May 25, 2024

Quirks of MLB scheduling provide a new way to look at luck for hitters


This weekend, Jack Flaherty will face the Astros instead of Kenta Maeda. The Tigers swapped their two starting pitchers and pushed Maeda to face the Marlins in the next series. Nobody’s crying for the Astros’ hitters, but that little quirk of the schedule means they’ll have to face a pitcher with much better stuff. No matter how balanced the schedule is now, five-plus-person rotations and three-game series (plus the timing of injuries!) mean that there’s quite a bit of chaos involved in exactly which pitchers every team is forced to face over a given season.

The other word for chaos is luck.

We tend to think of luck as a feature of the bouncing ball. If the ball hit that blade of grass or that rock at a slightly different angle, or had come off the bat a millimeter to the left or right, that would have been a hit. “Nine times out of 10, that’s a hit,” you might say to yourself of a ball smashed directly into a fielder’s mitt. But the schedule also provides us a chance to see luck in a different angle.

These 10 teams have faced the pitchers with the nastiest pitches in baseball (defined by Stuff+):

Obviously, not each of these teams has fared poorly at the plate in the early going, but it’s still interesting to see that the four teams that have faced the nastiest pitches are all below-average offenses that are underperforming their preseason projections as well. The Phillies and Brewers buck that trend, as well as some teams behind them, but by then these teams are getting much closer to average. On the flip side, the Royals have seen the third-easiest starting pitchers and have been over-performing projections at the plate, the surprising A’s have seen the fifth-lowest Stuff+, and the best offense in baseball, the Dodgers, have seen the fourth-easiest schedule judged this way.

There are some division effects here, of course. The Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles are likely to see the best Stuff+ in baseball (with the Yankees and Red Sox right after the Rangers), so this is all part of being in a good division and having to face good pitchers. But the spread going forward is less than the spread teams have seen so far in that regard. The Rays are expected to see 101.3 Stuff+, and the easiest schedule belongs to the Reds and their 98.6 Stuff+. Things might get even worse for the White Sox, who have seen the lightest Stuff+ in baseball at 94.0 and are headed toward the 11th-hardest schedule with a 100.2 over the rest of the season.

If you want to add in locations and just ask which teams have seen the best pitches, period, not just by Stuff+, the list is largely the same. But the Rockies, Padres and Giants join the top 10 and push out better-performing teams like the Brewers and Yankees, who have apparently seen a bunch of nasty pitchers with little command. Using locations and stuff, the Padres and Phillies are the only top-10 offenses that have performed this well despite seeing pitches with a top-10 quality:

TEAM STUFF+ LOCATION+ PITCHING+ RUNS SCORED PER GAME RANK

104.5

101.9

102.6

20th

103.8

99.5

101.5

17th

104.4

101

101.4

24th

102.1

100.4

101.3

6th

96.6

101.6

101.3

25th

99.5

101.4

101

4th

99.8

101.1

101

23rd

106.3

99.6

100.8

19th

98.9

100.5

100.8

21st

100.9

99.7

100.6

13th

One takeaway might be that it’s fairly easy to believe in the projections that say there are better days ahead for the offenses in Toronto, San Francisco and Tampa, since they’ve seen some really quality pitches so far.

But on the team level, chaos is rampant, because teams are a collection of players, each with their own ups, downs and pitchers faced. It’s harder to diagnose a team-wide sickness in an offense than to analyze single players.

So which players have faced the nastiest stuff (minimum 400 pitches seen)?

Some of the players struggling the most despite good (or great) track records are on this list. But as a group, they’re just about league average, and maybe that’s because some of them have seen below-average command. It’s also worth pointing out that while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Aaron Judge have been technically above-average with the sticks, they haven’t been anywhere as good as usual. Let’s bring locations back in again, and then see if we can’t compare the players to their preseason projections.

Player Pitching+ OPS Proj. OPS Diff

106.4

0.598

0.667

-0.069

106.2

0.602

0.799

-0.197

105.8

0.781

0.720

0.061

105.4

0.582

0.748

-0.166

105.3

0.519

0.775

-0.256

105.1

0.529

0.743

-0.214

105.0

0.699

0.710

-0.011

104.9

0.759

0.697

0.062

104.7

0.567

0.748

-0.181

104.6

0.637

0.713

-0.076

104.5

0.673

0.720

-0.047

104.5

0.671

0.711

-0.040

104.1

0.697

0.676

0.021

104.1

0.530

0.756

-0.226

104.0

0.675

0.749

-0.074

Uh, wow. We have 15 batters here and three of them are doing better than their preseason projections (courtesy The BAT X). And some of the biggest struggling hitters in baseball are all collected here.

We know from research that higher Stuff+ leads to lower batting averages on balls in play and lower slugging numbers in hitters, and that good locations lead to more strikeouts and fewer walks. So, if you look at these hitters, you’ll see lower hard-hit rates and lower Barrel rates, and some bad strikeout and walk rates. But that might be a function of who these batters have seen as pitchers as much as what they are doing themselves.

The line between excuses and explanations is a thin one. The best hitters should perform well against the best pitchers. But seasons tend to even out over time, and these hitters are likely to see more average pitches going forward. That should help them bounce back as much as any other adjustment might. Just wait for the schedule to even out.

(Photo of Aaron Judge: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)





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