First of all, I’m not sure why Madden feels it’s necessary to bring up Hughes and Nova in this discussion. For starters, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many 24 year old power pitchers that suddenly lose 2-3 MPH off of their fastball over a winter—well, unless there’s an undocumented physical ailment causing said loss in velocity. Still, Hughes’s problem appears to be that he’s allowing far too much contact (92.9% contact rate). Thus far, he’s allowed 19 hits and struck out only three in 10-1/3 innings. If anything, pitching to contact is killing his ability to be an effective pitcher.
As for Nova, his entire career up to this point has been based on pitching to contact and inducing ground balls. His problem during Friday’s start wasn’t that he was trying to avoid contact, but that he walked five batters in 4-1/3 innings. I suppose you could argue that Nova didn’t have command of his pitches or didn’t trust his stuff (whatever that means), but it’s not like you could call the start “out of the ordinary.” For whatever reason, he walks guys. It’s been this way his entire career. During his five year stint in the minor leagues, Nova walked three batters per nine innings on average. Last season with the Yankees, Nova posted a 3.6 BB/9 rate. While five walks in one game might seem a bit high; when you post walk rates like the ones I just mentioned, games like Friday are going to happen from time-to-time. This is especially true when you’re dealing with a raw 24 year old pitcher.
Secondly (and most importantly), Madden waxes about Garcia’s start as if it were a magical, repeatable event. It wasn’t. While Garcia might be able to recapture that magic (or at least a reasonable facsimile) over the next four or five starts; eventually, regression will catch up with him. It always does. The problem with Madden’s perception of Garcia’s performance was that the actual result doesn’t jive at all with the expected result. In fact, the two data sets aren’t even in the same ballpark—no pun intended.
|Actual||Hits Allowed||xBABIP||x Hits Allowed|
Given the batted ball data expressed in the chart above, we find that Garcia should have been reasonably expected to give up 7-8 hits (7.49 to be exact) over the six innings he pitched on Saturday—not two. Why the discrepancy? Well, for starters, Garcia was exceptionally lucky on batted balls categorized as line drives. With the line drive xBABIP being .730, we should have expected at least three or four of those line drives to fall in for hits. Instead, only one fell in. Furthermore, due to the nature of line drives, there’s a strong possibility (under typical circumstances) those hits could have been of the extra base variety; thereby increasing the run expectancy of those situations.
I’m sure that at least a few of you are thinking, “But he didn’t give up those hits for extra bases, so why does this matter?” I would agree with you. They weren’t extra base hits. Those line drives were converted into outs. Perhaps we should take his performance at face value, right?
The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes Garcia (and Garcia alone) was responsible for the outcomes of each batted ball. He wasn’t. There were several factors outside of his control that played a major role in his overall performance including defense, defensive positioning, and wind speed/pattern (among others). Can we assume that each factor in each situation will remain identical in his next start? Or fifth start? Or twelfth start? No, and that’s the problem. Even if the Yankees toted out the same defensive alignment (Jones, Granderson, and Swisher) in every one of his starts, each player would perform differently not only from game-to-game, but also play-to-play. Furthermore, defensive alignments can change depending on the handedness of the batter at the plate, base-run situation, and game situation (i.e score). For example, a line drive hit down the right field line could be converted into an out if the right fielder is playing a left-handed hitter to pull. By the same token, if the RF is playing the same batter to hit the ball the opposite way, that same line drive would likely fall in for a hit to become a double—or even a triple depending on that batter’s foot speed. Essentially, defense and luck became primary factors in Garcia’s ability to avoid hits.
This brings me to my next point.
“(Garcia’s effort) just goes to show you don’t have to throw 95 if you locate, change speeds, use the whole strike zone and have command of all your pitches,” Joe Girardi said admiringly.
Said Garcia: “I don’t throw hard anymore so I’ve got to pitch to contact … go out and compete. That’s all I can do.”
