I wonder if you have looked at whether there is evidence that pitchers can
"control" extra-base hits. By this, I mean, are there pitchers
off whom batters generally do not hit the ball as hard or hit the ball on
the ground? If there is no correlation between a pitcher and
"giving up" hits, is there a correlation between a pitcher and
the kind of hits he gives up?
The short answer
is that you probably won’t find anything there. Pitchers may differ in this
ability–they probably do a
little just as they probably do a little on hits on balls in play–but it
difficult to find it on a case-by-case basis.
However there are promising leads if we want to look at pitchers in
There is one "variable" that you did not
address that I am curious about: the difference between ground-ball and
fly-ball pitchers. I am not suggesting that there is, or even should be,
a difference between these groups; rather, I am very curious about
whether there is any pattern.
You mention Greg Maddux
several times in your article, including a comment that he has
experienced consecutive seasons of wildly differing hits-against
results. He is a favorite of mine, and I watch his games almost
religiously, and to me, he exemplifies the question that I have here. As
an extreme ground-ball pitcher, one would think that he would be more apt to
have a lower hits-against ratio (especially considering that he is a Gold
Glover himself). But there are always games in which it seems that more
than a fair share of ground balls find their way into the holes. So the
question is, do these "extremes" balance out for ground-ball and
pitchers, or is there a trend for either, in either direction?
One of the funny things I read in some letters was the argument that
ground-ball pitchers should give up fewer hits on balls in play. Funny,
frequently got the argument that fly-ball pitchers should give up fewer.
I’ve wanted to take DIPS in this direction for some time now. However,
this is fraught with all sorts of difficulties. Checking last year’s
splits against ground-ball and vs. fly-ball pitchers, the
(H-HR)/(AB-HR-SO) (a hitting equivalent of DIPS) rate for fly-ball
pitchers was .293, the rate for ground-ball pitchers was .305.
This deserves more digging, much more than I can do here. The difference
between an extreme ground-ball pitcher like Mike Hampton and an
extreme fly-ball pitcher like Denny Neagle is only about 136 plays. In
order for that to amount to that entire 12-point difference, the rate at
which ground balls must drop in has to be about 5% higher (or 51 points of
batting average) than it is for fly balls. If I recall correctly, the rate
is lower than that, only about 2%. If that’s true, there needs to be another
explanation for the rest of the difference.
Also it must be mentioned that for pitchers with 600 BIP in a season (a
fairly large number in this day and age) that only amounts to around seven
hits between fly-ball and ground-ball pitchers in a season.
And in fact, GB-to-FB ratios are not exactly defense independent. There are
a number of balls in play–mainly line drives–that are judged as neither
ground balls or fly balls. There must be a certain number of plays where
judgment of what a line drive is and what a fly ball is difficult to
ascertain. This is also done after the play is finished. Whether the
scorer saw the ball land for a hit or be caught must have some effect on
the call. If part of the determination on who winds up being a fly-ball
pitcher and who doesn’t is dependent in some way on how many hits in play
they give up… I shouldn’t speculate too freely in this area, and it is
not a major issue, but I think it is one worth mentioning.
Finally, and most importantly, any advantage fly-ball pitchers do
this area seems to be mostly canceled out by the extra frequency with which
pitchers give up extra-base hits. So while GBers may tend to give up
slightly more hits in play than FBers, a smaller percentage of those hits
(around 2%) go for extra bases. The net result in a pitcher’s value would
have to be pretty small.
Lots more needs to be done here. Unfortunately, data is often hard to come by.
It would seem to me that it is not just the strikeout and the base-on-balls
that is isolated from the defense. It is their base components--the strike
and ball. I believe you will find that a pitcher who throws more strikes
will get ahead of the count more and I think that there is a
correlation between the count and AVG/OBP/SLG percentages. So a
pitcher should have the ability to limit hits/balls in play if he gets
ahead in the count more often than behind in the count.
Is there a flaw in my logic here?
The hits per balls in play rate in the AL (we want to get the pitchers out of
this one) in 2000 when pitchers were ahead in the count was about .015
lower than when they were behind.
Sounds fairly significant, doesn’t it? The problem is that our
perception of how often some pitchers are ahead is greater than the
reality. Keep in mind that it’s not just the difference between
how often the pitcher is ahead, but how often the pitcher is ahead AND the
ball is put into play.
To put it simply, if you do the math on this, you’ll find that if we
assume that .015 point difference is real (it might not be; the
difference may be due to better hitters being ahead in the count more
often), the difference between Pedro Martinez and Dan
Reichert in an
entire season comes out to a little less than two-thirds of a hit per
The huge differences in the behind in the count and ahead in the count
numbers are due mostly to the fact that there were no strikeouts when
behind in the count, and whole bunches when ahead. Home runs also have an
Two things. I was wondering whether there is a difference in the stat
for knuckleballers, who intuitively (though intuition is not always
correct) cause players to hit off balance and therefore weakly.
Second, what does this tell us? Is it that the only way to evaluate a
pitcher is their strikeout-to-walk ratio, with a bit of a home-run
modifier thrown in?
