Thy Art Is Nukes
Investigating how some of MLB’s best hitters raked in the first half of the 2022 MLB Season
As we wind into the All-Star break, it is always intriguing to take a look at some of the guys that really stood tall above the rest of the pack. Before going down with a broken hand, Bryce Harper was continuing his MVP form from the previous year despite a torn UCL preventing him from playing in the field. Paul Goldschmidt is enjoying one of the best starts to his career with a competitive Cardinals team. Rafael Devers continues to be a hitting enigma as he generates insane amounts of power from an absolutely violent swing. Aaron Judge is on pace for around 60 homers which would be the first time since Bonds and Sosa in 2001 that someone eclipsed that milestone. Yordan Alvarez continues to have the prettiest swing in baseball after locking up an extension with the Astros. Many others have impressed this year such as Jose Ramirez, Manny Machado, Dansby Swanson, and Trea Turner just to name a few, but I want to focus on the five players I previously mentioned. How have they been so successful in the first half of the 2022 season?
Bryce Harper: .318/.385/.599
Surprise! Bryce Harper is very good at baseball! Looking at his Savant peripherals it is pretty obvious that he was on pace for another run at the NL MVP despite his inability to play in the field. The only peripherals below the 50th percentile are his Chase and Whiff rates which truly I could care less about. If you hit the snot out of the ball consistently, swing as much as you would like as far as I am concerned.
His launch angle chart is obscenely good as no quadrant is below 0 or above 30 degrees. Does not matter where the ball is thrown, Bryce is getting the ball in the air and generally on a decent line. His zone launch angles are incredible as they are all between 10 and 25 degrees which shows how well his swing translates to any area of the zone and how difficult it is for an opposing pitcher to induce a groundball or pop-up.
As I mentioned above, Bryce’s swing translates extremely well throughout the entirety of the strike zone. However, seemingly the best way to get Bryce out is to pitch him low and outside or up and in. He sees the most pitches low and outside according to Savant and he swings at around a 40% clip of pitches of the sort. Fewer pitches go up and in to Bryce but he swings at around a 45% clip at those pitches. His BA struggles on those types of pitches which is really the only “negative” aspect of his game in the 2022 season.
His slugging percentage across all quadrants suggests information that we already previously knew about Bryce. Pitches that are low and inside he absolutely mashes to a slugging percentage of 1.294 which means that for every batted ball in play you should expect a little more than a single happening each time. This number is obscene and every opposing pitcher should avoid throwing to this spot at all costs.
To the surprise of no one, he has hit most of his home runs from these two bottom quadrants. The second deck of Citizens Bank Park has been commonplace for Bryce’s homers from these quadrants. Unfortunately, the broken thumb has sidelined Bryce for the immediate future but he was a true force to be reckoned with for the first three months of the season.
Paul Goldschmidt: .332/.426/.594
Goldschmidt’s Savant page is less “impressive” than Harper’s, but it still shows how well-rounded of a hitter he is. He walks at a high rate, does not chase outside of the zone too much, generally hits the ball hard, and strikes out at an average rate. Old-school commentators would refer to Goldschmidt as a “professional hitter”. He just rakes plain and simple, we do not need these peripherals to really show that. However, I think it is important to take a look and see how Goldschmidt has dominated at the plate before the all-star break.
Goldschmidt has destroyed pitches on the inside part of the plate to start the year. Even moving farther inside and out of the strike zone, he has been hitting at a .300 level. Where Goldschmidt was less successful to start the year has been the outside areas of the zone both on and off the strike zone. Keeping the ball away seems to be the most efficient way to pitch to Goldschmidt which resembles a similarity with where Harper “struggled” as well.
Goldschmidt’s Whiff rate on pitches inside and in the zone is incredibly impressive. He sees the ball so well which lends to such a high batting average in those quadrants as well. With a Whiff rate below 15 percent for 5 quadrants, it also lends itself to seeing more pitches at the plate due to fouling them off. Seeing more pitches gives a better chance of forcing mistakes from a pitcher. It is notable to point out how his Whiff rate increases on pitches on the outer edge of the zone which correlates with the lower batting average talked about previously in the same part of the zone.
The similarities between Goldschmidt and Harper continue here as they have very similar HR profiles. Low in the zone is a place where Goldschmidt excels at lifting the ball and hitting it to the stands. Much like Harper, he does not exhibit the same power on the outside of the zone, but that is not a huge surprise given where most players have their power.
Rafael Devers: .325/.381/.587
Given I am a Red Sox fan, Rafael Devers is one of my favorite hitters to watch in the entire league. A true anomaly as he swings at just about everything and manages to barrel up pitches almost at eye-level or below his ankles. A true relic in a sense as he does not strike out often despite putting an inhuman amount of torque and power into every swing of his. With power to all areas of the field, which bodes well for a lefty playing at Fenway, the baby-faced third baseman looks to be in the AL MVP conversation as we head into the second half of the year.
