Continuing the Discussion on Pitching to Contact

Here’s how the top ten stacks up:

Chart 1-A

Name Swing % K/9 ERA FIP fWAR
Scott Baker 53.6 % 7.18 (24) 4.39 (47) 4.04 (28) 13.2 (37)
Johan Santana 51.9% 8.34 (8) 2.93 (1T) 3.52 (10) 22.9 (8)
Cole Hamels 49.8% 8.54 (5) 3.53 (15) 3.77 (19) 18.2 (19)
Cliff Lee 49.5% 6.80 (39) 3.60 (19) 3.50 (9) 23.5 (7)
Roy Halladay 49.2% 6.89 (35) 2.97 (3) 3.24 (3) 32.6 (1)
Roy Oswalt 49.2% 7.10 (29) 3.28 (8) 3.53 (11) 21.5 (9T)
Aaron Harang 49.1% 7.86 (18) 4.23 (36T) 4.11 (30) 15.2 (28)
C.C. Sabathia 49.1% 8.00 (16) 3.13 (5) 3.25 (4) 31.6 (2)
Javier Vazquez 48.1% 8.57 (4) 4.24 (38) 3.85 (22) 21.0 (11)
James Shields 47.9% 7.39 (21) 4.26 (41T) 4.03 (27) 16.6 (25)


A few things jump out at me immediately.  The first thing that jumps out is that the “four aces” in the Phillies rotation are ranked 3rd through 6th in swing % over the course of our sample period.  It makes me wonder if Ruben Amaro is more competent than I’d originally thought.  (Oh wait…the Ryan Howard contract!  Nevermind.)  The second thing I noticed is that two Twins stalwarts (one current and one former), Scott Baker and Johan Santana sit at the top of this list.  As Brien reminded us recently, the Twins are the standard bearers for the pitching to contact mantra.  Lastly, only four pitchers (Santana, Hamels, Sabathia, and Vazquez) carried over from the contact % list to the swing % list.  I don’t know if that means anything, but I find it interesting nonetheless.  Still, I don’t want to make any conclusions just yet.  Let’s take a look at the bottom ten first.

Chart 1-B

Name Swing % K/9 ERA FIP fWAR
Livan Hernandez 41.3% 4.53 (62) 4.94 (63) 4.79 (60) 8.2 (56)
Doug Davis 41.9% 6.83 (36) 4.56 (51) 4.58 (52) 9.3 (50)
Barry Zito 42.9% 6.44 (41) 4.31 (43) 4.60 (54) 9.6 (48)
Jamie Moyer 43.5% 5.27 (53) 4.57 (52) 4.88 (61) 6.4 (62)
Derek Lowe 43.6% 5.87 (47) 3.88 (24) 3.77 (20) 17.9 (20)
Jason Marquis 43.7% 4.79 (58T) 4.86 (62) 4.94 (62) 6.6 (61)
Adam Wainwright 43.8% 7.36 (24) 2.93 (1T) 3.35 (7) 17.5 (21)
Chad Billingsley 43.9% 8.14 (12) 3.51 (12) 3.72 (16) 14.0 (34)
Ubaldo Jimenez 43.9% 8.11 (14) 3.54 (14T) 3.59 (13) 17.4 (22)
A.J. Burnett 44.1% 8.49 (6) 4.22 (35) 4.14 (32) 16.0 (26)


While the overall quality of the group in Chart 1-B is clearly lower than the group in Chart 1-A; the results are still a bit of a mixed bag.  While we should expect high contact guys like Hernandez and Marquis to be on this list due to their inability to get hitters to chase and/or whiff at pitches, the inclusion of pitchers like Chad Billingsley and Ubaldo Jimenez (both top ten low contact guys) on this list is most curious.  How could pitchers who avoid contact also avoid swings?  It seems counterintuitive, right?  Yes and no.  If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that most of these pitchers throw curve balls and/or sliders at a high rate.

Why is this phenomenon important?  It’s simple.  Curve balls and sliders (although less so than the curve) tend to have high “watch rates.”  For those unfamiliar with the term, “watch rate” refers to the rate at which a hitter chooses not to swing at a particular pitch.  While both pitches can induce whiffs (especially a hard, biting slider), hitters pass on these pitches especially if they’re thrown early in the count.  This explains why a Cy Young caliber pitcher like Adam Wainwright, who throws curve balls and sliders upwards of 40% of the time, can be included on the list with the likes of Moyer and Davis.  On the flip side, the pitchers on the first list predominantly throw fastballs, sinkers, and change-ups which tend to induce much higher swing rates.

