson 40 15.0%
Will Vest 21 14.3%
Derek Holland 22 13.6%

Even in this version, Bauer doesn’t appear to have “the worst home run luck in the league.” He’s thrown 92 mistakes by this definition, and three of them have left the park. That’s the 28th percentile. In other words, by our narrow definition, 72% of pitchers have worse luck than Bauer.

Does this mean anything in particular about Bauer? No! It always feels like the world is out to get you, no matter who you are. Hit two red lights in a row, and it’s hard not to think that the traffic grid is actively plotting your downfall. That’s not how it works, though; the human condition is to feel unlucky regardless of the facts on the ground. It’s true in the small day-to-day beats of our lives, and it’s true when you’re giving up moonshots on national TV.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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