There’s a reason why hitting a baseball is widely considered one of the most difficult tasks in sports. You’re playing with a bat, which is round, and you have to make solid contact with a round baseball — the physics of it is just a formula for failure.
Now, consider the fact that in MLB, these baseballs are being thrown by the greatest pitchers in the world. There is no such thing as an “easy” at-bat. Through nearly 700 at-bats in the big leagues, I’ve yet to face a pitcher that I was relieved to see on the mound.
Naming a few of the toughest pitchers out of all of the elite pitchers I’ve faced is hard. I don’t really struggle with the typical fastball — that’s not something I’ve ever had an issue with. I struggle more with guys that throw 86 to 92 mph with really good movement on their fastball as opposed to a guy that comes in and throws a flat 98.
That being said, here are the most difficult pitchers I’ve faced so far in my young career. (Full disclosure: I’ve yet to face Clayton Kershaw but I have a feeling he might be added to this list once I do.)
Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
I’ve seen him a lot. Johnny is very successful because he trusts his stuff. He’s not afraid to come after guys with his fastball. That alone gets him out of a lot of situations where other pitchers might give in and make a mistake. He turns his whole body to centerfield on windup and then throws a 90 mph fastball. He has a great cutter. I’m not sure if most fans notice it on TV, but anything inside that rides up is a cutter at about 91 or 92 mph. He throws it just as much as his four-seamer and two-seamer. The confidence he has — which gives him the ability to go after guys — and his control are what give him a great track record.
I need to lay off the cutter. Most lefties like to pull the ball. We get a little excited and almost always end up getting jammed. The other case is you see it and just swing straight through it. I need to stop swinging at the cutter because I’ll either get jammed or just hook it foul and give away a strike.
Imagine you’re playing tennis and your opponent gets slice on a ball. Now think of that coming at your face in the form of a baseball. That’s what a great cutter like Cueto’s is like. Pretty intense.
Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Madison’s deception is great. He does an excellent job of hiding the ball. He also has unbelievable off-speed pitches. When you’re mixing off-speed pitches with a good fastball, you have guys guessing out there.
All of these things were on display in the World Series last year — that was one of the most impressive pitching performances the sport has seen in a while.
When facing him, you have to keep your shoulder in and just be as comfortable as possible, which isn’t easy.
Tyson Ross, San Diego Padres
Tyson simply has outstanding stuff.
The first pitch that comes to mind is his heavy fastball. He’s so tall and lanky that it seems like the ball is already halfway to the plate when he releases it. The angle that he gets on his ball makes things so much more difficult. He gets batters to swing at a lot of stuff that’s up and out of the zone.
While most pitchers would have their ball drop at some point, his just stays up there. When he does throw a strike down in the zone, it looks like it’s going to go in the dirt, but nope, it stays right in there. That just ties into his release point and deception. He also has one of the best sliders I’ve ever seen.
Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
I first faced Jacob last year around All-Star break, about halfway into the season. I got two hits off of him, but I’ll admit they were pretty weak contact.
My first at-bat against him is most memorable. I was mystified because these fastballs were coming over the plate, and I’m thinking, I should be putting these in play, but I just kept fouling them off. I thought I was having an off day, but it turns out that everyone was having the same trouble.
Then I paid closer attention and followed the pitch right into the plate. It was at that point that I noticed his fastball had really, really rare late movement. It moves just a tad at the end and it misses the barrel of the bat. It just looks like a regular fastball.
I think that was a big part of his success and he has a really bright future. I’m looking forward to facing him many more times.