While a high swing % might typically indicate better stuff, and therefore, consistently better performances, pitchers with lower swing rates aren’t necessarily doomed to being poor performers with lesser quality stuff.  In fact, a few of the pitchers on the low swing % list not only have great stuff, but among the league’s top pitchers.  The problem with using swing % in this instance is that it’s far more reliant on a pitcher’s repertoire than his talent.  As a result, we should probably use a different statistic to determine why pitchers like Halladay and Lee who have non-elite level contact rates remain incredibly successful.

Instead of Swing %, let’s look at O-swing %, which measures the number of times a pitcher induces swings on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone.  Like with the swing % group, we’re going to use the same parameters—starting pitchers who threw at least 700 innings between 2006 and 2010.  Here’s the top ten in O-swing %:

Chart 2-A

Name O-Swing% K/9 ERA FIP fWAR
Scott Baker 31.5% 7.18 (24) 4.39 (47) 4.04 (28) 13.2 (37)
Roy Halladay 30.7% 6.89 (35) 2.97 (3) 3.24 (3) 32.6 (1)
C.C. Sabathia 30.4% 8.00 (16) 3.13 (5) 3.25 (4) 31.6 (2)
Jake Peavy 30.1% 9.18 (2) 3.39 (10) 3.34 (6) 17.3 (24)
Dan Haren 30.0% 8.10 (15) 3.52 (13) 3.56 (12) 26.0 (3)
Mark Buehrle 29.5% 4.79 (58T) 4.10 (31) 4.36 (43) 17.4 (23)
Javier Vazquez 29.4% 8.57 (4) 4.24 (38) 3.85 (22) 21.0 (11)
Johan Santana 29.2% 8.34 (8) 2.93 (1T) 3.52 (10) 22.9 (8)
John Lackey 29.1% 7.17 (27) 3.69 (21) 3.76 (18) 21.5 (9T)
Cole Hamels 28.8% 8.54 (5) 3.53 (15) 3.77 (19) 18.2 (19)


(Cliff Lee places 17th out of 63 with an O-Swing % of 27.3%.  If we limited the sample to his prime years of 2008 to 2010, his O-Swing % would have been 29.4%, good for ninth in baseball.)

Not surprisingly, six pitchers carry over from Chart 1-A to Chart 2-A.  Scott Baker is yet again at the top of the list.  As a pitcher with an above-average K/9 rate, solid BB/9 rate, and an ability to get hitters to chase after “pitchers pitches,” one would think he’d fare better in the ERA, FIP, and fWAR categories.  Then again, there are several other factors that affect performance outside of the ones we’ve looked at both today and last week.  Being a fly ball pitcher, Baker has to contend with not only the potential for allowing home runs at a higher rate than a neutral or ground ball pitcher, but also the Twins atrocious outfield defense.  Once you include those factors into the equation, his performance in the ERA, FIP, and fWAR categories becomes understandable.

Mark Buehrle is another interesting outlier in that he strikes few batters out; walks batters at a very low rate; leans (but not heavily) toward the ground ball side of the GB/FB ratio; and allows home runs at a rate near the league average.  Outside of limiting walks, he doesn’t have a particular skill at which he excels.  Furthermore, Buehrle has the reputation for throwing strikes.  Interestingly enough, during the five year time frame we’re covering, only 49.5% of his pitches have been seen in the strike zone for strikes.  How does he survive throwing in the zone less than half of the time while not inducing strikeouts?  He creates alternative methods for getting strikes.   Like the Sporting Hippeaux mentioned last week in reference to Roy Halladay, Buehrle doesn’t have to throw strikes.  He has the reputation.  As a result, hitters go up to the plate prepared to swing away.  Frequently, he’ll throw a pitch out of the zone, and the batter will hit a foul ball; thus creating a non-called, non-whiff strike.  Essentially, to quote Hippeaux, he pitches “to provoke attempts at contact,” albeit on his terms.  It’s important to note that Buehrle is unrivaled in his ability (at least in our selected timeframe) when it comes to low K/9 and pitching to provoke contact.  Nearly all of the other pitchers listed in the top two quartiles of O-Swing % had strikeout rates above, at, or slightly below the league average.

Outside of Baker and Buehrle, the top ten O-swing % list is pretty much what you’d expect it to be.  While both top ten lists had a number of quality pitchers, Chart 2-A list appears to have a much higher pedigree of pitcher than Chart 1-A, albeit not by much.  Still, it’s pretty clear that pitchers with higher O-swing rates tend to perform pretty well.

Before we jump to any more conclusions, let’s take a look at the bottom ten for O-swing %.

