It's hard enough to hit a baseball in the half-second it travels to home plate. It's even harder when it's the best of the best out there on the mound, and hitters must decipher just what is coming at them.The player-tracking technology of Statcast™ helps us visualize the struggle between
It's hard enough to hit a baseball in the half-second it travels to home plate. It's even harder when it's the best of the best out there on the mound, and hitters must decipher just what is coming at them.
The player-tracking technology of Statcast™ helps us visualize the struggle between pitchers and hitters better than ever before, and it also gives us a clear idea of who hits each offering the best. There are all sorts of traditional stats we could use to determine the "best," from batting average to homers, but let's instead turn to Statcast™'s most all-encompassing metric.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) sounds more complex than it actually is. It accounts for the expected outcome of each ball put in play, while also factoring in strikeouts and walks to give a full picture of what should happen based on a combination of contact quality and the amount of contact a hitter makes. Stripping away the effects of defense and ballpark, xwOBA acts like OBP, except that it awards more value for extra-base hits -- in this case, the ultimate goal of hitters.
• Arm stars: Statcast™'s most dominant pitches
Which hitters excelled the most against certain pitch types in 2017? Setting a minimum of 200 pitches seen for each pitch classification gives us a healthy sample size of hundreds of hitters. Some of these names are exactly who you'd expect; others, not so much.
.513 -- Aaron Judge, Yankees
.510 -- J.D. Martinez, free agent
.474 -- Jose Martinez, Cardinals
.460 -- Alex Avila, free agent
.454 -- Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Major League average -- .344
Let's just get this out of the way: Judge was incredible in a lot of ways last season. A 52-homer rookie season means Judge was doing a lot of things right, but a cool 25 of those dingers came against four-seamers. They ranged from a 97.1 mph Kevin Gausman heater that Judge crushed with a 119.4-mph exit velocity (the second-hardest-hit homer by anyone last year, shown above) to an 89.1-mph Marco Estrada fastball that he took to the upper deck at Rogers Centre.
It's not surprising to see J.D. Martinez right behind Judge after he clubbed 45 homers of his own, but the Cardinals' Jose Martinez might be unexpected. Jose Martinez, like his teammate Tommy Pham, sort of came out of nowhere as one of St. Louis' best bats down the stretch last year, making hard contact (i.e. balls struck with exit velocities of 95 mph or harder) on over 45 percent of his contact -- right on par with Josh Donaldson and Martinez's new teammate, Marcell Ozuna. Avila is one of the more low-key, intriguing free-agent position players still out there; only Judge, Joey Gallo and Khris Davismade hard contact on a more consistent basis than he did a year ago (min. 150 balls in play).
.527 -- Miguel Sano, Twins
.517 -- Logan Morrison, free agent
.507 -- Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
.494 -- Brandon Moss, Royals
.487 -- John Jaso, free agent
Major League average -- .353
Sano might have been baseball's best slugger through the first six weeks before a shin injury derailed his season. Morrison remains available after busting out for a career-high 38 home runs, with an MLB-high 17 of them coming off a two-seamer or sinker. Goldschmidt placed himself back into the National League Most Valuable Player discussion partly because of his significant commitment to pulling the ball, and it appears he was all over fastballs that pitchers tried to ride in on his hands.
.447 -- Michael Trout, Angels
.438 -- Jose Martinez, Cardinals
.396 -- Rhys Hoskins, Phillies
.391 -- Joey Votto, Reds
.379 -- Jesus Aguilar, Brewers/J.D. Martinez, free agent
Major League average -- .264
Few hitters in the game stay back on breaking balls as well as Trout, who belted 12 of his 33 dingers off a cutter or slider last year. Trout actually posted a more pedestrian .318 xwOBA against those pitches during his 2016 AL MVP Award-winning season, so mark this as just one more area in which baseball's best player is still getting better.
Behind Trout is, again, Jose Martinez, who's someone to really keep an eye on in 2018 as he continues to battle for playing time. Hoskins gained a lot of attention as a fastball hunter during his summer blitz, but his overall ability against cutters and sliders -- typically much harder pitches for young hitters to master -- should encourage Phillies fans.
.434 -- Judge, Yankees
.422 -- Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
.421 -- Votto, Reds
.417 -- Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
.407 -- Alex Bregman, Astros
Major League average -- .252
Judge crushed more than just straight fastballs. While his struggles against low-and-away breaking balls were pronounced in the postseason, the Yankees' young star mashed plenty of curves over the course of the season and absolutely laced a Lance McCullers hook in Game 4 of the ALCS (shown at the top of this story). Judge missed on roughly half his swings against curveballs, but he also averaged a 97-mph exit velocity and slugged an off-the-charts 1.276 when he was able to put them into play.
Blackmon put up a historic season, while Votto and Rizzo shouldn't surprise anyone considering their elite batting eyes and ability to stay back on pitches.
.504 -- Judge, Yankees
.453 -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
.447 -- Eric Hosmer, free agent
.440 -- Justin Smoak, Blue Jays
.427 -- Cruz, Mariners
Major League average -- .293
In terms of raw exit velocity, it's pretty much Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and then everyone else (apologies to the Yankees' AL East opponents). In fact, the 121.1-mph home run Judge hit last June -- Stacast's hardest-hit homer since it began tracking in 2015 -- came off an 85-mph changeup from Chris Tillman.
Freeman continues to quietly be one of the game's best hitters, and his focus on going the other way appears to have helped him keep the bat in the zone longer against offspeed pitches. Similarly, Hosmer's ability to stay back and drive the ball the other way may have led to his excellence against changeups, and it made him an intriguing fit for Fenway Park and the Green Monster before the Red Sox re-signed Mitch Moreland.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.