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September 29, 2009

Changing Speeds

Situational Pitching, Part 3

by Ken Funck

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In the first two installments of this series, we dug into the mystery of whether pitchers are able to beneficially change their approach in double-play situations. By digging through pitching data from 2005-09, we were able to make a few general statements:

  1. Pitchers were unable to increase their ground-ball percentage (GB%) during double-play situations.
  2. The number of GB/PA did go up slightly, but this was due to a commensurate decrease in strikeouts and walks.
  3. Since the run expectancy improvement from getting a strikeout is greater than that of inducing a ground ball, if pitchers are actually pitching to contact and reducing their strikeouts in an effort to get ground-ball outs, they're actually going to give up more runs.

While a handful of pitchers manage to get more ground balls without reducing strikeouts, overall batters come out ahead in this particular confrontation.

This week we'll look at what happens in the R3 situation, or one that involves a runner on third base with less than two outs. In this situation, the batter/pitcher confrontation is pretty clear-cut: pitchers want to get a strikeout or a popup, while batters want to put the ball in play, since an out has a reasonable chance of scoring a run. Walks of the "unintentional/intentional" variety seem likely to increase, as putting a runner on first will set up a double-play situation. Popups also help the pitcher, but the subjective nature of batted-ball data with regard to categorizing fly outs, popouts, and lineouts means we'll need to be careful not to read too much into those numbers.


Situational Pitching Splits, Non-Pitcher PAs, 2005-09

                HBP+   Chg HBP+        Change          Change         Change
Split    PA*    BB/PA   BB/PA    K/PA   K/PA   K/AB+S  K/AB+S  POP%    POP%
DP    163,903   8.1%   -1.03    15.3%  -1.98   16.7%   -2.37   7.7%  -0.39
R3     21,168  11.5%   +2.43    15.7%  -1.62   17.7%   -1.30   7.5%  -0.53
R2     41,368  11.2%   +2.15    15.9%  -1.35   17.9%   -1.06   7.8%  -0.30
BASE  646,205   9.1%     --     17.3%    --    19.0%     --    8.1%    --

*Excludes intentional walks and sacrifice bunts

"BASE" comprises all plate appearances with the bases empty or with two outs-a situation when any sort of out would result in the same run expectancy change. Thus BASE makes an ideal control group against which to measure the DP, R3, and R2 (runner on second) situations. The R3 and R2 states are far less frequent than the DP situation, making up 2.43 percent and 4.74 percent respectively of all plate appearances, so the sample size is obviously much smaller. But the numbers for R3 and R2 have a few interesting, if incomplete, tales to tell.

As expected, the first two columns show an increase in walks (more than two percent) during R3 situations, as pitchers work around dangerous hitters and set up double-play situations. The last two columns show a small decrease in popups as a percentage of balls put in play-if pitchers are able to induce more popups, even Dr. Joseph Bell couldn't deduce it from this data. It's the strikeout data that's most interesting. There is definitely a small but noticeable drop in strikeouts per plate appearance in the R3 situation, just when you would expect pitchers to reach back for some extra juice on their fastballs. The increase in "unintentional/intentional" walks might by itself lead to a drop in K/PA, but that only explains a portion of it. The "K/AB+S" column shows the ratio of strikeouts per at-bat plus sacrifice fly (i.e., the percentage of time a batter whiffs when not bunting or getting a free trip to first via BB or HBP). Even when taking walks and HBP out of the equation, these columns still reflect a small drop in strikeout rate. While pitchers can clearly decide to avoid contact by walking batters, they're not able to significantly change their ability to get strikeouts-on the contrary, batters seem to have some ability to avoid strikeouts and put the ball in play when it's most advantageous to do so.

The R2 situation provides more evidence of this. The chart above shows an increase in walk rate similar to R3, as pitchers may be willing to walk a batter to set up the double play. But with a runner on second and no outs, baseball orthodoxy requires batters to consider hitting a ground ball to the right side of the infield:


GB% and GB Out% Splits, 2005-09

                             GB%     GB     Change
Split       PA*     GB%    Change   Out%    GB Out%
DP        163,903  43.68%   -0.51   69.96%  -3.89%
R3         21,168  44.47%   +0.29   68.24%  -5.61%
R2 Total   41,368  46.35%   +2.16   73.07%  -0.78%
R2 0 out   15,298  48.67%   +4.49   70.74%  -3.11%
R2 1 out   26,070  44.91%   +0.73   74.62%  +0.78%
BASE      646,205  44.18%     --    73.85%