While Girardi’s statement about pitchers still being effective despite not having plus velocity is true, most successful pitchers typically have plus secondary pitches that allow them induce whiffs and accumulate strikeouts at a rate near the league average. Garcia no longer has that ability. While he still has effective secondary pitches (curve and change), they’re no longer “plus” pitches that can be relied upon to put away batters with regularity. As a result, I’m not sure Garcia’s ability to pound the strike zone will end up being all that helpful in the long run. In fact, his inability to coax swinging strikes or induce contact on pitches thrown outside of the zone will be the primary reason he’ll have trouble accumulating long strings of outs over the course of the season. Pitchers who pound the zone with strikes also have a tendency to leave the ball up and over the center-half of the plate. What do hitters (even the bad ones) do with pitches left over the center-half of the plate? They either hit the pitch out of the park, or rope a line drive to the outfield. We’ve seen this kind of stuff repeatedly with the likes of pitchers like Paul Byrd and John Burkett over the years. Freddy Garcia isn’t any different.
Obviously, anecdotal evidence is nice, but it only takes you so far. In order to drive home my point, I decided to look for statistical evidence that showed in most cases (there are always exceptions) pitchers who allow lower rates of contact tended to be more successful than those who allow greater levels of contact. I ran a query on Fangraphs for pitchers with the highest contact rate between 2006 and 2010, and compared it to their K/9, ERA, FIP, and xFIP. To limit potential outliers due to small samples, I’ve included only pitchers that pitched at least 700 innings during that time period. There were 63 pitchers that qualified, and I’ve included their ranking in parenthesis next to their stats. Here are the ten pitchers with the highest contact rate:
|Livan Hernandez||87.7%||4.53 (62)||4.94 (63)||4.79 (60)||4.94 (62)|
|Joel Pineiro||87.5%||4.82 (56)||4.56 (51)||4.25 (36)||4.07 (28)|
|Aaron Cook||85.9%||4.00 (63)||4.26 (46)||4.29 (39)||4.27 (35)|
|Zach Duke||85.8%||4.59 (61)||4.80 (61)||4.45 (47)||4.41 (46T)|
|Jason Marquis||85.7%||4.79 (58T)||4.86 (62)||4.94 (62)||4.87 (59)|
|Jeff Suppan||85.7%||4.72 (60)||4.68 (56)||5.05 (63)||4.84 (57)|
|Joe Saunders||85.7%||5.15 (54)||4.25 (45)||4.57 (51)||4.55 (53)|
|Paul Maholm||85.7%||5.57 (48)||4.58 (54)||4.30 (41)||4.25 (32T)|
|Mark Buehrle||85.6%||4.79 (58T)||4.10 (31)||4.36 (43)||4.40 (45)|
|Jeremy Guthrie||85.3%||5.47 (51)||4.03 (30)||4.69 (57)||4.63 (56)|
Before we make any conclusions about the above chart, let’s take a look at the flipside of the spectrum. Using the same parameters I used in the first example, let’s take a look the ten pitchers with the lowest contact rates.
