Bruin Sports Analytics
The Most Unhittable Pitches in Baseball (2022)
By: Brandon Louie and Robert Reyes
The hardest thing to do in sports: hitting a baseball. However, this does not make pitching the easiest thing in sports. To put it as simply as possible, the job of a pitcher is to get opposing batters out, and the best way to do this is to get batters to swing and miss (whiff) at pitches. There are two important aspects to a whiff: “you have to get them to swing and to miss” (FanGraphs). A pitcher who gets batters to swing at a majority of pitches is not successful if batters hit a large number of those pitches, nor is the pitcher successful if every time a batter swings, they miss but they rarely swing at the pitch. Thus, it is crucial to get batters to miss a high percentage of both pitches swung at and the total.
To differentiate, we will call the swing and misses per total pitches “swing and miss percentage,” while swing and misses per pitches swung at will be called “whiff percentage.” We will look at player data for each pitch (4-seam fastball, cutter, sinker, slider, curveball, changeup, knuckleball, and sinker), and take the leaders in each category to analyze which pitches were the most successful this year. Our criteria for a pitch to be deemed “unhittable” requires a pitch to be in the top three of both swing and miss percentage and whiff percentage, as well as have at least a 25% swing and miss rate and a 50% whiff rate. Also, a pitcher must have gotten at least 50 swings and misses so any outliers based on small sample sizes will be removed. These baselines will allow us to see the most unhittable pitches of 2022.
After narrowing down our search, José Alvarado’s cutter, Trevor Stephan’s splitter, Félix Bautista’s splitter, Héctor Neris’ splitter, Andrew Chafin’s slider, Brandon Woodruff’s changeup, Mark Leiter Jr.’s changeup, and Alex Lange’s curveball are the nastiest pitches of 2022. They all yielded a whiff rate higher than 50% and a swing and miss rate higher than 25%, as well as being top three in both categories.
José Alvarado’s Cutter
Boasting a 55.7% whiff rate and a 29.6% swing and miss rate, José Alvarado had by far the best cutter in the majors in 2022. Alvardo’s cutter had a 10.2% higher whiff rate and a 6.9% higher swing and miss rate than Huascar Brazobán’s cutter, the second-best cutter in both categories. His cutter also has a 30.9% higher whiff rate and a 16.8% higher swing and miss rate than the league average. He was able to get batters to both swing and miss at a high rate with his cutter, something that no other pitcher was able to do. In fact, his cutter was as lethal as the best of the offspeed pitches, which tend to get batters to swing and miss more often.
Alvarado’s cutter averages 93.8 mph. The movement on his cutter is not particularly impressive, as it drops 25.5 inches (including drop due to gravitational forces) and breaks 1.9 inches. Compared to the league average cutter, Alvardo’s cutter moves downwards 4.5 inches less vertically and also moves 1.3 inches less horizontally. This translates to 21% and 41% less movement than the league average respectively. His spin rate on his cutter is 2207 RPM (a low spin rate compared to the rest of the league) and has a release extension of 6.7 feet (a high average extension point). Despite all these metrics that would lead us to believe Alvarado’s cutter would be unsuccessful, he still manages to get batters to swing and miss at it.
Despite the subpar metrics, Alvarado’s cutter has yielded incredible results. Opponents are hitting .119 against it, and he has only given up 10 hits (7 singles, 3 doubles) while striking out 57 batters on it. Even when it was hit, it was not hit very hard, as his cutter had only a 25.9% hard-hit rate against it. He threw his cutter for a strike 65.5% of the time, and it put away batters one in every three times he threw it with two strikes. He has a chase rate of 43% and on cutters that are chased he gets batters to miss them 71.6% of the time. He also saved 11 runs with his cutter. In all of these stats, Alvardo’s cutter places well above the league average. Despite the advanced metrics not predicting it to be as deadly, Alvardo’s cutter was one of the most dominant pitches in the majors this year, and he was able to use it to help the Phillies get to the World Series.
