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.


27 Responses to “Pitcher Pace, and Who’s Really In Control”

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  1. snoop LION says:

    On a slightly different note, I got a question. Is a quick pitch from the windup considered bush or no? Ala Luke Hochevar. A kid asked me this the other day and I had no idea

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      I never thought of it that way. In fact, I’ve briefly wondered why more guys don’t do it.

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    • John Ford-Griffindor says:

      Plenty of people do consider it bush. But a small amount of pitchers do it anyway.

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    • TX Ball Scout says:

      Save that for Johnny College.

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    • Matt NW says:

      “Quick pitching” for me has two factors:

      a) it can only happen when working from the stretch

      b) the pitcher must begin his delivery (which may or may not be speedier than usual) before the hitter is ready.

      Hochevar, therefore, didn’t quick-pitch Miggy, he just changed his mechanics in an attempt to deceive a batter who was ready to hit. Much different. Legit.

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    I doubt a fast hitter can affect a slow pitcher. I think the slow pitcher is the least common denominator.

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    • Chris from Bothell says:

      If there’s 2 slow hitters, he can affect the second one by drilling the first one in the back and immediately picking him off, before pitching to the second one.

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    • AJK says:

      for what it’s worth, I’ve seen Joey Votto just stand in the box ready to hit while the pitcher goes through is Penabulations. It has the same kind of effect, where the pitcher sheepishly steps onto the rubber.

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  3. Seattle Homer says:

    Pace = max(PitcherPace,HitterPace) ?

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Have you ever noticed the best players seem to be in control no matter how fast or slow the game goes?

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  5. Neil says:

    This is awesome.

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  6. ProfarMVP says:

    I’d say the league ought to take control of pace. I turn the TV off when someone like Bedard is on the mound.

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    • tyke says:

      you mean the rule that states the maximum amount of time allowed between pitches with no runners on base, otherwise a ball shall be called? (aka the rule that no umpire seems to care about at all but would benefit the game a lot if they did)

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  7. Mike N says:

    Cliff Lee is a joy to watch because of his brisk pace. I love how he runs out to the mound and throws the ball, then runs back to the dugout. I’ve been watching Papelbon this year since he came to Philly, and I hate it. I turn the game off sometimes when he’s on the mound.

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  8. Greg W says:

    Can you run the query with the slowest pitcher vs. the quickest hitter and see if the compromise is any different?

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  9. WahooManiac says:

    Love this. As another ex pitcher, I used pace to make up for a lack of velo. No I never played at anything close to a pro level, but it was huge for me once I was introduced to the idea. My thing was to vary pace. IMO the extremes listed above are cool, but to really use it effectively one has to throw the routine thing out the window. Take forever sometimes, go fast at others. It almost creates an extra pitch feel. Make guys wait for you, once they get used to that start pitching faster etc. At the high school and college level this can have a huge effect, and I actually coach it to pitchers now. Every advantage matters, squeeze the life outta every one you can find! Prob has less of a real effect in the bigs, and screw people who call it “bush” anyway. If it helps you win, do it until the ump calls you out on it (this actually happened to me once). For those who have to “turn the channel” I just smh. If this game cant teach u patience, nothing will

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  10. Eric says:

    Two years, ago, college baseball used a pitch clock when the bases were empty (or at least they did at TCU home games). If the batter wasn’t ready when it hit 0, it was a strike. If the pitcher didn’t deliver before 0, it was a ball. I loved it. Sadly, I did not notice the clock being used in the 2012 season.

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  11. badenjr says:

    What would be an interesting thing to look at would be how batters affect the pace of the pitchers they face. If you compare the pace of an at bat to the pitcher’s average pace, I expect you’d see a pitcher really slow down and bear down on a Joey Votto or Miguel Cabrera. By contrast, I imagine lesser hitter don’t cause the pitcher to slow down at all (and likely results below average pitcher pace times to balance out the longer ones that go to better hitters). I imagine these difference are even more exaggerated in pressure situations.

    I simply suspect that some of the better hitters have pace values that are driven more by the care that pitchers take in preparing to face them vs. their own pre-at bat routine.

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  12. Ryan says:

    As with all things, the most limiting factor is determining. Slower shall always prevail.

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  13. Dan says:

    I am a Tigers fan, and I have to say that Jose Valverde, useless clown pitcher that he is, ought to be penalized on every pitch until he gets his act together. I don’t think it’s OCD stuff. I think it’s self-important, nonsensical histrionics. He is an embarrassment to the team, and to all of baseball when it comes down to it.

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  14. chuckb says:

    It’s interesting that Pena performs about the same against Buehrle as he has against everyone else throughout his career. For his career he’s a .235/.350/.473 hitter. Against Buehrle he’s .279/.360/.442. On base a little more, slugging a little less, but pretty close to his career averages.

    I sort of expect that slow hitters who are forced to speed up against quick pitchers would perform worse than normal. Maybe they do and Pena’s simply the exception. Or maybe there really is a myth about pitchers being in control.

    Great piece here, Jeff. It’s really interesting and, like any thoughtful piece, creates more questions and further opportunities to learn rather than attempting to provide all the answers.

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  15. Jerry says:

    As a chemist, I strongly disagree with your suggestion that the term ‘covalent’ implies evenness or equality. While a covalent bond does involve the sharing of electrons, there is no inherent implication that it is an equal sharing. While a few molecules have equal sharing of electrons – diatomic molecules like oxygen and nitrogen – the vast majority include unequal sharing.

    The term covalent can be used colloquially to imply that a link that is unbreakable, but without regard to the equality of the bond.

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  16. baty says:

    What about looking into the hitter’s routine outside of the box as compared to inside the box, and if that routine changes with different “pitcher paces”. An in box routine would be the additional time needed for a hitter to get into a “set position” after the second foot becomes positioned in the box.

    When you look at Buehrle vs. Pena… it’s interesting to see that Pena is in the process of taking a sort of warm up sway with the bat as Buehrle is in the process of his wind up. It may not be a pace controlled by Buehrle, but It’s definitely a pace influenced by Buehrle. While facing him with no runners on, you know that you have to be prepared as soon as you plant your second foot in the box. I imagine this could affect a hitter’s routine, even if it doesn’t affect the way they hit.

    Ultimately, I think hitters can control pace for as long as they have some sort of control with prep time between pitches outside of the box.

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