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Thread: Leverage and Pitch count

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    Five Tool Fool jojo's Avatar
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    Leverage and Pitch count

    I really enjoy watching the pitcher and batter battle one another during an individual plate appearance (PA) and then seeing the adjustments the two make as the game goes on. For me, its things like these individual battles within a battle and the hidden strategies which define them that give baseball its charm and substance.

    So when Chris Welsh commented during Belisle’s last start that a key to Matt’s success rests on his ability to throw a first pitch strike, my ears naturally perked up. This statement certainly seems to be consistent with traditional baseball wisdom as there is an intuitive advantage to being ahead in the count. As it happens, I’ve been tracking several batting splits of all Reds positional players that were on both the ’06 and ’07 rosters in order to do a study on the effect of Brook Jacoby’s impact. I used the ’06 data set (3,768 PAs) to test the wisdom behind the importance of throwing a first pitch strike. When comparing count splits for Reds hitters in ’06, the OPS of batters was .251 lower in PAs that began with a 0-1 count (OPS=.684) versus those that began 1-0 (OPS= .935). Traditional baseball wisdom certainly seems to hold in this case.

    However while on the surface it seems like a cut and dry case, this “first pitch strike” dogma has always struck me as not very useful for understanding a PA. At best it’s a blunt summation which only paints the broadest, most superficial picture of a given PA. Surely, throwing a first pitch strike doesn’t tell the whole story of what can often be a complex PA that many times lasts longer than 5 pitches. A lot can happen after that first pitch which can completely nullify its effect. A 0-1 count can quickly become a 3-1 count. Certainly there can be a big difference in first pitch strikes thrown from a guy with average stuff who is pitching to contact versus a guy with electric stuff. It’s fairly obvious that a fouled-off meatball probably doesn’t carry the same significance to the immediate fortunes of the batter as a well-located, nasty first pitch strike might. In the case of the pitcher who is “on his game”, it’s likely that he’s pretty effective on pitch two and three and so forth as well. If that’s the case, was it really the first pitch strike that did the batter in? Intuitively, there has to be more to winning an individual PA than simply throwing the first pitch in the strike zone. This led me to wonder what is the actual value of a strike anyway and what leverage does the pitcher really gain by throwing one. Is 0-1 really a pitcher’s count? Is 2-2 really an even count?

    To try and answer some of these questions, I once again used the ’06 data set for Reds position players that were on both the ’06 and ’07 active rosters. I’ve broken down all possible pitch counts and examined the OPS for outcomes when the PA ended on that count. The data is sorted by balls and also by strikes to illustrate the effect of each on OPS.

    [IMG][/IMG]

    A few points seem to be made clear when analyzing a PA on a situational basis:

    1. First, the effect of the first strike doesn’t seem to be nearly as dramatic as the earlier more blunt splits suggested. An 0-1 count only reduced the batter’s OPS by a minuscule .009 versus hitting the first pitch (0-0, OPS=.912; 0-1, OPS=.903). However, throwing a ball is somewhat of a ding.

    2. These splits also suggest that a batter gains no advantage by swinging at the first pitch. In fact, it probably is a bad idea as a philosophy given the advantage gained by hitting in an 1-0 count (0-0, OPS=.912; 1-0, OPS=1.054), the even greater advantages gained if a batter can successfully work the count deeper in his favor, and the fact that hitting in an 0-1 count places the batter at no real disadvantage (0-0, OPS=.912; 0-1, OPS=.903). In essence, here is a case where the batter can quite possibly gain by simply doing nothing.

    3. Importantly, these data strikingly demonstrate that it is really strike two and ball three that are actually the true leverage pitches (dramatically swing the advantage in either the pitcher’s or batter’s favor). These data suggest that the first pitch in reality is not a high leverage pitch at all. Perhaps the correlation between first strike and OPS in the blunt split in the second paragraph above had more to do with the pitcher having command versus not having command rather than the first pitch strike directly impacting the outcome of the PA.

    To further illustrate the significances of strike two or ball three, I averaged the differences in OPS resulting from each of the outcomes (i.e. the effect of strike one was determined by adding the differences between 0-0 and 0-1, 1-0 and 1-1 and so forth). These means (+/- standard deviations) are shown below:

    [IMG][/IMG]

    This further demonstrates that it’s strike two and ball three that really are the true leverage pitches in any given PA. Also note that while the effect of strike one seems large, it’s effect was really inflated by the ding a batter takes by going from a 3-0 count to a 3-1 count. This really has more to do with the tremendous advantage that ball three gives the batter rather than the value of strike one per se.

    Finally, when examining the distribution of OPS over the individual pitch counts, OPS neatly broke into three distinct groupings as demonstrated below:

    [IMG][/IMG]


    In ’06 the national league average OPS for positional players was .793. Using league average as a baseline suggests several things that aren’t necessarily intuitive:

    1) 3-2 is the only count that is truly an even one since it is the only one where the associated OPS approximated league average (suggesting neither the pitcher nor the batter had a distinct advantage).