*Excludes intentional walks and sacrifice bunts

Notice that the huge increase in GB% in the R2 situation comes primarily with no outs; clearly some batters are successfully changing their approach to bounce one to the right side and move the runner over. The ground ball-out percentage columns show the percentage of non-sacrifice ground balls that result in at least one out; in the BASE situation, with the infield playing at normal depth, 73.85 percent of all ground balls result in outs. The largest deviation is in the R3 situation, with an understandable drop of 5.61 percent, since the infield may be brought in to try and cut down the runner at the plate. Playing the infield at double-play depth, and possibly holding a runner at first, increases ground-ball hits by nearly four percent; I didn't show the numbers for each DP state in the chart above, but having to hold a runner at first means one percent fewer ground-ball outs than other double-play states. In the R2 situation, ground ball-out percentages are roughly the same as BASE in total, but oddly enough drop 3.11 percent with no outs. Most likely this is just noise from a small sample, but perhaps middle infielders are busier dancing around second base to hold the runner in that situation.

The R2 and R3 situations are rare enough that individual pitcher numbers should be taken with a grain of salt the size of Quetzalcoatl:


Largest Strikeout Changes in R3 Situations, 2005-09*

                         R3      BASE   Change
Pitcher            PA  K/AB+S   K/AB+S  K/AB+S
Byung-Hyun Kim     64  33.93%   18.96%  +14.97
Jamey Wright       64  24.07%   13.99%  +10.08
John Smoltz        62  30.00%   21.55%   +8.49
Josh Fogg          80  20.63%   12.61%   +8.02
Jeff Francis       76  23.44%   15.64%   +7.80
Dontrelle Willis   75  24.62%   16.99%   +7.63
Chris Young        72  30.16%   22.62%   +7.54
Aaron Cook         80  16.95%    9.68%   +7.27
Roy Halladay      100  26.88%   20.03%   +6.85
Josh Beckett       92  30.38%   23.75%   +6.62
     
Justin Verlander   70  16.67%   23.28%   -6.61
Ryan Madson        54  15.22%   22.09%   -6.87
Tim Wakefield      87   9.59%   16.75%   -7.16
Cole Hamels        65  15.79%   23.01%   -7.22
Ian Snell          89  12.33%   20.04%   -7.71
Barry Zito        101  10.84%   18.80%   -7.96
Randy Wolf         54  12.50%   20.86%   -8.36
Johan Santana      79  17.14%   25.98%   -8.83
Matt Cain          76  12.31%   21.86%   -9.55
Gil Meche          79  10.45%   20.28%   -9.84

*Minimum of 50 PAs

With such small sample sizes you'll definitely see larger variation due to random chance. The leaders tend to be pitchers with lower base strikeout rates, while the trailers have more base strikeouts to lose. Not much should be made of this, but Meche and Cain striking out nearly 10 percent fewer players than you would expect is interesting, while Byung-Hyun Kim's 15 percent increase may be more sublime than ridiculous. The leaderboard for double-play run expectancy changes had a cutoff of 300 plate appearances, but if it were dropped just a little bit, Kim's -0.0336 RE change in the DP situation would have been the best in baseball. With a runner on first Kim's ground-ball and strikeout rates remained steady, while his BB+HBP rate dropped 6.45 percent. One of the most unique and entertaining hurlers of recent times, Kim remains for me the definition of "enigmatic," and putting up numbers that easily crown him as the High King of Situational Pitching (whatever that's worth) during his precipitous decline years just adds to the mystery.

While pitchers have a certain set of base skills that are reflected in their ground-ball, strikeout, and walk rates, digging through these pitching splits shows that pitchers in general aren't able to significantly change their approach as the situation requires, at least not in a way that helps them. Whatever benefit comes from "pitching to contact" in the DP situation is mostly realized in fewer walks rather than more ground balls, while the commensurate drop in strikeout rate makes this a small net loss for pitchers from a run expectancy perspective. In the R2 and R3 situations, pitchers as a whole aren't able to increase their strikeout rates; on the contrary, batters are actually able to put the ball in play a little more frequently in situations when its beneficial for them to do so. Pitchers can decide to pitch around players and increase their walk rate, but once they throw a few over the plate, it's the batter's approach that seems to make the greatest difference.

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

Related Content:  20 Strikeouts,  Strikeouts,  Strikeout,  Columns

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