Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Happens When a Pitch is Thrown, Part 4 - Hey Batter Batter

We've established that for pitchers, throwing strikes is good, but getting strikes, from a combination of pitching in the strike zone and inducing swings outside the zone, is better. So let's find out whether the opposite is true for hitters: Do the best hitters avoid strikes, especially outside the strike zone?

When we looked at pitchers, we evaluated them based on ERA, WHIP (baserunners per inning), and percentage of batters getting strikeouts, walks, and home runs. For batters, let's keep the last three, but instead of the pitcher-oriented ERA and WHIP we'll use batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Before I start, let me explain one tweak I did to the data: For pitchers, I included every pitch thrown in the majors last year. For batters, I'm going to exclude plate appearances by pitchers. I'm doing this for two reasons. First, pitchers are remarkably terrible hitters. They batted .132 with a .164 on base percentage and .169 slugging percentage last year. No position players come close to those numbers. Second, they screw up my analysis of balls and strikes. In looking at the numbers, I discovered there are two strategies when a pitcher's at the plate:

  1. Throw everything in the strike zone, then laugh derisively as they helplessly flail away.
  2. Throw everything outside the strike zone, then laugh derisively as they helplessly flail away.

That means that pitchers' at bats make batters who get a lot of pitches in the strike zone, and those who swing at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, appear worse than they otherwise would be. So I'm excluding them. In terms of numbers, that means I'm ignoring 19,171 of the 709,916 pitches that were thrown last year. Given that that's only 2.7% of the total, I don't think we're missing much.

How are strikes and batting performance related? We'll start by looking at all strikes: pitches in the strike zone and pitches outside the strike zone at which the batter swings. We're checking to see whether batters with a lot of strikes do poorly. I ranked all batters by percentage of pitches to them that were strikes, and divided into ten groups. Group 1 got the fewest strikes, Group 2 the second fewest, Group 3 the third get it. Group 10 had the highest percentage of strikes. Here's how they did:
     Group   BA   OBP   SLG    K%    BB%   HR%
       1   .254  .361  .433  21.1%  13.6%  3.4%
       2   .266  .353  .438  19.6%  11.1%  3.2%
       3   .256  .332  .404  19.3%   9.5%  2.5%
       4   .259  .332  .421  20.6%   9.3%  3.0%
       5   .267  .332  .431  19.2%   8.4%  3.0%
       6   .260  .319  .399  18.8%   7.6%  2.4%
       7   .255  .309  .381  17.8%   6.8%  1.9%
       8   .249  .301  .382  18.5%   6.3%  2.4%
       9   .252  .298  .383  19.5%   5.4%  2.2%
      10   .252  .288  .371  19.2%   4.0%  1.9%

Three reactions to this list. First, if you ignore batting average (which you should, since on base percentage and slugging percentage, as I showed, are better tied to run production), the relationship still holds: the more strikes a batter gets as a percentage of pitches, the worse the batter performs. It's not a flawless relationship, but it's good enough. Second, the batters who get the fewest strikes have the best home run percentages. Remember how that's not true for pitchers. But you can imagine a patient hitter like Joey Votto or Mike Trout or David Ortiz (they're all in Group 1) picking through pitches, waiting for one he can drive. Third, and this is counter-intuitive, the batters who get the lowest percentage of strikes nonetheless manage to strike out more often than anyone else. More on that in a bit.

How are pitches in the strike zone and batting performance related? Remember that pitchers who got more pitches in the strike zone did better than pitchers who didn't. The opposite for batting should be that batters who get the fewest pitches in the strike zone should do better than batters who don't. Here are the numbers:
     Group   BA   OBP   SLG    K%    BB%   HR%
       1   .258  .332  .438  21.6%   9.2%  3.5%
       2   .260  .328  .437  20.3%   8.5%  3.6%
       3   .257  .327  .408  18.6%   8.8%  2.7%
       4   .263  .333  .426  19.8%   9.1%  3.0%
       5   .255  .326  .399  19.9%   8.7%  2.5%
       6   .258  .320  .393  19.6%   7.6%  2.3%
       7   .267  .330  .415  18.9%   8.0%  2.5%
       8   .249  .308  .387  19.5%   7.3%  2.4%
       9   .255  .314  .370  17.8%   7.0%  1.7%
      10   .247  .301  .358  17.5%   6.5%  1.7%

