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April 9, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Max Scherzer and the Sabermetric Approach to Pitching to the Count

by Sam Miller

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Tuesday night, Tigers against the Dodgers, third inning, this sequence:

  • Dee Gordon against Max Scherzer. On 1-1 count, Scherzer throws a ball. Later in the at-bat, Gordon singles.
  • With Gordon on, Carl Crawford against Scherzer. On 1-1 count, Scherzer throws a strike. On the next pitch, Crawford grounds into a double play.

***

In the stats reports that the Angels generate for their minor-league pitchers, there’s a column that tracks 1-1 strikes. What you can measure you can manage, the McKinsey truism claims, and the 1-1 column helps the Angels encourage and emphasize count control.

First-pitch strikes are commonly counted, of course. Announcers mention them constantly. If you click “more stats” enough on Baseball-Reference, you’ll find a column that lists first-pitch strike rates for each pitcher. "The best pitch in baseball is strike one," is something you’ll hear a dozen times this year.

But “Of all twelve (counts),” Eric Seidman wrote in 2008, “Greg Maddux considers the 1-1 count to be of utmost importance. Missing on a 1-1 count shifts the momentum back toward the hitter whereas a successful 1-1 pitch can move the count’s favor further in the direction of the pitcher. The 1-1 count brings with it a run expectancy of -0.012 from the batter’s perspective; a ball shifts it to +0.037 whereas a strike causes a jump to -0.079. Maddux is right.”

So imagine a pitcher throws 65 percent strikes. Imagine all pitchers throw 65 percent strikes. Imagine that most pitchers throw 65 percent strikes in all situations, but that there is some random fluctuation here and there. So all pitchers throw 65 percent strikes but some pitchers throw 68 percent strikes on 1-1 and 64 percent every other time; and some throw 62 percent strikes on 1-1 and 66 percent every other time. If we believe pitches thrown on 1-1 are of more importance than the rest, then the 1-1 strike-throwers would get better results than the 1-1 ball-throwers. If it’s a repeatable skill, then it’s a valuable skill. If it’s not a repeatable skill—if the difference between the two groups of pitchers is truly random fluctuation—then one group got “lucky.” Just as sequencing of baserunners allowed can create “luck” for some pitchers, the sequencing of good and bad pitches might.

This article is not one of those “We looked at every pitcher in baseball history” inquiries that Russell Carleton is always talking about. This looks at one pitcher: Max Scherzer.

Last year, 66 percent of Scherzer’s pitches were strikes or put in play. League average was 64 percent, so he was a moderate strike thrower. But on 1-1 pitches, 74 percent of his pitchers were strikes or put in play. That’s the highest rate in baseball for a starter (followed by Charlie Morton, Michael Wacha, Derek Holland, Homer Bailey). The eight percentage point delta between his baseline and his 1-1 rate is the third highest in baseball (behind Morton and Jacob Turner, ahead of Holland, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Stephen Strasburg). For whatever reason, Scherzer was a particularly good pitcher when, according to Maddux and pitching coaches everywhere, it mattered most. How did he do this?

First, there is some indication that, with Scherzer, this success on 1-1 is a skill. Over the past five years, he has had higher strike rates on 1-1 than overall each year—sometimes by small margins, sometimes large:

  • 2013: 74.1 on 1-1, 65.9 overall
  • 2012: 70.8, 64.9
  • 2011: 64.8, 63.9
  • 2010: 69.7, 64.2
  • 2009: 65.9, 65.1

The league-average strike rate is almost identical on 1-1 and overall. Scherzer outperforms himself when the count is even, though.

Second, Scherzer seems to avoid the curse of many extreme strike-throwers, such as Joe Blanton, who was also near the top of the 1-1 strike leaderboard, but who got hit for a .473/473/.770 line when batters connected on one of those many strikes. Opponents had a .764 OPS against Scherzer last year on 1-1, and .701 overall; the league overall generally has about double the differential:

  • MLB, in 2013: .840 on 1-1, .714 overall
  • MLB, in 2012: .844 on 1-1, .724 overall
  • MLB, in 2011: .814 on 1-1, .720 overall

Indeed, before batters get to 1-1, they do about as well against Max Scherzer as against any other pitcher in the league:

Count Max Scherzer League
0-0 0.868 0.882
0-1 1.116 0.882
1-0 0.645 0.779
All three 0.840 0.833

But from the time Scherzer gets to 1-1, he takes control of the count. The result: A .557 opponents’ OPS after a 1-1 count, compared to .662 leaguewide.

It’s not immediately obvious how Scherzer does this. His pitch selection is almost the same on 1-1 as overall, with a slight uptick in fastballs to righties and curveballs to lefties. His velocity and movement are the same. His contact rate barely changes; neither does his batted ball profile.

What he does do is… simply throw pitches in the strike zone. This won't be that easy to see with the naked eye, but 1-1 pitches are on the right:

Of the nine squares in the strike zone, Scherzer hits seven more often on 1-1 than he does overall. Overall, he throws 43.1 percent of his 1-1 pitches inside those four strike zone lines, but just 37.2 percent of his other pitches. To put that in perspective: On three-ball counts in the same time period, he has thrown 43.7 percent of his pitches inside that strike zone. Scherzer treats 1-1 counts with nearly the same strike-throwing urgency as a three-ball count. The result is that, even though Scherzer doesn’t throw as many strikes overall as the league’s leaders, he throws more pitches from ahead in the count than almost any pitcher in baseball.

It is, delightfully, very intentional. Way back in 2008, Eric Seidman interviewed Scherzer about his stathead tendencies. Scherzer’s first answer was about what he called A3P percentage:

Eric Seidman (ES): For starters, can you tell me how you came to be interested in analyzing baseball statistics?

Max Scherzer (MS): Well, it really started out with my pitching coach at Mizzou, who brought it to our attention by examining the percentage of first strikes and A3P percentage.

ES: What exactly is A3P?

MS: A3P is 'attack in three pitches,' and it measures how many times, after three pitches, the batter is retired, or does he have two strikes on him. It was really cut and dried-the better pitchers on the team had higher percentages in both first strikes thrown and A3P, regardless of "stuff." As a freshman I had good stuff but not as good percentages [as others], and therefore I didn't pitch too much. By the end of the year and start of summer ball I had added five mph to my fastball to bring it around 98. With the knowledge of first-pitch strikes and A3P, I really took off in my sophomore year, and never looked back.

So all indications are that this valuable thing Scherzer does is a matter of will. Which brings us back to the Angels and those charts they make for their minor-league pitchers. Teams are still struggling with the old Moneyball question of whether they can teach batters plate discipline if they start the process early enough. But count control involves the pitcher as much as it involves the batter. It seems clear, from Max Scherzer, that on the pitching side, this is an area where “sabermetrics” can be taught, and an area where it matters whether a player is willing to embrace them.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Max Scherzer,  1-1 Count,  Count

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