Here's the Fearsome Foursome of hitters

Soto, Trout, Rendon, Bregman handled everything in 2019 and '20

January 31st, 2021

It’s the biggest moment in the game, the opponent’s best slugger is at the plate and the pitcher needs to come up with his best offering. What does he throw?

Pitchers and catchers have binders full of scouting reports telling them that answer. But with a handful of baseball’s best boppers, there is really no good choice.

Who belongs in that group? There are dozens of ways to select baseball’s best all-around hitters, but for this exercise, is employing senior data architect Tom Tango’s run values formula to find the true cream of the crop. That formula (explained here) evaluates hitters’ decision-making and results on a pitch-by-pitch basis, factoring in run expectancies from the number of outs in the inning, the ball/strike count and the runners on base.

Today, we’re focusing on Baseball Savant’s pitch arsenal leaderboard, which uses that formula to answer the question:

When it comes to pitch types, which hitters don’t have any holes in their game?

In other words, which stars have demonstrated they can handle any pitch -- from fastballs to breaking balls to changeups -- without a drop-off? There are fastball hunters, and there are those who love the “junk” pitches. But in mining the data from the start of the 2019 season, a group of only four hitters -- a current “Mount Rushmore” -- emerged as those who seemingly love everything. Out of a group of 134 qualified batters who rated at least five runs (+5) above average against at least two major pitch types (four-seam fastballs, sinkers, cutters and sliders, curveballs, changeups and splitters), this quartet were the only ones that fared that well against all five.

As for the identity of those four studs? Well, we think you’ll recognize them.

Juan Soto, Nationals

+15 runs vs. curveballs
+15 vs. changeups/splitters
+14 vs. four-seamers
+13 vs. sliders/cutters
+12 vs. sinkers

You didn’t need to come here to learn that Soto is historically special with the bat. He might be even better than any of us realize. But here’s yet another way to single out the magical “Childish Bambino:” He is the only hitter across the past two seasons who has rated at least 10 runs above average against every pitch type.

A lot of that has to do with Soto’s preternatural eyes, of course. Last year, Soto, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna were the only hitters who rated at least five runs above average in all four regions of the Statcast strike zone (its “heart,” the shadow areas, the chase zone and the waste area for non-competitive pitches). But it goes even further: In 2020, Soto didn’t release his bat for a single swing in that waste zone. In ‘19, Soto swung five total times, or at only 2 percent of the pitches he saw, in that area.

So there’s Soto’s elite pitch recognition, and there’s also just the fact that he’s still developing into his power. Against sliders in particular, Soto’s hard-hit rate jumped from a pedestrian 34.8 percent (and -1 run value) in 2019 to a top-of-the-line 63.8 percent (+6 run value) in ‘20.

Mike Trout, Angels

+24 runs vs. sinkers
+23 vs. four-seamers
+11 vs. sliders/cutters
+11 vs. changeups/splitters
+8 vs. curveballs

Remember when there was a "book" on Trout? "Throw him high fastballs," was the thought after he won his first American League MVP Award in 2014; he closed that hole within months. He used to famously take the first pitch, then simply got more aggressive and attacked early.

One thing that has always been abundantly clear: you can’t throw anything near Trout’s knees and expect to get away with it. So it’s not surprising that he mauls sinkers and changeups that drop in that “cookie jar.” Clearly, you’re not overpowering him with a straight four-seamer, either.

Maybe the only pitches that gave Trout “trouble” in 2020 were sliders (35 percent strikeout rate, 29 percent hard-hit rate, +1 run value), but that's probably a mirage. Trout hasn’t fared worse than +8 in any full season against sliders since '17.

+33 runs vs. sinkers
+13 vs. four-seamers
+12 vs. sliders/cutters
+10 vs. curveballs
+5 vs. changeups/splitters

We touched on this last year but, yeah, don’t throw Rendon a sinker. He finished seven runs clear of the field against sinkers in 2019 (Trout was second), and his +27 run total tied for that year’s second-best performance by any hitter against any pitch type.

Rendon was strong against sinkers again in 2020 (+6), but the pitch that surprisingly performed best against him was the classic four-seamer (-4), which held Rendon to a .189 slugging percentage. But Rendon finished a scorching +17 against four-seamers in 2019 (.600 slugging percentage) and +21 against them in ‘17 (.621), so, as with Trout, we defy any pitcher to see if those “struggles” last beyond a 60-game sample.

Numbers like these are why Rendon and Soto powered the Nationals to a World Series championship, why the Angels paid Rendon $245 million to move west and why the Halos -- with Trout, Rendon and Shohei Ohtani -- have to find a way to compete while their lineup is this stacked.

Alex Bregman, Astros

+19 runs vs. four-seamers
+10 vs. sinkers
+9 vs. curveballs
+6 vs. changeups/splitters
+5 vs. sliders/cutters

Bregman was far from the only MLB star to struggle with 2020’s unusual atmosphere and format, but struggle he did (.242 average, six homers, 116 OPS+) -- at least by his lofty standards. Much of these robust run value totals come from Bregman's ‘19 campaign, when he gave Trout a solid run for AL MVP.

Sliders were a thorn in Bregman’s side last year, as he hit and slugged .107 against them (-2 run value) with a meek 26.3 percent hard-hit rate. But he didn’t see any more sliders than usual on a rate basis, and he handled that pitch in 2019 (+9) and clobbered them in ‘18 (+16). Pitchers might attack Bregman early and often with sliders to begin this season, but the sure bet would be on the Astros’ cerebral and uber-confident star adjusting quickly.

Even in a down year, Bregman finished among MLB’s top 10 percent of hitters in whiff rate and chase rate. Those base skills are a great way to ensure you never stay in a funk for long.