Revisiting the Non-Competitive Pitch

Early in this year’s postseason, the excellent Jessica Mendoza made several references in the broadcast booth to the idea of the “non-competitive pitch.” We know that pitchers, most often, are trying to throw strikes. We know that, other times, a pitcher will intentionally locate a ball outside of the strike zone, attempting to coax a batter into a misguided swing. For these pitches to be effective, they need to be reasonably close to the edges of the zone. Otherwise, the batter won’t swing. When located well, even if the batters don’t swing, you’ll hear these referred to as “good misses.”

What a pitcher is rarely, if ever, trying to do is locate dramatically outside of the strike zone. I’m talking several feet. These pitches happen, but for all intents and purposes, they’re unintentional and serve no use. They’re an extra tally on your pitch count and they almost exclusively go for a ball without any real chance of a swing. This was something upon which I briefly touched in my review of Gerrit Cole’s rough Wild Card start, in which he threw three of these non-competitive pitches consecutively to Kris Bryant to issue a walk after getting ahead in the count, 1-2.

When I wrote that post, I knew I’d revisit the topic in the offseason. The thing about a data set is, there’s always a most extreme something. Someone threw more non-competitive pitches than anyone else. One ball may not seem like a huge deal, but the difference between a ball and a strike changes the nature of an at-bat. After a first-pitch strike this season, batters had a .609 OPS. That’s Alexi Amarista. After a first-pitch ball, batters had an .815 OPS. That’s J.D. Martinez. The average run value of the difference between a ball and a strike is typically worth between one- and two-tenths of an entire run! Throw a lot of non-competitive pitches — automatic balls — and it will add up. We just need to define non-competitive, and then find them.

So, defining non-competitive. I played around with the values a few times, and settled on 2.5 feet from the center of the strike zone. Lower it to two feet, and you get too many swings. Raise it to three feet, and there weren’t enough pitches that met the requirement for it to be telling. Maybe you’d have chosen a different threshold, but I felt comfortable with 2.5 feet. That gave us nearly 12,000 pitches, 97% of which went for easy balls. This fits what we’re looking for: pitches thrown often, but essentially never swung at. Free balls, and plus-one to the ol’ pitch count. Now, for that leaderboard:

Non-Competitive Pitch Leaders
name NC Pitches All Pitches NC%
Trevor Bauer 127 2862 4.4%
Taylor Jungmann 68 2036 3.3%
Jose Quintana 98 3352 2.9%
Garrett Richards 92 3239 2.8%
Yordano Ventura 74 2643 2.8%
Mike Fiers 82 3020 2.7%
C.J. Wilson 55 2101 2.6%
Jason Hammel 69 2670 2.6%
Clayton Kershaw 86 3383 2.5%
Gio Gonzalez 73 2955 2.5%
SOURCE: baseballsavant.com
NC Pitches defined as: at least 2.5 feet from center of strike zone
Minimum 2,000 total pitches (113 player pool)

Our leader, by a substantial margin, is Trevor Bauer. Using Bauer as an example, let’s see what these pitches look like, and the differences among them. In Bauer’s case specifically, how do they manifest themselves, and what can they teach us about him as a pitcher?

Now, you might first notice that the best pitcher on the planet is in the above table, as well as several other well above-average pitchers, many of whom feature notable curveballs or sliders that are often meant to be thrown in the dirt. It can be deduced, then, that throwing an above-average number of these isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, a pitcher is trying to spike a curveball. And when you’ve got Clayton Kershaw’s deception, movement and sequencing, even the ones that you spike can generate swings. Even for Kershaw, though, 87% of these pitches went for balls.

Kershaw’s name alone reveals that being in that ~2.5 percent range can be acceptable. You notice the lead that Bauer has on the field, though. He threw 127 of these pitches. Nobody else threw 120, 110, or even 100. Only two exceeded 90, and only two more exceeded 80. The gap between Bauer and second place is the same gap between second place and 20th place.

Bauer missed glove-side, and low:

He missed arm-side, and high:

He missed in the dirt, or in this case, the lip of the grass:

And he missed above the eyes:

First-pitch misses:

And three-ball misses:

Of course, I’ve cherry-picked some of the most extreme examples, so this makes his average non-competitive pitch look even less competitive than the rest. But you get the picture, and the last three reveal Bauer’s biggest weakness in this area: the extreme high pitch.

As we previously noted, the curveball in the dirt is the “best” place to miss if you’re going to miss badly, and it’s where the majority of the sample lies. Even on balls that hit in front of the plate, Clayton Kershaw got swings on 13% of them. Bauer got swings on 14% of them. Both of these rates are more than double the league average, but they’re still not great odds. If all of a pitcher’s non-competitive pitches come in the dirt, though, it could be worse. This is the case with Kershaw.

In Bauer’s case, though, he not only led the league in extreme low misses, but also extreme high misses. In the .gifs above, you see fastballs high. You see curveballs high. I asked Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball — a Trevor Bauer expert and, really, all-things-pitching expert — about this and he assured me that this isn’t a mechanical issue, saying instead that Bauer has relatively clean mechanics. Rather, it stems moreso from Bauer’s approach. Boddy’s words are far more technical than mine, but, paraphrased, he suggested that the extreme misses come from Bauer attempting to throw all of his pitches to all quadrants of the zone, rather than homing in on the specific quadrants where he locates each pitch best and aggressively attacking those zones.

Maybe this could be linked to Bauer’s belief in sequencing around effective velocity? Perry Husband’s non-traditional approach, notably adopted by Bauer, eschews more typical sequencing patterns and suggests that any pitch can be effective in any quadrant with the proper sequencing to set it up. For that to work, though, one must be able to command all of those pitches to all quadrants of the zone, a difficult task to say the least.

In some ways, Boddy’s assessment could be seen as a positive takeaway from what would otherwise be a negative finding regarding Bauer’s season. No pitcher in baseball threw non-competitive pitches more often than Bauer last year. However, if you believe it had more to do with the approach than the mechanics, that makes for an easier change. The solution: find the most effective, efficient spot for each pitch, and build your approach around those different locations. In Boddy’s words, a “dominant-strategy type attack.” Bauer’s career has included a series of well-documented changes to his mechanics and approach. Perhaps this is the next challenge ahead.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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BenRevereDoesSteroids
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BenRevereDoesSteroids

I wish this contained a breakdown of NCP by count. They seem to happen disproportionately in 0-2 counts, and it drives me crazy. Because it always seems to me like the pitcher is thinking to himself “I don’t want to catch too much of the plate on a 0-2 pitch, so I better throw this thing in the dirt and just hope that he swings.”