Before his June 6th appearance Dellin Betances had thrown his knuckle curve 255 times, and it has amassed a value of of 8 more than runs (according to fangraphs), but that is not the point of this post. Betances throws the knuckle curve a lot (48% of the time), batters can’t hit it (74% zone contact, 20% out of zone contact!, for a total contact rate of 42%), and when they do it’s very weakly (15% line drives, 55% ground balls, 10% popups, 0 home runs). It’s impressive but not what I’m interested in.
Here’s a hint, in gif form
Batter’s take the pitch for a called strike all the time. They swing at the curve in the strike zone a measly 29.3% of the time. This is where it gets really crazy, they swing at it out of the strike zone 36% of the time! I’ll let that sink in. This may sound hyperbolic (it’s actually hypergeometric) but a literal blind person would be expected to do better than these pros have. There is an 83.96% chance swinging at random would beat current major league performance.
For a little math aside, you can think of this like one of those marble problems. You have a jar filled with 116 red marbles (pitches in the strike zone) and 139 green marbles (pitches outside the zone), and you pick 84 (swing at) at random. What are the chances that out of the 84 marble you chose more than 34 are red (in the strike zone)? You can determine the probability of picking more than 34 red marbles using a hypergeometric distribution.
How is it even possible to make major league players look so confounded (see gif above)?
The worst approach at the plate (other than sabotaging yourself) is just swinging at random. There is an 84% chance that the approach of these players is worse than random. A possible explanation is hitters are actually trying to swing at more of the pitches outside the strike zone. This sounds like a really stupid strategy, because it is. The only reason hitters should do this is if they were able to crush the knuckle curve when it’s outside the strike zone. Hitters haven’t crushed any of the knuckle curves (an anemic .029 ISO), and they are barely ever hitting it when it’s outside the zone. It makes you wonder if Betances is using Jedi mind tricks.
Assuming that Betances is not a Jedi (if he was wouldn’t he use his powers on his fastball as well?), then something else has to be going on. From the batter’s reaction you can tell that the batter thought the pitch was going to hit him. So, maybe the batters are just so worried about the 95MPH heater that they are getting surprised by the knuckle curve? Still Betances threw the pitch 48% of the time; it’s not a surprise pitch. Whatever it Betances is doing is definitely making hitters look dumbfounded. I don’t know of any other pitch that gets a higher swing rate out of the zone than in it (if you can think of a pitch that gets more swings out of the zone than in leave it in the comments).
Thanks to pitcher gifs for this great gif.
Also and unrelated useless fact, hitter have exactly a .000 wOBA on plate appearances ending with DB’s knuckle curve.
This is definitely something to keep an eye on and look into further. What makes a pitch look like a ball to the batter when its in the strike zone and look like its going to be a strike when it is out of the zone. This is the only pitch I know of that can do both.