Pitchers and Their Zones, 2008-2012

All that pitch-framing research is exciting, because it’s new, it supports an age-old idea, it seems to be meaningful, and it allows us to better capture the idea of a catcher’s real value. I’d say that was a true analytical breakthrough. One issue, though — however minor — is that not all pitchers are identical, and pitch-framing results can’t be taken to be 100% the responsibility of the catcher in question. It stands to reason it’s a lot more complicated than that, and it stands to reason there are pitchers who might be easier or more difficult to frame than others. You can probably think of a few off the top of your head. I think consensus is that Livan Hernandez has been relying on framers since about a month after he debuted.

What I’m not going to do here is identify the pitchers who are easiest and most difficult to frame. What I am going to do here is take a small step in that direction, by analyzing PITCHf/x data between 2008-2012. Instead of looking at this from a catcher’s perspective, we can look at this from a pitcher’s perspective, throwing to a number of different catchers on possibly a number of different teams. Not everything will average out, and in fact not everything will come even close to averaging out, but I’ll let the hard part of the work fall to someone smarter and more capable.

As I’ve alluded to a number of times, using stats readily available on FanGraphs, it’s simple to calculate an “expected strike rate”. You’re offered a total number of pitches, and a total number of strikes. You’re offered zone rate, and out-of-zone swing rate. It’s all easy, and then once you have expected strikes, you can compare that to actual strikes, in the hopes of seeing something. Every time, you will see something. Sometimes you might see something more surprising.

Zone rate is based on PITCHf/x data, and we have near-complete PITCHf/x data going back to 2008. What you’re going to see below are tables of data, showing pitchers and their differences between strikes and expected strikes per 1,000 called pitches. I looked at starters who threw at least 400 innings between 2008-2012, and relievers who threw at least 200 innings. A positive number means more strikes than expected strikes; a negative number means the very opposite of that. Interestingly, starters averaged a Diff/1000 of -18, while relievers averaged a Diff/1000 of -21. That is, based on PITCHf/x plate-discipline data, there haven’t been enough called strikes, at least over the last five years. So understand when you look at these tables that the league average is not zero.

It’s also interesting to note that the average has gotten closer to zero two years in a row, for both starters and relievers. For starters since 2010, the average has moved from -22 to -15 to -7, while for relievers, it’s moved from -25 to -19 to -11. This could mean nothing. This could indicate a change in the PITCHf/x plate-discipline data calculations. This could indicate greater receiving around the league. Or this could indicate a trend toward better umpire accuracy. We have no choice but to wait on further data.

To the top-10 tables now.

Starters, top 10, more strikes, 2008-2012

Name Diff/1000
Derek Lowe 53
Livan Hernandez 36
Jamie Moyer 31
Jair Jurrjens 23
Yovani Gallardo 23
Kyle Lohse 20
Tim Hudson 20
Freddy Garcia 12
Jason Marquis 10

Starters, top 10, fewer strikes, 2008-2012

Name Diff/1000
Justin Masterson -70
Felix Hernandez -53
Jeff Niemann -52
Vicente Padilla -48
Brandon McCarthy -46
Roberto Hernandez -44
Anibal Sanchez -43
Charlie Morton -42
Jon Niese -41

Relievers, top 10, more strikes, 2008-2012

Name Diff/1000
Francisco Cordero 36
Ryan Franklin 21
Mariano Rivera 19
Brad Ziegler 15
Matt Albers 14
Kameron Loe 13
Brian Wilson 13
Scott Downs 11
Jon Rauch 10

Relievers, top 10, fewer strikes, 2008-2012

Name Diff/1000
Mark Lowe -66
Brandon League -58
Mike Adams -55
Fernando Rodney -54
Daniel Bard -54
Octavio Dotel -54
Chad Gaudin -52
Jamey Wright -50
D.J. Carrasco -50

Obviously, this has not been separated from potential framing effects. Felix, for example, has stayed on the same team. Masterson has thrown a lot to Carlos Santana. As noted before, variables have not evened out, and I haven’t a prayer of being able to make them do so. These numbers are simply presented for your consideration, and you may do with them as you like.

The guy I find fascinating is Derek Lowe. Lowe leads everyone in Diff/1000 since 2008. But now let’s break this down year-to-year and compare Lowe’s Diff/1000 to the league-average Diff/1000 for starters:

2008: +72
2009: +89
2010: +85
2011: +89
2012: -8

Lowe’s numbers between 2008-2011 are almost impossible to fathom. He spent one of those years throwing to Russell Martin with the Dodgers, then three of those years throwing to Brian McCann with the Braves. Then, before 2012, he shifted to the Indians, with whom he threw to Santana and Lou Marson. Suddenly, Lowe was actually below-average, instead of otherworldly. And in parallel, Lowe went from being kind of able to strike batters out to being not at all able to strike batters out. This is the sort of thing that makes you think this is all more about the catchers than the pitchers. Via Texas Leaguers, here’s Lowe’s called strike zone for 2011:

Here’s Lowe’s called strike zone for 2012:

And here’s Masterson’s called strike zone for 2012, since Masterson and Lowe are somewhat similar pitchers who pitched for the same team:

Against lefties, Lowe used to dwell in and beyond the low-away quadrant. In 2012 he stopped getting so many of those strikes, so he had to change. His strikeout rate against lefties was cut in half. His strikeout rate against righties was also cut in half, and there’s a lot going on, here. This isn’t an article about Derek Lowe.

