Towards an Objective Measure of Hanging Pitches

While working on something Erasmo Ramirez said — that his slider was always in the zone anyway, so he should probably use it to steal strikes rather than for swinging strikes — it became obvious that breaking pitches are much less effective in the zone than out when it comes to swinging strikes. Curves, in particular, are much better outside the zone. You get about one third of the whiffs on a curve in the zone as you do outside of the zone.

Separately, I’m working on a piece for The Hardball Times Annual about command. In it, a few pitchers talk about the difficulty of commanding breaking pitches. “Nobody throws anything that’s truly straight,” is how Trevor Bauer put it.

While sorting the in and out of zone whiff rates, and thinking about command, it came to me that the two are related. Maybe that’s a duh, but a big part of quantifying command is the problem of breaking balls and changeups and their movement. A breaking ball in the zone may often be a hung breaking ball, which contributes to the lower whiff rates.

Let’s take a look at the pitchers that have the most disparate results on their non fastballs inside and outside the zone first, and then try to find a way to spot these pitchers by movement.

Below, I’ve taken all pitchers’ pitches thrown at least 200 times this year and found their in-zone and overall whiffs per swing rates. Then I’ve indexed the difference between those two numbers to pitch type — sliders aren’t as bad as curves in the zone, after all. Then I sorted the list for the biggest difference in baseball.

These pitches are much worse inside the zone then they are outside the zone.

The Pitches That Do the Worst in the Zone
Name Pitch All Whiff Zone Whiff Diff+ zWhiff+
A.J. Ramos CH 57% 24% 297 134
Chasen Shreve CH 44% 16% 252 87
Pedro Strop SL 54% 14% 240 90
Miguel Gonzalez CH 37% 12% 226 64
Keone Kela CU 51% 13% 223 100
Joaquin Benoit CH 43% 19% 212 107
Chad Bettis CH 29% 6% 211 31
Luis Avilan CH 40% 17% 204 93
Andrew Heaney SL 42% 9% 201 56
Jeurys Familia SL 50% 16% 197 107
Brett Cecil CU 48% 15% 197 113
Trevor Bauer CU 44% 12% 188 91
Francisco Rodriguez CH 40% 19% 184 107
Taylor Jungmann CU 46% 15% 183 113
Zack Greinke CH 33% 13% 179 71
All Whiff = whiffs/swing
Zone Whiff = whiff/swing on pitches inside the strike zone
Diff+ = Difference between whiff% on all pitches and in-zone pitches, divided by league difference, *100
zWhiff+ = zone whiff rate divided by league whiff rate on that pitch type, * 100
Minimum 200 thrown

Of course, these aren’t all created the same. The change thrown by A.J. Ramos, and the curves thrown by Taylor Jungmann and Brett Cecil, these pitches are still better than average on getting whiffs on pitches inside the zone. They’re just much better outside the zone.

But take a look at Pedro Strop‘s slider, or Andrew Heaney’s slider. They go from excellent swing and miss pitches to below average inside the zone. Are those hanging breaking balls?

Results-based analysis isn’t very helpful for looking forward, so I thought I’d look at the difference in movement on non-fastballs inside and outside the zone.

Here are the pitchers who experience the biggest difference between the movement on their in-zone non-fastballs and their overall movement.

The Pitches That Move The Least Inside the Zone
Name Pitch count all Zone PFx_z All PFx_z Diff Z
David Price KC 256 0.2 -0.7 0.89
Felix Hernandez SL 227 -2.9 -3.6 0.67
Wade Miley SL 438 1.9 1.3 0.63
Will Smith SL 389 0.5 -0.1 0.57
Neal Cotts SL 499 4.0 3.5 0.55
Danny Salazar CH 460 3.9 3.3 0.53
Michael Lorenzen CU 207 -5.3 -5.8 0.50
Dan Haren FS 211 6.6 6.1 0.49
James Shields CH 639 5.3 4.8 0.49
Sergio Romo SL 436 2.7 2.2 0.49
Jerome Williams CH 316 3.9 3.5 0.43
Mike Pelfrey FS 349 0.0 -0.4 0.42
Alex Wood CH 434 1.5 1.1 0.41
Tommy Milone CH 444 5.7 5.3 0.41
Noah Syndergaard CU 490 -0.2 -0.6 0.40
C.J. Wilson SL 271 0.2 -0.1 0.39
Zone PFx_z = vertical movement on pitches thrown into strike zone
All PFx_z = vertical movement on all pitches
Minimum 200 thrown

Our lists have none of the same names in common! That’s surprising.

Even more surprising is that these pitches, that have such different movement in and out of the strike zone, don’t have very different results in and out of the strike zone. Sure, Danny Salazar‘s changeup gets whiffs on 44% of swings outside the zone and only 25% inside the zone, and James Shields‘ changeup and Will Smith‘s slider have the same sort of splits. But David Price’s curve still gets 16% whiffs on swings inside the zone, and that’s decent for that pitch type. As a group, the guys above have neutral results in and out of the zone — a 5 percentage-point (higher) difference between whiff rates in the zone and overall than league average.

So we’re not quite there. And it’s probably because some guys vary the movement on their breaking balls on purpose — we’ve heard it from Adam Ottavino and Luke Gregerson here before, at least.

Still, there might be something to this idea that big changes in movement could give us clues about hanging breaking balls. Let’s try one more time.

Here are the league’s curve balls, ranked by the size of the standard deviation in their vertical movement. These guys are most likely to throw one curve which features considerable depth and then a second curve without considerably less downward break.

The Curveballs With the Biggest Range in Movement
Name Count Avg PFx_z Standard Deviation PFx_z
Steven Wright 167 0.4 4.72
Jesse Chavez 170 -5.0 3.88
Aaron Sanchez 190 -7.6 3.71
Chris Heston 617 -3.0 3.49
Noah Syndergaard 490 -0.6 3.37
J.A. Happ 275 -4.7 3.36
Erasmo Ramirez 174 0.8 3.31
Roenis Elias 311 -4.1 3.20
Mike Bolsinger 674 -7.8 3.03
Yoervis Medina 129 -4.8 2.87
Michael Lorenzen 207 -5.8 2.81
Vincent Velasquez 165 -4.3 2.78
Tim Lincecum 206 -7.6 2.74
Shane Greene 147 0.0 2.69
John Danks 267 -0.9 2.68
Tanner Scheppers 197 -1.7 2.67
Felix Hernandez 553 -8.7 2.52
Danny Duffy 496 -4.0 2.48
Miguel Gonzalez 251 -5.2 2.48
Carlos Torres 138 -7.6 2.43
Avg PFx_z = average vertical movement
Standard Deviation PFx_z = standard deviation in vertical movement
Minimum 100 curveballs thrown. 2015

In other words, Jesse Chavez’s curveball has the second-widest variation in vertical movement among all major leaguers. And he gets 43% whiffs per swing on the pitch overall, but only 15% on pitches inside the zone.

Given that we know that more vertical movement is good for curveballs, and that curves have the biggest difference between in-zone and overall whiff rates, this analysis seems to fit this pitch-type best. There are some good curveballs on this list, but there are more than a few hangers.

Unfortunately, there’s no relationship between this standard deviation measure and any outcome measures, so we’ll have to keep searching. Perhaps the next step would be to control for count — the curve thrown for a stolen strike can look very different than the one thrown for a swinging strike. A cluster analysis that judged the “tightness” of the movement clusters, while correcting for count, might give us a better measure of command when it comes to pitches other than fastballs.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Jose Molina
8 years ago

If you’re gonna be hanging a lot of pitches, always make sure they’re well-framed.