Two good questions, and one embarrassing one. I thought for sure when I
wrote the article that I mentioned what I like to call “trick
delivery” pitchers. It is obvious I didn’t.
There certainly seems to be good evidence that knuckleballers and extreme
submariners have lower rates than most, and logically this ought to be the
case. When I did the career rates of active pitchers divided by their team
averages in 1999, number one on the list was Tim Wakefield. I wrote
several times in the past that “trick delivery pitchers may be an
exception here, though there are sample-size issues. In any event, if
someone wanted to disregard this for guys like Tim Wakefield and Scott
Sullivan, I wouldn’t argue with them.”
The second question is more difficult to assess and I’ve really only
offered what I felt was the best solution, which was to completely
reconstruct the pitching line so that we can use weights that have already
been determined before. I’d also add that HR rate probably shouldn’t be
taken lightly. It is a key component in the success of pitchers like Tom
Glavine and Mike Hampton, and also what keeps John Wasdin
from having sustained major-league success.
COUNTERPOINT: PITCHING AND DEFENSE
It strikes me that this is an area that would be hugely impacted by
ballpark effects, but I haven't seen any analysis of that.
Ballpark effects would certainly come into play, though they would affect
Voros’s original study more than my followup. I was comparing pitchers’
ball-in-play rates to their team’s overall average balls in play rate. Since
the team as a whole has the same home ballpark, comparing the results
from one pitcher to essentially all the other pitchers on the team
minimizes the park effects.
I am curious about whether you might find a trend for teams, rather
than individual pitchers. If there is no particular trend for a team,
what does that say about the +/- effect of a team's defense? Rey
or Geoff Blum? How many batted-ball outs (Ordonez) are converted
into hits (Blum)? Why not just let Chipper Jones play shortstop?
Hard for me to believe it, but the evidence so far is fairly compelling
that the use of good fielders has practically no effect, aside from the
errors attributed to the bad ones. Then there are all the fundamentals:
hitting the cut-off, turning two, gunning a runner out at third (or letting
a runner take third), etc. Isn't the team effect what is interesting
While most of the discussion has been focused on whether individual pitchers
have varying abilities to affect ball-in-play average, there is clearly
more work to do.
There is a significant correlation between teams’ balls in play average
from year to year from 1979-99 (about +0.50), indicating that there
are trends for teams to consistently play above or below league average
(even before trying to control for personnel turnover between seasons).
For example: the worst team average (other than for Colorado, where park
defense much more difficult) is the 1997 A’s, a team that used Jason
Giambi, Geronimo Berroa, and Matt Stairs frequently
in the outfield. The best in a non-strike year is the 1982 Cardinals
(the 1981 Tigers and A’s did slightly better), a classic Whitey Herzog
team with all-world defenders Keith Hernandez and Ozzie Smith,
and where, according to
every regular position player in fair territory had an above-average range
factor except George Hendrick; even
Lonnie Smith had a good RF that year.
So even if teams can’t rely on pitchers to generate easy fielding
opportunities, they certainly can help themselves with good defense
behind their pitchers. And with teams averaging around 4,500 balls in
play per season, the advantage amounts to more than a hundred hits per season
between typically good vs. typically bad defensive teams, and more than 300
hits per season difference between the most extreme teams.
What would happen if you did parallel research for hitters'
batting average? Would the correlation (splitting players' careers
into even and odd groups and using the even average to predict the
odd average) be greater than +0.53? I think it would be important
to do a parallel study from the hitters' side in order to assess
what's really going on on the pitchers' side.
That’s a good suggestion. I did a quick look at the correlation
between batters’ half careers for balls in play, and the result
was very different than that for pitchers. The correlation from
even-career to odd-career was +0.82, with a range of ball-in-play
averages from around .250 to a few approaching .400. The chart
of even vs. odd shows a strong clustering around a linear relationship
(I may try to show the chart in a followup article). Eyeballing
the standard deviation, it looks to be about 10 points, meaning
that a .300 balls in play average even-career hitter has a 95%
chance of having his odd-career average be between .280 and .320
(this isn’t rigorous, though, just an visual estimate).
It suggests that the outcome of a ball in play depends most
heavily on the batter at the plate, with lesser weight on the
pitcher and fielding team behind him.
You can test the second argument from your conclusion (that long
career pitchers have selected themselves into the sample because
they are good at preventing hits on balls in play) by running 70
separate regressions (in the larger dataset) of balls in play ratio on dummy
variables for each of the 70 players in the smaller sample. If
more pitchers turned up as statistically significant positive
predictors of BiP ratio, i.e., if the coefficient on each dummy
was positive and significant, then you'd have evidence that their
careers may have been longer because they prevented hits on ball
in play. More negative than positive predictors would suggest
the opposite, and rough equality would imply no difference.
Thanks for the great suggestion. I expect to do some additional followup
work along these lines, and have gotten several good ideas from
our readers. With luck, my schedule will allow me to have another
article or two on the topic in the near future.
Voros McCracken is a student
living in Chicago. He will be writing a weekly column called the “Baseball
Skeptic” in an upcoming webzine. For more information on DIPS and
McCracken’s work, check out his Web page at http://www.baseballstuff.com/mccracken.
Thank you for reading
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