Topping Ohtani: The Most Intriguing Data Points of Baseball’s First Half
With the All-Star festivities in the rear-view mirror, we’re looking back at some of the incredible hits, epic at-bats and unlikeliest home runs of the season’s first half.
And why not start with the player of the first half – Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who is running away in the AL MVP race. Ohtani easily leads the majors with 33 home runs following a 21-game span in which he hit the most homers (16) in a single season in AL history.
As we’ve mentioned before in this series, when pitchers get ahead 0-2 or 1-2 in the count, they often rely on the high fastball out of the zone to put batters away. They’ve learned that even big-league hitters have trouble catching up with the high heat if they’re forced to be in two-strike protect mode.
But that strategy backfired in a big way for a shell-shocked Sam Hentges of the Cleveland Indians on May 17 on one of the home runs of the first half from Ohtani. On a 1-2 pitch in the bottom of the second inning, Ohtani belted a 94-mph, higher-than-high fastball to deep right.
It led to a rather instantly famous call from the announcer; “Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. Shohei Ohtani. What can’t he do?!”
But believe it or not, this majestic blast wasn’t what the data considered the best hit off the toughest pitch. That honor belongs to Rhys Hoskins of the Philadelphia Phillies, who did it under circumstances that will seem eerily similar.
In the eighth inning on June 22, Hoskins left Tanner Rainey of the Washington Nationals stunned after his offering on a 1-2 pitch. The right-hander went to the high cheese, trying to get Hoskins to chase the 98-mph heater out of the zone for the third strike.
The problem? Hoskins ambushed him, somehow clubbing the fastball well above the zone into the upper deck in left field. It was no easy feat considering Rainey’s whiff+ (142) ranks in the top 20 among all relievers who have faced 100 batters this season.
How were we able to calculate that Hoskins faced a tougher pitch on his home run? According to the data, the pitch that Hoskins faced had two distinct differences to Ohtani’s: the location (the pitch was more inside, making it more difficult to hit) and the velocity (four mph faster than the one Ohtani hit).
Additionally, our algorithms indicated that the probability of Hoskins’ batted ball was better, meaning it was more likely to be a home run in various conditions and ballparks.
We think searching for the best hit on the toughest pitch is a much more meaningful exercise than simply figuring out who had the hardest hit or highest exit velocity, so we looked at the expected value of the hit (based on the batted ball) and subtracted the expected value of the pitch.
It’s essentially the highest BIP+, which is a more complete measure than the more mainstream batting average on balls in play (BABIP), as it accounts for the difficulty of hitting a particular pitch. That’s because a positive outcome off a grooved fastball on a 3-1 count should not have the same value as one that comes on a nasty 0-2 slider.
Hoskins, who is tied for 16th in MLB with 20 home runs, has a BIP+ (145.4) and raw value+ (121.7.) well above the league average. He may be the only player to outdo Ohtani in anything this season.
Most Unlikely Contact
We move to the south side of Chicago on July 7 when one of the MLB’s fastest players produced a base hit on a pitch that, well, let’s just say it was a little bit low.
To find the most unlikely contact of the first half of the season, we looked at the pitches with the lowest probability of contact and then dug into whether any batters somehow made contact on those pitches.
Billy Hamilton ended the first half of the season with a contact+ below the league average at 98. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the reasons Hamilton has been subpar is because he’s also one of the more undisciplined hitters in the league, registering a first-half discipline+ of 87 – well below league average (100).
What makes this hit truly unlikely is that the Minnesota Twins pitcher Derek Law has been good at coaxing swings and misses this season. Law’s whiff+ of 110 is identical to that of San Diego’s Yu Darvish and all signs pointed to this ending in a strikeout.
Instead, Hamilton ended up at first base in what would ultimately be his final hit of the first half.
Most Extreme Chase
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, fun-loving Pablo Sandoval wins the title for the most extreme chase of the first half. You’ll notice that this pitch is nearly identical to the one in which Hamilton somehow registered an infield single.
We discover the most extreme chase by using a complex algorithm that finds pitches like the ones we’re looking at here and calculates how frequently those pitches were called strikes – in this case, none.
We then analyze the pitches that had the lowest probability of coaxing a swing over the first half and search for the ones in which the batter malfunctioned and did take a pass at it.
This was the worst of the bunch:
Sandoval won’t be found on our leaderboards because he doesn’t have enough at bats to qualify as he’s mostly acted as Atlanta’s pinch-hitting maestro this season. But he’s remarkable in that his contact+ is just about league average (97) and his BIP+ is impressive (122) despite his discipline+ of 81 being well below average.
The Panda’s 43 pinch-hit at bats comfortably lead the majors, and his four home runs and 11 RBIs in those situations also lead MLB. However, his 16 strikeouts are the most in the majors by a wide margin, striking out in over a third of his pinch-hit appearances.
So when the Braves sent Sandoval to the plate in a key situation to try and spark a comeback on June 4, it seemed reasonable to assume that he would either do something spectacularly positive or negative. Known for being a free swinger and owning a discipline+ that would rank seventh worst so far this season, the latter happened.
Most Value-Added At-Bat
On June 23, Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres stepped up to the plate for a must-watch duel with Trevor Bauer of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
After fouling off a couple nasty sliders and taking another one off the plate, Machado dug in with the count now full. He had faced seven straight sliders to start the at-bat, and he didn’t miss the eighth, blasting it deep into the left-field bleachers to give the Padres an early 2-0 lead.
They would eventually go on to win 5-3 and sweep the Dodgers on their way to taking seven of 10 against their NL West rivals during in the first half. According to the data, Machado received a raw value number of at least .04 on six of the eight pitches he faced. He ranks 12th in the majors with an RV+ of 154 and sits well above the league average (100) with a BIP+ of 145.4.
For his efforts, Machado has earned our most value-added at-bat of the first half. How did we determine this? Using all three of the components of raw value+ (RV+), we’re able to measure how much value a player adds to his offensive line in a single at-bat.
It basically works like this: The batter gets credit for making good decisions and dinged for making bad ones (discipline+) on each pitch, a value for whether he’s able to make contact on his swing (contact+) and how much damage he’s able to do once he makes contact (BIP+).
Machado has won his share of showdowns against Bauer. He’s now 13 for 25 with five home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs lifetime in the matchup. His .520 batting average is the highest of any player with at least 14 at-bats against the right-hander.
Taylor Bechtold contributed. Data modeling by Lucas Haupt. Design by Matt Sisneros.