Shortly before the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, STATS unveiled new advanced heat maps that differ from the usual heat map graphics that simply present data on balls put into play. STATS heat maps consider every pitch a hitter has seen this season to paint a more vivid picture of his strengths and weaknesses.
Additionally, STATS has constructed pitcher vs. hitter heat maps to predict outcomes of specific matchups. The first set of STATS heat maps considered pitch data from the hitter’s perspective. These matchup-based heat maps utilize the same data, plus data from the pitcher’s side. The maps do not just consider the pitches that a specific pitcher has thrown to a specific hitter, but rather what that pitcher has done against all hitters of the same handedness, and vice versa.
To get an even more specific prediction on these matchups, STATS has also split the maps into pitch types: fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches.
Where are the holes in Aaron Judge’s swing going to be when he faces Chris Sale? When Clayton Kershaw steps on the mound to take on Paul Goldschmidt, where should Kershaw attack him, and with what pitch?
Thanks to data gathered by STATS, we now know the answers to these questions. Let’s take a look at this week’s Sunday Night Baseball matchup, which pits the Chicago Cubs and Cole Hamels against Max Scherzer and the Washington Nationals.
As one would imagine, Scherzer fills up his heat maps with a lot of blue. Opposing managers will try to counter Scherzer with left-handed heavy lineups, but even against those opponents, the three-time Cy Young award winner has few weaknesses. Chicago will likely employ this strategy on Sunday night, as the Cubs have three left-handed hitting regulars in Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber, and two switch-hitting regulars in Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ.
Let’s take a look at some of those matchups.
Anthony Rizzo vs. Max Scherzer
Looking at Rizzo’s overall map against Scherzer, the Cubs first baseman will likely struggle against any pitches inside or up.
The red zone low and away on breaking balls, although not always a hot zone for a pull hitter like Rizzo, could be a dangerous spot for Scherzer. Rizzo has only a six percent whiff rate on those pitches low-and-away and has allowed three home runs on 36 balls in play. However, if Scherzer gets his breaking ball inside on Rizzo, he has an almost 20 percent whiff rate on those pitches.
Javier Baez vs. Max Scherzer
The adage on Baez has been, “throw him anywhere but in the zone.” That rings true here for Scherzer as well.
Baez has crushed pitches in the zone all year, particularly the down-and-in fastball. Baez, one of the most aggressive hitters in the game, has taken only 22 percent of pitches in the most prominent down-and-in red area on his heat map. His 7.5 percent whiff percentage in that same zone, combined with his .536 xwOBA, are why he has had so much success this year.
Cole Hamels has been nails for the Cubs since being traded to the North Siders. Through two starts, he has gone 11 innings and only allowed one earned run. Most importantly, the Cubs have won both games. That’s the good. The bad is just about everything Hamels did as a Texas Ranger this year. Hamels’ heat maps against the Nationals take into consideration every pitch he has thrown this season, not just the 192 pitches he has thrown in Cubbie blue. The maps reflect his overall body of work, and the amount of red area reflects that.
Bryce Harper vs. Cole Hamels
Hamels should try to work away to Harper at all cost, and think twice about pumping his fastball to the slugger, specifically inside.
Harper has seen 39 pitches in that dark red grouping low-and-inside, and he has hit three home runs on those pitches. In those same seven spots, Hamels has thrown 34 pitches to left-handed hitters and has gotten just one swing and miss.
The pitch Hamels will likely have the most success with is his changeup, which has always been his go-to offering. As long as he keeps it down, it should be an effective offering.
Juan Soto vs. Cole Hamels
Juan Soto’s heat map versus Cole Hamels is one of the more interesting ones. The stark contrast between fastballs and breaking balls seems to point to Hamels wanting to throw nothing but curveballs to the teen phenom.
Soto has shown a tendency to swing through those pitches up and away, whiffing 22.7 percent of the time in that grouping of seven dark red spots. However, pitchers should still go up there at their own risk, as four of the nine balls he has put into play in that area have been home runs. His .904 xwOBA in that area is also outstanding.
The biggest hole in his swing is versus the breaking ball that is more or less right down the middle of the plate. Of the 20 breaking pitches he has seen in that dark blue area, Soto has whiffed on 40 percent of them and has taken strikes 30 percent of the time. Add in Hamels’ numbers and Soto’s odds look a little better, however; the swinging strike rate falls to 27 percent, although his take rate goes up to 33 percent.
We can also project pitchers versus all hitters of the same handedness in a certain lineup. To show exactly what that looks like, here is Scherzer versus Cubs righties.
That low-and-in area could prove problematic for Scherzer, whether he chooses a fastball or a breaking ball. However, a changeup anywhere over the plate and low will be a weapon for Mad Max.
He has generated a ton of swings and misses on fastballs up and away this year; 41 percent of the time to be exact. That pitch has also only been taken for a strike 18 percent of the time against Scherzer. On the flip side, Scherzer has only a 13 percent whiff rate on those down-and-in breaking balls to righties.
And here is Hamels vs. Washington righties.
He is absolutely dominant with his changeup low-and-away, gaining a ridiculous 41 percent whiff rate on the cluster of spots barely clipping the low-and-away edge of the strike zone.
However, his fastball will likely get him into a lot of trouble. In the most prominent dark red area up-and-away on the fastball map, Hamels has generated just a five percent whiff rate with six home runs out of 26 balls in play.