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A Pitchf/x Look at Cliff Lee’s Command

Everyone knows that Cliff Lee is having an extraordinary season. Through 174 innings he has just 11 unintentional base on balls. That works out to 0.57 BB per nine innings. Even with regression it is very likely that Lee will average fewer than one walk per nine on the season. The last time a pitcher did that was Carlos Silva in 2005. That year Silva struck out 3.39 per nine; this year Lee is striking out 7.78 per nine.

Matthew pointed out that Lee’s season is even more amazing when you consider his tiny rate on other free passes (just two IBBs and one HBP). Matthew also showed how this lack of free passes allows Lee to get deeper into games than anyone since 1994 Greg Maddux.

I wanted to take a more micro-scale look and see what this amazing control looks like on a per-pitch basis. Not surprisingly, Lee leads the league in Zone% (BIS’s zone) with 58.7%. Ted Lilly is next at 54.5% and after that no other pitcher is above 53%; Lee is a major outlier, as expected.

Next I was interested in where all these extra pitches in the zone were ending up, and where those out of the zone didn’t end up. So I broke pitch locations (as the ball crosses the front edge of the plate) into a number of bins and color coded each bin based on the proportion of Lee’s fastballs in that bin compared to the proportion of all LHPs’ fastballs in that bin. Bins where Lee had a higher proportion of fastballs are red, and bins where all LHPs had a higher proportion are blue. The intensity of the color shows the size of the difference.

The pattern is not surprising. The bins in the zone are red (Lee throws the ball there more often) and those out of the zone are blue (Lee throws the ball less often). But I think how strength and consistency of that pattern is surprising. There are just a handful of red bins out of the zone and they are very pale. Within the zone Lee tends to locate on the outer proportion of the zone, a good place to be.

It is not like we needed any further evidence that Lee has amazing command, but it is interesting to see what Lee’s command looks like on a per-pitch basis.