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July 19, 2001 Aim For The HeadPitches and Game LengthThis week's question comes from Nate Calvin, who also happens to be an old college buddy of mine:
Sandy Alderson is in hot water for trying to get the umps to drop game pitch counts from 285 to 270 by calling more strikes. I believe pitchers average a little over five pitches per out, so three extra strikeouts a game would easily cover the difference. What's the current strike percentage, and based on the situational tables, what strike percentage would be required to meet Sandy's target? This has certainly been a hot topic lately, and the BP staff has been getting many questions about it. I drew the short straw, so I get to tackle this one. I'm going to approach the question a little differently that Nate has suggested. I'm going to look at all the games so far this year, and break them down by total pitches thrown. More specifically, I'm going to exclude extrainning games and rainshortened games, and just look at "normal" length games of between 17 and 18 total pitched innings. Let's look at some selected averages for such games so far this year:
NP_RANGE Games Strike% RA AVGTIME BFP/G AVG OBP SLG OPS AVG_NP All 1139 62.49% 4.95 175.9 77 .260 .330 .422 752 285.29 Some of the nonobvious headings are:
In analyzing the different ranges of pitch counts, I'm going to make an assumption (which may or may not be a good one), that changing the majorleague average pitch count total will lead to overall results comparable to those games that are already in that range. In other words, to see what happens when the average pitch counts of all games drops to 270, look at current games in which about 270 pitches were thrown. I'll use ranges spanning 10 pitches (e.g., 250259 pitches, 260269 pitches, etc.) as the different sets of games. If the assumption is at least plausible, then the averages for the 280289 pitch count range should be reasonably close to the averages for all games:
NP_RANGE Games Strike% RA AVGTIME BFP/G AVG OBP SLG OPS AVG_NP ALL 1139 62.49% 4.95 175.9 77 .260 .330 .422 752 285.29 280289 120 62.70% 5.04 176.2 77 .264 .333 .422 755 286.83 It looks like looking only at games around the mean pitch count (NP_RANGE = 280289) gives a decent approximation to the rates of the entire data set (ALL). If this holds true throughout the range of pitch counts we want to examine, then to see what baseball would be like if leaguewide averages were driven down to 270 NP/G, we can look at what happens in games around 270 pitches.
First, let's notice that there is a direct correlation between the number of pitches thrown, and the percentage of pitches thrown for strikes. Presumably, calling more strikes would indeed lower pitch counts. Next, notice that run scoring rises as pitch counts rise. Neither phenomenon is particularly unexpected, but the strength of the relationship may not be obvious until you see the data for yourself. A chart makes the point more strongly:
Run scoring rises roughly linearly with total pitch count, while the relationship between pitch count and strike percentage looks slightly nonlinear, but again clearly showing the intuitive result that higher pitch counts are associated with throwing fewer strikes. Returning to Nate's question and suspected result, the implication of this analysis is that reducing overall pitch counts by increasing the strike percentage to the required level would actually have a significant impact on the game. Interpolating from the table given above, to obtain a 270 average pitchcount, the percentage of strikes called would need to increase from the current 62.5% to about 63%. Half a percent sounds like a small amount, but the impact is significant. Run scoring would decrease from the current 4.95 RA to an expected 4.10 RA, a level not seen since the early 1990s. But what of the other supposed benefit of speeding up games? How much time would we expect to be shaved off the average length of a game if we reduced the pitch counts? Again, there's a clear relationship between pitch counts and the time it takes to play a nineinning majorleague game.
Shortening the time between innings and reducing the number of warmup tosses a pitcher gets may help keep the game moving, but one of the best ways to complete a game in less than three hours is to have pitchers who work efficiently. Interpolating the data in the table again, cutting pitch counts from 285 to 270 should knock about nine minutes off the length of a typical nineinning game, bringing the average down to a lean two hours, 47 minutes. So, if you believe that a 5% reduction in game time, and a 17% reduction in scoring, is a big change in the character of the game, then Nate's suspicions are a little off: reducing pitch counts would have a big effect on baseball. Calling fractionally more strikes would singlehandedly counteract the offensive explosion of the midtolate 1990's. As usual, some big caveats apply to this analysis. First, I'm assuming that since games around 285 pitches are an adequate model for a league that averages 285 pitches, that a similar relationship exists for other offensive and pitchcount levels. Second, I'm really analyzing the effect of games in which the current umpiring style produced a certain percentage of strikes, with a presumably random distribution of strikes within the strike zone. If umpires change what they consider to be a strike (calling them strikes where they used to be balls), the impact on the game could be considerably different from the approximation used here. It's the borderline pitches that will change from balls to strikes, so you're adding more strikes in a decidedly nonrandom fashion. Since those pitches are probably harder to hit, the batter may be put at even more of a disadvantage than shown here. On the other hand, we're also not considering how batters and pitchers might react to the new strike zone. Would batters become more aggressive earlier in the count, and drive pitch counts further down as a side effect, but without actually lowering offense anymore than expected? Would pitchers and catchers change how they work a batter, relying more on nibbling at the fringes of a generous strike zone, and less on challenging them in a tiny zone in the batter's wheelhouse? How long would such a strike zone last? Would pitchers, benefiting from lower workloads, get less tired between starts, and be stronger in each outing than before? Is there a feedback effect that would tip the scales more and more towards reduced run scoring, or would there be counterbalances that would pull the game back towards highoffense, longrunning games? While this analysis doesn't provide answers to all of those questions, it does suggest that the implications of even a 15pitch reduction would be significant, and thus changes towards that goal should not be taken lightly. Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.
Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 0 comments have been left for this article.
