Before a bat ever slices through the airspace in front of a catcher's glove, before any collision of wood and leather, the best thing a hitter can do is spring into action against a pitch headed for the strike zone. Flip it around, and a pitcher's task is decidedly more complicated.
He can challenge hitters to follow through and make contact. Or he can tempt them by going outside the zone, test their restraint. Given the inherent downsides of hard contact or falling behind in the count, pitchers deploy these tactics in varying doses, their own special blends of daring and misdirection.
What every hurler would love is the ability to throw strikes without their usually opportunistic opponent even lifting the bat off his shoulder. A couple of starters stand out for possessing just a little more of that seemingly hypnotic power.
Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks and newly acquired Rangers righty Doug Fister, who tossed 90 1/3 innings for the Red Sox in 2017, froze hitters more often than any other starters when they threw in the zone in 2017, according to Statcast™, with zone-swing rates of less than 59 percent. The Major League average was 66.5 percent.
This is not a one-off development, either. Hendricks has hovered near the top of this leaderboard in each of his three full seasons, and if there were a lifetime achievement award for this peculiar talent, Fister might deserve it. The 33-year-old's zone-swing rate is the lowest of any pitcher who has thrown at least 600 innings in the pitch tracking era (since 2008).
More than a novelty act, it's an edge that allows these pitchers without premium velocity to keep the count tilted in their favor, to avoid vulnerable situations where they must come into the zone. While hitters make contact against Hendricks' strikes at about an average rate, they are extremely likely to hit a Fister strike. Overall, the league slugged .505 against pitches in the zone. The proclivity for inducing stares instead of swings accumulates value rapidly as danger turns into beneficial called strikes.
So how do they do it?
There are a couple types of pitches that are generally useful in this endeavor. The curveball is one. Utilizing the hammer in the zone, often as a surprise in fastball counts, landed Dodgers breaking-ball aficionado Rich Hill near the top of our leaderboard. But Hendricks and Fister specialize in the another offering that they throw with more frequency -- the fastball with arm-side run.
Some of them are classified as sinkers, others as two-seam fastballs, but the general shape is the same. Moving in the opposite direction of a slider or cutter, Statcast™ data shows they're the least likely pitches to draw a swing when thrown in the zone, outside of curveballs.
Zone swing rate by pitch type:
Curveball: 56.8 percent
Hendricks and Fister have notably effective ones that they use gratuitously. Only two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber's version saw a lower swing rate in the zone in 2017. Against righties, Hendricks and Fister pepper the outside corner similarly, starting the ball's flight off the edge and then bringing it back over the plate.
Fister continues his assault on the same side of the plate against lefties, directing the ball toward their bodies before it darts over the inner half. He also uses a cutter, having virtually eliminated the four-seamer from his toolbox. Hendricks mixes in his curve and the low-and-away four-seamer against southpaws.
Why this skill proves so persistent is harder to discern. Fister, as he prepares to join the Rangers rotation in 2018, has been using this tendency to stay ahead of hitters for nearly a decade. Phillies ace Aaron Nola wields a devastating curveball and swerving two-seamer that already make him a routine collector of called strikes, but D-backs righty Zack Godley could be the under-the-radar strike-stealer to watch.
Likely due to his high curveball usage and preference for sinkers and cutters, Godley logged a lower-than-average 62.2 percent zone-swing rate during a breakout 2017 that saw him post a 3.37 ERA over 155 innings.