We all know what it’s like for individuals to make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve done them, you’ve done them. Nothing to see here. In this series, we’ve looked at players as if they made a resolution to do something different in 2016—hit more to the opposite field, hit more balls in the air, improve plate discipline, that sort of thing. Do players really resolve to do that? Probably not. It’s a plausible-sounding explanation of what actually occurs. But did Jose Urena say on last January 1, “I want to get batters to swing at fewer of my pitches in the zone and more of my pitches outside the zone?” That’s doubtful, even though no pitcher pulled that off better than Urena last year.
When we talk about New Year’s resolutions for organizations, we’re getting even more fanciful. I once worked for a brokerage firm that said their goal one year was “investment excellence.” As one of my friends said, “That’s in contrast to the previous goal of investment mediocrity.” Companies that resolve to do something differently in a new year are probably companies that blew it in the prior year. You shouldn’t have to resolve to increase sales, improve customer service, reduce waste, enhance efficiency. Those are things you should be doing every day.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that what I’m going to present now is a bit of a stretch. I’m going to consider entire pitching staffs that changed from 2015 to 2016.
The problem with this sort of analysis is that it’s highly personnel-dependent. Take the Giants. In 2015, San Francisco pitchers threw 1444.1 innings. In 2016, the pitchers who were with the club in 2015 threw 759.1 innings for the team, barely half the seasonal total. There isn’t going to be year-to-year continuity when there’s that kind of change.
However, it’s possible for the organization to manage change to a degree. A new pitching coach might stress pitching down in the zone, a la Pittsburgh’s Ray Searage. A new general manager may seek pitchers with a different approach, like the Twins’ gradual realization that maybe getting strikeouts isn’t such a bad thing after all. So maybe a team can, to a degree, impose its will, if not necessarily framing it as a New Year’s resolution.
Previously, I looked at pitchers who induced more or fewer grounders. Let’s look at that from a team perspective. Here’s a graph of the change in percentage of batted balls that were hit on the ground for all 30 teams in 2016 compared to 2015:
The first thing that’s obvious from this graph is that there were a lot more balls hit in the air in 2016 compared to 2015. That’s consistent with the idea that batters were uppercutting in an effort to drive the ball over the fence.
The second obvious takeaway is that the Dodgers are an outlier, as they allowed a lot more fly balls in 2016 than 2015. Since 2003, no pitching staff experienced a drop in ground-ball percentage as large as the Dodgers’ 7.3 percent decline. (Interestingly, the second-largest dropoff is that of the 2004 Dodgers, 6.6 percent, followed by the 2009 Dodgers, 5.9 percent. No other team has exceeded 4.5 percent.)
But the Dodgers had massive personnel turnover. Their 2015 pitchers, who threw 1445.2 innings that year, threw only 589.1 for the team in 2016. The only significant holdovers were Pedro Baez (ground-ball percentage rose from 41 percent in 2015 to 44 percent in 2016), Kenley Jansen (declined from 36 percent to 33 percent), Clayton Kershaw (declined from 52 percent to 51 percent), and Alex Wood (rose from 52 percent to 55 percent). I think we can conclude that the decrease in Dodgers grounders is due to newcomers, not the incumbents. They didn’t change. What changed was the addition of Joe Blanton (34 percent ground-ball rate), Scott Kazmir (42 percent), Kenta Maeda (45 percent), and Julio Urias (45 percent), among others. (The National League ground-ball average was 47 percent in 2016.)
I also considered pitchers who exhibited enhanced plate discipline, measured by the “discipline index,” swing rate on pitches in the strike zone minus swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone (the lower the better for pitchers). Yes, I know, that may be a suboptimal way of measuring plate discipline. Please read this entry and the comments that follow it for disclaimers, limitations, and shortcomings.
What did that look like on a team basis in 2016? Well, it looked like this:
Astros and Phillies pitchers exhibited notably better plate discipline, as measured by Discipline Index, and the NL Central teams, the Pirates, Brewers, and Reds, were notably better disciplined. The outcomes for those teams, though, were notably mixed. The Astros, against whom batters swung at pitches in the zone 2.3 percent less frequently and pitches out of the zone 0.9 percent more frequently, declined a bit in 2016, going from top three in the American League in 2015 (first in ERA, second in FIP, third in DRA), to shy of that standard in 2016 (fifth in ERA, first in FIP, fourth in DRA).
The Phillies, whose Discipline Index improved due to a 3.2 percent decrease in batters swinging at pitches in the strike zone, went from terrible in 2015 (14th in National League ERA, 14th in FIP, 15th in DRA) to merely bad in 2016 (12th in ERA, 10th in FIP, 10th in ERA). At the other end of the spectrum, the Reds went from bad in 2015 (12th in the league in ERA, FIP, and DRA) to worse in 2016 (13th in ERA, last in FIP and DRA), the Pirates declined sharply (second in ERA and FIP, fifth in DRA in 2015; ninth, eighth and 11th in 2016) and the Brewers held their ground (11th in ERA, 10th in FIP, ninth in DRA in 2015; eighth in ERA, 11th in FIP, 12th in DRA in 2016). All three of those teams’ pitchers got batters to chase at 1.7-2.0 percent fewer pitches outside the zone in 2016.
Does that mean that plate discipline as I’ve constructed it isn’t a good measure? No, I’d argue it means that no pitching staffs made, or stuck to, resolutions to change dramatically last year. Our zone data goes back to 2008, so we have year-over-year comparisons starting in 2009. That gives us nine years of comparisons and 270 team seasons. Among them, the Astros’ 2016 Discipline Index improvement of 3.2 percent cracks the top five but falls well short of the standards set by the 2009 Cardinals (4.1 percent improvement), 2009 A’s (3.9 percent), 2011 Braves (3.8 percent), and 2012 Twins (3.6 percent). The decline in discipline exhibited by the Reds, Brewers, and Pirates is pretty modest.
So does that mean that the idea of change on a team-wide basis is impossible? No, it does not. I just saved that for my last post in this series. See you Thursday.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for putting together the data displayed here.