Winning and Losing the Strike Zone Game

I don’t need to explain pitch-framing to you. Some catchers are better at catching pitches than others. Everything under human control has people who are better at it than others. Some of you are thankful that pitch-framing is a skill. Some of you wish that it didn’t exist. It’s an interesting and complicated conversation, getting into whether the strike zone is something to be earned, or an absolute right. It’s also an important conversation, but for the moment, it’s known that some teams get different zones than others do. Been this way for ages.

When we talk about pitch-framing, or pitch-receiving — there still isn’t a consensus term — we’re almost always talking about the backstops. Those are the players, after all, who are doing the catching part. So the natural process is to generate data and see which catchers are the best and which catchers are the worst. Only infrequently do you see steps back. Less is said about the pitchers doing the throwing. Less still is said about the hitters being thrown to. We understand that the strike zone is a little different for everybody. So which teams get the greatest and smallest overall benefit?

This is a post around one table, and a table around some simple calculations. I’ve gone over the calculations before, but not for a while. The idea: figure out each team’s strike-zone benefit while pitching, and figure out each team’s strike-zone benefit while batting. Then, in the end, combine the numbers, to see the overall team strike-zone benefit. Most often, people just talk about a part of this picture. It happens to be perhaps the most sustainable part, but it still doesn’t capture everything.

The calculations are easy. We have, here, strikes, balls, and pitch totals. We also have plate-discipline rates. Using just that information, it’s possible to calculate an expected strike total. Then it couldn’t be easier to compare that figure to a team’s actual strike total. Deviations are interesting. A potential source of error is that this relies on the PITCHf/x strike-zone coordinates. Also, this considers the raw PITCHf/x information, and not the adjusted information you can find at Brooks Baseball. Nothing for me to do about those things, but I don’t think there should be anything systemic, favoring certain teams over others.

In this table are four columns. One is just the team name! Then you see “Pitching”, which refers to the strike-zone benefit while the team’s in the field. This is expressed in terms of strikes – expected strikes, above or below average. A positive number is good for the team. Then you see “Batting”, which refers to the strike-zone benefit while the team’s up to hit. This is expressed in reverse, in terms of expected strikes – strikes, above or below average. So, once more, a positive number is good for the team. In the end, “Total Benefit”, which just adds the two numbers together. This is the estimate of strikes above or below average, so positive numbers go with teams who’ve had more beneficial strike zones, overall, than teams with negative numbers.

Team Pitching Batting Total Benefit
Dodgers 21 62 83
Orioles 28 50 77
Rangers 25 26 52
Rays 40 8 48
Giants 29 18 47
Pirates 64 -18 46
White Sox 47 -1 46
Nationals -19 62 42
Brewers 18 4 22
Mets -8 23 15
Mariners 11 0 12
Cardinals 33 -28 5
Astros 41 -37 5
Twins -14 15 1
Cubs 43 -49 -6
Athletics -2 -9 -11
Red Sox -26 13 -12
Blue Jays 18 -34 -16
Braves -51 34 -18
Reds -12 -7 -18
Yankees 1 -21 -20
Padres -38 10 -27
Angels 7 -41 -34
Tigers -63 24 -39
Rockies -21 -18 -39
Indians -38 -7 -45
Marlins -60 13 -46
Royals -24 -28 -52
Diamondbacks 0 -52 -52
Phillies -52 -13 -66

What we see is that, when you put things together, then by this method, the Dodgers have had the most favorable strike zones in baseball. It’s been favorable for them while pitching, but it’s been even more favorable when they’ve been at the plate. Right behind them are the Orioles, then there’s a pretty sizable gap before you see the Rangers in third place. Apply the run value of an extra strike, and for the Dodgers and Orioles this benefit has been worth more than a win. That gets abstract, and it’s just included for the sake of scale.

At the bottom…well I guess I don’t have to read this table for you, but, at the bottom, there are the Phillies, and then the Royals and Diamondbacks tied for second-worst. For the Phillies, we’re looking at about a negative win of value. Thankfully, for the Phillies, maybe it doesn’t really matter, not that anyone ever wants to lose, even in the most hopeless of seasons. It’s certainly more important for the Royals. They’re more likely to need those wins.

I can’t guarantee you that the numbers are perfect. I can’t guarantee you that the numbers are close to perfect. But I feel like they ought to be fine, with error bars of unknown magnitude. I don’t know why they’d be wildly off. I should note somewhere in here that the pitching benefit isn’t solely about framing. These numbers might not match up with the numbers available at Baseball Prospectus, but their framing data adjusts for, say, pitcher identity, because they’re focusing on the catchers. It’s a good adjustment to make, but for their purposes, a wild pitcher is more difficult to frame. For our purposes, a pitch in the zone thrown by a wild pitcher shouldn’t be any different from a pitch in the zone thrown by a command pitcher. The zone is the zone. Just because one guy is tougher to catch doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get the same balls and strikes.

Just looking at things this way, the Cubs, Astros, Cardinals, and Blue Jays have had their favorable pitching zones basically canceled out by less favorable hitting zones. The opposite is true for the Nationals and Twins. The Orioles and Dodgers do well in both categories. The Phillies and Royals and Rockies don’t. I don’t know how well these numbers are going to hold up, and I suspect the pitching numbers will be a bit more sticky than the hitting numbers, as more time passes. But that just means this is something to revisit later on. Later, when there’s more data, so that in theory we can have even less noise.

For the moment, there you go. Maybe this is earned, or maybe this is evidence that baseball isn’t fair. In the latter case, you could add it to the pile.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Shouldn’t the Diamondbacks be way worse than this in the Pitching category, with Tuffy Gosewisch, Jordan Pacheco and Gerald Laird doing the catching, or am I missing something?

7 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Joey Votto Popped out.

Helber Santiago
7 years ago
Reply to  Gameday

He has already popped out four times this season. What is going on?

Your Mom
7 years ago
Reply to  Gameday

Then Votto needs to pop it back in and keep jacking away.