When it comes to pitching and pitching strategy every single team and player is always on the lookout for that “extra something” that will give them an edge over their opponents. In this case I’m not actually referring to performance enhancing drugs but instead am referring to utilizing the edge of the strike zone to get a leg up on hitters. Basically my thought process is that pitchers who are able to effectively locate their pitches on the edge of the strike zone, thus getting those called strikes, would experience a great deal more success than locating pitches on the outside of the strike zone or in the heart of the plate.
It seems reasonable enough to think that, right? Yeah, so that’s what we’re going to take a look at today.
The data that I am using this for comes from Jeff Zimmerman over at Baseball Heat Maps and I’ve pulled all of the data he’s made available from 2008 through the 2012 season. I have also filtered out pitchers who have thrown less than 1,000 pitches. The reason I chose 1,000 as the floor was really just an arbitrary decision based on my thought that pitchers who threw less than 1,000 pitches in a season aren’t really giving me a satisfactory sample size, but it also helps me have to sift through fewer pitchers. Instead of dealing with 600+ pitchers for each season over the last five years I now only have to sift through between 249 and 278 pitchers per season.
Based on my filters for the data I’ve pulled from Jeff’s work I’m left with a total of 1,306 pitchers to work with. Not a bad sample size and I’m only using pitchers who have thrown a substantial amount of pitches over the course of a full season, which will help prevent any outliers in the data overall (at least that’s my thinking anyway).
Compiling all of that information I am left with these averages for the 1,306 points of data and over 2.64 million pitches thrown:
From 2008 to 2012 the average percentage of pitches on the edge of the strike zone was 15.94%, over the heart of the plate was 33.62%, and outside of the zone was 50.88%. What we can see from this data really just says that, overall, guys have a tendency to throw outside of the zone in an effort to get batters to chase pitches as opposed to sending something straight down the middle for them, and even more so attempting to live on the edge of the strike zone.
Whether that’s because of command issues or a matter of game calling by the catcher or manager I don’t know, but the data does suggest that the majority of pitchers prefer to get hitters to chase pitches they can’t do anything with outside of the zone – which shouldn’t really come as a surprise anyway, although nearly 51% of pitches ending up out there is higher than I would have thought it would’ve been. I’m also surprised that, on average among our data pool, that the percentage of pitches hitting the edge of the strike zone isn’t closer to 20 or 25% as it would make sense to go after those spots where you are more likely to get a called strike as opposed to chucking stuff down the middle or well outside.
Now that we know what the average percentages are for pitch locations on the edges, the heart, or the outside of the plate we can now identify who is better than average at attacking that edge. Over the last five seasons, 2008-2012, there have been 647 instances of pitchers throwing 1,000 or more pitches and locating it on the edge of the strike zone at a 16% or greater rate for those seasons. We know that 16% is our floor because the average among all pitchers we included in this little study is 15.94% but the highest pitcher comes in at 25.10% and that was done by New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in 2009. That may be our outlier because no other pitcher checks in at higher than 21.50% so Rivera was extra special that year, not to mention the fact that he also happened to put up a 1.76 ERA and 44 saves over 66.1 innings with that strategy of living on the edge.
And while it’s nice to know the ranges and who had the highest this or lowest that, it doesn’t really serve my purpose for trying to figure out if living on the edge of the strike zone is a sound strategy for a pitcher. It stands to reason that if it was then the rates at which pitchers tagging the edge of the zone with pitches would be higher; so why isn’t it?
If we look at the pitchers who topped our list of percentage of pitches on the edge, topped meaning at 20% or higher, then we end up with just 12 players. Obviously the first thing I would want to look at is their performance in the seasons in which they put up that 20% or higher rate of pitching on the edge. With these 12 pitchers it was certainly a mixed bag:
So the pitchers who had the highest edge percentage rates in individual seasons from 2008 to 2012 have a cumulative ERA of 4.04. Not sure if I would call that evidence which overwhelmingly supports my initial thought that living on the edge of the strike zone would be a more effective strategy on the mound. Now don’t get me wrong, a 4.04 cumulative ERA isn’t horrible when you consider the average ERA in baseball from 2008 to 2012 is 4.14 but it’s also not as great as I thought it would be – especially since the ERA for all of baseball in 2012 was 4.01.
Am I going about this whole thing entirely backwards? Should I be looking at this from another perspective? Then again, maybe this strategy just isn’t as sound because the margin you have for error between hitting your spots and getting the called strike and missing for a ball is so small.
Let’s try a different approach; instead of looking at the individual pitchers who had the highest marks at or above the arbitrary 20% mark since 2008 let’s instead focus on the guys who are the most consistent at living on the edge. In order to do that I’m going to look at the numbers for pitchers who have registered an above average edge percentage in every single season from 2008.
nine 10 pitchers who registered above average edge percentage rates for the last five seasons, although there are 40 total players that have done so in four of the last five seasons but targeting those that are five for five makes this so much easier for me so that’s what I’m doing.
Well now, you can actually see where the pitchers who are the most consistent at living on the edge have had some decent to great success at doing just that. Does this prove, without a doubt, that living on the edge consistently is what makes them successful? Absolutely not, but it is something worth exploring further in my opinion. I guess the real question is this; how much information do we need to collect to make a determination one way or the other in regards to pitching strategy as it pertains to living on the edge?
With the data collected so far it’s fairly obvious that being able to pitch effectively on the edge of the strike zone takes some talent as there are just nine pitchers who have been above average at it for the last five seasons now. Maybe I’m just being too strict and should open it up to the 40 pitchers who have been above average in four of the past five seasons? Maybe that’s what I’ll do and put together a part two of this to see how well that data, and the results, relate to what I’ve come up with here.
Let me know your thoughts because my goal isn’t to try to fiddle with the numbers until they prove my theory right. My goal is to have enough data and pull enough reliable information from that data to make a legitimate determination one way or the other.
EDITORS NOTE: So I managed to leave out Roy Halladay, who makes 10 pitchers and not nine, and thus took the resultant ERA from 3.77 down to 3.66.