Yes, the relationship holds, though it's not super strong. But hang on, think about it...this is kind of a trick question. Throwing balls into the strike zone is skill. Some pitchers possess it in greater quantities than others. But a batter getting pitches in the strike zone...not a skill. They're just standing there. Unless they get into an extreme Rickey Henderson-style crouch or something, there's nothing a batter can do to influence how many pitches go into the strike zone. Except, of course, by being good. Pitchers are going to pitch a lot more carefully to a slugger than a utility infielder. As a result, we should expect the very best hitters to get the fewest pitches in the strike zone. The table above illustrates that that's how it works. Groups 1 and 2 include guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt. Group 10 has Clint Barmes and Pete Kozma

How are swings at pitches outside the strike zone and batting performance related? Strikes are the sum of pitches in the strike zone and pitches outside the strike zone at which the batter swings. For batters, getting pitches in the strike zone isn't a skill, but not swinging at pitches outside the zone is. Do batters who don't swing at pitches outside the strike zone do better than those who do? As usual, Group 1 represents the 10% of players who swing the least frequently at pitches outside the strike zone, and Group 10 represents the 10% who swing the most:
     Group   BA   OBP   SLG    K%    BB%   HR%
       1   .249  .342  .391  20.0%  11.6%  2.4%
       2   .262  .346  .436  19.1%  10.7%  2.7%
       3   .256  .331  .399  18.4%   9.5%  2.4%
       4   .256  .324  .396  19.3%   8.5%  2.3%
       5   .254  .322  .397  19.7%   8.4%  2.5%
       6   .256  .320  .412  19.1%   8.0%  3.0%
       7   .260  .314  .392  17.8%   6.8%  2.3%
       8   .264  .323  .426  20.4%   7.3%  3.0%
       9   .255  .301  .395  19.4%   5.6%  2.5%
      10   .257  .298  .406  20.3%   4.8%  2.8%

Certainly, the batters who swing don't swing at pitches outside the strike zone have a better on base percentage, because they walk more. But they don't appear to strike out less, hit with more power, or hit more homers.

So we've got a paradox: Good pitchers get batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, but swinging at pitches outside the strike zone doesn't appear to hurt batters other than to limit their walks. Why is that?

I think the answer is that good hitters have a sweet spot, and if the sweet spot is outside the strike zone, so be it. Group 1 here--batters who don't swing at pitches outside the strike zone--include bat-control guys who don't have a lot of power, like Marco Scutaro and Nate McLouth. Group 10 has several hitters who hit the ball hard but swing at most anything, like Mark Trumbo and Adam Jones. And All-Stars like Robinson Cano, Carlos Gonzalez, and Freddie Freeman swing at an above-average number of pitches outside the strike zone as well. 

So let's reiterate the paradoxical conclusion: Good pitchers get batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, but swinging at pitches outside the strike zone doesn't appear to hurt batters other than to limit their walks. Seems to me that if you don't like watching strikeouts, there's nothing to suggest things are going to get much better.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Dean Moves On

I really dislike phony honorifics. Calling someone a guru or a czar annoys me. But I read somewhere that Rob Neyer is "the dean of baseball bloggers." That works. Neyer worked with Bill James and went on to write several outstanding baseball books, both on his own and with others. I own and can recommend all of them. Even more significantly, he's been an amazingly prolific baseball blogger, first at ESPN and then at SB Nation. A lot of great baseball analysts tip their hat to Neyer as both an inspiration and a model. His ESPN blog was the first mass-market analytical baseball blog, and his approachable writing style helped change the way many people (including me) appreciate the game. To me, he work is always outstanding, and at its best, which is often, as good as it gets. 

Anyway, Neyer ended his column yesterday with this:
A personal note: This is my last column for SB Nation, at least for a good little while...At some point in the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing about baseball again, and I hope you'll find me again. 
When he re-surfaces, I'll let you know, and post it on my Reading tab. I hope it's not long.

UPDATE: He's with Fox Sports.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

That's the Yankees, Cornering the Market on Stadium Upkeep

From Notgraphs:

In what is surely an exciting development for their groundskeeping and stadium maintenance crews, the New York Yankees today announced a seven-year deal with Tanaka Power Equipment, a brand within the Hitachi Power Tools Group.
 Details at the link.

So Much For Avoiding the Luxury Tax

A week and a half ago, I suggested that the Alex Rodriguez suspension gave the Yankees a shot at staying under baseball's $189 million payroll luxury tax limit, potentially saving them about $30 million in 2015-2017. Turns out they decided to give A-Rod's money to Masahiro Tanaka, signing him for $155 million for seven years with an opt-out after four years. 

