“He made a mistake and Trout made him pay.” No doubt you’ve heard some versions of this phrase countless times. Maybe the announcers called it a hanging slider or meatball or any other way of describing a bad curtain. But what exactly does it mean and how can you recognize someone when you see them?
I have often discussed this question with my colleagues, but we have never found a satisfactory answer because sales pitches classified as errors are not always intuitive. Sometimes a pitcher hits the inside edge of the area just to unload a batter sitting on such a pitch. Sometimes a backup slider connects the opposing hitter. There’s also a bias to these observations: You’re much more likely to remember a field squashed for a home run than a shot that resulted in just a ball or a loud foul.
I still don’t have a definitive answer. However, I tried to answer a very specific form of the question. One step that really feels like a mistake, regardless of intent and circumstances, is a spare slider over the heart of the plate. Turn the slider wrong and it turns into a cement mixer that spins sideways without moving. Drop one of the middle ones, and the result is a slow and centrally positioned bat magnet.
Conveniently, it is easy to identify. I looked at every step taken in 2022 that met a set of criteria. First, it’s supposed to be a slider. Second, it needed 20% lower horizontal and vertical movement (excluding gravity) than the average for the shooter who threw it. In other words, the shooter needed to break significantly less than his intended pitch. Finally, it had to be in the middle of the strike zone. I defined it as being in the middle third of the hitting zone, both horizontally and vertically.
By these definitions, there were 464 meatball sliders discarded in 2022. That’s less than you might expect, but it’s a pretty strict set of requirements. Many incorrect steps match some, but not all, of my criteria. Perhaps they had more vertical movement than expected, or were of medium height, but too close to one of the edges of the plate. These are not false sales pitches; are excessive errors. I bet almost none of them were intentionally discarded. Here’s one:
Summing up these pitches, we can immediately say a few things. First, don’t throw them away! As you can imagine, the hitters perform quite well on them. They achieved .441 wOBA on throw-in with .329 batting average (and therefore BABIP) and .682 slowing percentage. This is an excellent production. Significantly better than how well kickers do when swinging on pitches right in the center of the plate (.346 batting average, .607 deceleration percentage, .403 wOBA).
We can even go a little further. The first example hanging slider is initialized to reach a number. It is clear from these data that when kickers put these hanging sliders into play, they grunted 7.9% of their batting balls. This is again much higher than the home run rate (5.7%) on all pitches above the heart of the plate.
But bad news for people who believe in destiny: These fields are not destined to be crushed. If 7.9% of balls hit on “errors” are hit for a home run, that means 92.1% are not. This doesn’t even take into account foul balls, so-called kicks, or – god forbid – swing kicks. It seems that many of these error sites end in strikes. About two-thirds – 64.7% of low-moving, dead-center sliders result in foul balls or kicks.
does it shoot more Contact against Sonny Gray’s disaster? They definitely do. The Batters only sniffed 12.1% of the time when they were swinging on these crappy pitches. For shooters, this is a terrible result. Beaters come up empty more often when swinging on sinkers, which is the easiest step to make contact, than when swinging on meatballs. The kicker fouled another 38.5% of those, not counting the foul cues. This is close to the overall average foul ball rate; apparently, what kind of shot you swing doesn’t say much about how likely you are to knock him out.
All these numbers underscore a point that is really hard to explain: The difference between a good slider and a wrong step is in degree, not type. Batters made 2.8 home runs for every 100 meatball sliders they saw in 2022. Overall, this number was 0.7 for all sliders. They hit 3.8 out of 100 hits against meatballs; for all sliders, they hit 1.5 homers in 100 hits. Throw 100 hanging bolts and you will be crushed. Throw one in and you’re likely to get away with it.
This remains one of the strangest concepts in baseball. The best pitches are only the probabilistic best. The worst pitches are only bad overall. Watch a match and you’ll see loads of “how-he-got-that” hits and “how-how-missed-that” hits. It’s hard to talk about it because we like to think absolute. Do good, get good result and vice versa. In the long run this is true. Throw just hanging sliders in the middle and your average opponent will create a Aaron Judge-level status line, and good hitters will tear you apart. But that’s in the long run. On any pitch, you never know what might happen, even if it’s the worst shot you can take.