In Sports Illustrated’s 2013 baseball preview, Tom Verducci wrote a great profile of the Tampa Bay Rays and their approach to optimizing the performance of their pitching staff.
One topic that was especially interesting to me was the apparent importance the Rays place on the 1-1 count. Verducci recounts how pitching coach Jim Hickey described the organization’s focus on getting opposing batters into 1-2 counts:
The Rays believe no pitch changes the course of that at bat more than the 1-and-1 delivery. “It’s almost a 200-point swing in on-base percentage with one ball and two strikes as opposed to two balls and one strike,” Hickey told the pitchers.
The Rays’ staff ranked seventh in baseball last year in first-pitch-strike percentage (60.9). But they ranked first in getting to 1-and-2 counts (30.9% of all plate appearances). The trick to getting ahead, Hickey told his charges, is to command the ball around the inside and outside edges of the strike zone so that balls look like strikes to both batters and umpires. “We led the major leagues in pitches out of the zone getting called strikes,” he explained. “It’s tough to expand the zone up and down. But you can do it side to side.” (emphasis mine)
If readers have been following the work that Jeff Zimmerman and I have done on pitching on the edges of the strike zone you can imagine that this passage really intrigued us. I decided to investigate how the Rays ranked in this regard using our Edge% metric.
First, we need to get a sense of when pitchers tend to throw to the edges of the zone most often. The simplest way to do this is to look at the percent of pitches for each possible count that are thrown to the edge*:
A cursory look at the data shows that the edge is generally more popular when pitchers are behind in the count (e.g. 3-1, 3-2, 2-1). However, the one count that breaks the pattern where the pitcher is even with the batter is the 1-1 count, which ranks fourth in terms of edge frequency (18.1%). It would appear the Rays aren’t the only team that emphasizes throwing to the edges of the zone in this count.
The question, however, is whether we see the Rays attacking the edge more often than league average in 1-1 counts. To answer that question I aggregating Edge% for 1-1 counts for each team in the league from 2010-2013 and then calculated how each team’s Edge, Heart, and Outside% compared to the league average (sorted by Edge%):
|Team||Edge% Relative to League||Heart% Relative to League||Outside% Relative to League|
As a team, the Rays do not rank first relative to league average, but they are tied for sixth (and are basically just a rounding of a hundredth of a percent out of the top 5). Additionally, the Rays throw to the heart of the plate at the same pace as the league and throw to the outside a little less than league average. This aligns with their stated philosophy of avoiding falling into 2-1 counts.
The final question I have is how effective their focus on the edge actually is. It’s one thing to throw to particular locations and another to do so effectively. To tease this out a bit I looked at all 1-2 counts that followed 1-1 counts and what percentage of those 1-2 counts came as a result of both pitches thrown to the edges of the strike zone as well as called strikes thrown to the edges of the strike zone.
|Team||1-2 Counts from 1-1||Called Strike on Edge||1-2 from Pitch on Edge||Called Strike% Relative to League||1-2 Counts from Edge Relative to League|
Turns out that the Rays do get a sizable number of their 1-2 counts as a result of pitches thrown to the edge of the strike zone (26%). But while they are about four percent above the league average, the Rays are far from the best team at getting to 1-2 as a result of called strikes on the edge–that title goes to the Twins by a large margin.
Still, the data shows us that, yes, the Rays are practicing what they preach. But it also shows us that the approach isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success (see the Twins and their third-worst ERA- since 2010). Throwing and working the edges of the strike zone is certainly important, but you obviously need more than that to be a dominant staff. And the Rays certainly bring more than that to the table.
*Data from 2010-2013
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.