Let's see...$155 million + $20 million posting fee divided by seven years...That's an average annual value of exactly $25 million that gets added to the Yankees' payroll in 2014 for luxury tax calculations. Nope, not getting under $189 million this year. Not even close.

Tanaka was sensational last year in Japan last year, going 24-0 (that is not a typo) with a 1.27 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 212 innings. He struck out 183 and walked only 32. He led the Japan Pacific League in wins, ERA, WHIP, K/BB ratio, and fewest home runs and walks per inning. He allowed the second-fewest hits per inning and struck out the third-most batters per inning. His team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, won the Japan Series 4-3, though Tanaka took the loss, his only one of the season, in the sixth game.

In short, Tanaka looks pretty good.

On the other hand, so did the Yankees' last Japanese free agent pitcher, Kei Igawa. In 2006, for the Hanshin Tigers, he went 14-9 and was second in the Central League in wins, seventh in ERA, sixth in WHIP, fourth in hits per inning, second in walks per inning, and sixth in K/BB. He signed a five year, $20 million contract. In his first year with the Yankees, 2007, he was 2-3 with a 6.25 ERA in 14 games. In 2008 he pitched in two games in New York with a 13.50 ERA. That's it. He did collect his $4 million annual salary in 2009-11, but spent the time pitching 68 games in the minors. 

The Yankees' other Japanese pitching import was Hideki Irabu, whom George Steinbrenner famously called a "fat toad." He signed a four year, $12.8 million contract with the Yankees in 1997 after leading the Pacific League in ERA (2.40 vs. league average 3.72), hits per inning, home runs per inning, strikeouts per inning, and K/BB. He was second in WHIP. (Actually, the Padres purchased his contract from the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Irabu insisted he's play only with the Yankees, so San Diego traded him to New York.) In 1997-99, he started 64 games for the Yankees, compiling a 29-20 record, 4.80 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, and a reputation for off-field controversies and injuries. The Yankees traded him after the 1999 season and he spent his last three years in the majors going 5-15 with a 6.31 ERA over 118.1 innings with Montreal and Texas. (In his last year, he led the 2002 Rangers with 16 saves. His 5.73 ERA and 1.43 WHIP are both the 15th worst ever for a pitcher with 16+ saves.) He committed suicide in 2011.

Tanaka, 25, is younger than the other two were. Igawa was 27 when he made his Yankee debut in 2007 and Irabu was 28 in his first Yankee start in 1997. And the recent track record with Japanese pitchers is impressive, as the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma (both signed prior to the 2012 season) finished 2-3 in the AL Cy Young vote last year. The Yankees obviously hope they blew their chance at staying under the luxury tax cap with a pitcher more like Darvish and Iwakuma than like Igawa and Irabu. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Waiting for Replay, Who Knows How Long

Major League Baseball has finalized its rules for replay in the coming season. As someone who still bears the psychological scars of Phil Cuzzi's call in the 2009 ALDS, I kind of don't understand the opposition to replay. But I heard plenty this morning from Jim Memolo on Sirius XM's MLB First Pitch. He had a bunch of objections (including the lack of a challenge flag--please, this is baseball, not the NFL), but the most credible to me is that challenges will slow down the game, break the pitchers' rhythm, make fans lose interest, etc.

That's his opinion. Mine is that the way it's being done (calls reviewed by an umpire at MLB Advanced Media in New York) will minimize delays. But they're both opinions. So I propose this: By August, it's reasonable to think the kinks will be worked out of the system. In August 2013, the average nine-inning game took 180.4 minutes to complete. (Thanks, Retrosheet!) My call is that that average will not move meaningfully in August 2014. We'll see. Look for an update around Labor Day.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seven Years of Clayton Kershaw

The Dodgers have signed Clayton Kershaw to a seven-year, $215 million deal. (Check out this amazingly prescient analysis of the Dodgers/Kershaw negotiations from yesterday morning by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, a few hours before the deal was inked.) Kershaw is 25, so this contract will run until he's 32, though he has the option to opt out and become a free agent after five years.

