I recently became fascinated with the strike zone and its effective boundaries. The strike zone laid out in baseball’s rule book is simple; it extends a total of 17 inches across the width of home plate, between the hitter’s knee and midsection and covering the entire depth of the plate. The strike zone as it actually gets called by umpires is complex. It shifts quite significantly depending on the handedness of the hitter for one.
That’s not the whole story though, not even close. The dexterity of the hitter isn’t the only significant variable in how the strike zone is called. Compare the following two strike zone heat maps, fitted from 2012 data on called pitches to right-handed hitters.
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I was previewing the Angels and Mariners series that began on Tuesday, kicking off the final nine games of the season for both teams, when I noticed how well the Angels ranked in my metrics. That the Angels are good is no surprise, but the magnitude to which they had improved since they last played the Mariners at the beginning of September caught my notice.
Since that last preview, the Angels went 15-7 with a massive 104-58 run differential. But where did has the dominance burst forth? Over those 22 games, the offense posted a .734 OPS which is only three points above the American League average. On the pitching side, the staff has a 21.7% strikeout rate, a 6.4% walk rate and 3.4% home run rate compared to league averages of 19.4%, 8.2% and 2.8%. That’s an above average line, but not an outright dominant one.
Lacking a breakout in either the bats or arms, it really highlights how well the defense has played. Read the rest of this entry »
What’s a pitcher’s ultimate goal? In the grand scheme, it’s to help win games. A pitcher needs to do his part to keep runs to a minimum — and strikeouts are the best way to accomplish that. Walking, or hitting a better, can’t help. Those outcomes (plus avoiding home runs) are the three rates, each with somewhat separate skills that most of us watch when evaluating pitchers.
And getting ahead in the count is at least partially responsible for all three outcomes. In my first look at pitching ahead to batters I defined a pitcher’s being ahead in the count as having it 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2. Conversely, batters were ahead in 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1 or 3-1 counts. Those demarcations were made by simply taking the greater number, aside from full counts.
The aggregate numbers support the difference between the two types. In my self-identified pitcher’s counts, batters are held to a .204/.211/.303 line this season. Shifting to a hitter’s count, the batting line more than doubles to .342/.472/.609. Clearly a pitcher benefits when he’s ahead, but I wanted to know about home runs, as well, and whether this was a good division of counts.
Dustin Ackley has a strikeout problem. It’s not a problem new to him at this level. Last season in the American League, average hitters struck out on 18% of his trips to the plate. Dustin Ackley did so in 21%. However, it was new to him overall. In the minors, Ackley was terrific at avoiding strikeouts. With Tacoma in 2011, Ackley struck out on 12% of his PAs whilst the average PCL hitter would strike out 18% of the time.
The low strikeouts in the minors made sense. Ackley was billed as a polished hitter with good contact skills and a good eye for the strike zone. And indeed, Ackley has had fewer swinging strikeouts than average at every level, even including his two years now in the Majors.
Blake Beavan is not an exciting pitcher. He doesn’t have electric movement or blazing speed. At least, his pitches don’t. I haven’t seen him on the dance floor. Although he once threw in the mid-90s, he doesn’t much anymore and he mostly throws fastballs in the strike zone that look rather pedestrian and ordinary. He looks like the sort of pitcher who should get shelled a lot and/or play for the Twins. Perhaps there’s something in his delivery that is interesting, but we don’t have the technology yet to deduce it.
As it happened, Blake Beavan was facing the Twins a little while back. While trying to come up with a new way to summarize a very typical Blake Beavan start, I noticed that he had thrown an unusually high, even for him, percentage of strikes (74%) and furthermore, that he had thrown a first-pitch strike to 20 of the 24 batters that he faced. Blake Beavan’s one Major League skill is his control and those are both excellent rates.
Last night against the Angels, Hector Noesi served up another home run on an 0-2 count. As a fan, having a pitcher of my team give up one of those is up there with one of the more disheartening occurances in an individual baseball game. The count is as lopsided as it can be in favor of the pitcher. To go from that to the single most hitter-friendly outcome is a jarring, unexpected and sometimes crushing whiplash.
And since I watch* Mariner games and almost only Mariner games, I have a disproportionate sense that every 0-2 home run in the history of baseball have been given up by Mariner pitchers**. Perhaps you feel that way about your team too. But personal observation is a crude and misleading way to go about forming beliefs unless you want to look like a big stupidhead the second you run into a person*** with actual data.
Ballots to vote on player selection to the All-Star Game are out and have been for a few weeks now. Their announcement generated the expected scorn from those who (rightfully) deride a voting process so influenced by early season results. I’ve personally stopped caring much about the All Star Game, but the season was basically two weeks old when voting began. That’s lame and unnecessary on baseball’s part. It’s not as if they have a need for voting to begin early. They’ll get votes; they’ll get plenty of votes.
However, instead of that usual track of criticism, I’m going to attack the voting process from the other side. It doesn’t begin soon enough. Namely, it should begin right after the conclusion of the previous All-Star Game. Why not? Right now, All Star selections too often reflect great starts to seasons, but what of great ends or even middles? The player who had a poor first half in 2011 but great second half is forgotten when it comes to All Star time unless that second-half hot streak continues into the next season. But if voting were always open, then that player would garner votes during his hot streak and possibly then hold on for a spot when the cutoff for selection ended.
I am a skeptic on the benefits of pinch hitting. I don’t think that it is always a poor decision, but I do think that too often an incomplete accounting of the factors involved are considered and managers, everyone’s favorite scapegoat, are disproportionately blamed or praised, largely on a results-based basis. Pinch hitting is difficult. Hitting is difficult enough, but the first trip up to the plate is even harder on the hitter. Additionally, the decision usually has more consequences than just this hitter or that one for this one plate appearance. Detailed analyses of pinch hitting is not new, but when left-handed Michael Saunders hit against left-handed Brian Fuentes this morning in the top of the tenth inning while right-handed Casper Wells sat on the bench, I decided to do my own digging.
Prior to the 2005 version, the Major League draft used to alternate picks between the American and National Leagues like they also used to do with home field advantage in the World Series before Bud Selig had to dip his meddlesome fingers in. There are some well-known times when the first overall pick did not go to the team with the worst record in the previous season.
The most recent was when the Padres got to select ahead of the Tigers in 2004 despite the 2003 Tigers having happened. Luckily for the Tigers, the Padres picked Matt Bush and the Tigers landed Justin Verlander. I don’t think they’re crying foul over that missed opportunity.
Read about the worst relative strikeout seasons here.
A natural extension of seeking to identify the worst pitching strikeout season in baseball history is to find the best. That covers the two extremes. I suppose I could do the most average strikeout seasons next, but (yawn) I had to go take a nap after just writing that sentence.
What I really enjoy about looking at baseball in this way is that it often gives me a fresh perspective on history that I’ve long lost the ability to recall. Such is the case here where exploring the topic of lots of strikeouts led me to a lot of reading about two pitchers in particular from baseball’s past that I hadn’t thought about, statistically, in a while.
Before I get to them, Pedro Martinez’s remarkable 1999 season deserves a digital nod of acknowledgement. It takes a mountain of talent to rack up enough strikeouts to more than double the league rate when that rate is already as high as 16%, but that’s what Pedro did in ’99, striking out 37.5% of batters he faced. It’s in the top ten of all time and the best since integration.