The Mockingbird

Posts Tagged ‘pitch f/x

A different look at BABIP

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Boy, I had no idea there was such hate out there for BABIP. I’ve gotten some emails that even made it sound like I actually discovered something new here, when I was really just trying to tell the mainstream to go re-read their SABR manual. I do have something else to add that has been rolling around in my head for ages, and it’s about BABIP for pitchers. Warning: it’s pretty spacey. And very nerdy. I’ll have some wacky photoshopped pictures of Bautista’s head on someone else’s body next week, I promise.

The problem

There was an outcry when it was discovered that BABIP was essentially the same for all pitchers. McCracken’s statement that: “there is little if any difference among major-league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play” simply made no sense to baseball minds.

Although that statement has been softened over the years (we now know that the ability is just very, very, small, and almost impossible to see through all the luck), it’s still deeply troubling. This is because it implies that the ball comes off the bat on a dirty slider on the outside corner is just as good as on a slow fastball down the middle. Pitchers can only hit, or miss, bats – otherwise it’s all the same. Pitching to contact does not exist.

That makes no intuitive sense, and even less if you’ve ever tried to hit a 90-mph fastball. If some major league pitcher was facing a team full of me’s, it’s obvious he would have a really low BABIP as I dribbled the occasional ball back to the mound and popped up a few (in addition to putting Pizza Pizza out of business). Ok, I’m an absurdly low-talent example, but the variety in quality of swings and pitches to hit in baseball is pretty wide, too. All contact can’t be the same.

And it isn’t. Different counts show different BABIP’s. Different locations, too. Breaking pitches each have  different BABIP‘s. So why wouldn’t a pitcher who threw more breaking balls have a consistently and significantly lower BABIP? Or one with significantly better control? And how do all these different numbers in different situations possibly even out to be the same for everyone?

Important realization #1

At least to some extent, the reason is that these factors are in balance. Throw tons of sliders, or pitch to the corners, and on those pitches you’re going to get weaker contact (i.e. a lower BABIP). But you’re also going to fall behind in the count more often and have to come in with a fastball down the middle, which will be hit harder (and thus for a higher BABIP).

Conversely, if you’re pounding the zone with fastballs, you’re going to give up more hits because that’s fastballs do, but you’re also going to be getting ahead more often, since they’re easier to control. (And the closer to down the middle you aim them, the more hits you give up, but the more often you get ahead). The advantage of being ahead in the count will balance to some degree disadvantage of throwing pitches that are more hittable.

A good example is a guy like Jesse Carlson, who broke into the league throwing more sliders than anyone else in the league (Fangraphs says 56%, pitch f/x says higher), and maintained a .230 BABIP over his first season. His second time around the league made the adjustment and stopped swinging at so many his sliders, meaning he was constantly working from behind against guys sitting fastball. He went through a really tough time, and then adjusted. He is a far more normal pitcher now, with a normal BABIP.

Hypothesis

Maybe why everyone’s BABIP is similar that it is the “golden mean” for how much you should nibble, how much of the plate you should on average be catching. If your BABIP goes below league average, that means your stuff is nasty enough that you should be challenging hitters more, and getting more strikeouts at the expense of a little BABIP. If it goes way above, you’re finding too much of the plate and should work the corners or throw a ball once in a while, even if it means your walk rate goes up a little.

My big shiny idea is that (underneath the mighty wallop of luck that runs through it) the reason pitchers see a very consistent BABIP is not that “all balls in play are the same”, but because the optimal level of aggression in pitching for most pitchers — neither getting ahead too often or too little — results in a BABIP of that value.

Examples

1) Imagine a pitcher whose BABIP happens to be exactly .300. Lets say we teach him a slider he can only throw once in an at-bat — but it’s the best slider in existence! Guys just can’t touch it, and when they do, they only manage a .100 BABIP off it. But our imaginary pitcher is an idiot, so he throws it only on the first pitch of an at-bat. As a result, his BABIP goes down, and statisticians everywhere say that he’s been getting really lucky.

But then his catcher and pitching coach have a long talk with him, and convince him that he’s got to start using this thing for better use – punching guys out. It’s going to be a lot better if he can get guaranteed outs rather than guaranteed first strikes. So he starts throwing it on 0-2, and punches out a whole bunch of guys who were behind in the count and more likely to put the ball in play weakly — so his BABIP starts going back up, as his nastiness is correctly being converted into a much better result: maximum strikeouts. See! We say, he stopped getting lucky!

2) Now take another guy who of a sudden becomes incredibly hittable. He is overnight Joshified (Towerized?), and as you would expect, his BABIP goes way up as hitters start gearing up and crushing the ball off him, over the wall, etc. Statheads scream “how unlucky!” (As we did in 2004, when Josh Towers put together one of the worst seasons in baseball, but had a BABIP of .341). After a barrage of towering upper-deck shots, he will almost certainly become more fine: picking out the corners and throwing more junk, effective or not, will lower his BABIP (at the expense of some walks). And since he can’t quite finish guys off as well he used to with his weakened repertoire, what used to be K’s on 0-2 now result in the kind of weak contact you get on 0-2 lowering his BABIP further (although not necessarily making him any better). “It’s starting to even out!”, we cry…

I don’t know exactly how much this is happening, but it’s almost certainly part of the answer. Otherwise, pitch f/x analysis tells us electric stuff would mean lower BABIP, just as you would expect.

