Who’s the Worst Secondary Pitch Hitter (Among Good Hitters)?

© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

At its core, hitting is about hitting fastballs. I’m not sure that’s a good thing – pitchers don’t throw as many fastballs as they used to, because they know that hitters are hunting fastballs. Look at the aggregate data, though, and it’s clear. So far this year, batters are 93 runs above average against fastballs, and naturally enough, 93 runs below average against all other pitches. Last year, they were 344 runs above average against fastballs. It’s a consistent pattern throughout baseball history. Ask a hitter, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing. You make your paycheck on fastballs, and you hope not to spend it all on everything else.

That’s not to say that it applies to all hitters equally. Mike Trout is a good secondary pitch hitter – he’s a great hitter overall. Rafael Devers might be a better secondary pitch hitter than he is a fastball hitter. The archetype exists, because, well, good hitters are good.

The opposite is true as well. Max Muncy has done almost all of his damage against fastballs throughout his career. So has Joey Votto, surprisingly enough – from 2018 to now, he’s been five runs below average against sliders, curveballs, changeups, and splitters combined. There’s no one way to be a great hitter – you can tattoo fastballs and live with the damage from everything else, hunt everything else and survive against fastballs, or find some happy medium.

I thought it would be fun to figure out who most embodies this “baseball is about hitting fastballs” lifestyle. In other words, I’m looking for a hitter who is good overall, but incredibly poor at handling secondary pitches. It won’t do to find someone who’s bad at hitting sliders because they’re just bad at hitting; Billy Hamilton is the worst slider hitter in baseball over the past five years (by run value per pitch seen), but well, he wasn’t in the majors for his hitting.

How should we measure it? I have a few ideas. I also have a love of gimmicks, so let’s use Mike Trout, the best hitter of our generation and one of the best of all time, as a learning tool. Mike, what should hitters do when they see a secondary pitch right over the heart of the plate?

Thanks, Mike! Walker Buehler is a great pitcher, and one who is unafraid to use all of his pitches in the strike zone. Trout showed him the error of his ways on that one; testing a powerful hitter with good pitch recognition in the zone is a risky proposition.

Boy, it’s fun to watch Mike Trout hit. Now Mike, what should batters do when pitchers throw a breaking pitch that never even flirts with the strike zone?

Correct again! Mike Trout, as it turns out, is an excellent teacher when it comes to what batters should do with breaking balls and offspeed pitches. In fact, we can create a simple metric based on these two decisions. Take a pitch down main street? That’s a bad take. Swing at a pitch off the plate? That’s a bad swing. I’m throwing out pitches either right on the edge of the strike zone or just off of it; those are pitcher’s pitches that no hitter has a good counter to, so we’ll just ignore them altogether.

If you turn those two numbers into percentages – the percentage of secondary pitches over the heart of the plate that a batter took, and the percentage of secondary pitches well out of the zone that the batter swung at – and weight by how many of each category the hitter saw, we can create an aggregate bad decision number. The batter who makes the worst aggregate swing decisions on breaking balls is – drum roll please – Jorge Alfaro.

Eh, that’s not gonna do it for me. Alfaro isn’t hitting particularly well against fastballs either. If we scroll down the list a bit, now we’ve got a name: Pete Alonso. Alonso is an excellent hitter, and he’s been even better than his career mark so far this year. And by this metric, he’s really bad at hitting secondary pitches.

Only, there’s a problem. Take a look at Alonso’s player page right here on FanGraphs, and you’ll see that he’s been above average against secondary pitches this year. In fact, he’s better (relative to the overall league average) facing secondaries than he is facing fastballs, a rare feat given how much better secondary pitches perform as a whole. Here’s the tale of the tape:

Pete Alonso’s Pitch Values, 2022
System Four-Seam Sinker Cutter Slider Curve Changeup Splitter
Pitch Info 1.1 4.2 -0.6 -0.9 2.5 5.8 -0.4
Statcast 1.2 3.7 -0.5 -1.1 2.7 6.3 -0.4

What gives? Alonso has a 29.8% swing rate on secondaries that are in the chase and waste zones. That’s pretty bad; the league as a whole chases only 21% of those. He also has a take rate of 42% on secondaries over the heart of the zone; the league checks in right around 30%. There’s clearly a problem with our metric if we’re coming up with Alonso as the worst good hitter when it comes to secondary pitches, even while he tattoos them over and over.

