How the Rays Leverage the Edge

In Sports Illustrated’s 2013 baseball preview, Tom Verducci wrote a great profile of the Tampa Bay Rays and their approach to optimizing the performance of their pitching staff.

One topic that was especially interesting to me was the apparent importance the Rays place on the 1-1 count. Verducci recounts how pitching coach Jim Hickey described the organization’s focus on getting opposing batters into 1-2 counts:

The Rays believe no pitch changes the course of that at bat more than the 1-and-1 delivery. “It’s almost a 200-point swing in on-base percentage with one ball and two strikes as opposed to two balls and one strike,” Hickey told the pitchers.

The Rays’ staff ranked seventh in baseball last year in first-pitch-strike percentage (60.9). But they ranked first in getting to 1-and-2 counts (30.9% of all plate appearances). The trick to getting ahead, Hickey told his charges, is to command the ball around the inside and outside edges of the strike zone so that balls look like strikes to both batters and umpires. “We led the major leagues in pitches out of the zone getting called strikes,” he explained. “It’s tough to expand the zone up and down. But you can do it side to side.”¬†(emphasis mine)

If readers have been following the work that Jeff Zimmerman and I have done on pitching on the edges of the strike zone you can imagine that this passage really intrigued us. I decided to investigate how the Rays ranked in this regard using our Edge% metric.

First, we need to get a sense of when pitchers tend to throw to the edges of the zone most often. The simplest way to do this is to look at the percent of pitches for each possible count that are thrown to the edge*:

Balls Strikes Edge% Heart% Outside%
0 2 12.6% 19.4% 68.0%
1 2 14.9% 23.9% 61.1%
0 1 17.2% 29.0% 53.9%
2 2 17.2% 30.7% 52.1%
1 1 18.1% 33.0% 48.9%
0 0 17.7% 38.0% 44.4%
1 0 18.1% 34.5% 47.4%
2 1 18.6% 39.4% 42.0%
3 2 19.0% 40.9% 40.1%
2 0 18.1% 41.1% 40.8%
3 1 19.1% 44.4% 36.5%
3 0 16.6% 41.3% 42.2%

A cursory look at the data shows that the edge is generally more popular when pitchers are behind in the count (e.g. 3-1, 3-2, 2-1). However, the one count that breaks the pattern where the pitcher is even with the batter is the 1-1 count, which ranks fourth in terms of edge frequency (18.1%). It would appear the Rays aren’t the only team that emphasizes throwing to the edges of the zone in this count.

The question, however, is whether we see the Rays attacking the edge more often than league average in 1-1 counts. To answer that question I aggregating Edge% for 1-1 counts for each team in the league from 2010-2013 and then calculated how each team’s Edge, Heart, and Outside% compared to the league average (sorted by Edge%):

Team Edge% Relative to League Heart% Relative to League Outside% Relative to League
Twins 111% 100% 96%
Phillies 110% 93% 101%
White Sox 109% 103% 95%
Tigers 107% 102% 96%
Reds 105% 95% 101%
Rays 105% 100% 98%
Dodgers 105% 102% 97%
Rangers 105% 104% 95%
Athletics 104% 99% 99%
Red Sox 103% 97% 101%
Indians 102% 108% 94%
Blue Jays 102% 101% 99%
Nationals 101% 93% 104%
Mariners 99% 103% 99%
Pirates 99% 100% 101%
Cardinals 99% 97% 103%
Diamondbacks 98% 97% 102%
Orioles 98% 103% 99%
Giants 98% 100% 101%
Royals 98% 101% 100%
Yankees 98% 102% 100%
Astros 97% 95% 104%
Padres 97% 101% 101%
Rockies 96% 104% 99%
Angels 96% 101% 101%
Marlins 95% 103% 100%
Mets 93% 106% 99%
Brewers 93% 96% 105%
Cubs 90% 101% 103%
Braves 89% 95% 107%

As a team, the Rays do not rank first relative to league average, but they are tied for sixth (and are basically just a rounding of a hundredth of a percent out of the top 5). Additionally, the Rays throw to the heart of the plate at the same pace as the league and throw to the outside a little less than league average. This aligns with their stated philosophy of avoiding falling into 2-1 counts.

The final question I have is how effective their focus on the edge actually is. It’s one thing to throw to particular locations and another to do so effectively. To tease this out a bit I looked at all 1-2 counts that followed 1-1 counts and what percentage of those 1-2 counts came as a result of both pitches thrown to the edges of the strike zone as well as called strikes thrown to the edges of the strike zone.