Alex Lange’s Curveball
As we have defined above, we believe that the ability to get batters both to swing and to miss is crucial to a successful pitch, and Lange demonstrated this ability with his curveball the best in 2022. He was able to get batters both to swing and miss and to whiff at the highest rate of any pitcher who threw a curveball, 26.9%, and 57.8% respectively. This was 2.3% and 8.1% better than Jhoan Durán’s curveball, the second-best in the league, meaning there was a large gap between Lange and his closest competitor. His curveball was also 11% and 23.4% higher than league average curveballs respectively, meaning the rest of the league was even further away from him, making his curveball the most lethal curveball in the major leagues this year.
Lange’s curveball averages 85.5 mph, 10.2 mph less than his fastball. He, like several others on this list, does not rank particularly well in pitch movement. His curveball averages 42.9 inches of drop (including gravity) and breaks 0.6 inches. This is 1.8 and 6.3 inches less than average respectively, which translates to 4% and 91% less than average respectively. Lange’s curveball has a similar drop to most curveballs, but his ability to get batters out with his curveball having so little break, especially when compared to others, is very interesting. He gets 2186 RPM on his curveball, placing incredibly low among curveballs. His release extension is 6.4 feet, which is about average, placing in the 59% percentile. Despite having almost no stand-out metrics, Lange managed to get batters to swing and miss at his curveball better than anyone else.
Lange was able to translate the number of misses he got with his curveball into good statistics. Batters only hit .190 against his curveball, giving up 22 hits (16 singles, 6 extra-base hits) and striking out 56 with it. He only allows his curveball to be hit hard 37.1% of the time. He threw his curveball for a strike 42.7% of the time, and when throwing it on a two-strike count, finished batters off 36.6% of the time. He gets batters to chase his curveball 41.1% of the time, and when they chase they miss a whopping 84.5% of the time. He also prevented 4 runs with his curveball. Lange was either above or well above league average in all these statistics, proving his curveball was one of the most unhittable pitches in baseball in 2022.
Andrew Chafin’s Slider
From the charts, Chafin’s slider doesn’t top the leaderboards in both whiff percentages or swing-and-miss percentages but is the only pitcher to be on both leaderboards. As stated before, we believe that getting the batter to swing at the pitch is crucial, and if they swing, they should swing and miss for the pitch to be considered “unhittable”, and Chafin gets batters to swing at his slider at a very high rate while also getting them to swing and miss. The southpaw on the Tigers owns a slider that has a whopping 60.4% whiff rate while also posting a 31.4% swing and miss rate, being one of the most unhittable pitches in all of baseball.
Chafin’s slider, on average, clocks in at around 82.9 MPH, and almost has zero horizontal movement, averaging only 0.2 inches of break. His slider makes up for the lack of break by owning an extreme vertical movement, dropping an average of 40.7 inches (with gravity factored in). The horizontal movement is well below league average while the vertical movement drops 1.7 inches more than the average MLB slider, a 4% difference. His slider owns an average spin rate of 2485 RPM while having an average arm extension of 6.5 feet, not even scraping the top of the leaderboard as the league's best is 3182 RPM and 7.5 feet, respectively. His velocity isn’t close to topping the leaderboards either, which makes us come to question why exactly his slider is so unhittable.
Based on velocity, horizontal and vertical movement, arm extension, and spin rate, Chafin’s slider is nothing special. However, it is one of the most effective pitches in baseball as not only does it have a high whiff rate and swing and miss rate, but also has an opponent batting average and slugging of .085 and .127, respectively. He allowed 6 hits in 78 plate appearances with his slider, 5 of them being singles and one of them being a home run. What these stats don’t tell us is the command Chafin has of his slider, his ability to read swings, and his knowledge of the game overall as he is an 8-year veteran in the league. Although these advanced metrics present a ton of information in baseball nowadays, they do not explain why Andrew Chafin’s slider is so unhittable.