Right – what you do when you swing at them matters, too. As it turns out, Alonso’s rare swings at bendy pitches in the strike zone make up for his takes. Alonso has swung 37 times this year at breaking and offspeed pitches in the middle(ish) of the zone. He’s come up empty only three times. That’s phenomenal, roughly half the league average rate. And of course, he’s Pete Alonso – when he makes contact with the ball, he hits the snot out of it.

After tossing out foul balls, 11 of his 22 balls in play have left his bat over 100 mph. Fifteen of the 22 have been 95 mph or harder. He’s slugging .952 on these balls, and while expected stats are wonky so far this year, his xSLG checks in at .959. In other words, throwing Alonso anything other than a fastball in the strike zone is playing with fire. He might take it – but if he doesn’t, the ball might leave the yard.

Clearly, then, merely looking at swing decisions isn’t going to cut it. Alonso takes more secondary pitches than average for strikes, but he can afford to do that because he’s hunting something he can crush. You’d trade a lot of called strikes in favorable counts for a single smashed line drive; in fact, Alonso surely wishes pitchers would throw him curveballs and changeups in the strike zone more often, even as he takes them at an above-average rate.

To truly find who the worst secondary pitch hitter in baseball is, we’re going to change the way we look at swings in the strike zone. Rather than use take rate on hittable pitches, let’s add two new stats: called and swinging strikes per pitch seen, and average exit velocity on contact.

A quick aside: I don’t love average exit velocity as a metric in general. The reason is pretty simple – for an average to be meaningful, the thing you’re measuring needs to be linear. I’m not sure I’m explaining that very well, but think of it this way: if you hit one fly ball 88 mph and one fly ball 92 mph, you’ll have an average exit velocity of 90 mph and two popouts. If you hit one fly ball 70 mph and one 110 mph, you’ll have an infield fly and a home run, and an average exit velocity of 90 mph. They have the same average – but production on contact doesn’t vary linearly with exit velocity, so you end up conflating unlike things.

Anyway! I’m using it here because I’m less concerned with results and more concerned with who’s making consistently soft contact against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. You could use barrel rate, or hard contact rate, or some statistic you made up yourself, but for this article, we’re going to use average exit velocity.

And friends, that’s a stat where Alonso excels. His 97.8 mph mark is roughly 7 mph higher than league average. His CSW% (called strikes, foul tips, and swinging strikes) on these same pitches (secondaries over the plate) is 45%, only a hair higher than average. In other words, Alonso only costs himself a few strikes with his approach, and makes up for it by launching everything he does swing at into the stratosphere.

We can’t just do a simple average anymore, because we’re comparing unlike things. To account for that, I normalized CSW%, average exit velocity, and swing rate on chase and waste pitches. In other words, I turned them into z-scores, weighted by plate appearances. Now, we can say that Alonso is 0.7 standard deviations worse than average when it comes to chase rate, one standard deviation worse than average when it comes to CSW% over the heart of the plate, and 1.6 standard deviations above average when it comes to average exit velocity. In other words, he’s roughly average overall in this contrived way of measuring success against secondary pitches.

If we’re looking for the worst good hitter at hitting secondary pitches, we could just sort this list and look for the lowest outcome. Want proof that this measures hitters who do poorly against everything other than fastballs? Javier Báez is in dead last place. He’s been an acceptable hitter against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in his career because he connects often enough to make up for the chases, but the bottom has fallen out this year.

Second-worst on the list? Jarred Kelenic, another name that tells me I’m onto something. Kelenic did so poorly against secondary pitches that he got demoted to the minors. Rougned Odor is third – he’s tattooing fastballs and has an 84 wRC+ anyway – Eli White is fourth, and Trent Grisham is fifth. Overall, this list seems like a pretty good way of measuring hitters who can’t do anything with non-fastballs.

None of those hitters are having good years, though. If we want to crown a hitter “Worst Secondary Hitter (Good Hitter Division),” we’ll have to go further down the list. We could stop at Ha-Seong Kim, or Edwin Ríos, or Brandon Marsh – but the perfect name, for me, is number 14 on the list, Nolan Arenado.

Arenado is having a great year, a return to form after a 2021 that was solid but not star-like. He’s on pace for the highest wRC+ of his career – leaving Colorado makes the rate statistics look worse, but if you adjust for offensive environment, this is as good as it’s been for him. And, well… according to our numbers, he’s been the third-best hitter in baseball when facing fastballs, and one of the worst when it comes to everything else.

