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November 25, 2003

Breaking Balls

Patience

by Derek Zumsteg

One of the reasons patience at the plate is encouraged is that it wears out opposing starters, allowing the hitters to chew into the soft underbelly of middle relief where they can really score some runs. It sure sounds attractive, and it seems to make sense.

But it's almost a trivial advantage. The range in pitches seen per plate appearance runs from 3.6 (Devil Rays and company) to 3.9 (Red Sox, Oakland).

Take an average AL staff. Every nine innings, they give up nine hits, three walks, strike out six, and watch one lucky fan get a nice souvenir. Look at a nine-inning game pitched by an average staff against the most and least patient teams:

9.30 H + 3.16 BB + 27 outs = 39.46 batters/game (by average staff in average park against average hitters)

So 39.46 PAs * 3.6 P/PA = 142 pitches to get through a game against the most-aggressive team. And 153 pitches to get through a game against the most-passive team.

That assumes, too, that double-plays never occur, that a runner's never turned into an out. I wanted to make this as clean as possible, and as favorable to the other side as it can be. Also doesn't count errors.

Eleven pitches a game isn't that important. An average start last year went six innings. Average events/inning for AL starters: 1.06 H/IP, .32 BB/IP...it's only 4.32 PA/IP, or 16-17 pitches an inning depending on the opposition, and the pitcher's out in six innings right around 100 pitches (96-102). Taking more pitches alone isn't significant enough to get a pitcher pulled early.

But let's say it does. Even though I'm not buying it, for purposes of the remainder of this article, let's say that someone has to come out of the bullpen for an extra inning who would not ordinarily come out. They're not the closer, or even one of the set-up guys, but instead it's someone sort of crappy. We'll call him "Todd Jones."

Now, Todd's not awful, or he'd be the mop-up man, but he's bad. Instead of an average AL reliever's 4.25 ERA, his is 5.25. In that inning of work, the difference is almost too small to note: .1 runs. It's not as if getting to Todd suddenly turns on the run spigot and the team gets to drink its fill. Now over 162 games you'd be talking about something: 16 runs is, by way of the rough formula 10 additional runs = one win, at least a game in the standings, if in every game patience chased out a pitcher a full inning early and that inning was always filled by a bad reliever (and, going back to the assumptions, you never hit into double plays).

It's not that this approach has no merit--certainly when a team's facing a dominant starter who's supported by a terrible relief corps, that team will want to foul off any pitch it can and prolong its at-bats.

But if you really want to chase a pitcher out of the game, don't make outs. That sounds stupid, but I'm entirely serious. The difference between one Devil Ray batter getting on (seeing 3.6 pitches) and handing that out to the next guy (who will see 3.6 pitches) is greater than the difference between the teams that see the fewest and most pitches in each at-bat over six innings.

That's where on-base percentage comes into the discussion. The Red Sox had a team OBP of .360 last year while the Tigers were at .300 (both unadjusted, obviously). The Red Sox put on an extra runner and a half every six innings over the Tigers. And because the Sox were a patient team at the plate, that's an extra six pitches tagged to the starter, so instead of six innings and out at about 102, now we're looking at 110, and maybe you really do start to see some results from shaving time off the starters.

If a team's intent is to seize on the minor advantage of facing middle relief, it's important to realize that getting more pitches is never more important than hitting those pitches. And that's what good hitters do: work the count in their favor, so they can reach a favorable hitter's count and whack the ensuing fat pitch. The best-hitting teams are the ones that pile patience together with batting ability. Sounds simple, yet too many teams still struggle with the concept.

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