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An Attempt to Quantify Fun

My girlfriend isn’t much of a baseball fan. She’ll watch a game with me or tolerate discussion, but it isn’t something to which she would choose to devote thought absent my influence. This means that when I talk about baseball to or around her, she posits questions that to me, someone completely immersed in baseball fandom, have answers that just exist, but to her truly merit explanation. One of these centers around how I decide which game to watch nightly on MLB TV. I always simply say that I watch the game each night with “the most fun pitching matchup.” To me, and likely to most of my readers, that statement makes sense. But to my girlfriend, it logically elicits the question of what makes a pitcher fun. It’s time for me to tackle that question.


Defining Fun

My definition of fun likely doesn’t mesh with that of the casual baseball fan. To me, the ideal fun game is a 1-0 final score with a combined 43 strikeouts with 11 walks and one hit. That doesn’t sound like what the average viewer wants to see. That meant the first step for me had to be figuring out what most people would consider fun in terms of pitching. My thoughts drifted to two individual pitches from the 2020 season that at least seemed to be the most appreciated by not just baseball fans but the internet as a whole as being paragons of fun pitching. The first of these was on the regular season’s final day when Jacob deGrom threw a pitch 102.2 mph (even though it was taken for a ball by the National League’s best hitter). In stark contrast, the other example of a viral pitch was Zack Greinke‘s 53.5 mph eephus that inexplicably makes people smile. Two very different pitches, yet they have a similarity: both are outliers.

So there’s the first half of the equation. Having pitches that are away from the norm is fun. This can be in the way of velocity, movement, or spin. Just being a deviation from the norm in this regard is a large portion of how fun a pitcher is. Yet, no matter how nasty a pitcher is, that’s never going to be the whole picture. Even Sean Steffy isn’t fun if his line every game is exactly league average. Results matter too. This leads to a more important question.


Does Fun Mean Good?

The short answer is no. The least fun thing a pitcher can be is average. Good is fun, of course, but bad can be fun too. A lot of strikeouts are fun, but the pitcher who whiffs no one is also fun. Ditto runs allowed and expected runs allowed. Walks are a bit different; it’s more fun to watch someone who doesn’t walk batters, but a pitcher who walks 6 per nine innings is also pretty good. In that case the increase gets more fun at half the pace than the decrease.


So What Stats are Used?

Results Section:

  • K%
  • BB%
  • ERA
  • xRA/9 (mix of ERA, FIP, xFIP, and xERA)
  • IP/GS

Pitches Section:

  • Vertical Release
  • Pitch Velocity
  • Pitch Spin Rate
  • Pitch Vertical Movement
  • Pitch Horizontal Movement
  • Pitch Usage%
  • Number of Pitch Types
  • Pitches/GS

How Did I Rank Them?

Well, I created a few stats. The Results section uses the absolute values of the z-scores of each of the stats. These are averaged and multiplied by IP/GS to get Results Sum. The same process is used for the Pitches section with the tweak that each pitch type is weighted by how often the pitcher throws it. The averages are multiplied by Pitches/GS, then divided by (Pitches/GS)/(IP/GS) to get Pitches Sum. The two sums were added to get Fun Sum, then converted to the scale of a + stat, where 100 is average and higher is better. So I will be ranking on Fun+.


Results

I’m not going to provide any of the actual results right now, as I’ll have a table at the end of this article of the full rankings (min. 40 IP). This section is for generalizations. The pitchers who do very well by this system seem to fit into at least one of two groups. They’re either elite K-BB% guys, or they’re guys with two or more great pitches. The system seems to select good pitchers as more fun disproportionately, likely due to the fact that they usually pitch deeper into games. The biggest thing, however, is that most of the pitchers that fans would expect to rank highly do rank highly. Which means:

How Did I Do?

This was mostly an experiment in seeing if I could statistically measure fun. I think it went pretty well. Not everyone I identified as fun by the formula is someone I would consider fun, but the inverse worked. The one thing I wish I could incorporate is a personality aspect. Someone like Greinke gets fun points from how he behaves. I can’t put that in a spreadsheet.

Fun Pitches

Before giving the final table, which will just show the overall Fun+ rankings, I wanted to list the most fun pitcher for each pitch type (min. 40 thrown and 40 IP). Remember these are weighted based on how often the pitch is used.

Four-Seam Fastball: Tyler Glasnow

Number one on my personal fun rankings, Glasnow throws his fastball a ton, 60.6% of the time, and hard, 96.9 mph. Just look at this thing. It’s ridiculous. He throws so high and hard hard, you have to wonder how anyone ever hits that.

