Monday, December 27, 2010


I'd like to tell you how I evaluate the performance of the pitcher and the hitter on the first pitch of an at bat, but first I'd better set the table.

Absolute Perfection

What would a perfect game look like? I'm not talking about Don Larsen, I'm talking about Absolute Perfection. I think that you'd agree it would look like this: 81 swinging strikes. It can't get any better than that.

Think about those swinging strikes: Doc Gooden's split finger fastball, falling off the table. Keith Foulke's change-up, with the batter out in front. Tim Wakefield's 50 mph work of art or Mitch Williams' pitch, knocking both batter and pitcher off their feet. Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.

Caught looking is nice, and fouls get the job done. But the essence of a swinging strike is pitching perfection. He thought he had you, but he never even touched you...

According to the baseball almanac, there have been some pretty perfect innings. 44 times, a pitcher has retired the side on 9 strikes, but only 44 times. And I'm guessing that this was never done on 9 swinging strikes, but I'll get into that in a minute.

The Batter Battle Book

So what does perfection look like from the opposite side? Harder to say. Is it a home run? After 10 pitches? 20? It's a little more open ended. To a certain extent, any non-out is a victory, but not all victories are created equal. Heck, I've watched Youk go down on 12 pitches and smiled watching him do so. What constitutes a victory is ambiguous, so it shouldn't be surprising that there are quite a few ambiguous first-pitch results which feel like wins -- or at least light losses -- for the batter. That will complicate the picture.

Clash of the Titans

Imagine Greg Maddux, one of the craftiest pitchers of all time, going against Rickey Henderson, the best lead-off hitter ever. Before a pitch is thrown, what are they thinking?

Well, Maddux knows what Henderson hits well and how the location of the pitch affects him. Maddux also knows his own limitations. His catcher can probably add some feedback on which pitches are working well today. Based on this information, they select a first pitch. But this doesn't tell us too much about what that first pitch will be. Maybe it will be based on what Henderson can't hit. Maybe it will be based on Maddux throws best. Maybe it will be neither, because that's what we least suspect.

How about Henderson? He knows almost everything that Maddux knows. He knows what he can hit. He knows what Maddux can throw. He probably even figured out what is working well by watching Maddux warm up. What doesn't he know? What Maddux decided to throw.

So what's Henderson's best strategy? Well, I would posit that Henderson has enough confidence to risk going down 0-1. And if he preps to swing at anything, he's going to risk making poor contact, followed by a weak out. So I think that his best strategy is guess a pitch and location. If he sees that pitch, he cranks it. If not, he let's it pass, even if that means taking the called strike.

This jibes with my experience, which is that a disproportionate amount of first pitches either called strikes or balls. You see other outcomes, but these two account for many of the first pitches. Just for grins, I looked at the last game of last season, truly one for the ages. The results weren't quite as clear cut as expected, but only because the 7th, 8th and 9th innings went nuts.

In the first 6 innings, Lincecum and Lee were beautiful, allowing 5 hits and no runs on a combined 12 innings. In those innings, here is the distribution of first pitches:
  • 14 balls
  • 13 strikes (looking)
  • 14 others (including fouls, swinging strikes and hit into play)
Clearly not a uniform distribution. I think that the World Series would conform more to my expectations, because the average quality of both hitters and pitchers will be higher. It would be informative to look rigorously at all of the rest of the games and see which of the other categories increase.

Just for the heck of it, here are the next 3 innings results, including 5 hits and 4 runs in just 6 combined innings.
  • 5 balls
  • 4 strikes (looking)
  • 15 everything else.
Yup. It was that ugly.

Measuring the outcome

So, enough table setting. Let's get on with it. Here's how I judge the outcome of various kinds of first pitch results:

Swinging strike. No matter how you look at it, the batter got owned. If we're talking about a run-of-the-mill Jacoby Ellsbury quality hitter, you can see why I credit the pitcher with a major win. But how much more-so for a Kevin Youkillis quality hitter? He thought it was his pitch and he still couldn't make contact...

Called strike. You have to give the nod to the pitcher -- he got what he needed to get done. But it's a weak victory. The batter may have let it go as a calculated risk -- better to risk a strikeout tomorrow than a ground-out today. And location matters. If it's on the perimeter, I credit the pitcher extra with achieving great location. Otherwise, it just wasn't where the batter wanted it.

Ball. Similarly, the ball has to be a victory for the batter, but it need not be a major one. If it was close to the strike zone, I give the pitcher an A for effort, but the batter still got the job done by not swinging.

In play. In play is tough, albeit not as tough as a foul. If the batter makes a weak connection, and the ball dribbles into play, well that's just one step above a swinging strike. If the batter went chasing a ball on the perimeter, again, you have to be impressed with the pitcher. Of course, if ball rings of the bat, you have to think that the batter won, plain and simple. Even on line-out to an infielder. This could be a slap hitter, able to dig out anything the pitcher throws (so, kudos). This could also be the situation I described above -- Henderson has out-thought Maddux and predicted the pitch. He may fly out to the warning track, but you can't ask him to do better.

So to sum up -- weakly hit -- victory to the pitcher. Well hit, victory to the batter.

Foul. Okay. Here we go. There are at least 3 things that I have to know before I can assign victory points:
  • Quality of connection
  • Pitch location
  • Where the foul ball went
Quality of connection is the same point I made above -- if the batter just barely gets wood on the bat, that's one step above a swinging strike.

Pitch location is also important. If the ball was on the perimeter, or outside the strike zone, the batter was probably looking for it somewhere else. He got owned, even if he made good connection.

Finally, via Keith Hernandez again, there's a big difference between a foul straight back and one off to the sides. According to Hernandez, if the ball goes straight back, the only mistake the batter made was one of timing. He got the location right, but not the speed. The pitcher did alright, but it wasn't a big victory.

If the batter shoots the ball into the (non-fair) stands, well, there wasn't much else the batter could do with the ball. Think about those inside pitches which are ruled self-defense. The batter could have let it go for a ball, but swung and got a strike. Call that a victory for the pitcher. Maybe two steps above a swinging strike.

One more time.

So to sum up, here it goes, from best pitcher to best batter outcome:
  1. Swinging strike
  2. Weakly hit (in play, or foul ball -- regardless of outcome)
  3. Well hit foul (not straight back, perimeter, or outside of the strike zone)
  4. Called strike (perimeter)
  5. Called strike (center of strike zone)
  6. Well hit foul (not straight back, in the strike zone)
  7. Ball (close)
  8. Ball (not so close)
  9. Well hit foul (straight back)
  10. Well hit, in play (regardless of outcome)
That's my story, whether I stick to it or not.


1 comment:

  1. Your ordering might penalize a certain kind of pitcher that does well. I think that baseball commentators want to see more of this kind of pitcher: the guy who believes in his stuff. He doesn't throw a lot of balls because he knows that usually, when a batter makes contact, he'll get the out. These pitchers risk some good, solid hits, but it's not that important when the batter makes good contact, because, overall, the pitcher expects to do well. Some aggressive pitchers of this type throw a lot of fastballs and give up more than an average share of home runs. They do well if their team can score, because they battle hard and don't give up big innings.
    - PB