According to Fangraphs, Raffy swings at the 6th highest rate out of all qualified hitters in the 2022 season. He is sandwiched between Nick Castellanos and Jonathan Schoop who are some of the league’s worst hitters in 2022. The chart shows just how much he swings by looking at some ridiculous percentages such as swinging at 46% of balls thrown low and in off the zone. Normally these percentages would tell you that he needs to swing less and be more patient, but Raffy is the exception to that rule.
This Savant zone map is hilarious. This zone map is the percentage of Hard Hit balls (95 MPH+ Exit Velos) by the number of balls hit in play. Raffy hits the ball harder from pitches on the outside of the zone better than the inside. His style of “wide” swing lends itself to crushing pitches on the outer half of the plate. But wait for a second, he also crushes pitches that are low/inside and out of the zone. He even hits pitches up and away better than he does on the inside part of the zone. This creates an interesting matchup for opposing pitchers as there are few areas of the plate where he does not hit well and missing spots lead to balls that are absolutely crushed.
The homer zone map shows that Raffy is rather indiscriminate towards where the ball is thrown. It can get sent to the moon from just about everywhere whether it be in and low or high and outside. As opposed to Goldschmidt and Harper, Raffy does not inherently have a zone where his power is lacking. He is capable of launching a moonshot from various parts of the plate.
Aaron Judge: .284/.364/.618
Most likely the best pure power hitter we have seen this decade, Aaron Judge is right around pace for a 60 home run season which would be the first time since Bonds in 2001 that anyone exceeded that milestone. His Savant page is outstanding as he is close to the if not the best in several statistics. He hits the ball harder than just about everyone on the planet and has a good enough eye that he does not chase pitches out of the zone at a high rate. He has leveraged this into his best season to date as he looks to make a push for MVP throughout the latter stages of the season.
We can easily see how opposing pitchers feel about pitching to Judge; they don’t. He has seen an obscene amount of pitches low and outside ofthe zone. Pitchers are scared to miss in the zone to Judge and for good reason, he rakes in the zone.
His barrel per swing percentage is bonkers throughout several areas of the zone. Every area of the zone except one quadrant is significantly a cut above the rest of the league. As he is on a torrent home run place, there are few places in the zone where he is not dangerous. Even pitches up and in, he has destroyed so far to start this year. Quick hands and a quick bat allows him to get around on balls up in the zone which is where a lot of power hitters tend to struggle.
Judge has some ridiculous batting average stats over the middle of the zone. There is a couple deadspots in the zone, but it is more based on luck than actual skill as it was shown before that he still crushes pitches up and in, as well as up and away. He does not expand the zone well, but he has demonstrated that he has a good eye at the plate to where he can avoid swinging out of his shoes at pitches out of the zone.
Yordan Alvarez: .306/.405/.653
The best pure hitter in all of baseball for the first half of the MLB season has been the Astros’ DH Yordan Alvarez. A contract extension has locked him up in Houston for the time being and it is easy to see why the Astros would do that. Since coming up in 2020, all he has done is rake and hit nukes. With defensive limitations, he reminds me of a similar massive lefty that led Boston to three titles. A pretty swing that provides effortless power, Yordan has become the scariest hitter for opposing pitchers in the entire league (yes I am including Soto, Acuna, Trout, and whoever else you want to throw in there…he is still better). He walks, does not strike out, and hits nukes… can’t ask for much better than that.
As shown by the graph, Yordan hits the ball incredibly hard throughout the zone. A “hard-hit” ball is defined as baseball that has an exit velocity of over 95 mph off the bat. Yordan’s average exit velocity is all over 95 except for one quadrant where it is just below that threshold. An average ball Yordan hits in play in the zone will be a hard hit ball. It is pure insanity that he can hit all areas of the plate with that level of power.
He has a home run from every quadrant which further shows his absurd power tool and even threw in a couple dingers from below the zone just for good measure. He has hit nine home runs on the outside part of the plate which is rarely seen from a lefty power bat. Despite putting up numbers to envoke the thought of Ortiz, they do it in much different capacities. Yordan is more willing to go the other way and has a more level swing that still generates tons of power.
Where Yordan has “struggled” hitting this season has been pitches up and out of the zone. However, he has been good at seeing those pitches and laying off of them. He only swings at 10 percent of pitches up and in which bodes well just for him to see better pitchers. Combining the good bat-to-ball skills with a good eye, creates a mix of Steven Kwan and Joey Gallo but only the best aspects of both players.
What To Expect
These torrent starts by all these players are something to keep looking for as the season continues. The MLB season is an absolute grind and a lot can change over the course over a few months or even weeks. Harper is done for the time being, but the other four players are looking to continue their play into October. I will revisit this article at the end of the season and see if anything changed or if other players played exceptionally well for the second half of the season. Either way, these players are all must watch and it will be exciting to see what occurs for the rest of the season.