Team 1-2 Counts from 1-1 Called Strike on Edge 1-2 from Pitch on Edge Called Strike% Relative to League 1-2 Counts from Edge Relative to League
Twins 2773 311 757 121% 111%
Reds 3125 303 842 105% 109%
White Sox 2858 277 753 105% 107%
Rays 3091 296 804 104% 105%
Phillies 2883 270 746 101% 105%
Orioles 2803 277 714 107% 103%
Rangers 2922 293 744 109% 103%
Padres 2833 298 718 114% 103%
Tigers 2980 263 749 96% 102%
Nationals 2778 283 694 110% 101%
Dodgers 2839 246 708 94% 101%
Angels 2669 255 663 103% 101%
Indians 2658 210 660 86% 101%
Pirates 2578 243 634 102% 100%
Blue Jays 2666 249 655 101% 100%
Athletics 2863 260 703 98% 100%
Astros 2505 216 614 93% 99%
Red Sox 2884 253 700 95% 98%
Rockies 2728 232 657 92% 98%
Diamondbacks 2442 204 584 90% 97%
Yankees 2954 278 705 102% 97%
Mariners 2408 222 574 100% 97%
Royals 2585 224 616 94% 97%
Cardinals 2701 231 637 93% 96%
Brewers 2997 290 700 105% 95%
Giants 3086 284 704 100% 92%
Mets 2924 224 661 83% 92%
Cubs 2611 207 586 86% 91%
Marlins 2747 225 610 89% 90%
Braves 2878 226 628 85% 88%

Turns out that the Rays do get a sizable number of their 1-2 counts as a result of pitches thrown to the edge of the strike zone (26%). But while they are about four percent above the league average, the Rays are far from the best team at getting to 1-2 as a result of called strikes on the edge–that title goes to the Twins by a large margin.

Still, the data shows us that, yes, the Rays are practicing what they preach. But it also shows us that the approach isn’t necessarily a guarantee of success (see the Twins and their third-worst ERA- since 2010).¬†Throwing and working the edges of the strike zone is certainly important, but you obviously need more than that to be a dominant staff. And the Rays certainly bring more than that to the table.


*Data from 2010-2013

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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.

32 Responses to “How the Rays Leverage the Edge”

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  1. Jose Molina says:

    I thought this was going to be about me!

    Not even one stinking mention at all…… :(

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  2. David says:

    I believe you have the counts mixed up in your first chart. I’m not exactly sure why else pitchers would throw on 3 strike counts and not throw at all on 3 ball counts.

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  3. payroll says:

    I suspect you will find the Twins throwing plenty of pitches in the “heart” on 1-2.

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  4. marlinswin12 says:

    Wouldn’t the Jose Molina signing also show that the Rays preach this? If you’re going to focus on edge% and which organizations preach it, I think the catcher should be mentioned. Whether or not an umpire is deceived in this case is highly dependent on the catcher’s framing and Molina is one of the best, if not the best.

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  5. MGL says:

    I think the fact that the Rays have Molina (and the Twins have Mauer) have a lot to do with their rankings…

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  6. Scot says:

    “The trick to getting ahead, Hickey told his charges, is to command the ball around the inside and outside edges of the strike zone so that balls look like strikes to both batters and umpires.” (My emphasis.)

    In short he is arguing that the goal is to deceive the umpire, i.e., the rules. In short, Rays pitchers and catchers are trying to intentionally cheat. It is no different than having a batter who is not hit with a pitch act like he has. While I enjoy watching the Rays and particularly appreciate their attempts at identifying and using inefficiencies of the system to win, it must be recognized that by societal standards, deception is considered unsportsmanlike.

    So I wonder how long will the MLB, which has the capabilities to have computers call balls and strikes, continue to use humans? Alternatively, if fans are willing to accept this type of deception, they should not be upset by other forms of deception towards the umpires such as the not hit-but acting hit performance, trapping a fly ball, intentionally dropping a line drive to get a double play or even faking an injury while on the mound so that a new pitcher can be brought in.

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    • Scot says:

      My apologies. The bold was suppose to end in the first paragraph.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      If you weren’t trying to get a called strike on the worst possible pitch to hit, you wouldn’t be trying to win. Of course they’re pushing the limits of the strike zone — none of us would have it any other way.

      “Oh, well let’s have the catcher set up a little more outside so that if the batter doesn’t swing, it will definitely be a ball. We want the batter to have a clear idea of what this pitch is before he commits to swinging and we certainly wouldn’t want the umpire to give us a strike that we didn’t earn.”

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      • SrMeowMeow says:

        It’s not a terrible point though. What’s the difference between an organizational philosophy that all catchers should try to deceive the umpire re: pitches outside the rulebook strikezone, and an organizational philosophy preaching faking getting hit by pitches whenever possible?

        Why is one a skill and the other unsportsmanlike? They both rely on the exact same premise: that leveraging the imperfect abilities of umpires is part of the game.

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        • Eminor3rd says:

          I think the biggest difference is that the strike zone is constantly up for umpire interpretation night in and night out. It’s not so much that you’re trying to deceive the umpire as you’re trying to find the least hittable pitch that the umpire is willing to call a strike. It’s a game that must be played every day.

          Catcher framing, specifically, can be interpreted as a different beast, but that doesn’t at all like what that quotation is referring to.

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      • Scot says:

        I see his comments are an attempt to deceive the system, not the opposition. Given the technology is present, why not use it and not this continuation to commit fraud? The fault does not exist with Hickey but with the system.