Trevor Stephan’s, Félix Bautista’s, and Héctor Neris’s Splitter
Three players’ splitters all managed to hit the benchmarks we set to be considered as one of the most unhittable pitches of 2022. Trevor Stephan had the best splitter, but Félix Bautista and Héctor Neris both had splitters that dominated batters this year as well.
Stephan’s splitter had a swing and miss rate of 28.4% and a whiff rate of 54%, comfortably ahead of the league average in both categories by 7.3% and 16.5% respectively. Bautista owned a swing and miss rate of 27.6% and a whiff rate of 52.9% with his splitter, 6.5% and 15.4% above league average respectively. Neris’s splitter was almost identical, with a 27.9% swing and miss rate that was 6.8% above league average and a whiff rate of 52.4% that was 14.9% above league average. All three players managed to get batters both to swing and to miss at high rates. Stephan’s splitter was the best in 2022 and should be recognized for it, but Bautista’s and Neris’s splitters were both superb and deserve recognition as well.
Trevor Stephan’s splitter averages 87.9 mph, while his fastball averages 96.5. Bautista throws his splitter at 88.4 mph and his fastball at 99.1 mph, while Neris averages 85.1 mph on his splitter and 94.3 mph on his fastball. Trevor Stephan’s splitter drops 30.9 inches, which is 1% less than average, and breaks 11.9 inches, which is 40% more than average.
Bautista’s splitter drops 30.9 inches (3% less than average) and breaks 7.5 inches (10% less than average), while Neris’s splitter drops 38.7 inches (16% more than average) and breaks 10.7 inches (13% less than average). It is an interesting mix because Stephan’s splitter has a high break and an average drop, Neris’s splitter has a high drop but a below-average break, and Bautista’s splitter has a below-average drop and break. Thus, it seems like the movement of a splitter does not affect how lethal it is.
Stephan’s splitter gets 1272 RPM on his splitter, while Bautista gets 1110 RPM and Neris gets 1136 RPMs, all below league average on splitters. Stephan and Bautista are both above league average when it comes to extension, with Stephan in the 70th percentile and Bautista in the 58th, while Neris is below average in the 37th percentile. Stephan and Neris both average very consistent release points, while Bautista is slightly less consistent with his release points. The metrics behind these three splitters are all different, which goes to show there is not one correct way to throw a slider, as all three pitchers have found success with different style splitters.
All three pitchers had considerable success when throwing their splitter this season. Opponents hit .159 (9 singles, 4 extra-base hits) against Stephan’s splitter, with only a 26.5% hard-hit rate, and he struck out 52 with it. He threw it for a strike 55.3% of the time, and when he threw it with two strikes, got the batter out 32.1% of the time. He got batters to chase 40.4% of the time and when they did, he got it by them 65.9% of the time. His splitter saved 2 runs for the Guardians.
Bautista allowed a minuscule 0.087 batting average against his splitter while striking out 59. He threw it for a strike 63.5% of the time and struck out batters 36.6% of the time when throwing it with two strikes. Opponents had only a 21.2% hard-hit rate against it, and they chased it 39.5% of the time while missing when chasing 71.2% of the time. His splitter saved the Orioles 6 runs in 2022.
Neris’s splitter held batters to a .173 average, striking out 43 and not giving up a single home run with it. He put away batters 34.1% of the time with his splitter while throwing it for a strike 51.2% of the time. Neris got batters to chase his splitter 39.9% of the time, getting it past them 72.8% of the time when they chased it. He saved the Astros 1 run in 2022 with his splitter. Although they threw their splitters differently, Stephan, Bautista, and Neris all threw their splitters effectively and achieved great results with them in 2022, making their splitters some of the most unhittable pitches this year.