Kershaw is, without a doubt, the best young pitcher in the game today. Still, seven years seems like a long time for a pitcher. Is it, though, for someone of Kershaw's stature? To test this, I looked at the best hitters and pitchers, 25 or under. I based "best" for hitters on OPS, adjusted for home park, over the prior three years, minimum 300 games played. The best pitchers were those with the best ERA, adjusted for home park, over the prior three years, minimum 300 innings pitched. The five best young hitters, 2011-13, are Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Paul Goldschmidt, and Brandon Belt. The five best young pitchers are Kershaw, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jhoulys Chacin.

I looked at the five best young pitchers and hitters for 2001-2003, 1991-1993, 1981-1983, 1971-1973, and 1961-1963. That gave me a list of 25 hitters and 25 pitchers. Then I checked how many of them were still above-average regulars seven years later, as the Dodgers are expecting Kershaw to be. For example, in 2001-2003, the top five young hitters were Albert Pujols, Pat Burrell, Eric Chavez, Adam Dunn, and Troy Glaus. Pujols and Dunn were still above-average regulars seven years later in 2010. Among the top five young pitchers, Roy Halladay and Johan Santana were still going strong, while Mark Prior, Roy Oswalt, and Barry Zito weren't.

Of the group of 25 young hitters, 16 were still above-average regulars seven years later. That's 64%. Among the pitchers, 10 of 25 were above-average regulars seven years later. That's just 40%. The best young group was the 1991-1993 hitters: Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, John Olerud, Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Bagwell. All of them were still productive seven years later. The worst group was the 1961-1963 pitchers: Bill Monbouquette, Jim O'Toole, Don Drysdale, Jim Bouton, and Steve Barber. Bouton and Barber were the only two still pitching seven years later, neither regularly nor well.

A lot of people are saying that the Kershaw contract makes sense. He's an amazing talent, and baseball's awash with money, especially his employer. Keep in mind, though, that most outstanding young pitchers aren't effective regulars seven years later. That's not to say Kershaw can't stay great. But if he succeeds, he'll be defying the odds against him. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Help Alex Rodriguez Find Work!

Since he's suspended for the 2014 season, Alex Rodriguez needs a job. We don't want him to spend the year doing this sort of thing:

Newsday is reporting that A-Rod may play ball this year after all:
If his appeal to a federal court does not work out and Alex Rodriguez still wants to play baseball in 2014, he does have an option, and he would not have to go very far. The Long Island Ducks are leaving the door open. 
"While some MLB suspensions have been honored by the Atlantic League in the past, if Alex Rodriguez were unable to participate in the major leagues this season, we would be open to exploring giving him a chance to play, stay sharp and compete against a high level of competition while helping the Ducks chase a third consecutive championship," Ducks president Michael Pfaff said Saturday in an email.
To join the Ducks or any other team, however, it's likely that A-Rod would have to get the Yankees' permission.
Let's start lobbying the Yankees today!

Then there's this tweet from a couple months ago. Rodriguez lost his appeal, but I still like the basic idea:
The jobs data for December were disappointing, and the unemployment rate fell because thousands of people gave up on finding work. Don't let Alex Rodriguez compound the problem!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A-Rod Loses, Yankees Win

The biggest beneficiary of Alex Rodriguez's 162-team suspension? His employer.

It's partly because the Yankees won't be on the hook for Rodriguez's $25 million 2014 salary. But more importantly, the team has a shot at significantly reducing the "luxury tax" it pays. Because the Yankees' $234 million payroll exceeded the $178 million luxury tax threshold in place in 2013, they had to pay the league a $28 million luxury tax. The amount of the luxury tax is based on the amount by which the payroll exceeds the threshold times the luxury tax rate, which is set at 17.5% the first time a team exceeds the threshold and rises thereafter to a maximum rate of 50%. The Yankees are at the maximum, so paid 50% on the $234 million - $178 million = $56 million by which they exceeded the limit.

There are two keys to the calculation: The limit, which rises from $178 million to $189 million this year, and the number of consecutive years the team surpasses the limit, because that sets the tax rate. If a team gets below the limit, even for just one year, the luxury tax resets to the lowest rate.

The Yankees have stated a goal of getting below the limit, because then they won't have to pay a luxury tax in 2014 and their luxury tax resets the next time they exceed the limit. Let's say, for example, the Yankees' 2014 payroll is $189 million--right at the limit--and returns to $234 million in 2015. Then their tax rate would be 17.5% in 2015, 30% in 2016, 40% in 2017, and 50% in 2018. The total tax paid those four years would be $61.2 million.

