It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out where virtually all batters prefer to hit pitches in the zone: right smack-dab down the middle.
Sure, there are hitters who love to hit pitches low and away (Logan Morrison and Jose Ramirez), high and inside (Teoscar Hernandez and Joc Pederson), low and inside (Aaron Altherr and Joe Panik), and high and away (George Springer and Aaron Hicks). There are batters who like to hit pitches out of the zone, too; whether it’s high (Ryan Zimmerman), low (Mike Trout), inside (Jeimer Candelario and Francisco Lindor), or away (Joey Votto and Nelson Cruz), every batter is different and has his own preferences and quirks.
But, again, no matter who it is–Mike Trout or Mike from your softball team–batters like pitches right down the middle.
This is evident when we search for league-wide xwOBA at various parts in and around the strike zone. For example, batters hit .332 on pitches outside the zone, .270 on pitches on the edges, and .390 on pitches in the zone.
But on pitches right down the middle? Batters hit a whopping .430 xwOBA! This is 40 points higher than pitches thrown anywhere in the strike zone and a massive 100 points higher than pitches thrown anywhere.
Naturally we are led to wonder: which pitchers throw the most pitches down the middle? This, of course, is super easy to figure out, courtesy of Baseball Savant. So without further ado, let’s dive right in!
Top-25 highest-percentage of pitches thrown in “Zone 5” (only starting pitchers; minimum 300 pitches thrown) | Link
Quick digression: if you’re wondering what I mean by “Zone 5,” all that refers to is the part of the strike zone that is right down the middle. Statcast allows us to break up the strike zone into even more detailed parts, as can be seen by the aptly-named “detailed zones” layout:
Returning to the top-25 list, these are pitchers who attack hitters, for better or worse. Looking through the list, you may notice it’s a mix of varying talents. It’s worth knowing who attacks the middle of the zone the most because, after all, batters love to hit pitches right down the middle. But what can we learn from this?
I think we have to provide more context. As I said before, the list is a mix of talents. That tells me that not all pitches in Zone 5 mean the same. In other words, why is the pitcher throwing it right down the middle? Is it a desperate effort to get out of a hitter’s count? Is it a gutsy attempt to attack the batter? Is it happening only because the pitcher can’t locate well within the strike zone and just tends to throw meatballs down the middle? Or is it because the pitcher has such nasty stuff that he knows he can pump pitches right in there and likely wind up with a good result?
One quick way to do this is to compare the pitcher’s rate of spending time in Zone 5 with the xwOBA he allows on pitches in that zone. Let’s take a look at the top-25 in zone 5 frequency interfaced with the xwOBA they allow on pitches in zone 5:
Now we have some real context; some pitchers clearly want you to swing at those pitches and some definitely don’t.
What if we sort by xwOBA allowed?
Damn, Daniel! Back at it again with the zone 5 meatballs!
What if we sort by lowest xwOBA allowed?
I see you, David Hess. I see you.
Anyways, I think you can begin to see the value in this. It pays to know who throws dead-red strikes and how often. Further, it pays to know whose dead-red strikes are hittable and whose aren’t. Hopefully this shed a little light on things for you!