Brandon Woodruff and Mark Leiter Jr.’s Changeup
From the charts, both Brandon Woodruff and Mark Leiter Jr. top the leaderboards in both whiff and swing and miss rate, but Woodruff has a better whiff %, while Leiter Jr. has a better swing and miss rate. Thus, this brings up the debate on which of the two is more important in terms of a pitch being “unhittable”.
The ultimate goal of a changeup is to disrupt the batter’s timing as it mimics the release of a fastball but comes out of the hand several MPH slower with arm-side movement. To have an effective changeup, you must also have an effective fastball and vice versa. Thus, To determine whose changeup is more unhittable, we will compare Woodruff’s and Leiter Jr.’s fastball whiff and swing and miss percentages.
From these charts, we can see that Woodruff’s fastball owns a better whiff and swing-and-miss percentage compared to Leiter Jr.'s, indicating that his changeup may be more effective. The fastball data does not conclude that Woodruff has a more unhittable changeup, but may indicate that his changeup and fastball combination may be better. If Woodruff’s changeup and fastball look the same out of the hand and it is challenging for the hitter to differentiate one from the other, then his changeup may be more unhittable. We will then look into the metrics of Woodruff’s changeup.
Clocking in on average at 86.1 MPH, Woodruff’s changeup owns a spin rate of 2008 RPM and an average arm extension of 6.7 feet. None of these numbers top the leaderboards in all pitchers throwing a changeup in 2022. His changeup owns an average of 28 inches of vertical drop while breaking 15.8 inches horizontally. The vertical movement is 2.3 inches below league average while the horizontal movement is 1.7 inches above league average, but nothing too drastic. Nothing about his changeup stands out in terms of metrics, which makes us wonder exactly why Woodruff’s changeup is so unhittable.
Woodruff’s changeup owns an opponent batting average of .207 and an opponent slugging of .345, allowing 18 hits (10 singles, 6 doubles, and 2 home runs) in 91 plate appearances. Although the changeup has a very high whiff rate and swing-and-miss percentage, when it is hit, the hitter tends to have a decent amount of success against it. A changeup, when thrown in a missed location, can be a pitcher’s nightmare which may explain the hits against Woodruff’s changeup. If Woodruff, for example, misses location and leaves a changeup high in the zone, a hitter may get better contact with it. Despite the statistics and metrics not showing anything special about Woodruff’s changeup, due to its whiff rate and swing-and-miss percentages, Woodruff still owned one of the most unhittable pitches in all of baseball in the 2022 season.
Jose Alvarado’s cutter, Trevor Stephan’s splitter, Felix Bautista’s splitter, Hector Neris’ splitter, Andrew Chafin’s slider, Brandon Woodruff’s changeup, Mark Leiter Jr.’s changeup, and Alex Lange’s curveball are all the most unhittable pitches in baseball in the 2022 MLB season. For a pitch to be considered unhittable, it should simply just not be hit. Those pitches with a higher percentage of not being hit are then deemed to be unhittable. Our definition of a pitch being “unhittable” does not factor in the success when the pitch is hit but simply just indicates how often the bat touches the ball. Without looking at the data, one would expect these pitches with a higher whiff and swing and miss percentage to have the most movement, the greatest spin rate, or even just the greatest velocity. However, after some investigation, none of these stand out in terms of metrics or statistics, yet are the most unhittable pitches in baseball. These statistics and metrics do not tell us the pitch sequence when these pitches are thrown, the experience of the pitcher, or the command of the pitcher which could all be better variables for predicting whiff and swing and miss rates. Regardless, these pitches have the best whiff and swing-and-miss percentages in 2022. If you want to hit a baseball in the major leagues, you probably don’t want to see a splitter from Trevor Stephan, Félix Bautista, or Héctor Neris, a changeup from Brandon Woodruff or Mark Leiter Jr., Andrew Chafin’s slider, Alex Lange’s curveball, or José Alvarado’s cutter.
Baseball Savant: https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/
FanGraphs: You Have to Get Them to Swing *and* Miss | FanGraphs Baseball