Possible ramifications

Once again, the real excitement is hit f/x, which will make this look like child’s play. But it’s possible that we could use BABIP to understand when a pitcher is catching too much of the plate or working around hitters too often. Although obviously only to some extent, because there’s still so much luck. But think about a 2008 Matsuzaka. He had a really low BABIP, and I think a lot of baseball experts, or anyone who watched his games, felt like he was underperforming in some ways for his stuff, because he pitched in such an odd, backwards, not MLB optimal BABIP style (and a .258 BABIP).

Or Roy Halladay. There were a few seasons when he was almost certainly “pitching to contact” because because of concerns about his arm. In 2005 and 2006, he had a BABIP of .262, and .276. There’s no way that was a coincidence, or an unmaintainable result. He struck out about one less a game, and just by watching him pitch you know why his K rate was so low and his GB rate so high – he’d get guys to 0-2 and throw a third sinking fastball, stuff like that. The use of his power curve dropped dramatically. And the truth is, he wasn’t as effective – his ERA+ dipped to 143 and then 121. Sometimes those 0-2 tappers would go through.

Now the doc is back to converting those weak 0-2 grounders into K’s again, and his overall numbers have increased dramatically (up to a 165 ERA+) over the last three years, while his BABIP has stopped being abnormally low. I would suggest that he was negatively affecting his results by pitching too aggressively, and has now returned to optimal.

Summary

A possible alternative (or at least a contributing factor) to the reason that pitchers don’t have widely different BABIP’s being that they have extremely low “ability” to affect what happens to balls in play is that deviating from the norm, or the perfect balance between contact, walks, and K’s eventually interferes negatively with your results, and is therefore weeded out, or corrected by major league pitchers. It may be possible to peer through the randomness involved in BABIP in order to use it to make general statistical statements about pitchers being too straightforward, or too crafty for their own good.

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Written by halejon

February 10, 2011 at 1:08 am

Doc Halladay Has Surgery

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“Doc Halladay has surgery,” Hunter said. “He was a doctor today. You have got to give it to him. He had surgery on all of us.

That’s not a pretty quote…but here are some pretty pictures of what Halladay did to the Angels in a stunning 133-pitch performance en route to a career-high 14 strikeouts. First, the pitches he threw (incidentally, he baffled the automatic pitch algorithm all night, so if you were watching on gameday it told you he threw nothing but sinking fastballs). 2 Changeups, 33 curves, 40 sinkers and 58 cutters:

hallmove

Is it just me, or does it look like Halladay is throwing two different kinds of cutters again? He only threw his changeup twice all night, but didn’t need it against lefties, as his two seamer was in control. All 6 of his swinging strikeouts came against his curve, and most of his strikes looking came on his cut fastball:

hallmovestrikes

Now here’s his pitch location (looking from behind the plate):

“We’re doing different things now, kind of throwing everything to both sides which at times will give you a lot more takes and swings and misses.”

HalllocInteresting that he gets away with a lot of high cutters over the middle of the plate (although that starts at a right-handed batter’s neck). Here’s the same graph with all his strikes labelled:

halllocswings

Notice he seems to get better calls on his cutter, including one almost 4 inches off the plate. Some of that is likely due to the bending around the plate effect (or at least the umpire’s exaggeration of it) effect discussed in this article by Josh Kalk over at the Hardball Times. I’m trying to think of a way to show how much effect that should have…

The only blemish on Halladay’s evening was the 7th, when the Angels scored all their runs as the result of a couple of very hittable 0-2 pitches, a walk, and a couple of sac flies.  It was just a blip for Halladay, but you can see it in his velocity, which was down on both his fastball and cutter to start that inning:

hallvel

Maybe the Jays left Halladay sitting on the bench too long by hitting all those singles and scoring 3 runs in the bottom of the 6th, because he came out cold. Otherwise, Halladay did not tail off at all towards the end of the game at all (as almost all pitchers typically do) – his 130th pitch was a 94.7 mph sinker.

Written by halejon

June 3, 2009 at 5:48 am

Hudson + Lester = 4ever

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The Jays weren’t exactly doing themselves any favours at the plate tonight – but then neither was home plate ump Marvin Hudson. Not only was he calling strikes over 4 inches off the plate, but he was doing it in high leverage situations. His worst calls punched out Hill and Rolen, then Bautista’s at bat with two on started with a doozy and he ended up grounding into a double play.

lester

Ray only got one gift — although he didn’t “nibble” that sweet spot 4 inches off the plate as often. C’mon, Blue! Get off your knees!

bobby

Written by halejon

May 22, 2009 at 1:22 am

Posted in Seriousness

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A One-Trick Purcey

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If you watched every pitch of the game tonight, I both applaud and shake my head sadly at your dedication, as David Purcey looked absolutely horrible, alternating between not being able to find the plate with a map and giving up monster bombs to Jose Freaking Guillen and one of the worst offences in the league.

