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Does pitch sequencing affect the size of the called strike zone?

Link to Part One

From time to time, we’ll hear that a hitter was called out on strikes on a pitch that was “too close to take.” This statement implies that the pitch wasn’t a strike, but that it had a shot at being called one.

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April 1, 2014 6:00 am

Moonshot: Cracking the Location Code

7

Robert Arthur

The next step in the study of sequencing.

The challenges of hitting a baseball are many and difficult. Depending on the speed of the pitch, a batter may have something like half a second to 1) locate the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand, 2) predict its movement based on the kind of pitch it is (fastball, slider, curve, etc.), 3) decide whether to swing, and potentially 4) adjust mid-swing to the path of the ball or check his swing. All of which is to say, hitting a baseball in MLB may actually be the hardest thing in the galaxy (I’ve never done it, myself).

Arguably the most demanding part of this battle is purely mental (as Hank Aaron noted). Because of how little time there is for a hitter to perform all of the above-mentioned tasks, it is helpful to have some notion ahead of time of what, where, and how the pitcher is going to throw. Conversely, the more uncertainty and confusion a pitcher can create in the hitter, the more chance he has of catching him off guard.

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A first foray into one of baseball's most murky subjects.

Pitch sequencing has long lurked as a sort of terra incognita in sabermetric analysis. It’s something that all baseball folks agree is important, but it’s proved mostly impenetrable to strictly quantitative approaches. There’s an intuitive sense that sequencing must be one of the crucial determinants of pitcher success, and although we can seemingly identify a good sequence when we see one, any attempt to apply a universal criterion of good sequencing across all pitches (or pitchers) is much more challenging. The rest of this article will be devoted to applying just such a criterion, and determining whether it is of any practical utility in understanding pitching generally.

There are at least two schools of thought about pitch sequencing. On the one hand, there seems to be an appreciation for sequences that mix up locations, speeds, and breaks in unpredictable ways, on the grounds that those kinds of sequences ought to be the most challenging for a hitter. On the other hand, Mitchel Lichtman (aka MGL) has argued forcefully on the basis of game theory that the ideal sequencing would be something like weighted randomness (weighted, that is, by the quality of each pitch). MGL’s argument says that if a pitcher tried too hard to mix things up, for instance by purposefully not throwing two of the same pitch in a row, he would end up tipping the next pitch to the batter, resulting in a powerful disadvantage.

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