Pay More Attention to Swings and Misses

As an analyst, one of the aspects that I am obsessed with is boiling down seemingly complex questions into the simplest possible situation. Take evaluating pitches for example. John Walsh of the Hardball Times has an excellent method for identifying and ranking pitch types but a data request from my friend Jeff Sullivan got me thinking about a simpler model.

What is the best result for a single pitch, from a pitcher’s point of view? Clearly, the pitcher prefers a strike to a ball. An out would be best, but since we’re talking about a single pitch, an out means a ball in play which in turn means the possibility for a whole range of other outcomes.

A principle that I have been harping on for a few years now is the benefit in splitting up pitch results at a level beyond ball, strike and in play. In particular, I tend to categorize pitches as one of the following: ball, intentional ball, called strike, swinging strike, foul or in play. Why do I think it’s important to split things up like that? Because of graphs like these:

That’s strikeout rate on the vertical axis and league normalized swinging strike and called strike rates on the horizontals.

Going back to the question then, would anyone disagree that a swinging strike is the best overall pitch outcome for a pitcher? Not only does it result in the best possible singular outcome (a strike), but it adds a lot more information about the pitcher’s ability to get strikeouts, the best possible outcome of an at bat for the pitcher.

Looking at fastballs only and the percentage of them that a pitcher gets a swing and a miss on, there’s some names in interesting places. It’s probably no surprise that Scott Kazmir and Rich Harden were at or near the league best in 2008, but would you have guessed John Danks and Micah Owings would be right with them?

It’s probably not surprising that Dallas Braden had the lowest rate of fastball swinging strikes amongst starting pitchers last year given his typical 87-88 mph velocity, but would you thought Bobby Jenks and his mid-90s fastball would be near the bottom for relievers at a rate roughly half that of Ramon Ramirez? In fact, Bobby Jenks saw a significant decline in the amount of swings and misses he managed across all pitches in 2008, something to watch out for in 2009.

There’s no end to the amount of interesting (to me) data that can be looked at concerning pitchers.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

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I knew Micah Owings was really cool. I totally knew it.