This is Nate Freiman’s fourth post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
On June 7, 2013, I got the start against Chris Sale in Chicago. Roughly 22,000 people were there to see us beat the White Sox 4-3 on a Josh Donaldson sixth-inning grand slam.
I was on deck when Donaldson homered, and consequently faced a very angry Sale. He started me off with a slider. The pitch appeared to start more or less in the first-base dugout before catching the better part of the outside corner. Then he threw a changeup. I was geared up for 97. I buckled and took a second called strike. I was down 0-2 and still hadn’t seen the fastball. If you’re concerned about catching up to the fastball, the key is to slow down and think, “Be on time.” Hopefully that doesn’t translate to start a little early. That’s when you chase the back-foot slider.
Sale’s next pitch was 97 mph at the top of the zone. It looked even harder because I hadn’t seen the fastball. Strike three swinging. I got soft-soft-harded.
In my last post, I mentioned that at-bats are “path dependent,” meaning that each pitch is going to depend on the previous pitch. It’s nice to know what percentage of fastballs a guy throws. It’s really nice to have it broken down by count. Luckily there’s a really cool graphic for that on Baseball Savant. Here’s what it looks like for Blake Snell:
The chart shows that Snell throws 45.4% fastballs in 0-1 counts. In those counts, sometimes he got ahead with a fastball and sometimes he got ahead with offspeed. Do the pitches that came before it matter? Because soft-soft-hard is merely one example of a three-pitch sequence. I was curious whether MLB pitchers have measurable pitch-sequencing tendencies in other counts, too.
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This is Nate Freiman’s third post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
One of my favorite people in baseball is Tom Tornincasa. He was my hitting coach in the Double-A Texas League in 2012. Apart from being a great coach, he kept the clubhouse loose. Ask anyone who played for him; they’ll know what I mean.
At about 6:50, we’d be stretching on the foul line, and he’d walk out with his notebook.
That was the start of our advance scouting meeting.
“Ninety to ninety-four, slider, changeup. Sixty percent fastball, thirty percent slider.”
Dan Straily led the minor leagues in strikeouts that year, spotting his fastball to both sides of the plate and mixing in an almost unhittable slider — unhittable in that it was un-layoff-able — that he’d throw in any count. He was in the big leagues that September.
“One more thing. He sucks.”
This is Nate Freiman’s second post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.
Being a tall hitter came with its drawbacks. Long arms, lots of moving parts. Eight-hour bus rides starting at 11pm. Getting pitched inside. (In fairness, I saw thousands of pitches and only suffered two broken hand bones.)
And yes, the low strikes. My entire career, anytime I’d get a low strike called there would be someone from the dugout yelling, “He’s six-eight!” Hopefully, by that time, it wasn’t news to the umpire. My hitting coach in A-ball told me to wear my pants Hunter Pence style. Above the knees. He figured the umpire would see the bottom of the zone better. I figured that would get me ejected.
So I can honestly say I sympathize with Aaron Judge. Travis Sawchik has done great work on Judge’s relationship with the bottom of the zone. It makes sense that a guy that big is a strike zone anomaly, but do other guys have the same problem? I used Statcast data to investigate.
The MLB pitch data features anywhere between 50 and 90 columns of information for every single pitch thrown. One of them is “sz_bot,” or strike-zone bottom. I used this number to adjust the strike zone for each hitter. The problem is, sz_bot varies. Of the hitters who have seen at least 500 pitches in 2018, the top of the zone measurement (sz_top) has an average range of 2.8 feet, while the bottom of the zone (sz_bot) varied an average of 3.4 feet.
Most of this is due to random outliers. One of the columns for David Freese, for example, suggests his strike zone on one pitch extended up 11 feet. To address this, I took the median strike-zone top and bottom for each hitter instead of the average.
Once determining the approximate strike-zone boundaries for each hitter, I isolated somewhat arbitrary window at the top and bottom of the zone. The window at the top of the zone is simply every pitch that is coded as being at least half the diameter of the baseball above sz_top. The bottom window is every pitch located between half a ball below sz_bot and one foot below sz_bot. The batters receiving strike calls on these pitches are, in theory, those who are the greatest victims of low strike calls.
Not surprisingly, Judge is way ahead. In fact, there’s a statistically significant difference between him and Peralta, who’s still ahead of everyone else in baseball. These guys also happen to have an average height of 75.4 inches, or a little over 6-foot-3.
This is Nate Freiman’s first post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf.
Editor’s Note: a version of this work was recently presented at SaberSeminar 2018.
In 2011, I was playing at High-A for the Padres. I’d graduated from the Midwest League to Lake Elsinore in the California League. (They have the cool storm-eyes logo, but it scares my toddler so my old hats are in boxes.) Since we were so close to San Diego, we got lots of guys on MLB rehab assignments. I was a senior sign making $1,300 a month, so it was huge when someone like Orlando Hudson came through and bought us Outback.
During their assignments, every MLB guy got The Question: “What’s it like up there?” The best answer I ever heard was, “Chuck E Cheese for adults.” O-Dog, as Hudson was known, had a pretty strong reply, too: “Better balls, better lights, and a better zone.”
In this case, “better zone” means two things. The first is size. (“That’s outside!”) The second is consistency. (“That’s been a strike all day!”) And O-Dog was right: the umpiring (just like the play on the field) does get better as you go up. We’d be in some cramped clubhouse, playing cards, and eating our $11 PB+Js, watching the big club, when a pitcher would inevitably yell, “That’s a strike!” And maybe it was… by Northwest League standards.
But those standards are different than the ones at higher levels. For example: have you ever seen a check swing get overruled? I have. In Boise, back in 2009. The hitter at the plate checked his swing, and the umpire responded by yelling, “Yes he did!” After the batting team complained, however, the home-plate umpire decided to appeal to his colleague at third base, who ruled it not a swing. I’ve never seen something like that before or since.
It’s no secret that the umpiring in the majors is superior to the sort found in the minors. It’s also no secret that part of the superior umpiring is a smaller, more well defined zone. But what about the different levels of the minors? Does the strike zone get smaller at each level? Does it get more consistent? I wanted some answers.
In order to get them, I needed minor-league TrackMan data. That data is all proprietary, but one team sent some of it to me on the condition of anonymity. (If anyone from that organization is reading this, thank you again!) The org in question sent me a sample of 20,000 taken pitches divided across the four full-season levels. The team trimmed the data to contain only horizontal and vertical location, pitcher and batter handedness, count, and a binary “strike” or “ball” call. There was no other identifying information.