Contact % |
|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)|
The main reason for comparing these charts is that when commentators speak of active pitchers who personify the wisdom of “pitching to contact,” they will almost always turn to Cliff Lee and Doc Halladay as examples. One of Chip’s conclusions is as follows:
“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.”
In principle, I agree completely. However, of the 70 pitchers who have pitched 700+ innings in the last five seasons, Halladay ranks 42nd and Lee ranks 56th in Contact%, much nearer the bottom than the top. Why have they been able to succeed in the face of the uncertainty created by batted balls? To answer this question, I’d like to address the vaunted Philadelphia Phillies rotation. It’s useful here for a few reasons. Firstly, all five pitchers in it have logged an abundance of innings over the last five years, so it provides us with a decent-sized data set. More to the point, however, the Phillies cover something close to the full spectrum of contact rates. I think it’s possible that, as a group, they provide something of a synecdoche for more wide-ranging statistical trends.
|Name |||Contact % |||WAR |||ERA |||K/BB |||GB% ||
|Name |||Swing % |||Z-Swing% |||Z-Contact% |||O-Swing% |||O-Contact% ||
Z = Pitches in Zone
O= Pitches Outside Zone
The conventional wisdom about Roy Halladay is that “pounding the strike zone” and “pitching to contact” (at least situationally) are his secrets to success, the reason why he consistently maintains low pitch counts (per inning), pitches deep into games, and leads the league in wins, innings, and complete games. I’ve been watching Halladay religiously for years and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard announcer decree, “he’s not afraid to throw strikes” or “you better go up there hacking.” But according to the data, Doc spends less time in the zone than any of his Philadelphia teammates. The fact is, over the course of his career, Halladay has been “attacking the zone” less and less. Since his first full season in the Jays rotation, 2002, the percentage of balls he’s thrown in the strike zone has been progressively descending, to the point where he threw to the zone only 48.6% of the time in 2010, compared to 55% of the time during his first Cy Young season (2003). You see, Halladay’s secret isn’t throwing strikes, it’s getting hitters to create their own strikes. As you can see, he has an extremely high O-Swing%, and it’s been even higher in the last three seasons. Hitters “hack away,” and, as a result, he turns a third of the pitches he throws outside the zone into strikes.
Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt really do throw strikes. They rank #1 and #2 in percentage of pitches thrown to the strike zone over the last five seasons, both at greater than 55%. The distinction I think is most important to observe from this chart, is that it isn’t throwing strikes, as Oswalt and Lee do, that’s most important, nor is it creating contact, as Lee does, nor even avoiding contact, as Hamels does. The Phillies four Aces have all been extremely productive pitchers over the last five seasons, though their approaches vary rather wildly, because in one category they are remarkably similar. The top four pitchers in the Phillies rotation all rank in the top six in Swing% over the last five seasons. Not contact rate. Not Zone%. Not strikeout rate or K/BB ratio. Not GB/FB ratio. The Phillies Aces don’t pitch to provoke contact, they don’t pitch to avoid contact, nor to get a particular type of contact. They pitch to provoke attempts at contact.
One would expect that when the batters takes a cut, it’s a bad thing for the opposing team. That’s how offense is created, right? But Swing% statistics suggest, quite to the contrary, that the more often the hitter takes the bat off his shoulder, the better it is for his opponents, or at least for the long-term success of the starting pitcher. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels are all lumped together, provoking the batter to swing close to half the time. Blanton, on the other hand, the least successful pitcher in the rotation, provokes a swing less than 45% of the time. As we all know, hitters fail far more often than they succeed. The more often you induce a batter to action, presumably, the more often you can take advantage of percentages which tilt in your favor.
You can see further circumstantial evidence of this fact when you look at the swing percentages of great hitters. Swing% for batters is one aspect of that critical skill we often refer to as “plate discipline.” Of course, it was famously difficult to get a hitter like Barry Bonds to flinch. Analyzing Swing% doesn’t necessarily have to imply high walk rates or pitches per plate appearance, although I suspect they frequently do correlate. Regardless of their approach, hitter frequently do better when they swing less. For Prince Fielder‘s first three seasons, his Swing% was consistently above 47%, in the last two he’s decreased that to around 44%, which means he takes about 100 less swings over the course of the season. The result, if you assume a correlation, is that he’s had huge upswing in walks and OBP, as well as increasing his Park-Adjusted Batting Runs Created from 29.3 per season to 45.2 per season.
This is, I want to emphasize, a very cursory and selective look at the subject, but one which I think exposes the extent to which over the long haul attempting to wholly avoid contact isn’t any better than actively coveting it. It is by no means a defense of the “pitch to contact” philosophy. What I’m suggesting, rather, is that the more practicable version may be “pitching to the possibility of contact,” which can be done in a number of different ways, and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with throwing strikes, as the pitchers in Philadelphia’s rotation have shown us.