What Happens When A Pitcher Goes Right Down The Middle?

The other week when I wrote about pitches that come in well out of the zone and what happens with those pitches, some discussion in the comments focused on the opposite – what happens right down the chute? If a pitcher is wasting 0-2 pitches, surely he’s firing down the center on 3-0, and if pitchers sometimes miss wildly outside, they probably miss to the meat of the plate on occasions, too.

There have already been 2,535 pitches thrown in 3-0 counts this season (2,227 if we exclude intentional walks), according to the awesome new HeatMaps here at Fangraphs, and so our knowledge of what happens when pitchers are far behind has a solid base. And thanks to data since 2012, we know why pitches have a strong incentive to fight back from 3-0, even with one strike – there is, obviously, an appreciable drop in expected on-base percentage in a 3-1 count, and there’s little chance the batter swings 3-0, anyway.

Count PA AB AVG OBP SLG
After 3-0 19973 7193 0.287 0.740 0.496
After 3-1 35990 20670 0.278 0.580 0.473
3-0 8806 654 0.347 0.949 0.745
*Since 2012


There are several interesting results here that we can dive into – batters do sometimes swing, pitchers often miss 3-0, but, sometimes, the pitcher sneaks that freebie by for a chance at salvaging the at bat from 3-1. (One unrelated side-note that I couldn’t shoehorn anywhere else: baserunners are 6-for-6 stealing bases on 3-0 counts this year, surely because the pitcher can’t be bothered with the baserunner since he’ll get second base on a walk, anyway.)

Here’s a scatter plot of all the pitches thrown in 3-0 counts this season by PITCHf/x location, with the strike zone and the “useful pitch zone” we identified previously drawn in, courtesy data from Baseball Savant:
zone1

That’s a lot of mess, so here’s a different breakdown, again via the new Heatmaps here at Fangraphs:

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 11.36.21 AM

That’s a fairly even spread across zones, and it also shows that 68.5 percent of 3-0 pitches land in the strikezone. Despite this striking but not at all counter-intuitive rate, however, here are the results for 3-0 pitches so far this season:

Pitch Result % % (w/o IBB)
Called Strike 53.4% 59.3%
Ball 29.4% 32.6%
Intentional 9.9% n/a
Swing w Contact 6.2% 6.8%
Swinging Strike 1.1% 1.3%

Surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a strong umpire bias here, though the lack of 100 percent strikes on 3-0 pitches in the zone could be made up for by a larger zone in other instances. Instead, here, 67.4 percent of 3-0 pitches are strikes despite 78 percent of non-intentional pitches showing as in the zone in the heatmap above.

strikepercentage30

So, given how often 3-0 pitches come across the plate, maybe the green light isn’t a bad idea. Of those 206 occasions (8.1 percent of all 3-0 pitches) on which a batter swung 3-0, here are how the results broke down:

Pitch Result #
Foul 82
Out 58
Swinging Strike 32
Home Run 11
Double 6
RBI Single 6
Single 4
RBI Double 2
RBI Out 3
Error 2
To 3-1 114
Unproductive 60
Productive 32

It’s a tough trade-off to navigate, as hitters have rarely (16 percent of 3-0 swings) done something productive but when they have, it’s easy value. Again, look at the slash line from above for at bats ending on a 3-0 pitch – a .745 slugging percentage.

As for those home runs, well, each and every one of them came over the plate and was generally high – all of them were at least 2.2 feet off the ground, and all were within 0.7 inches of the center of home plate. As we discussed off the top, there’s plenty interesting about pitches right down the heart, so let’s turn the focus from what happens on 3-0 pitches to all pitches right down the middle.

Already this season, there have been 11,089 pitches thrown directly down the chute (pitches classified as “Zone 5” by Baseball Savant). Have a look:
zone3

Oh, cool, a plot that’s just a big blob in the center of the plate. Useful, right? While our heatmaps use slightly different zone dimensions (the data that follows uses Savant pitch data), they, too, show an obscene amount of pitches straight down the middle.

downgut

Obviously, with this many pitches already, there’s plenty we can look at. Such as, when do pitchers tend to groove pitches straight down the middle?

Count #
00 29.0%
01 11.0%
02 3.3%
10 12.0%
11 10.3%
12 6.4%
20 4.4%
21 5.9%
22 7.1%
30 1.8%
31 2.9%
32 5.9%

This is somewhat surprising. There have been 60,292 plate appearances so far this season and 3,715 of them have started off with a first pitch that is either a mistake or a goods-on-the-table challenge pitch. That’s a shade over 6.1 percent of plate appearances. Are pitchers crazy?