This is just an article to show some numbers. I think we’re at the point where we can acknowledge that pitch-framing is probably a real skill that some catchers have more than others. But not every pitcher on the mound comes with the same framing degree of difficulty. If Jamie Moyer throws a low fastball in the zone that gets called a ball, and if Felix Hernandez throws a low fastball in the same spot that gets called a ball, one of those is a little more forgivable than the other. Framing might not be hard, I don’t know, but framing some guys has got to be a relative challenge.

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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.

15 Responses to “Pitchers and Their Zones, 2008-2012”

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  1. JS7 says:

    Eric Gregg.sure helped Livan Hernandez out.

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  2. Bip says:

    I know this isn’t an article about Derek Lowe (or Justin Masterson) but looking at that pitch distribution, it’s striking how Lowe, a successful sinkerballer, lives almost entirely in the bottom of the zone and how Masterson, a less successful sinkerballer, has his pitches end up all over the zone. If this was an article about either Derek Lowe or Justin Masterson, I might expect some people to be interested in this observation.

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  3. Jacque Jones says:

    I’m sorry for posting this here, but its ridiculous. ESPN is reporting that the Angels are considering trade Bourjos for either Rick Porcello or Ricky Nolasco. I’m also sorry for leaving the Twins which obviously led to their eventual downfall years later and seemingly unrelated to my departure.

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  4. Billion Memes says:

    I know this is a new topic of research that continues to gain steam and I like reading about the advances and evidence to support the general conclusion that catchers have an impact on a pitcher’s results through framing. What I’m curious about is whether certain pitchers “get” calls more than other pitchers independent of the catchers’ abilities to frame. The phenomenon definitely exists in the NBA wherein certain stars get more foul calls than warranted. Eventually, these players decline and then stop getting the calls they used to.

    Its probably tough to separate catchers framing ability from pitchers’ ability to get favorable calls, but I find it to be an interesting topic and would love to see if there is any data to support it. I look at those Derek Lowe plots and just can’t help thinking that he lost his ability to get favorable calls in 2012. I’m well aware my eyes/brain might be seeing something that just doesn’t exist, but I believe it to be a plausible idea. Maybe other readers find it interesting as well.

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    • jwise224 says:

      Since this article uses Lowe as the case study (I know, this article isn’t about Derek Lowe), how do we know that umpiring didn’t cause him the outlier season? Does this data tell us more about pitchers, catchers or umpires? Do umpires work regionally, resulting in significant differences amongst regions or divisions? The whole pitch-framing thing seems like it may be too big (undefinable) fish to fry since there are variables everywhere.

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  5. wily mo says:

    pretty good derek lowe article here

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  6. david h says:

    Do you have any data on averages by league? It looks like most of the top more-strikes starters spent most of that time in the NL, while the worst of the fewer-strikes starters were in the AL. Though, at a quick glance, the final three categories appear to be a bit of a mixed bag.

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  7. Scott says:

    McCann must be a pretty good framer. Sure, plenty of other variables are thrown in but with Lowe, Hudson, and Jurrjens all coming in the top 10 it would seem he had some impact.

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  8. snoop LION says:

    has there ever been research done on respective batters and their zones?

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  9. Chris says:

    When it comes to pitching, what I would really like to know is the effect that pitching coaches have on the success of their pitchers. It’s my intuition that pitching coaches can have a huge effect when a pitcher is still young and developing, but once they’ve been established, I doubt there is much effect by pitching coaches. I wonder if it would be possible to tease this data out or if it would be too effected by catcher framing when moving teams.

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  10. Shawn says:

    One thing I noticed is that the more strikes pitchers also seem to be more soft tossers living on the margins. This is something that came up in the knuckleball WAR article. It was interesting that you could almost predict the lists before reading them like Mo on the + diff/1000.

    I’d be curious to see how the strike diff/1000 corresponds to pitch type and then the average movement on that pitch. I would expect someone with massive movement would definitely see more of a negative effect than someone closing their eyes while lobbing an 89 mph pitch at the border of the zone.

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  11. monkey business says:

    What’s up with plotting points not in the graph area?

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  12. Mike says:

    It looks like the Rays need to trade for Masterson and team him up with Molina.

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  13. Anthony says:

    I’d be curious to see how Fernando Rodneys numbers looked this past year as compared to the previous three years. Could it be that his outrageously good year was the result of his bad luck normalizing thanks to one of the greatest pitch framers in the league (Jose Molina)? Also, maybe this is why the Rays took a small gamble on Roberto Hernandez. The Rays are ahead of the pack with Pitch/FX analysis so it wouldnt surprise me if they are aware of all this and are hoping Molina can work his magic on him as well.

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