On the other hand, if the Yankees' payroll is just $1 million higher, $190 million, it will exceed the limit another year, keeping the tax rate at 50%. So making the same assumption that the Yankees payroll returns to $234 million in 2015, the luxury tax paid 2015-2018 would be $90 million. Even for the Yankees, the difference of $28.8 million is a lot of money. (Look at it this way: It'll pay almost half of the $61 million the team still owes Rodriguez in 2015-2017!)

So why does the A-Rod suspension help them? Because suspended players don't count toward the luxury tax limit. After signing free agents Brian McCann, Jacoby Elsbury, and Carlos Beltran, getting the payroll down to $189 million was going to be a challenge. Removing $27.5 million (the average value of the nine-year contract Rodriguez signed before the 2008 season) helps a lot.

Granted, the Yankees now have a big hole at third. The Fangraphs depth chart lists Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson, and Eduardo Nunez as likely starters. Still, that hole will likely prove to be smaller than the hole in the team's wallet if they can't get below the luxury tax threshold.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Coors Field and Ground Already Trod

Back in November, I wrote about Coors Field. I noted that it's favorable for hitters not only because batted balls carry better there, which is kind of Physics 101, but also that pitches with movement, like curveballs, don't break as much, making them easier to hit. 

It turns out I wasn't being particularly original in my analysis. Last April, this article appeared by Dan Rozenson at Baseball Prospectus. It gets into some technical detail about how pitches move (you'll learn the term "spin deflection," among others), with the conclusion that: 
There is strong evidence that the slider performs in absolute and comparative terms better than the curveball in Coors Field . . . Sinking fastballs also have a sharp drop-off in performance at Coors, and there is some evidence that using a cut fastball would be a good alternative.
With that in mind, let's break down the Rockies' starters last year, using pitch type analysis from Brooks Baseball, with a particular eye toward slider usage:
  • Jhoulys Chacin (31 games started, 14-10, 3.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP): 34% fastballs, 29% sinkers, 24% sliders, 9% changeups, 4% curveballs. His slider, a good pitch for Coors, was particularly effective (.171 batting average, .286 slugging). He may not fare so well in 2014 with his sinker, though (.250 batting, .359 slugging) given that pitch's Coors performance.
  • Jorge de la Rosa (30 GS, 16-6, 3.49 ERA, 1.38 WHIP): 44% fastballs, 28% splitters, 14% sliders, 7% sinkers, 7% curves. The BP article doesn't reference splitters, but since they rely on a lot of horizontal movement, you'd think they'd fare poorly at Coors. It was OK last year, though (.255 batting average, .358 slugging) and, combined with his outstanding slider (.165 batting, .194 slugging), he seems to have the right arsenal for his ballpark.
  • Juan Nicasio (31 GS, 9-9, 5.14 ERA, 1.47 WHIP): 67% fastballs, 20% sliders, 7% sinkers, 6% changeups. Nicasio's slider is his primary off-speed pitch and he used it far more at home than on the road He's only 27 but his strikeouts were down, his walks up, and his fastball velocity ebbing (average 94.7 mph in 2011, 94.1 in 2012, 92.6 in 2013), so pitch selection doesn't tell the story of his 5+ ERA.
  • Tyler Chatwood (20 GS, 8-5, 3.15 ERA, 1.43 WHIP): 42% sinkers, 30% fastballs, 12% sliders, 12% curves, 4% changeups. Chatwood's go-to pitch is his sinker, which isn't a great pitch at Coors. Batters had a .327 batting average and .467 slugging percentage against it, while is slider had the best results (.183 batting, .217 slugging, and an outstanding 41% rate of swings-and-misses on swings). More reliance on the slider, which he used primarily only when ahead on the count, would help, because that ERA and won-lost record look lucky given his high WHIP.
Predictions based on this: Chacin regresses a bit, de la Rosa doesn't much, Nicasio improves a little provided he isn't hurt, and Chatwood, if he goes to his slider more, is able to avoid some of the seemingly inevitable rise in his ERA.

Incidentally, did you know that in their 21 years, the Rockies have had only seven winning seasons? The only teams (among the 28 that existed in 1993) with fewer are the Orioles, Royals, Marlins, Brewers, and Pirates.