    2) Any count with 2 strikes and less than 3 balls is a pitcher’s count (i.e. the pitcher has leverage). This means that 2-2 really shouldn’t be thought of as an even count as there is a clear advantage to the pitcher.

    3) Any other count should be considered a hitter’s count since based upon outcomes on those counts, the hitter’s performance tends to be better than league average. Getting back to the notion that throwing a first pitch strike is a key to pitching success, these data suggest, an 0-1 count is actually a hitter’s count.


    In summary: while throwing a first pitch strike is better than throwing a first pitch ball, it’s strike two that is really the key to a pitcher’s success.


    Chris Welsh would've been more accurate to say that the key to Belisle's success is command and the ability to get a second strike on hitters. Ultimately this suggests an ability to miss bats pays off big.
    Last edited by jojo; 05-02-2007 at 03:56 PM.
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Wow, very detailed analysis. One benefit of first pitch strikes you didn't consider, however: Strike 1 gets you to strike 2 faster, and getting to strike 2 faster gets to strike 3 faster. On an 0-2 count, you showed batters had an OPs of .379, which was the lowest of any of the counts. You have to get the first ptich strike to get to the 0-2 count.

    Also, I'd imagine (absolutely no stats here) that facing an 0-1 or an 0-2 count, hitters would feel more pressure to swing, keeping pitch counts low when they swing at crap balls for outs, or whif on balls out of the strike zone for Ks.
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    Rally Onion! Chip R's Avatar
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    The Reds sure made that kid who started for HOU last night throw a lot of pitches. He had about 60 over the first 2 innings.
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    It is often said that the most important pitch in baseball is Strike One. But I think your research clearly shows that the most important pitch, by a long shot, is Strike Two.

    Very nice work, btw.
    Makes all the routine posts.

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Excellent analysis!

    Over the last few days we've been privileged to see posts containing data that are counter-intuitive and counter conventional baseball wisdom, like this set of pitch count analyses and the batting order studies that indicate that the team's fifth best hitter, not the best hitter, should bat third.

    But that will likely have little effect on "Why isn't so and so batting third?" and "Why isn't a prototypical bunt/hit and run guy batting second?" posts from appearing in the game threads.

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Quote Originally Posted by Redsland View Post
    It is often said that the most important pitch in baseball is Strike One. But I think your research clearly shows that the most important pitch, by a long shot, is Strike Two.

    Very nice work, btw.
    Can't get strike two with out the first strike. You are counting your chickens before they hatch. Throwing a first pitch strike greatly increases your chances of getting to a two strike count. After the first strike the hitter will be more aggressive and defensive of the plate, which creates strikes two more often than not.

    JoJo, awesome post.

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Quote Originally Posted by Dunner44 View Post
    One benefit of first pitch strikes you didn't consider, however: Strike 1 gets you to strike 2 faster, and getting to strike 2 faster gets to strike 3 faster.
    You and AI51 are right of course about needing strike one to get to strike two and that's the wisdom behind the first pitch strike comment of Welsh. That said though, a first pitch strike does not in and of itself give the pitcher leverage (increase the likelihood of an out per se) like Welsh generalized (or really guarantee a strike two for that matter).

    The pitch count splits pretty much reaffirm the general notion that a successful pitcher needs to have command first, a "make 'em miss quality" second, and hopefully groundball tendencies for the balls put into play third. Hopefully the ideas above provide insight into pitcher evaluation and the battle between the pitcher and batter as well as increasing the enjoyment of watching it play out.
    Last edited by jojo; 05-02-2007 at 08:46 PM.
    "This isnít stats vs scouts - this is stats and scouts working together, building an organization that blends the best of both worlds. This is the blueprint for how a baseball organization should be run. And, whether the baseball men of the 20th century like it or not, this is where baseball is going."---Dave Cameron, U.S.S. Mariner

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    There have been four 0-2 hits so far tonight.

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Quote Originally Posted by AvesIce51 View Post
    There have been four 0-2 hits so far tonight.
    even the house in vegas loses from time to time...

    "This isnít stats vs scouts - this is stats and scouts working together, building an organization that blends the best of both worlds. This is the blueprint for how a baseball organization should be run. And, whether the baseball men of the 20th century like it or not, this is where baseball is going."---Dave Cameron, U.S.S. Mariner

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    IMO strike 3 is most important

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Good stuff.

    Strike one still seems most important to me. As others have posted you can't get to 0-2 without 0-1, but there are other comparisons that need to be pointed out. 0-1 is way better than 1-0. And if the second pitch is a ball then 1-1 is better than 2-0, etc.

    While I agree that 0-1 isn't the most advantageous count on the matrix, getting strike 1 sets up the advantage on the subsequent pitches.