Sinker: Ryan Weber

Weber isn’t a very good pitcher. But he throws really soft with a ton of vertical movement. And his sinker is used more than half the time. See what I mean for yourself.

Changeup: Sean Manaea

The big thing about Manaea’s change is its spin, or rather its lack of spin. 1104 rpm is well below average, giving it something of a different appearance in its movement. You almost don’t pick up on the fact that it’s moving.

Curveball: Adam Wainwright

Wainwright’s curve is high spin with massive drop. He throws it a good deal (38.3%). It’s always been a pretty pitch. It’s still a pretty pitch.

Cutter: Corbin Burnes

High velocity and spin paired with low horizontal break makes this a unique pitch. High use (31.5%) clinches it. This is something to behold.

Slider: deGrom

deGrom’s slider is incredibly fast. He averages 92.5 mph. That was enough to easily top the field here. And essentially every batter he faced is topped too.

Splitter: Aníbal Sánchez

Not many guys throw splitters. The low velocity wins this title for Sánchez.


The Table

Thank you for reading everyone. Enjoy the final results. Remember, they’re calculated, these aren’t my opinions. Please don’t tweet your disagreements with it at me.

RankNameFun+
1Trevor Bauer226
2Yu Darvish226
3Corbin Burnes196
4Shane Bieber189
5Jacob deGrom185
6Clayton Kershaw172
7Kyle Hendricks169
8Dinelson Lamet159
9Zach Plesac157
10Gerrit Cole156
11Robbie Ray150
12Kenta Maeda142
13Ryan Castellani141
14Tyler Glasnow139
15Aníbal Sánchez138
16Madison Bumgarner136
17Dallas Keuchel135
18Aaron Nola132
19Jordan Lyles132
20Luis Castillo130
21Lucas Giolito129
22Dylan Cease128
23Tony Gonsolin128
24Marco Gonzales126
25Tanner Roark125
26Ryan Yarbrough123
27Brandon Woodruff123
28Dustin May120
29Zack Wheeler120
30Derek Holland118
31Hyun-jin Ryu116
32Mike Fiers114
33Ross Stripling114
34Erick Fedde113
35Framber Valdez111
36Sean Manaea109
37Antonio Senzatela107
38Zack Greinke106
39Matthew Boyd106
40Dylan Bundy103
41Brad Keller102
42Carlos Carrasco102
43Sonny Gray102
44Trevor Williams101
45Adam Wainwright101
46Chris Bassitt100
47Jon Lester99
48Kevin Gausman99
49Alec Mills98
50Patrick Corbin97
51Andrew Heaney95
52Ryan Weber93
53Nathan Eovaldi93
54Zach Eflin92
55Max Scherzer92
56Aaron Civale92
57Tyler Mahle91
58Johnny Cueto91
59Max Fried90
60Mike Minor88
61Zac Gallen88
62Logan Webb88
63Justin Dunn86
64Yusei Kikuchi86
65Blake Snell85
66Randy Dobnak84
67Kyle Gibson84
68Austin Voth84
69Frankie Montas83
70Tyler Anderson83
71Germán Márquez83
72Brett Anderson82
73Sandy Alcantara81
74Lance Lynn81
75Alex Cobb81
76Jake Arrieta81
77John Means80
78Jordan Montgomery80
79Julio Urías79
80Alex Young79
81Kyle Freeland78
82Rick Porcello77
83Josh Lindblom76
84Chad Kuhl76
85David Peterson76
86Zach Davies72
87Taijuan Walker71
88Martín Pérez71
89Pablo López71
90Spencer Turnbull69
91Adrian Houser69
92Luke Weaver68
93Kris Bubic66
94Chris Paddack66
95Taylor Clarke66
96Jesús Luzardo65
97Masahiro Tanaka65
98Griffin Canning61
99Mike Clevinger61
100José Berríos61
101Justus Sheffield59
102Nick Margevicius59
103Jack Flaherty58
104Garrett Richards56
105Brady Singer55
106Christian Javier55
107Danny Duffy54
108Lance McCullers Jr.54
109JT Brubaker50
110J.A. Happ49
111Steven Brault44

Sean Huff

Sean is a psychology major and mathematics minor in his junior year at Fordham College at Rose Hill. He is a lifelong baseball fan with a nominal affinity for the Phillies. You can follow him on Twitter at @srhkthew2 for occasional comments on baseball and assorted esoterica.

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