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2018 Pitching Leaders: Hard Hit Rate

What's up all you fellow sad Fantasy Baseball fans? Now that the 2018 MLB season is behind us, and we were blessed to witness the greatest baseball team to ever play on a diamond (yes I am a Sox, fight me), we are left to reflect on an incredible season with some incredible players.

For this piece, I look at the league leaders in Lowest Hard Hit Rate allowed among pitchers. I break down three Starters whose '18 Hard% warrants a discussion, and of course three Relievers too since I am the world's biggest bullpen fan.

Let's start breaking things down.

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In case you were curious, here is the 2018 Leaderboard for the lowest Hard Hit rate allowed among Starting Pitchers with at least 100 IP - courtesy of FanGraphs.

Obviously, we see some no-brainers on the list; Aaron Nola, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. No need to break Cy Young finalists down. We also see the usual soft contact-inducing guys: Dallas Keuchel, Tanner Roark, Trevor Williams, Charlie Morton, and Kyle Hendricks. Then there are the decrepit Anibal Sanchez and CC Sabathia. The leftover names are the ones I was interested in diving into their peripherals and advanced statistics. The three SP I chose - Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin all three not only made strides in the Hard Hit department this season, but also simultaneously maintained a Soft Hit Rate of over 20%.

2018 Pitching Leaders: Hard Hit Rate

Noah Syndergaard, NYM - 21.9 Hard%

I predicted Thor to come back from the injury that kept him out of nearly the entire 2017 season in a huge way, a Cy Young award to be exact. He wasn't quite that dominant but did manage a 13-4 campaign with a 2.80 FIP. Coming back from the torn lat muscle, his strikeout rate dropped 5% from 2016, but still managed over a K per inning over 154.1 IP. Despite not missing as many bats as some of the prominent aces in the league, Thor produced the lowest Hard% and highest Soft% of his career. These batted ball results may lie in his pitch selection, as he is throwing the fastball less, and the sinker and off-speed stuff more. This is a smart approach, as his fastball is quickly losing effectiveness and was slightly above league-average in 2018.  The velocity is of no concern as he still leads all starters in average velo on fastballs, sinkers, and sliders - but as you can see in the 2016 BA/P graph on his fastball vs the same stat in 2018, the league isn't intimidated anymore.

Still only 26 years old, Thor is primed for a big 2019 season. With 2017 well behind him, look for his 13.6 SwStr% to result in a much higher K/9 and that .320 BABIP to drop to match the absurdly low Hard hit rates. He was taken at #48 overall in the recent Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft as the SP12.


Zack Wheeler, NYM - 24.8 Hard%

I love taking any chance I get to talk about Zack Wheeler, my fellow East Paulding High School alum. Zack took a massive step forward in 2018, setting a career high in K% and a career low in BB% while posting a 3.25 FIP over 182.1 IP. But what most impressive, and most important in this particular article, was managing to cut his Hard% from 32.8 in 2017 down to 24.8 - second lowest in the league in 2018. Almost completely contrary to his teammate Syndergaard, Wheeler found success by increasing his fastball usage and doing away with the sinker. He threw the fastball 8% more this season and finished with a 22.7 wFA which was fifth highest among starters. The cheese was devastating, and it got better as the season wore on. Check out his 1st half SLG/P graph on fastballs vs the same in the 2nd half.

After posting a 4.44 ERA over the first half of the season, Wheeler was quite possibly the best pitcher in baseball after the All-Star break, posting a 1.68 ERA which was slightly better than even his Cy Young-winning teammate Jacob deGrom. His 21.1 Hard% in the second half was only bested by the god of thunder. The 28-year-old Paulding County, GA product should be a target in all your 2019 drafts. He was taken at #91 overall in the Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft, as the SP24.


