By Mark Simon
Minimizing hard contact in 2019 is a significant challenge for a pitcher, given the rate at which balls are flying outfield fences. But there are still pitchers who are quite good at it.
Let’s take a look at the top five starting pitchers in limiting hard-hit balls.
Note that this version of hard-hit rate is calculated as Hard-hit balls/(At-Bats + Sacrifice Flies). Our denominator rewards a pitcher for strikeouts. The denominator on Statcast and Fangraphs is “Batted Balls” which does not reward the pitcher for a strikeout.
The number you get from the calculation allows you to say “Pitcher X has allowed a hard-hit ball in Y% of the at-bats against him.”
1. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (18.3%)
Stephen Strasburg probably deserves a little better than his 3.64 ERA. His strikeouts, walks, home runs combination produces a FIP of 3.18 and his MLB-best hard-hit rate seems to validate that he’s getting the most out of his pitches this season.
Strasburg has done this with a fastball that has declined in velocity, to an average of 94 MPH. But his curveball and changeup have produced excellent results, giving him three pitches that he can use to limit damage.
2. Lucas Giolito, White Sox (20.1%)
It took Lucas Giolito a few years, but he’s finally fulfilling his promise after being heralded as one of the top pitching prospects in MLB. After repeatedly getting hit hard in 2018, Giolito has turned it around with a fastball, changeup and slider, all of which have played among the best of their type. The contact rate against him has dropped 11 percentage points from last season to this season, and as such, the hard-hit rate has dipped too.
3. Dylan Bundy, Orioles (20.3%)
That Dylan Bundy is on this list is a surprise, given that he’s allowed 20 home runs in 91 innings pitched this season. But what might explain it is that Bundy is giving up a lot of contact that doesn’t meet our classification of “hard” but can still do damage. His “medium-contact” rate is 40%, which is sixth-highest. By comparison, Giolito has allowed a medium-contact ball in 33% of the at-bats against him and Strasburg 36%.
4. Chris Sale, Red Sox (21.0%)
Despite an ERA of 4.04, Chris Sale is still a presence here because of the volume of hitters he eliminates via strikeout (153 in 107 innings). Of the hitters that are left, more have caught up to Sale’s fastball, which he’s throwing at 93 MPH on average these days, two MPH slower than he did in his dominant 2018.
5. Yu Darvish, Cubs (21.0%)
Another surprise. Darvish has allowed a home run on 25 percent of the fly balls against him this season, so when he’s been hit hard, he’s paid the price considerably. But this rate could be showing that he’s still got something left if he can find a way to harness pitches to supplement a cutter that is pretty sharp.
|2||Lucas Giolito||White Sox||20.1%|
|4||Chris Sale||Red Sox||21.0%|
|6||Eduardo Rodriguez||Red Sox||21.5%|
|18||David Price||Red Sox||24.7%|
|37||Trent Thornton||Blue Jays||26.9%|
|39||Marcus Stroman||Blue Jays||26.9%|