Well, not necessarily. A good deal of hitters will still take these offerings for an 0-1 start to the at bat, four lucky souls actually got balls called on these pitches, and a fair number of swings don’t produce negative results. However…

pitch_result # %
Called Strike 1923 51.8%
Swinging Strike 183 4.9%
Foul 746 20.1%
Ball 4 0.1%
Out 503 13.5%
Hit/Runs 356 9.6%
Single 180 50.6%
Double 72 20.2%
Triple 11 3.1%
Home Run 50 14.0%
Other 43 12.1%

50 first-pitch home runs on pitches right down the middle already this season. That’s small in percentage terms – just 1.35 percent of 0-0 pitches thrown down the middle and 3.49 percent of all home runs this season – but it’s an obvious risk. Someone may want to alert Wade Miley, who leads the league by having served up three of these meatballs for home runs (Drew Hutchison, Tanner RoarkJenrry Mejia and Shelby Miller are the only other players to have done it twice).

Beyond just 0-0 counts, it seems a pitch down the middle is exceptionally risky. Here’s how pitches in Zone 5 compare to all other pitches in any count:

Zone # Pitches HRs HR% xBH% Hit%
1 12801 260 2.03% 5.18% 14.03%
All other 219217 1171 0.53% 1.74% 5.36%

Obviously, treading down the middle of the plate is an enormous risk. This isn’t news, but the degree to which it’s risky is striking.
slgpitch
Some pitchers can get away with this, it seems – Max Scherzer, for example, has thrown 85 pitches down the middle this season, second in the majors, and not a single one has been taken for a ride…or even cashed in a run (in fact, only seven have gone for hits, compared to 10 swinging strikes; for context, 7.33 percent of pitches down the plate are swung on and missed, so Scherzer is nearly doubling that rate).

The table below shows the rate of pitches in the middle of the plate and the swinging strike and home run rates for those pitches for the league’s 101 qualified pitchers. Shelby Miller, get it together, man.

