Can a hitter own a pitcher? Pitcher/hitter matchup statistics have generally been derided by the analytics community due to typically small sample sizes. In 20 plate appearances, anything can happen - a light-hitting utility infielder like Enrique Wilson can dominate a Hall of Fame pitcher like Pedro Martinez. What has happened in a handful of at-bats is not necessarily predictive of what will happen in the future.
But research by Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus suggests that perhaps pitcher/hitter matchup data isn’t completely meaningless.
Maybe hitters (and pitchers) are not always well-represented by their aggregate stats and are better understood as a series of encounters against specific pitchers (or batters) and how they negotiate those transactions and how well (and quickly) they learn those patterns.
That is, it is not crazy to think that some hitters do have a tendency to do better against certain pitchers. Some hitters are more adept at hitting balls low in the zone - he may do well against a certain sinkerballer. Some may have just figured out a pitcher’s sequence - he likes to throw the backdoor slider on a two-strike count.
Let’s take a look at some Royals hitters and who have they feasted (and suffered famine) against.
Loves to face: Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris
Whit has faced no pitcher more than Boyd - 51 plate appearances - and Whit has owned him more than half the time. Merrifield has a ridiculous career line of .521/549/.750 with nine doubles against the lefty. But he has yet to homer off him. Instead, he saves his power for Boyd’s teammate, lefty Daniel Norris. Whit has homered off him four times in just 25 plate appearances, while hitting .400 against him.
Whit Merrifield hits a home run off of Daniel Norris pic.twitter.com/9D1J5HZpJv— Gamerboy #BLM ️ (@GamerboyRulez) June 6, 2020
Hates to face: Lucas Giolito, Kyle Gibson
The young right-hander has established himself at the top of the White Sox rotation, and he has held Whit in check with a .143 average (4-for-28), although Whit does have a home run and five walks. Whit has yet to get an extra base hit off of Kyle Gibson in 37 tries, although he has been decent with a .250 average.
Loves to face; Justin Verlander, Josh Tomlin
Justin Verlander is a likely Hall of Famer, but Salvy has treated him like batting practice. In 67 plate appearances, Salvy is hitting .413/.418/.667 with two home runs and eight doubles against him. Not surprisingly, Salvy has walked just once in their matchups, but he has only struck out 13 percent of the time. He has also hit .476 with a home run in 42 plate appearances against former Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin, and sure enough, no walks.
Hates to face: Kyle Gibson, Danny Salazar
Kyle Gibson has been an All-Star against Royals hitters, holding Salvy to a line of .146/.146/.293. Salazar has kept Perez homerless with a line of .189/.184/.270 with eight strikeouts in 38 plate appearances.
Loves to face: Reynaldo Lopez, Daniel Norris
Soler has feasted on Lopez in the White Sox rotation, going 12-for-18 with three doubles and three home runs, striking out just once. Like Whit, he has also dominated Norris, going 8-5of-15 with two doubles and three home runs for a line of .533/.661/1.267.
Hates to face: Francisco Liriano, Adam Wainwright
Soler faced Liriano mostly when the veteran was near the end of his career, but the crafty lefty held him to a .118 average with no extra base hits, striking him out 9 times in 21 plate appearances. Veteran Adam Wainwright has also had the best of Soler, holding him to two hits in 17 at-bats, both singles.
Loves to face: Chris Sale, Justin Verlander
Chris Sale won’t be confronting the Royals’ clubhouse with Carlos Santana around, as the slugger has hit .311/.392/.489 with two home runs in 51 plate appearances against him. Verlander vs. Santana has actually been an interesting mixed bag. Verlander has held him to a .231 average and has struck him out 18 times in 91 plate appearances, but Carlos has more home runs off him than anyone else, going yard eight times, and he has walked 11 times for a .932 OPS against him. If I’m being honest, the pitcher Santana fares the best against is Jered Weaver (.533/.588/.833), but Weaver is retired, and he also fares well against Danny Duffy (.400/.442/.700), but Duffy is now his teammate.
Hates to face; Max Scherzer, Jose Quintana
Quintana is back in the AL with the Angels, which spells trouble for Santana who has hit just .188/.250/.292 against him in 52 plate appearances. Max Scherzer is still over in the NL with the Nats, but he has absolutely dominated Santana, holding him to just four hits in 50 at-bats for a .080 average with no home runs.
Loves to face: Matthew Boyd, Martin Perez
Like many Royals hitters, Dozier has faced Boyd the most, with 24 plate appearances and a career line of .476/.542/.905 with two home runs. Dozier has faced Martin Perez just ten times, but has three hits, two of them home runs.
Hates to face: Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger
Hunter is not a Belieber, hitting just .133/.235/.200 against the Indians right-hander. He is just 1-for-15 against Clevinger, striking out seven times.
Loves to face: Kyle Gibson, Ivan Nova
Finally, a Royals hitter that can hit Kyle Gibson! Mondi has gone 7-for-13 with a double, triple, home run, and even a walk against the right-hander. Nova has spent the last two years of his career with the White Sox and Tigers, and Mondesi has eaten him up, going 6-for-11 with two doubles and a home run.
Hates to face: Lucas Giolito, Mike Clevinger
Mondesi has gone just 1-for-19 with eight strikeouts against White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, but he’s still looking for his first hit off Clevinger in 14 plate appearances.
Loves to face: Alex Wood, Clayton Kershaw
Michael Taylor will have some new pitchers to face coming over to the American League, and he won’t have Alex Wood to hit anymore, after going 8-for-16 with two doubles and a home run against him. He wasn’t fazed by three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw either, hitting .333 with three doubles against him in their 15 matchups.
Hates to face: Jacob deGrom, Adam Morgan
Jacob deGrom is a two-time Cy Young winner, so a lot of hitters have struggled against him, but perhaps not as badly as Taylor, who has gone 1-for-24 with 13 strikeouts. Phillies lefty Adam Morgan is less heralded, but Taylor has gone just 1-for-14 against him with eight strikeouts.