Have Batters Become Too Comfortable?

During the most recent Sunday Night Baseball telecast, ESPN’s cameras captured a kiss Felipe Rivero planted on the cheek of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage.

Hey, Searage deserves it.

When one considers all the successful reclamation projects completed under Searage in Pittsburgh -— A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Ivan Nova, and Rivero himself, to name a few — Searage has earned the admiration and respect of the pitchers in his care.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington joked two winters ago that reclamation-type pitchers should pay the Pirates to pitch in Pittsburgh.

While it’s not fair to credit all the gold-spinning to one man, Searage deserves some credit. He’s been an effective coach and teacher. During the game, ESPN aired a taped segment of Searage explaining some of his secrets to ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza in the visiting bullpen at Busch Stadium.

A big part of Searage’s success is tied to his capacity for empathy — as noted in a work of non-fiction, Big Data Baseball*. As a journeyman left-handed reliever during his own major-league career, Searage said everywhere he went pitching coaches tried to dramatically rebuild his unconventional delivery. He vowed to never do that as a coach. His experience as a player, his experience as a boy seeing his father treat everyone as equals as a construction-site supervisor, shaped the way he treated people — and his pitchers.

*Editor’s Note: an important work of non-fiction by a brilliant young author.

He will make small tweaks. For instance, Searage helped Happ and Liriano develop more efficient, more direct movement in their deliveries toward the plate.

Searage and the Pirates have big philosophies, too.

During their three-year playoff run (2013-15), they led baseball in ground-ball rate (by nearly three percentage points) and home-run suppression. They accomplished this by having many of their pitchers adopt two-seamers as primary fastballs, but they also did so by enhancing their philosophy through pitching inside. Searage explained to Mendoza how the Pirates believe in pitching up-and-in, middle-and-in, and down-and-in to make MLB batters less comfortable, less hesitant to dive toward and drive pitches. And the Pirates have gone in for effect and purpose more than any other team in the Statcast era.

According to detailed Statcast zones via Baseball Savant, the Pirates have led the majors in pitching in, and in off the plate, against right-handed batters with pitches classified as four-seam, two-seam, and sinking fastballs since 2015:

The Pirates also lead in pitching inside versus left-handed hitters with fastballs since 2015:

And as home-run rates continue to surge, as more hitters try to lift what might very well be a juiced ball, perhaps it’s pitching in for effect, and improved sequencing, that could reduce power rates.

The Pirates have become less capable of keeping batted balls in the ballpark since 2015 for a variety of reasons. They’ve induced fewer ground ball, seen the departure of some talent, and have contended with skill regression from pitchers like Jared Hughes (who was released prior to the season) and Tony Watson. But they’ve also failed to execute their own philosophy quite as well.

In 2015, 13.1% of Pirates’ pitches were fastballs in against right-handed hitters, an MLB-best rate. That’s the same year they won 98 games (though finished second in the division) and produced MLB bests in ground-ball rate (50.4%) and home-run suppression (9.4% HR/FB). The MLB average of pitches in against righties was 9.6%. In 2015, the Pirates also led baseball with a rate of 7.8% of all pitches as fastballs in against lefties. The fourth-place-ranking team, the Indians, had a 5.9% rate. The MLB average was 4.9%.

The Pirates have declined slightly from an execution standpoint in addition to losing personnel from their 2015 team.

While the Pirates maintained their ability to pitch inside in 2016 to righties (15.0%), leading the sport, they fell to sixth against lefties (5.7%). Lefties produced a .343 wOBA and produced a .457 slugging mark against the Pirates in 2016, each ranked as the third-worst marks in the sport.

The Pirates rank fourth in inside fastball rate this season (10.9%) against righties, trailing the White Sox (11.8%), Rangers (11.6%) — former Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister brought the philosophy to the Metroplex — and Mariners (11.4%).

The MLB average is 9.2%.

This season, the Pirates rank third in fastball rate inside against lefties (6.9%), trailing the Brewers (7.7%) and the Nationals (7.6%). The MLB average is 5.2%.

The Pirates’ ground-ball rate dipped to third in the game last season at 46.9%, and their home-run rate soared to 13%, ranking 13th in the game. This season, the club’s home-run rate has inched up to 13.2%, though it has improved relative to the rest of the field, ranking 21st. The club’s ground-ball rate has fallen to 45.7%, ranking ninth in the sport, and representing the team’s lowest mark since 2011 (45.5%).

So while there hasn’t necessarily been a collective decay in execution or a great league-wide change in pitching philosophy, perhaps both elements deserve to be examined in an age when there has never been more production per batted ball in the air. Perhaps part of the surge is a product of batters becoming more and more comfortable and confident at diving into pitches. After all, the league’s percentage of overall pitches that are inside fastballs has remained flat in the Statcast era. Pitchers aren’t making batters any more uncomfortable this season than they were in 2015, according to pitch-location data. An adjustment might be necessary.

Perhaps the Pirates were on to something in regard to their sequencing philosophy, perhaps it is a model to follow to reduce power. Hitters have made a counterpunch to the Pirates’ other philosophical pillar, throwing two-seamers down in the zone. But perhaps pitching in, creating more discomfort, is a road map forward for all teams.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

Check out Anthony Rizzo’s heat maps for Pitch% and AVG/P in 2016 and 2017. You find the apparently bizarre situation of pitchers avoiding pitching to a batter’s weakness, in this case inside pitches. The reason is very simple–Rizzo crowds the plate so much that pitchers are afraid to pitch him inside, so in effect he only has to cover half the plate. Looks like a clear case where pitchers should make a batter feel less comfortable.