Saturday night’s contest between the Nationals and Dodgers — not coincidentally one of the weekend games previewed in the Friday edition of the perpetually infallible Daily Notes — was an excellent one (box). Uberprospect Bryce Harper made his major-league debut, hitting an impressive line-drive double to the center-field wall (video) and also displaying his strong, accurate throwing arm (video); Stephen Strasburg struck out a third of the 27 batters he faced while walking none, posting a single-game xFIP of 1.82 (video); and Matt Kemp hit his league-leading 11th home run to win the game in extra innings (video). The game’s average leverage index (1.83) was easily the highest of the day.
A quieter, but still notable, feat was performed by Dodger starter Chad Billingsley in the top of the second inning. Facing Danny Espinosa, he threw what amounted to two ideal pitches for called strikes to begin the at-bat.
Generally speaking, a hitter that isn’t Jeff Francoeur will begin a plate appearance looking for a pitch in a particular area, and will increase or decrease his swing zone depending on the count. Accordingly, if a pitcher is able to locate a pitch both (a) inside the strike zone but (b) outside of the hitter’s swing zone — that is, outside of the area where a batter believes he could drive the ball — then he will gain an advantage.
What sort of advantage? Consider: per Baseball Reference, National League batters are hitting .159/.188/.233 (21 OPS+) this season after reaching an 0-2 count. Meanwhile, those same batters have a 92 OPS+ after a 1-1 count and a 161 OPS+ after 2-0. That the difference, basically between the 2011 version of Prince Fielder, on the one hand, and the 2011 version of Ian Stewart, on the other.
Of course, it’s not that simple. As of Sunday, only 2,403 of a total 12,540 National League plate appearances (ca. 19%) have gone to 0-2 — and one can assume that a not inconsequential portion of those have been with pitchers batting.
Billingsely, for his part, demonstrated a pretty effective way of getting to an 0-2 count in his confrontation with Espinosa. Below are the two pitches he threw. (Note that the outer bound of home plate is technically about 0.70 feet from the center of the plate, but that the typical major-league zone for left-handed batters extends to a bit more than an inch from the center of home.)
Pitch One: Two-Seam Fastball, 88mph
Horizontal Location (From Center of Plate): 0.85 feet
Note: Billingsley begins the at-bat with a two-seamer that, given the location and movement, would have been difficult for Espinosa not to ground to the left side of the infield.
Pitch Two: Slider, 78 mph
Horizontal Location (From Center of Plate): 0.91 feet
Note: Billingsley moves ever so slightly further outside with his second pitch, this one a slider. The attentive reader will note that, just at the end of the GIF, Espinosa reacts to Mark Carlson’s strike call. Indeed, despite Espinosa’s reaction, the pitch would be likely be a called strike for most umpires. Nor was Espinosa likely wrong to watch this one, either: again, given the pitch’s movement and placement, it’s unlikely Espinosa would have hit it authoritatively.
Here’s where those pitches were, according to a non-normalized strike zone (from catcher’s perspective, click to embiggen):
The plate appearance didn’t end after those two offerings, of course. In fact, as one can see from the above graph, Billingsley threw three more pitches to Espinosa: a high four-seam fastball that Espinosa fouled off, another two-seamer for a ball inside; and, finally, a slider low for a swinging strike three. The merits of those final three pitches are outside of the scope of this post. (Certainly, the fact that Billingsley recorded the strikeout speaks in some part to their effectiveness.) To some degree, though, Billingsley won the at-bat — or got the majority of the way there — after just two pitches. A certain degree of variation would obviously dictate the remainder of the plate appearance, but the odds were decidedly in Billingsley’s favor.
PITCHf/x data courtesy Brooks Baseball.