Here at FanGraphs, we strive to provide you with entertaining baseball content. In the past, that often meant articles written by Jeff Sullivan. Now that he works for the Rays, that’s not an option — but still, some of our articles resemble his work. For the most part, that’s not on purpose, just a side effect of all of us reading so many of his pieces over the years. Today isn’t that. Today I’m going to riff on a classic.
Twice a year, Jeff wrote about the worst called ball and strike of the half season. Sometimes it was a comedy. Sometimes it was a straightforward discussion of how a pitch down the middle was called a ball. Either way, it was a wild ride, and it’s wholly Jeff’s.
That’s okay, though, because called strikes and called balls aren’t the only things that can be bad. Okay, fine, the worst called ball was pretty bad:
But that’s not why we’re here! Today, I want to look at the worst swinging strikes of the season.
The worst swinging strike is harder to pin down than the worst called strike. For example, this swinging strike is on a pitch that’s incredibly far out of the strike zone:
That’s not a good swing. It’s not particularly close to being a good swing. About the best thing you can say about it is that maybe the ball will get away from the catcher, but with a runner on first, that’s scant comfort. If the ball could travel through the ground with no resistance, Statcast projects that it would have crossed home plate nearly two feet below ground level.
It hardly feels sporting to pick that swing, though. Buxton wasn’t trying to swing at a ball he knew would bounce. He even almost checked his swing successfully. As soon as he picked up that it was a curveball, he slammed on the brakes. That’s always an issue with swings, but this one feels particularly unfair. That wasn’t a bad swing. It was a great decision that Buxton made an instant too late.
To qualify for my list of the worst swinging strike of the year, you have to swing at a fastball. Mis-identifying a breaking ball and swinging at a pitch that winds up a mile outside or low says something very different than swinging at a fastball that ends up a foot outside. To make up for that arbitrary limitation, though, I’m going to look at the most extreme pitch in each direction. After all, swinging through a fastball a foot below the strike zone is a very different experience than swinging at one a foot inside.
Let’s start with the top of the plate. That’s the easiest pitch to visualize — some rising fastball that climbs beyond reason and leaves a batter wondering what happened. That’s precisely how this went down. You can see from the setup that it’s no accident — you don’t put your glove this high if you aren’t looking for a chase:
Since I’ve already told you this ends in a swinging strike, it shouldn’t be that hard to guess what happens next. Still, it looks pretty ridiculous in action:
There’s no way to sugarcoat it — that’s a bad swing. If anything, it looks worse as a freeze frame. Francisco Mejía looks like he’s hailing a cab, and Daniel Vogelbach looks as though he’s miming smashing a guitar over his head:
Maybe you’re skeptical it was actually that bad of a swing. It all happened so fast, and heck, batters swing at high pitches all the time. That’s why four-seam fastballs are so popular, after all. Luckily, Statcast has our back here. It calculates the top of the strike zone for every player and records where the ball crosses the plate. After accounting for the radius of the ball, that pitch was 16.8 inches too high to be called a strike.
It’s particularly unfair that this happened to Vogelbach. He’s in the bottom third of baseball when it comes to chasing high fastballs, where the bottom third is the third that swings least. He swings at them about as often as literally Joey Votto. There’s no time to figure out why he swung at this one, though — we have to press on. There are more ridiculous swings to find.
How about an outside pitch? This one isn’t quite as clear — no one tries to throw a crazy-outside fastball, because those don’t really generate swings like high fastballs do. It’s at least theoretically possible, but, this setup doesn’t look promising for one of the worst swinging strikes of the year:
Kyle Farmer is set up more or less in the middle of the zone, low. What happened next required two players to make poor decisions. First, Alex Wood had to lose his grip on the ball and wing it sideways. Next, Yairo Muñoz had to cooperate by committing to a swing without regard to location. That’s how I assume you end up in this position:
But there’s a potential caveat to Muñoz’s bizarre swing. Watch the full play:
On first glance, that one stings. That bad of a swing, and Lane Thomas gets caught stealing? In truth, though, the play was almost definitely a hit and run. Muñoz has a bad batting eye (the sixth-worst chase rate among batters with 150 PA), but that pitch was outside even for him. To be precise, it missed the edge of the plate by 20.9 inches. The plate is only 17 inches wide, which is how you end up with an image that looks, out of context, like Muñoz and Farmer are forming a protective shield around the umpire:
Okay, those two were the gimmes. High fastballs are made to miss bats, and there’s an infinite amount of space away from the batter for a fastball to go wide outside. How far inside could one possibly be? At some point, the ball would just hit the batter, right?
Yep! Right! Thanks to a handy rule, that’s no problem, though, because if a batter swings at a pitch that plunks him, it’s not a hit by pitch. Rafael Devers found this out the hard way:
Talk about adding injury to insult. Devers got a bruise for his troubles, and he doesn’t even have the excuse that there was a hit and run on. Really, though, this pitch just emphasizes how thin the margins are. Look at it with the ball halfway home:
Looks like a strike, right? In fact, take a look at the very next pitch as it reached roughly the same point on its flight:
That one was right down the middle. The catcher even sets up similarly in both. Baseball is hard!
Our last zone, the lowest fastball that produced a swinging strike, comes with a caveat. The 14 lowest fastballs that got swinging strikes were all cutters. Cutters are fastballs, but they’re not really fastballs. This Ryan Helsley cutter is an example of what I’m talking about, but I disqualified all of the cutters from the running for worst swinging strike:
After cutting out the cutters (I’ll be here all week, sorry Meg), the lowest remaining fastball still crossed the plate less than three inches above the ground. It was a sinker, naturally, and unlike some of the other pitches in this article, it mostly went where the catcher was calling for it:
It mostly went where Russell Martin was calling for it — but not quite. It was about a foot lower than it was supposed to be, low enough that no one could reasonably expect a swinging strike. And yet:
What can you say for Ty France there? Not much — you’re not supposed to swing at that pitch. It wasn’t deceptive, didn’t come out of Alexander’s hand like a fastball before darting away as if possessed. It was down, always down, and France simply committed to the swing too early. You can tell in his sheepish reaction after the pitch bounces away:
Run to first? After that? I can understand why he’s not interested. Sometimes, you have to preserve what dignity you have left by admitting you’re beaten.
Which of the four swings is worst? You can’t beat Devers’s swing for the worst feeling for the hitter. Getting hit is no fun, swinging and missing is no fun, and doing both at once is just the pits. Muñoz’s featured a caught stealing for additional bad feels. France was so dejected he didn’t run out of the box. Despite all of that, though, I like Vogelbach’s the most.
The high swing, the bat level with his shoulders, the pure “wait is this baseball?” of it all — I love it. I like how it’s not some fluke occurrence, not some weird play you could never imagine happening in a million years of baseball. It was a normal play, a normal swing gone slightly wrong, then gone very wrong, then whatever is past very wrong. Of course, that’s just my opinion. All four of them are tremendous, and any of the four might be the worst swinging strike of the year.
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.