Name Pitches Middle Middle% Mid SwStr Mid SwStr% Mid HR Mid HR%
Jered Weaver 1073 50 4.66% 11 22.00% 1 2.00%
Chris Tillman 1115 59 5.29% 11 18.64% 1 1.69%
R.A. Dickey 1151 80 6.95% 14 17.50% 0.00%
Edwin Jackson 1061 68 6.41% 10 14.71% 0.00%
Drew Hutchison 1050 54 5.14% 7 12.96% 2 3.70%
Marco Estrada 1012 47 4.64% 6 12.77% 2 4.26%
Tyson Ross 1085 48 4.42% 6 12.50% 1 2.08%
Ryan Vogelsong 945 32 3.39% 4 12.50% 0.00%
Alfredo Simon 900 65 7.22% 8 12.31% 2 3.08%
Lance Lynn 1157 58 5.01% 7 12.07% 0.00%
Max Scherzer 1199 85 7.09% 10 11.76% 0.00%
Yordano Ventura 974 69 7.08% 8 11.59% 0.00%
Nathan Eovaldi 1109 70 6.31% 8 11.43% 1 1.43%
Tanner Roark 939 55 5.86% 6 10.91% 4 7.27%
Jordan Zimmermann 955 76 7.96% 8 10.53% 1 1.32%
Michael Wacha 1035 68 6.57% 7 10.29% 2 2.94%
David Price 1186 78 6.58% 8 10.26% 0.00%
Roenis Elias 1070 49 4.58% 5 10.20% 0.00%
Homer Bailey 1099 70 6.37% 7 10.00% 3 4.29%
Jeff Samardzija 1133 72 6.35% 7 9.72% 1 1.39%
Zack Wheeler 1003 62 6.18% 6 9.68% 1 1.61%
Julio Teheran 1077 42 3.90% 4 9.52% 2 4.76%
John Danks 1074 53 4.93% 5 9.43% 1 1.89%
Jon Lester 1210 64 5.29% 6 9.38% 2 3.13%
Wily Peralta 984 54 5.49% 5 9.26% 2 3.70%
Yu Darvish 960 54 5.63% 5 9.26% 1 1.85%
Jason Vargas 1134 44 3.88% 4 9.09% 2 4.55%
Tyler Skaggs 943 66 7.00% 6 9.09% 1 1.52%
Zack Greinke 1091 44 4.03% 4 9.09% 0.00%
Shelby Miller 1018 89 8.74% 8 8.99% 5 5.62%
Justin Verlander 1228 58 4.72% 5 8.62% 1 1.72%
Matt Garza 1064 60 5.64% 5 8.33% 1 1.67%
Tim Hudson 915 48 5.25% 4 8.33% 1 2.08%
Andrew Cashner 882 48 5.44% 4 8.33% 1 2.08%
Madison Bumgarner 1103 50 4.53% 4 8.00% 1 2.00%
Wade Miley 1193 63 5.28% 5 7.94% 4 6.35%
Ricky Nolasco 990 65 6.57% 5 7.69% 3 4.62%
Kyle Lohse 1107 65 5.87% 5 7.69% 2 3.08%
Chris Young 883 52 5.89% 4 7.69% 2 3.85%
Stephen Strasburg 1077 52 4.83% 4 7.69% 1 1.92%
A.J. Burnett 1133 52 4.59% 4 7.69% 0.00%
Alex Wood 894 55 6.15% 4 7.27% 0.00%
Jorge de la Rosa 995 55 5.53% 4 7.27% 1 1.82%
Franklin Morales 962 56 5.82% 4 7.14% 3 5.36%
Kyle Kendrick 991 56 5.65% 4 7.14% 2 3.57%
Francisco Liriano 993 28 2.82% 2 7.14% 0.00%
Jarred Cosart 1048 43 4.10% 3 6.98% 1 2.33%
Tom Koehler 954 59 6.18% 4 6.78% 1 1.69%
Masahiro Tanaka 1059 45 4.25% 3 6.67% 0.00%
Phil Hughes 958 64 6.68% 4 6.25% 1 1.56%
Scott Kazmir 999 65 6.51% 4 6.15% 0.00%
Cliff Lee 1067 65 6.09% 4 6.15% 0.00%
Bartolo Colon 989 82 8.29% 5 6.10% 1 1.22%
Aaron Harang 1121 68 6.07% 4 5.88% 0.00%
Jose Quintana 1143 68 5.95% 4 5.88% 0.00%
Juan Nicasio 952 52 5.46% 3 5.77% 2 3.85%
Mark Buehrle 1096 53 4.84% 3 5.66% 0.00%
Justin Masterson 1100 54 4.91% 3 5.56% 2 3.70%
Jeremy Guthrie 1135 57 5.02% 3 5.26% 1 1.75%
Tommy Milone 843 38 4.51% 2 5.26% 1 2.63%
Chris Archer 1086 58 5.34% 3 5.17% 1 1.72%
Johnny Cueto 1194 39 3.27% 2 5.13% 1 2.56%
Jason Hammel 1006 63 6.26% 3 4.76% 3 4.76%
Ubaldo Jimenez 1043 42 4.03% 2 4.76% 1 2.38%
C.J. Wilson 1277 64 5.01% 3 4.69% 1 1.56%
Brandon McCarthy 1001 65 6.49% 3 4.62% 3 4.62%
John Lackey 1124 66 5.87% 3 4.55% 0.00%
James Shields 1169 69 5.90% 3 4.35% 2 2.90%
Hiroki Kuroda 1059 47 4.44% 2 4.26% 4 8.51%
Travis Wood 1022 72 7.05% 3 4.17% 1 1.39%
Josh Beckett 905 48 5.30% 2 4.17% 1 2.08%
Ian Kennedy 1132 75 6.63% 3 4.00% 2 2.67%
Ervin Santana 859 51 5.94% 2 3.92% 2 3.92%
Charlie Morton 1110 54 4.86% 2 3.70% 0.00%
Yovani Gallardo 1087 55 5.06% 2 3.64% 2 3.64%
Mike Leake 994 56 5.63% 2 3.57% 1 1.79%
Sonny Gray 1110 56 5.05% 2 3.57% 0.00%
Eric Stults 897 30 3.34% 1 3.33% 2 6.67%
Jon Niese 983 63 6.41% 2 3.17% 1 1.59%
Gerrit Cole 1017 72 7.08% 2 2.78% 2 2.78%
Roberto Hernandez 928 39 4.20% 1 2.56% 0.00%
Kyle Gibson 912 39 4.28% 1 2.56% 0.00%
Bronson Arroyo 882 41 4.65% 1 2.44% 0.00%
Dillon Gee 771 44 5.71% 1 2.27% 4 9.09%
Henderson Alvarez 948 46 4.85% 1 2.17% 0.00%
Garrett Richards 1024 47 4.59% 1 2.13% 1 2.13%
Rick Porcello 878 49 5.58% 1 2.04% 1 2.04%
Tim Lincecum 1078 50 4.64% 1 2.00% 2 4.00%
Edinson Volquez 918 55 5.99% 1 1.82% 2 3.64%
Felix Hernandez 1219 55 4.51% 1 1.82% 0.00%
Dan Haren 1027 55 5.36% 1 1.82% 0.00%
Jake Peavy 1023 56 5.47% 1 1.79% 2 3.57%
Adam Wainwright 1132 62 5.48% 1 1.61% 1 1.61%
Bud Norris 1036 63 6.08% 1 1.59% 1 1.59%
Corey Kluber 1097 65 5.93% 1 1.54% 0.00%
Wei-Yin Chen 966 69 7.14% 1 1.45% 2 2.90%
Miguel Gonzalez 884 52 5.88% 0.00% 3 5.77%
Jesse Chavez 968 56 5.79% 0.00% 1 1.79%
Jordan Lyles 1054 54 5.12% 0.00% 1 1.85%
Kevin Correia 875 43 4.91% 0.00% 1 2.33%
Dallas Keuchel 1037 37 3.57% 0.00% 1 2.70%

We hoped you liked reading What Happens When A Pitcher Goes Right Down The Middle? by Blake Murphy!

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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Bert Blyleven's Socks
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Bert Blyleven's Socks

Awesome article. One of my favorites so far this year. Thanks!