Chart 2-B

Name O-Swing% K/9 ERA FIP fWAR
Doug Davis 21.7% 6.83 (36) 4.56 (51) 4.58 (52) 9.3 (50)
Jason Marquis 22.0% 4.79 (58T) 4.86 (62) 4.94 (62) 6.6 (61)
Aaron Cook 22.5% 4.00 (63) 4.26(46) 4.29 (39) 15.0 (29T)
LIvan Hernandez 22.9% 4.53 (62) 4.94 (63) 4.79 (60) 8.2 (56)
Jarrod Washburn 22.9% 5.13 (55) 4.37 (45) 4.71 (58) 7.3 (57)
Jeff Suppan 23.2% 4.72 (60) 4.68 (56) 5.05 (63) 3.1 (63)
Vicente Padilla 23.8% 6.56 (40) 4.71 (59) 4.64 (65) 9.4 (49)
Tim Wakefield 23.9% 5.49 (50) 4.70 (57T) 4.72 (59) 9.6 (47)
Ian Snell 24.0% 7.15 (28) 4.70 (57T) 4.59 (53) 7.1 (59)
Brad Penny 24.4% 5.98 (45) 4.23 (36) 4.07 (28) 11.5 (43)


(For reference, Adam Wainwright posted a 25.8% O-Swing %; Chad Billingsley (27.4%); Derek Lowe (27.9%); and Ubaldo Jimenez (25.5%) indicating that they had much better stuff than their Swing % suggested.)

This chart is pretty telling.  The pitchers in Chart 2-B clearly encompass (athough it does not inclusively cover) the worst pitchers in baseball during the 2006 to 2010 timeframe.  I suppose you could argue that Aaron Cook doesn’t deserve this distinction, and you very well may be correct.   His fWAR portrays him as being a relatively decent pitcher despite having a brutal K/9 rate and a walk rate (that in comparison to his K/9 rate) is nothing to write home about.  While his saving grace has been a ground ball rate that resides in the 56-58% range, one wonders how gruesome his performance would be if his GB% was at, or just below, the 50% mark.

You could also make the argument that Tim Wakefield deserves a free pass as well on the account that he’s an extreme knuckleball pitcher and should be categorized separately.  If he ranked poorly in O-Swing % during a period of time where he pitched relatively well (let’s say, 2001-2005), I might be willing to consider that option.  In this case, I’m not.  While this line of reasoning is semi-valid, his age and recent overall performance negates the need to separate him from the pack.  Wakefield’s problem is not that he isn’t coaxing enough contact on pitches thrown out of the zone—that’s only part of it.  His main problem is that age has robbed him of the ability to induce ground balls and command his knuckler.

The differences between Charts 1-B and 2-B are pretty stark.  Whereas Chart 1-B had at least five pitchers on the list that could be classified as average or better, Chart 2-B included pitchers with few redeeming qualities.  As a result, it’s pretty clear that pitchers who coax low O-Swing rates tend to be poorer performers than those with higher rates.  That’s not to say there can’t be outliers from season-to-season, or even over a longer period of time (like Mark Buehrle in Chart 2-A).  There certainly can be outliers.  Still, the bottom ten O-swing % list is exactly what you’d expect it to be—terrible.

While I’m not backing away from my opinion that the concept of pitching to contact is horribly flawed, I’m willing to accept the Hippeaux’s assertion of pitching to the possibility of making contact as a viable alternative to simply avoiding contact entirely.  At the very least, his concept is more realistic, whereas avoiding all contact is a utopian fantasy that can never be realized.  Furthermore, avoiding contact isn’t the only factor in determining a pitcher’s performance.  Avoiding walks, inducing ground balls, limiting ground balls, and (as we just learned) coaxing hitters to swing at “pitcher’s pitches” are also major factors as well.  In fact, you could make a case where O-Swing % is at least as good of an indicator of performance potential as Contact %.  Still, if given the choice, I’ll always choose the method that results in a .000 BABIP outcome to one where the combined outcome is a .300 BABIP.

3 thoughts on “Continuing the Discussion on Pitching to Contact

  1. Good work, Chip! Some points here:
    *You don't really need to worry about fWAR. In fact, that introduces other variables like durability into the discussion. A rate stat is really preferable here. You could make fWAR into a rate stat by dividing the cumulative WAR by total PA's, and then multiplying by 750 or something to get a fWAR/season stat. Then you could average this for the two groups because they would be on the same scale. Otherwise I'm not sure cumulative WAR is all that helpful info.
    *By limiting your sample to 2006-2010 seasons with 700 innings, your sample gets biased by only included pitchers that were good enough to pitch for four seasons in the majors and throw 700 innings. This is going to make the pitchers that you look at as kind of extreme examples.

  2. Awesome, Chip. Very persuasive.

    This discussion has prompted me to start consulting FanGraphs "plate discipline" stats on a case by case basis. In instances like Halladay, Buehrle, and Livan Hernandez, we can perhaps see how pitchers approaches have changed over the course of their careers and speculate as to their rationales and the effect it has had on their results.