It Doesn't Get Any Easier

I've stated my dislike for Hall of Fame rhetoric. So I'll limit myself to this: As Hardball Talk points out, next year's ballot has, for the first time, two pitchers who look like slam dunks (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson), one seeming no-brainer (John Smoltz), plus several other guys who'll get votes. The worthy candidates who missed this time (Biggio, Piazza, Bagwell, Raines, Schilling, E Martinez, Trammell, Mussina - and I'm not including the hitter and the pitcher who'd blow up the comments section) won't have an easy go next year, either. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Harmon Clayton Killebrew

I will link from time to time to articles by Joe Posnanski. I don't have him listed among my links, because he doesn't write exclusively about baseball, but the man has serious writing chops. Reading Joe Posnanski is the literary equivalent of this:

Anyway, Posnanski has been writing up his 100 greatest players of all time, and Friday's entry was about Harmon Killebrew. It's a great piece, and you can read it all here. As you may know, Killebrew was what was classified as a "bonus baby." The Senators paid so much money for him in 1954 ($30,000 as a 17-year-old in) that the rules at the time (this was before the draft) required the Senators to keep him on their roster for two years. He hardly played those two years, nor the next three, when he was mostly in the minors. That brought him to 1959:
Then, the blossoming of Harmon Killebrew happened. It was not gradual. It was instant. On May 1, 1959, Harmon Killebrew hit two home runs at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. There were fewer than 2,000 people in the stands — the Tigers were dreadful, they had lost 13 of their first 15 games. Killebrew homered in the second inning off a young pitcher named Jim Bunning. In the 10th inning, with the score still tied, Killebrew hit another homer off Bunning. 
The next day, still in Detroit, Killebrew hit two more homers. He hit the first in the first inning off Jerry Davie. He hit the second off George Susce with the Senators up 12-3.
Two days after that, he homered in Chicago off Claude Raymond. After two more dry days, he again hit two home runs, this time at Yankee Stadium. He hit the first off Bob Turley, the second off Johnny Kucks. People were beginning to notice a bit now. On May 12, back at home, he had his fourth two-homer game in less than two weeks — hitting his homers off Detroit’s Frank Lary and Ray Narleski. 
On May 17, in the second game of a double header, he had his fifth two-homer game, one off Bob Shaw, the other off Turk Lown. 
That made 11 homers in 17 games — with five two-homer games — and suddenly Harmon Killebrew was an overnight sensation. Mel Brooks used to say: “It only took me 20 years to become an overnight sensation.” 
As I said, the article's fabulous. Check it out.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

What Happens When a Pitch is Thrown: Part 3 - Swing, Batter

So far in this series we've seen that while it's good for pitchers to throw strikes, it's better to get strikes. The difference between pitching a ball into the batter's strike zone and getting the batter to swing at the pitch (or get it called a strike) is largely a function of inducing swings on pitches that aren't in the strike zone. We'll look at that now. 

How often do batters swing at pitches? Batters swung at 46.4% of pitches last year. That compares to 44.7% of pitches that were in the strike zone. Batters swung at 65.5% of pitches in the strike zone and 31.0% of pitches outside the strike zone. Don't those figures strike you as low and high, respectively? But when you think about about, it makes sense. Super-selective hitters let a lot of strikes go by as they wait for something they can hit. Mike Trout and Joe Mauer each swung at fewer than 56% of the strikes they saw, while even the most swing-happy guys have some strikes called on them. As for the outside-the-zone pitches, some pitches just an inch or two out of the strike zone may be to a hitter's liking, while some breaking balls with late movement fool batters as they dart out of the strike zone.

Is there a difference between the leagues? Yes, a slight one. NL pitchers get more swings. Batters facing AL pitchers swung at 46.0% of pitches: 65.0% in the strike zone and 30.7% outside the zone. Batters facing NL pitchers swung at 46.8%: 66.0% in the zone and 31.3% out of it. I thought, "Must be pitchers batting," but pitchers watch a lot of strikes go by. Last year they swung at 46.1% of pitches: 57.4% in the zone and 33.8% out of it. So NL pitchers get more swings outside the strike zone in part because of pitchers flailing away when they bat. But the reason NL pitchers get more swings in the strike zone is due to something else.

Is there a difference between starters and relievers? Relievers get more swings. Starting pitchers got batters to swing at 46.4% of pitches: 65.4% in the strike zone and 30.9% outside the zone. Relievers got swings at 47.7% of pitches: 67.2% in the strike zone and 31.9% outside the zone. Relievers, as I've mentioned earlier, come in and throw gas for an inning or so, so they get more strikeouts, almost one more per nine innings than starters. 

