Players who love-and hate—low strikes and could be impacted by potential rule change
If Major League Baseball and the players' association agree to raise the bottom of the strike zone this year, who will benefit the most? Who will be harmed?
It’s impossible to predict with any certainty, especially because the change would rely on humans—umpires, who would have to retrain their judgment—and because there are likely to be unintended consequences. But with the help of 2016 Statcast data, we can explore which pitchers and players might be affected most.
I looked at pitches only in the bottom third of the strike zone. Which pitchers were toughest to hit against low strikes? Those pitchers might lose a bit of their advantage if some of those pitches are now balls.
Which pitchers got lit up on low strikes? Maybe raising the bottom of the zone is less of an issue for them.
As for the hitters, maybe the hitters who were bad at low strikes will catch a break by taking more pitches in that zone. And maybe the good low-ball hitters—well, maybe they can just rake no matter how you define that zone.
In any case, have some fun just exploring which pitchers and hitters loved low strikes last year, and which ones hated them. (A minimum of 100 at-bats decided on low strikes is required in each category.)
Pitchers Who Love Low Strikes (batting average against)
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers—.133
2. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees—.200
3. Scott Kazmir, Dodgers—.204
4. Trevor Bauer, Indians—.211
5. R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays—.217
6. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals—.218
7. Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays—.227
8. Marco Estrada, Blue Jays—.237
9. Jon Lester, Cubs—.238
10. Dan Straily, Reds—.240
Takeway: Here is just one more reason why Kershaw is in a class by himself. Nobody is close to him. Note how well the Toronto rotation controlled the bottom of the zone; Sanchez and Estrada in particular might be harmed by raising the bottom of the zone. Eovaldi, who was released by the Yankees and will miss this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, has impressive velocity from his four-seamer but that pitch gets pounded (.292 career batting average against). Perhaps his next team can convince him that he is at his best when he works down in the zone and that he is better off featuring a sinker rather than that low-spin four-seamer.
Pitchers Who Hate Low Strikes (batting average against)
1. Chad Bettis, Rockies—.404
2. Adam Wainwright, Rockies—.393
3. Bartolo Colon, Mets—.391
4. Wily Peralta, Brewers—.389
5. Sean Manaea, A's—.388
6. Andrew Cashner, Padres-Marlins—.386
7. Tom Koehler, Marlins—.385
8. Gerrit Cole, Pirates—.381
9. Tyler Duffy, Twins—.379
10. Jon Niese, Pirates-Mets—.374
Takeaway: Bettis has an Eovaldi problem: He relies on a low-spin four-seamer that gets hit hard (.510 slugging last year) when he should be embracing a sinker. It’s surprising to see Wainwright hit so hard in the bottom of the zone, but it’s an indication of the dropoff in his stuff; he’s not as effective when he has to pitch in the zone. Last year he allowed 22 homers and a .446 slugging percentage, both career worsts.
Batters Who Love Low Strikes (batting average)
1. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies—.475
2. Paulo Orlando, Royals—.460
3. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers—.458
4. Freddie Freeman, Braves—.441
5. Joey Votto, Reds—.440
6. Brandon Belt, Giants—.432
7. Jonathan Villar, Bewers—.423
8. Josh Reddick, A's-Dodgers—.416
9. Alex Dickerson, Padres—.414
10. Mike Trout, Angels—.412
Takeway: Charlie Blackmon is a wizard. Even if you include pitches below the strike zone on the width of the plate, Blackmon hit .387 on low pitches. The list is populated with hitters with high launch angles in their swing. The only surprise is that Trout didn’t finish on top.
Batters Who Hate Low Strikes
1. Alexei Ramirez, Padres—.192
2. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals—.229
3. Addison Russell, Cubs—.235
4. Joe Panik, Giants—.236
5. Marwin Gonzalez, Astros—.237
6. Jason Heyward, Cubs—.238
7. Brett Gardner, Yankees—.240
8. Wellington Castillo, Diamondbacks—.243
9. Carlos Gomez, Rangers—.248
10. Leonys Martin, Mariners—.256
Takeway: If I’m Zimmerman, I would start to create more launch angle in my swing. Many of the hitters on this list swing level or down on the ball (Panik, Heyward, Gardner, Martin, etc.), which fast is becoming an old-school method. That’s okay if you emphasize speed and contact over power, but Zimmerman is only a useful hitter when he is driving the ball in the air for extra bases—and that skill is diminishing as he ages. In his best seasons, 2009 and '10, Zimmerman hit flyballs between 41% and 42% of the time. But since then he has become more of a groundball hitter. Last year he hit only 35% flyballs while his groundballs reached 49%, the second-highest rate of his career. Zimmerman, now 32, should work this spring on creating more lift on low pitches. Heyward, meanwhile, has already made an adjustment; by dropping his hands into a lower slot, he should create a greater launch angle this year and handle pitches down better.