|Cole Hamels||74.9%||8.54 (5)||3.54 (14T)||3.77 (19)||3.51 (7)|
|Tim Lincecum||74.9%||10.07 (1)||3.04 (4)||2.86 (1)||3.15 (1)|
|C.C. Sabathia||76.1%||8.00 (16)||3.13 (5)||3.25 (4)||3.49 (6)|
|Johan Santana||76.8%||8.34 (8)||2.93 (1T)||3.52 (10)||3.61 (11)|
|Jake Peavy||77.1%||9.18 (2)||3.39 (10)||3.34 (6)||3.56 (9)|
|Javier Vazquez||77.1%||8.57 (4)||4.24 (38)||3.85 (22)||3.71 (15)|
|Scott Kazmir||77.3%||8.74 (3)||4.16 (33)||4.20 (34)||4.25 (33)|
|Chad Billingsley||78.0%||8.14 (12)||3.51 (12)||3.72 (16)||3.98 (27)|
|Jered Weaver||78.2%||7.82 (19)||3.55 (16)||3.75 (17)||4.12 (29)|
|Ubaldo Jimenez||78.4%||8.11 (14)||3.54 (14T)||3.59 (13)||3.87 (19)|
After reviewing the two charts, it’s abundantly clear to anyone with eyes and a couple of functioning brain cells that pitchers with low contact rates not only strikeout batters at a higher rate, but also produce lower ERAs, FIPs, and xFIPs than pitchers with higher contact rates. There are, of course, several other factors that play into pitcher performance (ability to avoid walks, GB/FB ratio, tendency to give up home runs, etc.), but they typically won’t sway a low contact pitcher’s performance from above average to below average and vice-versa. While there are a few exceptions to the general rule (Buehrle, Guthrie, Kazmir, and Vazquez for example), the correlation holds up pretty well.
So this begs the question: If pitching to contact is such a great concept, then why don’t its benefits show up in the results-oriented statistics? It’s simple. The concept is wrong. It doesn’t actually work. Whereas striking a batter out guarantees an out, allowing the hitter to put the ball in play creates uncertainty around the situation.* As I mentioned earlier, out conversions on balls in play are dependent on the talent of the defense, defensive positioning, defensive routes taken, park factors, game situation, and many others (like the luck dragon) that reside outside of the pitcher’s sphere of control. Literally, anything can happen on a ball-in-play, so removing that possibility from the equation (via the strikeout) will typically lead to fewer hits; and therefore, fewer runs allowed on average.
* GB xBABIP – .240; FB xBABIP – .150; LD xBABIP – .730; K xBABIP – .000
There’s a perception that pitchers who allow greater rates of contact have lower, more efficient pitch counts than those who strike batters out. This is simply not true. While allowing contact may lead to lower pitch counts, it’s by no means a guarantee. Why? Because we’re assuming that (1) contact always occurs early in the count, and (2) balls put into play are being converted for outs. These two things may or may not be true. The outcome of those events are largely reliant on external factors.
Furthermore, the factor that drives pitch count more so than anything is not strikeout rates, but strike/ball counts. If you have a pitcher who either walks batters at a high rate, or allows hitters to work them into deep counts, allowing high rates of contact won’t keep said pitcher’s pitch count low. By the same token, pitchers like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Greg Maddux have historically shown they have/had the ability pitch a complete game, while making only 100-110 pitches and striking out 10+ batters. Could these three pitchers be exceptions to the rule? Absolutely, but it drives home an important piont. All three have/had a tendency to not only get in favorable pitcher’s counts, but also limit walks. Perhaps the pitch to contact crowd would be better served if they stopped railing against strikeout pitchers (like Francisco Liriano), and instead focus on those who exhibit below average control.
I’m certainly not suggesting that pitchers go to the mound with the intent of striking every batter out and avoiding all contact. That’s not only unrealistic, but also leads to pitchers overthrowing and making additional unnecessary mistakes over the plate. Additionally, there are some guys that will never be strikeout pitchers. Instead, I’m suggesting that pitchers go to the mound without a specific agenda for how they’ll get batters out. The best way for pitchers to get batters out is by setting them up and attacking/expanding the edges of the strike zone. For example, if pitcher A sets up batter B, and gets him to swing and miss at a slider sweeping out of the zone, great. By the same token, if he sets up batter C, and gets him to hit a broken bat grounder on a cutter on the hands, that’s fine too. The point of pitching is not for pitchers to pitch to contact and trust the defense, but instead keep hitters off balance and use the full range of their repertoire to get hitters out.
While a pitcher will occasionally have success while posting low strikeout totals; more often than not (provided he produces acceptable walk and home run rates), he’ll have far more success when he’s striking hitters out a league average rate or higher. The law of averages demands it.