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5 starters who reveled in 'thrill of the chase'

Statcast's detailed zone metric tracks swings out of the zone
MLB.com

A chased pitch is a pitcher's best friend, particularly while balls are flying off the bat like we've never seen before. Major League pitchers try to get hitters to expand the strike zone whenever possible, and the best hurlers are often the ones who make hitters swing outside their comfort areas the most.

With that in mind, who were the best MLB starters when it came to making hitters chase in 2017? There have been a handful of metrics to measure this since pitch tracking data first came to light a decade ago, but perhaps none have been as precise as the detailed zone provided by Statcast™. By isolating the eight quadrants outside the borderlines of the zone in which umpires must make judgment calls (i.e. Zones 21-29, shown here), we're able to see which pitchers got hitters to swing the most at offerings that are called balls almost every single time.

A chased pitch is a pitcher's best friend, particularly while balls are flying off the bat like we've never seen before. Major League pitchers try to get hitters to expand the strike zone whenever possible, and the best hurlers are often the ones who make hitters swing outside their comfort areas the most.

With that in mind, who were the best MLB starters when it came to making hitters chase in 2017? There have been a handful of metrics to measure this since pitch tracking data first came to light a decade ago, but perhaps none have been as precise as the detailed zone provided by Statcast™. By isolating the eight quadrants outside the borderlines of the zone in which umpires must make judgment calls (i.e. Zones 21-29, shown here), we're able to see which pitchers got hitters to swing the most at offerings that are called balls almost every single time.

MLB hitters as a group batted just .114, slugged .148 and hit only 107 of their 6,105 home runs in at-bats that ended with these non-borderline balls last season, meaning a swing induced in these areas was almost always a win for the pitcher. Plus, there's just the extra satisfaction of making a big league hitter look silly.

Below are the five starters who excelled most at the art of the chase, in reverse order, as well as the methods and pitches by which they got hitters to take the bait.

5. Zack Godley, D-backs
Chase rate on non-borderline balls: 24.6 percent
Godley and Masahiro Tanaka were the only two full-time starters this year who got hitters to miss at least 30 percent of their swings and hit a grounder on at least 50 percent of their balls in play (minimum 1,000 total swings and 300 batted balls). Godley's game plan was obvious: He wanted to beat you at the bottom of the strike zone.

Employing one of the Majors' best curveballs along with a mix of sinkers and cutters, Godley racked up 159 swings on pitches below the bottom edge of the strike zone -- the third most in baseball behind his teammate Zack Greinke and Tanaka. Opposing hitters collected just one hit in 81 at-bats when they went fishing for Godley's pitches in that area above the dirt.

4. Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Chase rate on non-borderline balls: 24.9 percent
Whereas Godley broke out in 2017, we've seen Tanaka bait hitters into fishing excursions for years now. Tanaka's regular season was a roller-coaster ride, but he unleashed a cavalcade of diving sinkers, sliders and splitters against powerhouse offenses in the Indians and Astros, allowing only two runs in three combined postseason starts. 

Video: CLE@NYY Gm3: Tanaka dazzles over seven scoreless

Getting swings outside the zone is important for every pitcher, but it's arguably the most essential part of Tanaka's game. Opponents recorded a .370 weighted on-base average (wOBA, a statistic that measures how a batter reaches base with more credit given to extra-base hits) against Tanaka's pitches in the strike zone, or 32 points above the MLB average. The .213 wOBA Tanaka allowed on offerings on the bottom edge of the zone and below was one of the top marks in baseball.

3. Chris Sale, Red Sox
Chase rate on non-borderline balls: 26.2 percent
Pick your poison with this guy. Sale surpassed the 300-strikeout plateau in his first season in Boston with an overwhelming mix of deception, velocity and movement. The lefty made hitters climb the ladder on his upper-90s four-seam fastball, sent them reeling on floating changeups and finished many an at-bat with a slider that nipped at the ankles of right-handed hitters and swept away from lefties.

Video: 2017 MLB Awards: Best Pitcher: Sale

Sale's 161 strikeouts on pitches inside the strike zone were the most in baseball. So were his 147 strikeouts on pitches outside the zone. When Sale was on, as he was for much of the season, he was nearly untouchable.

2. Corey Kluber, Indians
Chase rate on non-borderline balls: 27.7 percent
Kluber was the only pitcher dominant enough to snatch the American League Cy Young Award from Sale's hands, striking out 224 batters and allowing a .175 average against over his final 166 1/3 innings. Cleveland's ace landed second on this list thanks in large part to a pair of pitches that drove hitters crazy: His cutter and his curveball.

Gif: Kluber strikeout

Kluber threw those two offerings with similar shapes, but with a subtle velocity difference of about 5-7 mph. He often located them with uncanny precision on the outer edge, letting them tail away from helpless right-handed hitters. In fact, righties went hitless in 58 at-bats that ended with either Kluber's cutter or curve outside the edges of the strike zone, making this combo one of the most dominant weapons in the Majors.

1. Alex Wood, Dodgers
Chase rate on non-borderline balls: 28 percent
Wood was an above-average starter whenever teams gave him a chance, but he became a National League Cy Young Award contender for a good chunk of 2017 thanks to his ability to stretch the strike zone. Wood and his herky-jerky motion recorded one of the game's lowest rates of hard-hit balls allowed, with "hard-hit" defined by Statcast™ as any ball hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or harder. He also finished the year as one of the top ground-ball specialists thanks to his mix of two-seamers, changeups and knuckle curves that hitters had a hard time squaring up.

Video: WS2017 Gm4: Wood goes 5 2/3, allows one run in Game 4

Wood turned to his changeup more than he ever had before in 2017, showcasing its sweeping left-to-right movement that closely resembled that of Sale's change of pace. That pitch helped him navigate the latter half of the regular season and the postseason as his two-seamer velocity tailed off. Wood graduated into an elite pitcher, at least for one season, by getting hitters to swing on his terms.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.