Captain obvious brings us the breaking news that Purcey didn’t have his fastball control, but it was more than that – he didn’t even try to throw his slider, tossing a mere 7 compared to the 43 he threw against (random example) the Indians. And his Big Curve is pretty much a show me pitch these days too – 21 of Purcey’s first 22 pitches were fastballs, and he threw 16 straight fastballs in the third. That’s not going to cut it in the bigs.

purse

But wait — he did compensate somewhat by mixing in a changeup, a pitch that he’s only thrown twice to date in 2009. Except sadly, it’s more of a “slowball”, really, because it has zero drop or movement to it (there’s actually one more that should be labelled a change but that confuses pitch f/x). Of the 6 that he threw on the night, two of them were hit for the aformentioned monster bombs by Jose Guillen. It might be time to cut off Barajas’ ring finger so he can’t call for it any more…

Incidentally, if you’ve been following Purcey’s career, you know that both his hot-and-cold outings last year and brilliant spring followed by a 7+ ERA through five starts are par for the course. That’s what you get with good stuff and zero command, and what we’re signed up for a lot of with all the children in the rotation this year. Although Casey Janssen pitched in AA today, and went 4 scoreless, allowing 2 hits and walking 2. If they’re stretching him out to start, Purcey might not be around for too long with Litsch and Romero coming back in mid-May.

Written by halejon

April 28, 2009 at 12:46 am

Peeing on a Picasso

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Well, so much for the “rising cutter”…Halladay only threw one kind of cut fastball today as he demolished the Indians. It was the same boring old deadly consistent Doc. Only thing of note is that all the hits came off his sinker – his cutter and Curve went for no contact other than ground outs.

And what to say about B.J. Ryan’s latest collapse except that he couldn’t find the plate? Maybe that he’s still not throwing his slider, and certainly not effectively. Ryan’s first 13 pitches today were fastballs, and then then his first slider was smacked for a single. It also looks like he’s trying to pick at the corners with his 88 mph fastball.

ryan-balls-and-strikes

Written by halejon

April 11, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Romero’s Release

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Ricky Romero’s release point – mostly not terrible, but you can see that he comes over the top for his breaking pitches, sometimes very much so. Most pitches have something like this slight (4 inches) difference in where their fastballs and breaking pitches come from, however. I lumped all of his fastballs together for some resaon – as you would expect, the ones that bleed into his curves and sliders are the cutters.

romeros-release-point

Written by halejon

April 11, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Strikeouts are Fascist. (Walks, too)

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Like many of you, my first foray into pitch f/x was born of eternal frustration with MLB umpires. After a series of ludicrous game ending calls, I spent a frankly embarrassing amount of time assembling a database and thinking about how to get a handle on the strike zone, dreaming of finding that one guy who is in love with the Red Sox, or takes Derek Jeter’s word that any pitches he doesn’t swing at are balls, or just loves punching guys out so he can do his wicked fist pump and scream combo.

It didn’t work. Sample sizes were way too small, umps are nowhere near as bad as they look on TV, and even what a “bad” strike zone is up for debate (is inconsistent or inexact the bigger problem?). Even worse, it seemed to indicate that the Jays got some of the best calls in the league that year so I dutifully lost interest and failed to publish the results. Some interesting tidbits leaked out onto the interwebs though:

There were a couple more that I found fascinating but never made it into an article before the umpires union pulled the plug on me, and I will stop trying to puff this into a full post and just spill the beans now:

It’s pretty obvious sometimes that on a 3 and 0 count if the catcher can stop the ball from going to the backstop it will be called a strike. That’s true, but there’s more. Using the stat SAA (strikes about average over a full game of pitches – there’s a full explanation in the first Hardball Times article above), here’s a breakdown of extra strikes by count for every umpire over an entire year:

Count SAA
3-0 9.3
2-0 5.3
1-0 2.8
3-1 2.2
0-0 2.0
2-1 -1.3
1-1 -1.6
3-2 -2.1
2-2 -3.3
0-1 -4.1
1-2 -4.2
0-2 -5.1

That’s in order by SAA, but also goes from most favourable to least favourable hitters’ counts (with one or two that should be flipped). Translation: not only does the zone get really big on 3-0 and really small on 0-2, but along the way it gets smaller and larger depending on whether the pitcher or batter is ahead in the count. Umps alter their strike zone to even up the count, and thus extend at-bats.

Now I have to ask the same question about the circular zone and the two extra inches off the plate that on average umpires give: if every player knows this and/or has gotten used to it over the years, is it still a bad thing?

Written by halejon

January 3, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Posted in Seriousness

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