    This analysis reminds that getting outs is a process just like making products. If the first person on the assembly line screws-up, the others down the line really have to work hard to compensate. Get that first process right (strike 1)and everything runs better.

    Fantastic work.
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    Charlie Brown All-Star IslandRed's Avatar
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    The only problem I have with the method, jojo, is that I'm not sure you really answered the question at hand.

    For example, you said that getting strike one on the first pitch doesn't give a pitcher much of an advantage over an 0-0 count. But you're comparing the 0-0 count to the 0-1 count only for the instances where the 0-1 pitch was put into play, not for all 0-1 counts, and thus missing the "downstream" effect that others have brought up. And the downstream effect is precisely what people mean when they talk about the importance of a first-pitch strike. To say that 0-1 isn't a pitcher's count based only on what happens if the second pitch is hit is a little bit too narrow of a focus, I think.

    If someone compared the results of all at-bats with an 0-1 count to all at-bats with a 1-0 count (the necessary opposite of not throwing that first strike), the advantage of throwing that first strike would probably be crystal clear. (Says the guy who hasn't put in the work to test the hypothesis.)
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    Five Tool Fool jojo's Avatar
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Quote Originally Posted by IslandRed View Post
    The only problem I have with the method, jojo, is that I'm not sure you really answered the question at hand.

    For example, you said that getting strike one on the first pitch doesn't give a pitcher much of an advantage over an 0-0 count. But you're comparing the 0-0 count to the 0-1 count only for the instances where the 0-1 pitch was put into play, not for all 0-1 counts, and thus missing the "downstream" effect that others have brought up. And the downstream effect is precisely what people mean when they talk about the importance of a first-pitch strike. To say that 0-1 isn't a pitcher's count based only on what happens if the second pitch is hit is a little bit too narrow of a focus, I think.
    FYI, results of all PAs that began 0-1 were compared versus all PAs that began with 1-0 counts and ones that began with a strike were associated with an OPS that was .251 lower (it was in the text rather in a table).

    You and others raise a fair point about the downstream effect of a first pitch strike but while strike one makes strike two a possibility, an 0-1 count doesn't innately make strike two any more likely than ball one or ball two and so on.

    It’s always important to ask if the split is really indicating what we think it’s indicating. In this case is the pitcher more effective because he threw a first pitch strike or did he throw a first pitch strike because he was more effective to begin with? If the latter is the case then the split would be skewed and less informative. Can you imagine Chris Welsh saying, “the key to Belisle being effective is for him to be more effective”? Hence the question how much leverage does the first strike really give the pitcher. I focused upon outcomes on an individual count basis in an effort to eliminate the potential influence of command/stuff from the split.

    Here's the point I think: A first pitch strike is a positive event for the pitcher because it moves him closer to strike two (and eliminates the hitters biggest leverage count, 3-0, as a possibility) but strike one in and of itself does not give the pitcher leverage over the hitter. It probably doesn’t pay for the pitcher to alter his approach (take something off, shy away from breaking stuff, be more careful locating etc) on the first pitch just for the sake of a strike if that makes his first pitch more hittable.
    Last edited by jojo; 05-03-2007 at 09:59 PM.
    "This isnít stats vs scouts - this is stats and scouts working together, building an organization that blends the best of both worlds. This is the blueprint for how a baseball organization should be run. And, whether the baseball men of the 20th century like it or not, this is where baseball is going."---Dave Cameron, U.S.S. Mariner

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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    Quote Originally Posted by jojo View Post
    FYI, results of all PAs that began 0-1 were compared versus all PAs that began with 1-0 counts and ones that began with a strike were associated with an OPS that was .251 lower (it was in the text rather in a table).
    My apologies, I missed that completely.

    while strike one makes strike two a possibility, an 0-1 count doesn't innately make strike two any more likely than ball one or ball two and so on.
    Just from the inherent probabilities of throwing a strike, I'd think that a pitcher with an 0-1 count is more likely to get to strike two at some point in the at-bat than if he starts 1-0. How much more likely, I don't know.

    As for the rest of it, my belief is that an 0-1 count gives a pitcher considerable leverage relative to its counterpart, the 1-0 count. But I agree with your point that it's not as simple as telling pitchers "throw a strike on the first pitch." Pitchers who get a lot of 0-1 counts are not only throwing strikes, they're throwing strikes good enough to thwart the hitters laying in wait for one of those get-ahead fastballs. So yeah, the stat might simply reflect talent more so than being a gateway to improvement.
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    Re: Leverage and Pitch count

    I think what is missed is that a guy that can throw a strike on the first pitch (control), and either fool the batter into letting it go by (stuff), or make him swing and miss (stuff & smoke) is going to be more effective than a guy that tosses his first pitch in the strike zone and gets it smoked (meaning you don't get an 0-1 count).

    I'd guess that the guys that can get to an 0-1 count are generally the guys that can get 3 strikes on a guy as well.

    GL


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