Zach Eflin, PHI - 29.1 Hard%

At one point or another in your 2018 fantasy leagues, Eflin was a popular waiver target, and rightfully so if it was during the first half. Since we did an opposites thing with Thor and Wheeler, here's another one. As good as Wheeler was in the 2nd half, Eflin was equally as bad. After posting an impressive 3.15 ERA with a 26.0 Hard% to start the year, Eflin finished with a gruesome 5.76 ERA and 32.3 Hard% after the All-Star break. Regardless, he threw 128.0 IP and posted a career-high 8.65 K/9 with a 3.80 FIP. He found his early success and low Hard% by the way of his off-speed pitches. He used his changeup more than ever and threw a slider that boasted a 6.2 wSL value. All-in-all, he generated swing and misses at a 10.3% rate. Aiding in the success of the off-speed stuff was his career high velocity on his fastballs. So what happened to Eflin down the stretch? He had control issues, as his BB/9 rose from 1.83 to 3.49. But he also lost command of his best pitch, the slider. See how beautiful his pitch location graph is for the slider in the first half? You can almost just picture it dropping away from right-handed batters as the hitter is lunging with a half-hearted swing. Now, look at the next graph as it becomes less grouped, more sporadic, and higher in the zone.

Despite the second half struggles, Eflin showed plenty of improvement and potential in 2018. Expect the command to stick around longer this year to keep the Hard% down and those ugly away splits to even out. Eflin went undrafted in our Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft, consisting of 260 players drafted. He definitely deserves consideration as a late round flyer for the back of your rotation/bench, or at the very least needs to start the season on your watch list.


Relief Pitcher Mentions

Seranthony Dominguez. PHI - 22.9 Hard%

The pitching in the NL East is loaded. Another pleasant surprise from the Phillies this season was SIRAnthony Dominguez. He hurled 58.0 IP out of the bullpen, flexing an impressive 11.48 K/9 and a 2.85 FIP. His 32.0 K% was second to only Jace Fry among all rookie pitchers. Dominguez generated a 15.6 SwStr% thanks to a 98 mph fastball and a ferocious slider that earned a 7.2 wSL value. Like his teammate Eflin, Dominguez wore down after the All-Star break, posting a 4.81 ERA following a sexy 1.60 ERA over the first half. Also, like Eflin, the cause was almost solely control, made evident by his gross 5.92 BB/9 down the stretch. But despite issuing all those free passes, the rookie maintained a low Hard% all season. In fact, if that list up top included relief pitchers, Dominguez would be sitting at third-lowest Hard% in all of baseball. I have no doubt that as his experience increases and the walks decrease, Dominguez will be a stud out of the Phillies bullpen in 2019. Sir-Anthony was drafted by yours truly at #194 overall in the Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft as the RP23.

Adam Ottavino, FA - 25.3 Hard%

I love Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller, but Adam Ottavino is the RP I am most interested in this offseason. Ottavino boasted a 2.43 ERA over 77.2 IP in 2018 with the Rockies. Not many pitchers can thrive in Coors Field, but when you're only giving up a 25.3 Hard%, a career low 68.1 Contact%, and striking out 12.98 batters per 9, I guess it's fairly easy. After giving up a 36.5 Hard% in 2017, Ottavino shifted to a heavy dose of the sinker over the fastball (38.5%), and still possesses an absolutely GNARLY slider which gets thrown at a 46% rate and is 12 mph slower than the cheese. The elite combo of his Sinker (9.3 wSI) and Slider (10.6 wSL) mowed down batters this year, and even if they were lucky enough to make contact, it was mostly weak sauce. Ottavino was drafted #227 overall in the Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft, but could shoot up draft boards by March if he signs with a team needing a closer.

Jordan Hicks, STL - 28.2 Hard%

A lot of hype around this guy, and rightfully so. He could have the Cardinals closer gig in 2019 after never playing above High-A ball in the minors. He threw 77.2 IP in his rookie season, finishing with a 3.59 ERA and an 8.11 K/9. Hicks is an extreme ground ball pitcher, throwing his blistering 101 mph Sinker 72% of the time, and following it up with an 86 mph Slider. This combo generated a 3.25 GB/FB along with the 28.2 Hard%. His overall numbers were slightly skewed thanks to an abysmal ending to the season, in which he held a 6.97 ERA over his last 10 IP. A great sign from Hicks was his Hard% dropping as the season went on. For a rookie throwing 77+ IP, that is very promising. Another youngster with control issues, I expect the 5.21 BB/9 to drop in 2019 and Hicks to be a great source of saves if the Cards decide to hold out on signing a closer this offseason. Hicks was drafted at #210 overall in the Too Early RotoBaller Mock Draft, obviously a potential STEAL, but like Ottavino his value could be affected greatly by the offseason.

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