Is there a difference between right-handed and left-handed pitchers? Lefties got batters to swing at 46.3% of their pitches: 65.0% in the strike zone and 31.0% out of the zone. For righties, pitchers got swings 46.5% of the time: 65.7% in the strike zone and 31.0% out. The conclusion here is that left-handed pitchers induced fewer swings on pitches in the strike zone than righties, which means they must've gotten more called strikes. I have no idea why that should be. The difference isn't large, so I'm not going to worry about it.

Does it matter? Let's look at swings in the strike zone and out of the zone. First, in the strike zone. As with the previous entries, I've divided pitchers into then groups: the 10% who got the most swings in the strike zone (Group 1), the next 10% (Group 2), the next 10% (Group 3), etc. I looked at how the groups compared in ERA, WHIP (walks and hits per inning), and percentage of batters struck out, walked, or allowed a home run:
   Group ERA  WHIP   %K    %BB   %HR
     1  4.03  1.33  19.8   8.3   2.7
     2  3.45  1.22  20.7   7.4   2.4
     3  4.14  1.31  19.8   7.7   2.9
     4  4.18  1.36  18.1   7.7   2.6
     5  3.59  1.25  19.9   7.3   2.3
     6  3.87  1.30  18.6   7.7   2.6
     7  3.66  1.29  19.6   7.9   2.2
     8  4.11  1.32  20.2   7.9   2.6
     9  3.76  1.29  20.2   7.9   2.4
    10  3.92  1.34  21.9   9.5   2.5
Do you see a pattern there? I don't. I think we can safely say that getting batters to swing at pitches in the strike zone isn't correlated to pitching success.

How about pitches outside the strike zone? That's a different story completely:
   Group ERA  WHIP   %K    %BB   %HR
     1  3.20  1.13  22.0   5.8   2.3
     2  3.44  1.22  21.5   7.2   2.4
     3  3.67  1.25  20.6   6.9   2.5
     4  3.83  1.27  20.6   7.4   2.4
     5  3.73  1.27  19.8   7.3   2.4
     6  4.00  1.29  20.3   7.8   2.9
     7  3.85  1.31  19.3   8.4   2.4
     8  4.15  1.36  18.4   8.3   2.8
     9  4.44  1.47  17.2   9.6   2.5
    10  4.49  1.47  18.6  10.7   2.6
This is almost as dramatic as the impact of getting strikes, detailed in the last post: The pitchers who got the top 10% of strikes had an ERA of 3.16 and a WHIP of 1.10. Group 10 had an ERA of 4.64 and a WHIP of 1.55. It's the same pattern for pitchers who get batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. The best pitchers get the most strikes, and they get strikes in part because they throw pitches in the strike zone but also, at least as importantly, because the get batters to swing at pitches outside the zone.

I looked at pitchers who do one well but not the other. First, pitchers who were in the top 30% of throwing pitches in the strike zone but the bottom 30% of getting swings outside the zone. The numbers are:
              ERA  WHIP   %K    %BB   %HR
             4.14  1.36  18.8   8.3   2.9
     Average 3.87  1.30  19.9   7.9   2.5
(Average is the major league average last season.)

Now, pitchers who were in the top 30% of getting batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone but the bottom 30% of throwing pitches in the zone. The numbers for them are:
              ERA  WHIP   %K    %BB   %HR
             3.55  1.25  20.1   7.6   2.2
     Average 3.87  1.30  19.9   7.9   2.5

I wasn't expecting that. Pitchers who are good at throwing pitches in the strike zone but bad at getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone are below-average pitchers. Pitchers who are bad at throwing pitches in the strike zone but good at getting batters to swing at pitches outside the zone are above-average pitchers. Pitchers in the former group include Rockies starters Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio, Yankees closer-in-waiting David Robertson, free agent innings eater Bronson Arroyo, and Dodgers washout Brandon League. Pitchers in the latter group include Angels starter Jered Weaver, Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda, Pirate ace Francisco Liriano, and several top closers, indluding Jason Grilli, Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, and Sergio Romo

What We Know So Far: The best pitchers get the most strikes, in part because they throw pitches in the strike zone but also, more importantly, because the get batters to swing at pitches outside the zone.

Next, we'll see whether these rules apply to hitters as well.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Best Craig Biggio Promotional Video Ever

Via Hardball Talk. If 3,060 hits (21st most all time), 668 doubles (fifth), 1,844 runs (15th), and 7 All-Star teams aren't enough: