6 under-the-radar pitchers with a rare blend of skills

June 25th, 2023

Earlier in June, we explored which under-the-radar hitters had demonstrated a unique blend of power and contact this season. As such, it’s only natural to dive into the same phenomenon, in reverse. Which pitchers have been successful in both preventing hard contact, and preventing contact at all?

To answer that, we’ll use the same two statistics we used for the hitting version: barrel rate and whiff rate. Barrels are the most dangerous type of contact in baseball -- a more formal definition can be seen on MLB’s glossary here -- but to summarize, they are batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. As such, a pitcher’s barrel rate is his percentage of batted balls allowed that are considered barrels. Whiff rate is a little simpler to explain: the percentage of a player’s swings that don’t make contact with the ball.

While these two traits don’t have the same strong negative correlation for pitchers that they did for hitters, there are still some hurlers who manage to stand out by excelling in both categories. Below, we spotlight six under-the-radar pitchers (three relievers, three starters) who have demonstrated this rare combination of skills. All stats listed below are as of games ending 0n June 23. And to clarify, the percentile numbers you see below refer to how each player ranks compared to the rest of the league, not the player’s actual output in that statistic. For example, Matt Brash’s 98 in whiff rate means that he has a better whiff rate than 98 percent of MLB’s qualified pitchers, not that he has made opponents miss on 98 percent of their swings.

Relief pitchers

, Rangers
Percentiles: 99th in barrel rate, 99th in whiff rate

Among the reasons that the Rangers lead the AL West after finishing 38 games back a year ago, middle relief might not be the first one that jumps to mind. But the breakout season from the 29-year-old Sborz is an unquestionable factor in Texas’ turnaround.

Across his first four MLB seasons, Sborz had a 4.85 ERA and 4.28 FIP. This season, those numbers are down to 2.70 and 2.11, respectively. And the advanced metrics certainly suggest that this trend is sustainable. Among MLB’s 375 qualified pitchers, Sborz is one of two to be in the 95th percentile or better in both barrel rate and whiff rate, joining . His career-best 43.5% whiff rate ranks third among qualifiers behind Chapman and Félix Bautista, while his minuscule 1.5% barrel rate ranks fourth. Remarkably, Sborz has exactly 13 strikeouts and at least a 40% whiff rate on all three of his primary pitches (slider, 4-seamer, curveball).

, Mariners
Percentiles: 93rd in barrel rate, 98th in whiff rate

Besides nine-letter full names and serving as middle relievers for AL West teams, another commonality between Sborz and Brash is that both have made hitters swing and miss at an elite rate. Brash’s 40.9% whiff rate ranks in the 98th percentile, and it’s nearly 10 percentage points higher than it was in his rookie season last year (31.6%).

For Brash, a major factor in his second-year improvement has been an increased reliance on his slider. Brash has thrown sliders on 47.6% of his pitches, and opponents have whiffed on 52.3% of their swings against it. He has 40 strikeouts on plate appearances ending in sliders this season, second most by any relief pitcher behind .

, Cubs
Percentiles: 92nd in barrel rate, 95th in whiff rate

For Merryweather, a change of scenery has paid dividends in his fourth MLB season. In his three seasons with the Blue Jays, Merryweather had a 5.64 ERA, a 4.36 FIP and 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings. His debut season in Chicago? 3.06 ERA, 2.62 FIP and 12.8 K/9.

For the 31-year-old, the biggest difference this season has been the ability to make batters swing and miss -- particularly against pitches outside the zone. Merryweather’s career-high 36.7% whiff rate comes in a year where he has thrown a career-low 46.0% of his pitches in the strike zone. But opponents have made contact on only 33.3% of their swings outside the zone in 2023, a far cry from their 53.4% rate against Merryweather from 2020-22. That performance could make him an interesting trade chip if the Cubs don’t stay in the playoff race.

Starting pitchers

, Angels
Percentiles: 88th in barrel rate, 75th in whiff rate

What if I told you the Angels have MLB’s only starting pitcher to rank in the 75th percentile or better among qualifiers in both barrel rate and whiff rate … and then what if I told you his name isn’t ? You may not believe it, but such is the case for Detmers, whose advanced stats are far more forgiving than his 1-5 record suggests. (Ohtani, for what it’s worth, is only in the 37th percentile in barrel rate.)

Where Detmers has struggled a bit is in his control, as his 9.1% walk rate ranks in the 38th percentile. But when it comes to preventing contact, Detmers has taken major steps in his second full season, with his barrel rate (4.3%) and whiff rate (29.3%) both significantly better than they were in 2022 (8.0% and 25.3%, respectively).

, Rays
Percentiles: 79th in barrel rate, 62nd in whiff rate

Though Bradley was formerly one of MLB.com’s top prospects, the 22-year-old has only thrown 49 career MLB innings, which keeps him under the radar for now.

If he continues the trajectory he’s on, though, that status might change quickly. With the Rays' rotation having been decimated by , and all landing on the 60-day injured list, Bradley has done his part to keep Tampa Bay’s MLB-best 53-26 record intact. While his traditional stats (5-3, 3.86 ERA) don’t jump off the page, his expected batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA are all lower than his actual outputs in those stats, suggesting that he might be in line for a huge second half of his rookie season.

, Mets
Percentiles: 68th in barrel rate, 72nd in whiff rate

On a roster that features the likes of and , the top hurler so far this season very well might be Senga, who leads all Mets starters (min. five starts) in ERA, FIP, strikeouts per nine innings and wOBA.

Signed by the Mets to a five-year, $75 million contract after a decorated career in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, the 30-year-old rookie has had a successful transition to MLB. This can largely be attributed to his dominant forkball, as opponents have whiffed on 58.4% of their swings against it -- the highest whiff rate by any pitcher on any pitch type this season (min. 100 swings). As a result, Senga is one of only five qualified starters to be in the 65th percentile or better in both barrel rate and whiff rate (also , , and Detmers).