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    • Joe says:

      That’s idiotic and your opinion shows an obvious lack of understanding of the history of baseball. Players have been trying to deceive umpires since the game began and I’m all for it and there isn’t a fan out there who wouldn’t want the catcher on his/her team to frame pitches in order to win. Pitch framing and the ability to get a pitch just off the corner called a strike is one of the great things about baseball and most importantly, it makes the game more interesting. Pitch framing is also a specific skill that some catchers have that others don’t, much like being able to accurately and repeatedly hit the corner with a pitch is for a pitcher. We should be praising these skills, not trying to remove them from the game.

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      • Scot says:

        Sorry to hear the philosophical interpretation is idiotic. I was not stating deception is immoral, but pointing out the inconsistencies in the response to those who deceive the umpires. Why was Derek Jeter considered a cheater when he faked being hit by a pitch, but Jose Molina is saluted for framing a ball as a strike? My other point was that such deception as framing can be overcome by technology.

        We should be willing to discuss ideas without personal attacks which lack validity.

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        • MrMan says:

          Realize that Molina isn’t necessarily trying to catch an obvious ball and make it appear as a strike. In his mind, he might be catching a strike and doing everything in his power to make it appear a strike to the umpire.

          He’ll do this for every pitch he catches; it’s simply his approach to catching and should be for every catcher.

          That’s a very different thing than pretending to have been hit by a ball when you in fact know you haven’t been hit with said ball.

          One is simply a method of doing your job while the other is a blatant example of deception.

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        • Scot says:

          To MrMan: The quote by Hickey is definitive – the goal is to deceive the batter and umpire. Being a different form of deception doesn’t make it any “better” or “worse”, just different.

          And to provide some history, at one time runners frequently skipped second based when running from first to third, and fielders often held on to the belts of runners or tripped them on the basepaths. By adding more umpires, these types of deceptions and infractions have been reduced. Using video would simply reduce another form of cheating.

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  7. Choo says:

    This is Greg Maddux 101.

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    • Joe says:

      Oddly enough, John Smoltz was talking about how the Braves coaches develop kids to hammer the edges low in the minors during a Teheran start. Two weeks ago maybe? Thought it was interesting.

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      • Joe from London says:

        and if you look at the table, that’s not happening. odd.

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        • D says:

          It appears that the Braves are below average in Edge and Heart… So they lead in outside. Maybe Smoltz meant “down and away” a la Leo Mazonne, but they are not getting the calls there.

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        • ChuckO says:

          The organization under Frank Wren and the Braves pitchers under Roger McDowell may be following a different philosophy now, but I remember Glavine and Maddux working that outside edge. There was one Fox game when Maddux was pitching and they had a camera pointing down at the plate. Late in the game, they showed Maddux getting strike calls on pitches that were three or four inches outside. I think that part of it has to do with the way umpires set up. A lot of them set up over the catcher’s inside shoulder. It’s got to be difficult to tell if an outside pitch catches the edge, so I think they watch the catcher’s glove. A clever catcher and a pitcher with excellent control is going to get some of those outside balls called as strikes.

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        • Choo says:

          During the Maddux/Glavine days, the strike zone was practically laying on it’s side compared to today, and that was before those two guys (especially those two guys) stretched it out even further over the course of the game. Both were masters at hitting a spot three inches off the plate, over and over again until the umpire would relent. Then they would move to four inches away . . .

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  8. Joe says:

    I thought heart % at first glance was a measure of a team’s “heart.” I saw a number of teams were giving more than 100 percent, which from The Simpsons we know is impossible.

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    • Incitatus says:

      Yeah where is David Eckstein on this chart? He must be a league leader in Heart%.

      Or Darrin Erstad. He was a punter in college, you know.

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    • Baltar says:

      Yes, but according to Hank and Bobby Hill’s discussion in the very first episode of “King of the Hill,” 113% is the right amount to give.

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  9. Tim says:

    It’s not really a surprise that the Twins are excellent at getting ahead in the count but have no idea what to do when they get there. They could translate that into Latin and put it on the team crest.

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  10. This is good to think on, Thanks Bill.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that a few years ago, the Rays started throwing a greater percentage of their “out pitches” in one strike — especially 1-1 — counts, whereas normally that pitch gets saved for a two strike attempt at the strikeout. If you believe in the run probability difference being highest between 2-1 and 1-2 counts, then it makes sense to concentrate your best pitch there.

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  11. dudley says:

    are these results statistically significant at a 95% confidence level?

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  12. KynesEscobar says:

    isnt there a passage in moneyball where the a’s have a similar focus on going 1-2, and not 2-1? something like “the first strike is great, but really its two out of three thats important.”

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    • Paul says:

      There defiantly was. Its crazy to think how far ahead of the curve the A’s were back then.

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    • Chris says:

      I recall the passage being something like “the most important pitch in a count is the 1-1 pitch because there is a greater difference in batting average against after a 2-1 count vs. a 1-2 count than any other one pitch swing.”

      There is so much more to Moneyball than OBP. It’s amazing how many people miss the entire point of the book. It’s not about OBP – it’s about finding undervalued skills and exploiting them. OBP was one of the focuses, but that just because at the time, OBP was an undervalued skill. The A’s then focused on defense (Ryan Sweeney, Mark Kotsay) now maybe it’s base running or platoon advantages. All of that is part of the “Moneyball” philosophy.

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