Pitcher Pace, and Who’s Really In Control

Are you familiar with FanGraphs? If so, hello there, friend! If not, welcome to FanGraphs, future friend! On FanGraphs you can find a wide variety of statistics and statistical leaderboards, and among the selection is plate-discipline data from PITCHf/x. As of a couple years ago, this data started including a Pace column. Pace is a simple statistic to understand: it’s the average number of seconds that pass between pitches, for both pitchers and hitters.

Pace is not a statistic that tells you anything at all about how good or bad a player is. There are relationships between Pace and deep counts or Pace and plate appearances with runners on, but Pace is more of a statistic intended to describe the game. We know that there are fast pitchers and slow pitchers, eager hitters and methodical hitters, and Pace gives us numbers. Pace has zero value when you’re talking about who stands the best chance of winning the next World Series. Pace has plenty of value when you’re talking about the gameplay itself, because it captures and describes a part of the viewing experience. It’s good to have numbers that do that, and the introduction of PITCHf/x-based Pace filled a tiny void.

Now, if you’ve ever messed around with the Pace leaderboards, you’re probably familiar with some of the extremes. Pace is a fairly repeatable statistic, in that it isn’t random. There are reasons why each player has the Pace that he has. Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Betancourt, Jose Valverde — these guys are famously slow workers. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Erik Bedard are slow, for starters. Mark Buehrle is the fastest-working pitcher, and he’s always been the fastest-working pitcher. And as hitters are concerned, it doesn’t get slower than Carlos Pena. You don’t usually think of hitters when you think about Pace, but hitters have a broad range of Paces because they all behave differently after they’re announced on the speakers.

I have a moderate level of interest in Pace as a stat, because I choose to concern myself with matters of watchability. We all like baseball, that’s why we’re here, but we all prefer when the baseball is moving quickly rather than slowly. So a fast Pace is preferable to a slower Pace. And what I liked the most about my days pitching, and what I miss the most now, is the sensation of being in complete control. As the pitcher, you’re at the center of the game, and you feel like the pace and the pitches are entirely up to you. The game will proceed how you allow it to proceed. For these reasons I found myself wondering about showdowns between Mark Buehrle and Carlos Pena.

It’s always interesting to examine matchups between extremes, and here we’re talking about the league’s fastest pitcher against the league’s slowest hitter. Buehrle has averaged a Pace right around 16-17 seconds. Pena, meanwhile, has averaged a Pace right around 27-28 seconds. I wanted to know: when Buehrle has pitched against Pena, how quickly has he worked? In other words, who’s most been in control of the plate-appearance tempo?

Over their careers, Buehrle and Pena have matched up 50 times, which is quite a lot of times. Of course, they first matched up in 2002, and we didn’t start getting reliable PITCHf/x data until 2008. Over the 2008-2012 PITCHf/x ERA, Buehrle and Pena have matched up 22 times. For most statistics, that is too small of a sample size, but for something like Pace, it’s probably just about enough. It’s at least closer to being enough for Pace than for wOBA or strikeout rate or whatever.

I asked Overlord Appelman to run a Pace query for me, and within minutes he had given me a response. Within minutes of that response he gave me another response, this time with data in it. During the PITCHf/x era, when Mark Buehrle has faced Carlos Pena, the average pace of the plate appearances has been 22.3 seconds.

You’ll recognize that Pace number as being almost right in the middle of Buehrle and Pena’s overall average Pace numbers. In Appelman’s words, copied and pasted here without his approval, “guess when the worlds fastest pitcher meets the worlds slowest batter, they compromise.” They compromise almost evenly, covalently. Buehrle allows Pena to go through his little routine outside of the box each time. Pena, in turn, rushes himself a little, maybe takes one fewer practice swing, as if going through his routine while knowing that he’s late for something.

I booted up a Buehrle vs. Pena plate appearance on MLB.tv, to see what one looks like. What follows is what I consider to be a representative .gif. Know that I’m not including the other .gifs that I made because they are too large. One is 16 MB, and the other is 19 MB, and that’s after file compression. They are .gifs of Carlos Pena not getting pitched to.

And that’s what that’s like. Buehrle just standing there, waiting for Pena to be ready. Even after Pena steps into the box. It seems like there’s an opportunity there to throw Pena a pitch before he’s prepared, while he’s taking his slow practice half-swing, but then that wouldn’t be very sportsmanlike. At least not to Mark Buehrle.

So who’s really in control of pitcher Pace? This post doesn’t prove anything conclusively, aside from the Buehrle vs. Pena data, but it does suggest that both parties are in control of pitcher Pace, and that it’s not entirely up to one or the other. It might be a different story with slow pitchers against fast hitters, but that’s something to be examined on a later date. A fast pitcher might be able to get a slow hitter to hurry up, but only to a certain extent. Hitters got routines, man. Hitters gotta go through their routines. Otherwise they might make outs even more staggeringly often than they already do.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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