He’s put 29 of those mid-strike-zone secondaries into play, and his average exit velocity of 84.8 mph is one of the worst in baseball, particularly by a fearsome hitter. He’s only hit three of those 29 100 mph or harder. He’s only hit 21% of them 95 mph or harder, as compared to 37.3% of all his batted balls. He chases more than average when pitchers leave the zone, and has a higher than average CSW% when pitchers attack him. In other words, he’s doing poorly in all three phases of attacking secondary pitches – and he’s having one of his best seasons anyway, because he gets to hit fastballs too.

So there’s your answer: among good hitters, Nolan Arenado is the worst hitter at handling secondary pitches. It should be no surprise, then, that he sees fewer fastballs than average by a fair margin. Pitchers know what’s going on – and Arenado still manages to tee off on the fastballs he does see. You can be a good hitter in more than one way. His is by emphasizing his strengths rather than having no weaknesses.

Since I spent all this time making some silly statistics, we might as well throw in some leaderboards at the end. Here are the five worst hitters when it comes to CSW% on those pesky in-zone secondaries. I’ve added exit velocity and chase rate, too, so you can see whether each hitter has a saving grace somewhere else. In all three categories, lower is worse for the hitter:

Worst Zone CSW, Secondaries
Hitter Zone CSW% Z Zone EV Z Chase% Z Sum Z-Scores
Joey Bart -3.45 1.94 -0.83 -2.34
Pavin Smith -2.77 0.54 1.49 -0.73
Jarred Kelenic -2.75 -2.22 0.30 -4.67
Paul Goldschmidt -2.56 0.65 0.65 -1.25
Max Muncy -2.45 1.01 2.08 0.64

Some of these guys do just fine; Muncy, Goldschmidt, and Smith are above average in the other two categories and grade out decently overall. As we covered with Alonso, you can take a few extra pitches if you hit them with authority, particularly if you don’t chase too often. But if you’re on this list and also chase too much, or don’t hit the ball hard when you do make contact, pitchers will feed you soft stuff all day.

How about the five lowest exit velocity marks? That’s a grim list. If you can’t punish pitchers for venturing into the zone with their slower pitches, you’re going to have a bad time:

Worst Avg EV, Secondaries
Hitter Zone CSW% Z Zone EV Z Chase% Z Sum Z-Scores
Victor Robles -0.28 -3.82 0.6 -3.5
Tyler Wade 0.18 -3.31 1.13 -2
Trent Grisham -1.02 -2.99 0.38 -3.63
Ha-Seong Kim -0.36 -2.76 -0.2 -3.33
Eli White -0.91 -2.43 -0.47 -3.81

Finally, the most profligate swingers:

Worst Chase Rate, Secondaries
Hitter Zone CSW% Z Zone EV Z Chase% Z Sum Z-Scores
Jorge Alfaro 0.67 0.59 -3.56 -2.3
Javier Báez -0.3 -1.31 -3.39 -5
Raimel Tapia 0.96 0.33 -3.31 -2.01
Tim Anderson 1.18 0.78 -2.81 -0.84
Odúbel Herrera 1.53 0.33 -2.75 -0.9

Merely chasing isn’t enough to make you a bad performer against breaking balls; Anderson springs to mind as someone who is quite aggressive but makes the style work by hitting the ball with authority, running a reasonable contact rate, and pouncing on hittable pitches. But if you swing a lot and don’t do much with it – like Báez this year – things won’t work out.

Let me leave you with one last one – the best five hitters against breaking balls, according to my arbitrary judgment:

Best Performers vs. Secondaries, 2022
Hitter Zone CSW% Z Zone EV Z Chase% Z Sum Z-Scores
Justin Turner 2.1 1.24 0.54 3.88
Will Smith 0.73 1.15 1.79 3.67
Freddie Freeman 0.76 1.34 1.32 3.42
José Abreu 0.77 1.77 0.85 3.39
Ty France 2.05 1.18 0.15 3.37

The key to hitting secondary pitches, clearly, is to be a Dodger; Mookie Betts is in the top 10 for good measure. But really, the key is to have a good sense for identifying pitches and enough power to do something about it. That’s a vanishingly thin list – and it’s not every hitter in baseball, as Arenado’s presence on the opposite end while still producing at a high level can attest.

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

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formerly matt w
1 year ago

The important question here: Does Walker Buehler always do the Chris Resop crotch grab when he gives up a donger?

John Elway
1 year ago

Only when the pitch was more well hung than his donger.

Just neighing.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Elway
1 year ago

Yes and we have seen it alot as of late 🙁