So much of pitchers’ success lies in knowing which pitches to throw with conviction, and which to avoid. With the hitters listed below, those pitchers should stick with the latter.
For the third straight year, we’re opening up the scouting report and enlisting the help of Statcast to determine last season’s most dangerous sluggers by each pitch type. Our metric of choice is expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), which goes a step further than batting average or slugging by considering strikeouts, walks and quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle).
Here are the top-five lists for each pitch type, set with a minimum plate appearance total to give us samples of at least 150 hitters:
Min. 100 plate appearances
1) .502 -- Jorge Soler, Royals
2-T) .491 -- Yordan Alvarez, Astros
2-T) .491 -- Howie Kendrick, Nationals
4) .490 -- Marcell Ozuna, free agent
5) .489 -- Nicholas Castellanos, free agent
MLB average: .354 xwOBA
Nearly half (23) of Soler’s AL-most 48 homers came off four-seamers, and Josh Donaldson was the only hitter who averaged a higher exit velocity than Soler’s scorching 97.3 mph.
Two-seamers and sinkers
Min. 75 PA
1) .539 -- Mike Trout, Angels
2) .514 -- Anthony Rendon, Angels
3) .492 -- Josh Bell, Pirates
4) .483 -- Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
5) .478 -- Mookie Betts, Red Sox
MLB average: .358
Five of last year’s very best hitters feasted on pitches that were supposed to make them easy outs at first base.
Cutters and sliders
Min. 75 PA
1-T) .407 -- Yordan Alvarez, Astros
1-T) .407 -- Josh Bell, Pirates
3) .406 -- Hunter Pence, free agent
4) .405 -- Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
5) .396 -- Mike Trout, Angels
MLB average: .282
Bellinger got way better at not offering at sliders in the dirt last season, and that helped him capture his first MVP Award.
Min. 35 PA
1) .541 -- Willson Contreras, Cubs
2) .501 -- Edwin Encarnación, White Sox
3) .487 -- Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves
4) .459 -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
5) .445 -- Mike Trout, Angels
MLB average: .269
Contreras’ turnaround against breakers was stunning: He improved his xwOBA against them by nearly 300 points, and nearly tripled his barrel rate against those hooks.
Changeups and splitters
Min. 50 PA
1) .476 -- Mike Trout, Angels
2) .469 -- Nelson Cruz, Twins
3) .458 -- J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
4) .421 -- Nomar Mazara, White Sox
5) .420 -- Christian Yelich, Brewers
MLB average: .286
Trout’s xwOBA against these changeups and splitters hasn’t dipped below .408 since 2016, and he leads the sport with 26 dingers off those pitches in that span.
Those leaderboards are obviously packed with stars, but here are the five biggest takeaways that stood out.
1) Mike Trout has no weaknesses left
That’s not a complete revelation; Trout won his third AL MVP Award, got on base roughly 44% of the time and recorded his third straight season with a 1.000-plus OPS. But it’s still staggering to see his name pop up near the top of literally every pitch type.
Trout once famously struggled against high fastballs, but he closed that hole nearly five years ago. He doesn’t chase, and, when pitchers dare to challenge him, he rarely misses. At this point, pick your poison against Trout, and pray for the best.
2) Yordan Alvarez probably won’t see the same pitches again
Houston’s sensation wasn’t the first rookie to come into the league crushing fastballs, but crush them he did, tying World Series adversary Howie Kendrick for MLB’s second-best xwOBA against four-seamers. What’s way more impressive is that Alvarez also tied for the MLB lead against cutters and sliders, pitch types that traditionally give freshmen hitters fits as they adjust to the bigs.
Nearly all of Alvarez’s damage against those benders came in the meaty part of the strike zone, so he can expect a lot fewer pitches there in 2020. He should also expect to see more curveballs, perhaps his one Kryptonite last year (.203 xwOBA, and just 1-for-11 against them in the postseason).
3) AL West and NL East clubs: Beware
Sinkerballers are a dying breed in MLB, and you’d better have impeccable command if you’re still employing that pitch as your main weapon. That’s doubly true if you’re pitching to Trout and Anthony Rendon, the new combo in the heart of the Angels’ lineup. Trout and Rendon finished 1-2 against sinkers and two-seamers last season, each faring more than 150 points better than the Major League average against those pitches.
Over on the opposite coast, Atlanta sluggers Acuña and Freeman didn’t have any trouble with the curve. The Braves’ “Bash Brothers” ranked third and fourth, respectively, against hooks, so NL East pitchers would be wise to try something else when navigating Atlanta’s top of the order.
4) There’s still plenty to like about Josh Bell
Bell’s early NL MVP candidacy took a nosedive (1.109 OPS and 18 HR through May 31; .818 OPS and 19 HR the rest of the way), but he still landed on two top-five lists. Bell crushed sinkers all year and his performance against sliders rebounded from a midsummer dip, so maybe those are skills he can build around for a more sustainable 2020 campaign.
5) Facing heat? We know a couple of ringers
Glance above at the masters of straight heat and you’ll recognize two names you’ve seen on the rumor mill all winter: Marcell Ozuna (fourth place at .490) and Nicholas Castellanos (fifth, .489). It’s a reminder that, despite each of their defensive shortcomings, there’s still two excellent hitters out there waiting to be signed. Ozuna’s 96.1 mph average exit velocity against four-seamers was baseball’s fifth best (min. 100 batted balls), and Castellanos wasn’t far behind him at 93.7 mph (tied for 18th).
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.