Throwing Strikes

January 21, 2014

Several of 2013’s superlative pitching performances came from pitchers who had exceptional control. Koji Uehara was fourth in line to be the Red Sox closer when the year started, but he ended up with the best ERA (1.09) of all qualified relievers. He had just seven unintentional walks in 74.1 innings. Another example is Adam Wainwright. He has always been a great pitcher, but he cut his ERA by a full run from 2012 to 2013 as he reduced his walks per nine from 2.4 to 1.3. Bartolo Colon had a 2.65 ERA, the sixth-best of qualified starters. That was despite his 5.5 strikeouts per nine, sixth-lowest of the group. Colon issued just 29 walks in 190.1 innings.

Colon may be the most fascinating case. In his prime, Colon was an elite pitcher with tremendous stuff. Now, he is in his 40s and averages less than 90 mph on his fastball. However, rather than shy away from his diminished fastball, Colon has relied on the pitch more and more. In 2013, he threw it 86 percent of the time. Despite the frequency and slowness of the pitch, Colon enjoyed the best ERA of his career.

Colon is an extreme case of a pitcher who relies entirely on control—he threw more than 50 percent of his pitches in the strike zone in 2013—and it works for him. How important is control overall and how well does it correlate with performance? To investigate, we divided the 81 starters who qualified for the ERA title in 2013 into quartiles based on the percentage of pitches they threw in the strike zone. We labeled the 21 pitchers who threw the most strikes as Grade A Control Pitchers, the 20 pitchers who threw the next most strikes as Grade B Control Pitchers, the next group is called Grade C, and the final 20 pitchers are Grade D. Here is how they performed


2013 ERA Qualifiers Grouped by Control
Control Strike Zone % ERA
Grade A 47.6% 3.27
Grade B 44.8% 3.52
Grade C 43.4% 3.70
Grade D 40.8% 3.91


The results make it clear. Throw more strikes, allow fewer runs. The 21 starters who threw the most pitches in the strike zone (Grade A Control Pitchers) allowed more than half a run less per nine innings than the 20 starters who threw the fewest pitches in the zone (Grade D). Looking at all the groupings, each succeeding group that threw fewer strikes had a higher ERA than the previous group. Colon has it right: you can never throw too many strikes.


COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

Tango: thanks for the pointer. I'm actually familiar with PITCHf/x as used at Fangraphs, but didn't realize that BIS was using those data. Should have known, of course.

I would note that Fangraphs themselves warn against treating PITCHf/x as holy writ:

And there is this: the more technology we bring to bear the easier it is to forget that the vertical strike zone is different for every hitter. If there is a way of dealing with this fact other than the application of eyeballs, I'm not aware of it.
9:05 AM Jan 24th
As a Mets fan, I am only so-so on Colon, especially considering the year I am hoping for, 2015. If you look at the last four decades, only six pitchers have stayed healthy enough at age 42 or older to qualify for the ERA title. Three knuckleballers, Jamie Moyer, Don Sutton, and David Wells. And only Wells couldn't see his toes.

If Matt Harvey was teed up for this year, and we add Colon to Harvey/Niese/Wheeler/Gee, I'd say we'd be able to make a run, especially if Synderthaal (sp) can come up. That is a great rotation, Parnell in the pen, Wright and Granderson in the heart of the order, maybe Ike Davis gets his stroke back....that could be a 90-92 win team.

Hopefully it will be in 2015. Give Colon's physical condition and his fading speed, I think the guy is going to be DL or batting practice by summertime. But Big Bart might push mathematical elimination back a bit and sell some seats.
4:14 PM Jan 23rd

The current effort is PITCHf/x from Sportvision, and Trackman. They track the path of the pitched ball. PITCHf/x is freely available, and it's amalgamated at many sites, such as Brooks Baseball, as well as Fangraphs.

12:10 PM Jan 23rd
John, it is Fantasy Draft Prep Season, so who are the outliers that might make rapid improvement or decline from 2013 to 2014?
7:59 PM Jan 22nd
This is interesting. Analyses like this always raise in my mind a chicken/egg question. Do I throw more strikes because I have better stuff or better confidence in my stuff, and do I throw more stuff out of the zone trying to get hitters to chase because I don't?

I am sure to some degree. The question is does that represent 1% or 30% or 82.35% of the cause here.
9:44 AM Jan 22nd
I'm not sure we can generalize that the the idea of "throw more strikes, allow fewer runs" is good advice for all pitchers. Maybe it's only good advice for those pitchers who give up fewer home runs, extra bases, and lower batting average on balls in play. For other pitchers, maybe they need to stay on the fringes of the strike zone to survive, and suffer the consequences of a few extra walks as a result.
9:03 AM Jan 22nd
Incidentally, the correlation between K/9 and W/9 is positive (+0.19) and significant, but only marginally.​
10:27 PM Jan 21st
(I have a spreadsheet with H/9, HR/9, W/9, K/9, and K/W; if I had the strikezone data, I'd answer my own question...)
10:16 PM Jan 21st
David Kowalski raises an interesting issue. What were the k/9 and the W/9 for each of those 4 groups (and H/9, while we're asking)? That is, in which other component(s) of pitcher performance did pounding the strike zone pay off?
10:06 PM Jan 21st
How do you go about determining whether a pitch was in the strike zone? You could, of course, simply rely on the umpire's call for pitches not swung at (but I'll bet you're not), but for the others you have to make a call of your own. Unless you have access to Questec data or something similar, you're probably relying on a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional event. You are not going to get every call right, any more than the umpires do.

Maybe the false positives cancel out the false negatives. But how would you know?
9:58 PM Jan 21st
David Kowalski
Frankie Frisch used to moan, "Oh, those bases on balls." When I first heard the expression in the 1960's, the expression was common but ignored. Frisch may no longer have bee the Fordham Flash (he was slow moving at Old-Timer's Games), but he was right. Walks cost runs.
9:08 PM Jan 21st
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