If one was to poll major league executives, players, and coaches along with fans and the media about the most important element for the success of a team, the resounding answer would be pitching. The popular axiom is “a team will only go as far as the pitching will take them.” The answer (and axiom) is 100 percent correct. Pitching is the single most important factor for any team in their hopes of competing for a playoff berth. But, pitching is perhaps the least researched, most misunderstood area of baseball. Rick Peterson, former pitching coach of the Oakland A’s, New York Mets, and Milwaukee Brewers explains the lack of knowledge about pitching like this, “Baseball spent $1.2 billion dollars on pitchers’ salaries in 2008. $330 million dollars of that money was spent on injured pitchers. We have a problem here.”
This all seems like a paradox, doesn’t it? The single most important factor in baseball is pitching, yet there are an inordinate amount of injuries and so many misconceptions regarding effective pitching, pitching theory, pitching conditioning, and pitching strategy. The impact of the lack of knowledge is three-fold. One, it obviously impacts a team since there is, as Peterson says, “lack of depth of quality pitching.” Secondly, it impacts the industry as fans pay to see certain players on the field. As pitcher injuries occur with increasing frequency, fans are usually treated to the proverbial spot starter fresh off the waiver wire or the “not ready for prime-time” minor leaguer. Yankees fans should be familiar with this after seeing the likes of Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner fill in for Chien-Ming Wang last season. And finally, the lack of knowledge impacts the media and fans with a plethora of poor information or myths being discussed as truth.
Today, Peterson gives an overview of four basic areas of pitching: the pitch count, evaluating pitchers, getting ahead of hitters, and the makeup of a successful pitcher. With a better understanding of these areas, fans can observe the game with more knowledge and thus enjoy the subtleties and strategy of baseball (in this case, pitching) more.
The Pitch Count
The pitch count is quite a controversial topic considering it really didn’t exist 25 years ago. Fans will hearken back to the days of Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, and Don Drysdale when “pitchers finished what they started” despite a high pitch count. Some teams seem religious about keeping a pitch count and removing a pitcher at the magical 100 pitch limit. Fans and talk radio personalities usually lament about a pitcher being dominant and that the ignorant manager pulled the pitcher too early. Usually the question is “what’s another 10 or 20 pitches?” Perhaps the thought process may be moving away from pitch counts with the Texas Rangers reportedly thinking about doing away with keeping pitch counts.
Rick Peterson believes in the pitch count as he likens it to a long distance runner. “Think about it as a runner. Let’s say he runs three or four miles a day which would average about 27 miles a week. He’s conditioned to that routine. Then, the runner decides to do away with consistent training and will run however long he feels like it – like Forrest Gump. So, one day he runs seven miles, the next 8, and the next 4 and so on. So, one week he runs about 40 miles and then the next he runs 50, followed by 60 miles. What happens to his legs? He burns out and gets hurt.”
Proper conditioning to achieve optimal performance is necessary. If pitchers aren’t put on a regular routine which allows them to condition their arm, more frequent injuries will occur, which is scary considering the already high rate of pitching injuries.
But, a more practical reason for the pitch count is performance. “The data tells us that once a pitcher reaches 90 pitches, the performance rate is drastically impacted. In fact, the batting average against (BAA) almost doubles. The data is there to support this,” said Peterson.
Surely, there must be exceptions to this rule.
“Sure, elite guys like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia do not have such a variance. But, by and large, the majority of pitchers do,” stated Peterson. For this very reason, a pitch count needs to be kept.
Let’s look at a sampling of pitchers and their performances with elevated pitch counts.
Batting Average and OPS Against with Increasing Pitch Counts
|Pitcher||Pitches 25-50||Pitches 51-75||Pitches 76-100||Pitches 101+|
With the exception of Sabathia, each of the above elite pitchers performed worse after 100 pitches. Now, this only represents a portion of Baseball’s elite over 100 pitches. This does not even include the pitchers like Josh Beckett, Brandon Webb, Cliff Lee, and AJ Burnett who had a small sample size of games over 100 pitches, but saw performance decreases in the 76-100 pitch range.
|Pitcher||Pitches 25-50||Pitches 51-75||Pitches 76-100|
With the aforementioned lack of quality pitching, the pitch count has become increasingly more important. If a team has quantifiable data that demonstrates that their starting pitcher’s performance decreases after a certain number of pitches, it must remove that pitcher in an effort to win the game. It’s that simple.
Many will point to the radar gun when evaluating a pitcher. This is especially true when prospects are discussed. It is often difficult for a pitcher without a 90+ fastball to even get a look from a scout. However, the radar gun is only one factor when evaluating a pitcher. Peterson cites two factors for evaluating a pitcher, “First, we look at how many swings and misses he can get in the strike zone. This is especially important when you consider that the major league batting average of balls put in play is .315. If a pitcher cannot make a batter miss with a pitch in the zone, he is in trouble.”
This would explain why pitchers such as Sabathia, Lincecum, and Santana are dominant and why youngsters Edinson Volquez and Jon Danks were able to breakthrough with great 2008 seasons. It is only logical that pitchers with a pitch or two that can generate strikeouts or swings and misses in the strike zone would be more successful. “Guys with a pitch who can make batters miss are more dangerous. Johan Santana actually has two pitches that he can throw in the strike zone to make batters miss,” said Peterson.
It would also explain why the legendary, future Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux was not as successful in his final season. Maddux only had batters swing and miss on 7.8 percent of his pitches that were in the strike zone. That number is in stark contrast to the 11.9 percent he posted in 2005. It also raises a red flag on pitchers who may have been a bit lucky in 2008. The Mets’ Mike Pelfrey had a good statistical season finishing with a 13 and 11 record and a 3.72 ERA and 1.360 WHIP. But, Pelfrey only had batters swing and miss on 7.9 percent of his pitches that were in the strike zone. To put that in the proper context, his rate is similar to the rates of Livan Hernandez and Zach Duke.
