Chad Billingsley’s Perfect Called Strikes

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.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

27 Responses to “Chad Billingsley’s Perfect Called Strikes”

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  1. Nick44 says:

    Bryce Harper was also rocking an unfortunate haircut. Reference the video of the double.

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  2. acr says:

    I watched most of the game, including Harper’s first hit. I realize Dodger Stadium is a spacious facility but was surprised at Harper’s double. It was a pitch up but Harper looked to get all of it and the ball hit off the center field wall. I would have thought it would have been a homer in most cases. The bases were empty and Kemp was playing in…maybe he always plays in? Beats me. Odd scenario overall.

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    • Nick says:

      I watched the game as well, but it didn’t think Harper got all of that double to center. Looked (and sounded) like he just missed it. Just my .02

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      • baty says:

        He got up to the pitch, and hit the ball square, but the trajectory of his swing kept it in the park. Remove the fence from the equation, and the ball might have rolled far enough for him to circle the bases twice… a bit of an exaggeration, but he completely labeled it.

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    • Ivdown says:

      Harper hit the ball off the bottom base of the wall, that wasn’t going out unless it was right down the line in left or right with the height it had.

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      • Robert Odden says:

        It may not have left the park but it was still crushed from what I saw. It looked more like a line drive than a true fly ball.

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    • John says:

      He did “get all of it”, but hit it center-cut. Didn’t get backspin.

      Baseball, baseball.

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    • John says:

      That ball was absolutely p*ssed on.

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  3. Bip says:

    As a Dodger fan who’s been following Billingsley’s career with some consternation up to this point, this is great to see. He’s made visible mechanical adjustments and his command seems to have improved as a result. After walking around 10% of batters over his career, he’s walking under 6% this season so far. There’s always something frustrating about pitchers who are held back primarily by their walk rates, but if Billingsley keeps this up, he may validate everything Dodger fans have been saying for so long about the type of pitcher Billingsley could (read: should) be.

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    • John C says:

      Well, of course strikeouts by Nationals hitters should only count so much towards a pitcher’s totals. This team whiffs a LOT. And Espinosa has earned his nickname of “Danny Kaye.” Sliders/breaking balls on the inside corner, under the hands. Can’t hit them, can’t lay off of them. The final pitch in this at bat is a classic example. As is typical, he missed it by about a foot and a half.

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  4. Josh Wexler says:

    “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.”

    Nuh-uh. It’s not “the same batters” at all. There’s selection bias in these numbers, and it’s not just the pitchers, to which you allude. The group who went to an 0-2 count includes lesser hitters as a whole. And the batters who went to a 1-1 count were already better hitters before the PA began.

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    • SaberTJ says:

      I understand your point, but your comment seems like you’re saying good hitters never face 0-2 counts all year long. I know Matt Kemp faced an 0-2 count in the very game CC mentions above.

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    • JDanger says:

      Albert Pujols Career split
      after 2-0: .351/.617/.663
      after 0-2: .251 /.288 /.446

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  5. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Too bad you didn’t note that the Rays were playing the Rangers, because you missed one of the best series of the year.

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  6. TD says:

    Chad Bilingsley is the greatest pitcher of the last 150 years

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  7. Antonio Bananas says:

    If Espinosa grounds out the first pitch to the left side of the infield (as suggested) wouldn’t that be pure luck and not at all due to how well Billingsley placed the pitch?

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    • gryfyn1 says:

      you should probably spend more time learning to fully understand BaBip

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      • objectiveobserver says:

        Why? Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been sold for a decade now? Pitchers have no control over balls in play?

        Also…it’s amusing to think someone feels they have achieved a breakthrough by observing that a pitch on the low outside corner is something new and difficult for the hitter.

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    • brendan says:

      assuming this is a comment about fWAR and FIP. True, currently pitchers don’t get fWAR credit for grounders, but the writers talk a lot about GB rate and xFIP gives credit for it.

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