But, there is some hope for Pelfrey when one considers the second most important aspect when evaluating a pitcher’s performance. “Secondly, we look at a pitcher’s ability to induce ground balls. If a pitcher is inducing ground balls, there is much more opportunity to get outs and to get out of a jam with a double play ball,” said Peterson. Pelfrey ranked 15th in all of Baseball with a 1.68 groundball to fly ball ratio. “There’s a reason why guys like Webb and Halladay are so successful. They increase their chances of success by pitching low in the zone and inducing ground balls. Guys like Maddux and Glavine did that for their whole career”, says Peterson. In 2008, Webb ranked first with a 3.15 groundball to fly ball ratio. To illustrate how dominant that is, consider that Derek Lowe finished second with a 2.63 GB/FB ratio.
But, which is more important, swings and misses or inducing ground balls? Peterson explains, “If you had to choose, inducing ground balls is more important. Consider that the batting average of a ball put in play on a 0-0 count is over .325. If the count moves to 1-0 or even 1-1, it jumps to over .500. It only makes sense that you want the ball to get hit on the ground.”
The poster child for choosing ground balls over swings and misses is the Yankees’ Chien Ming Wang. A look at his 2007 season illustrates this point. In ‘07, Wang had just a 7.2 percent swing and miss rate on balls thrown in the strike zone. But, he had the second best groundball to flyball ratio of 2.51 (he was even better in 2006 with a 3.09 rate). Despite a poor strikeout rate, Wang was a 19 game winner in both 2006 and 2007. “In 2007, Wang led the league in double plays induced, finished second in ground ball to fly ball ratio, and gave up the least amount of home runs. Those are qualities of an elite pitcher. Would an overpowering fastball help? Sure. Heck, if Maddux or Glavine had an explosive fastball, they might have won 400 games, “ stated Peterson.
These statistics may also explain why teams may not perform as well. A closer look at the Detroit Tigers would illustrate this point. In 2006, the Tigers won 96 games and went to the World Series. That season, they had a groundball to fly ball ratio of 1.29, which ranked 9th in all of baseball. The 2007 team didn’t fare as well as they won 88 games and missed the playoffs. The 2008 GB/FB ratio was slightly worse at 1.18. The 2008 team finished a disappointing 74-88 and had a 1.09 GB/FB ratio ranking 26th in baseball.
Myth of “Getting Ahead”
One cannot listen to a game without hearing the announcer discuss the importance of getting ahead in the count. While a pitcher should not make a habit of falling behind, Peterson points to some startling statistics. “Sure, you want a pitcher to get ahead, but there is more to it than that. You know what the batting average against is when the there is a new count (0-0)? .339. At 0 and 1, the batting average is .315. Take a guess at what it is if the pitcher falls behind 1 and 0. It’s .339. You are statistically no worse off if you fall behind on the first pitch. It’s really about location.”
Those statistics are quite startling. Here’s a breakdown of the batting average against a pitcher at each count
The numbers do illustrate the point of getting ahead of a hitter, but there is something more important than getting ahead. The important aspect is how a pitcher gets ahead. “You want to pitch to the bottom of the strike zone. The batting average of all balls put in play on a pitch at the bottom of the strike zone is .220. If you do fall behind, make sure it is at the bottom of the strike zone,” said Peterson.
The Makeup of a Successful Pitcher
There are four basic qualities to pitching: velocity, movement, location, and change of speed. To Peterson, the most important aspects are “location and the ability to change speed.” While having velocity and movement are important, a pitcher can carve out a career with “just” location and changing speeds. It is, however, a tough message to get across to a pitching staff. Peterson tells a story of one spring training, “I asked them (his group of pitchers) what they thought was most important. They all said location. After, they said that they thought movement was the next most important. I then asked them if they ever felt like they were over-throwing in game, reaching back for too much when they got in trouble. They all raised their hands. If velocity wasn’t important, why do pitchers overthrow? Pitching is a mental attitude. If a pitcher throws 98 (miles per hour), but right down the plate, major league hitters will hit it. But, a pitcher who can throw one pitch at 91, the next at 82, and the next at 88 with good location won’t get hit.”
So, how do certain pitchers put it all together-the physical tools and the mental aspect? Peterson has an explanation, “Sports psychology has found that winners think differently. They process things differently and react differently.”
With the lack of quality pitching, it would seem that there is not enough attention being paid to the mental side. Consider that the pitcher has the most pressure during the game. It is how the pitcher reacts in that pressure situation that separates the elite from the journeymen. Peterson illustrates the enormous pressure of pitching in a major league game, “Look at it like this-everyone has experienced walking down a sidewalk, right? Let’s say that someone tells you that if one foot hits a blade of grass, you’re done. Most of us could handle that. Now, let’s put that sidewalk 500 feet high where if you step off the sidewalk, you fall off. The task of walking is essentially the same, but the pressure of ‘falling’ brings out different emotions. It’s still walking, but with added pressure. Certain people will be equipped to handle it while certain people couldn’t deal with the pressure. It’s similar to a pitcher throwing a bullpen or in spring training. Once the intensity of a game starts with 50,000 people in the stands and the pressure of a pennant race, then the emotional piece comes in.”
Physical tools are important, but the ability to perform under some pressure is what makes a good pitcher. Pitchers like Curt Schilling and John Smoltz have that ability.
Category: FCP Classic