Pitching Ahead: A Baseball Fundamental

Every so often, I get the sense people under-appreciate the importance of pitching ahead in the count. These phases are usually followed by other phases in which I conclude I’m simultaneously over-appreciating it, and then I return to baseball normalcy, but right now I’m in one of them first phases. And whenever I’m here, it’s weird. From a very impressionably young age, we’re told how important it is to throw strike one. We know, when we think about it, that it’s much better to be ahead than behind, as a pitcher. But it doesn’t come up that much in conversation or analysis. People talk about proxies, but then almost everything is a proxy for pitching ahead in the count. When you’re pitching ahead, you’re pitching in control.

Obviously, it makes a difference with regard to walks and strikeouts. More strikes mean more strikeouts, more balls mean more walks. But it also makes a difference with regard to quality of contact. Just looking at this year’s league-wide splits, pitchers have allowed a .303 BABIP when behind in the count, with a .198 isolated slugging. Meanwhile, they’ve allowed a .287 BABIP when ahead in the count, with a .092 isolated slugging. On contact, when behind in the count, pitchers have allowed 4.7% home runs. On contact, when ahead in the count, they’ve allowed 2.5% home runs. Yeah, there’s some selection bias — better pitchers pitch ahead in the count more often — but that doesn’t explain the gaps. Common sense explains the gaps, mostly.

For our purposes, a pitcher is ahead when the count is 0-and-1, 0-and-2, or 1-and-2. He’s behind when the count is 1-and-0, 2-and-0, 3-and-0, 2-and-1, or 3-and-1. While the pitcher is always the same, no matter the count, in a way he’s completely different. Depending on the count, pitchers take different approaches. There are fastball counts and non-fastball counts. There are times to pound the zone and times to try to expand it. When the pitcher’s ahead, batters need to be more defensive, but they’re also going to get worse pitches to hit, and they’ll get them in a less predictable mix. Overall, in general, DIPS theory is fantastic and extraordinarily helpful, but you can find differences when you get into the details and they tend to make intuitive sense.

Always better to be ahead than even; always better to be even than behind. With that in mind, I thought I’d provide a couple ten-pitcher lists. Following, the 2013 leaders in rate of pitches thrown when ahead in the count. Then, the bottom ten in the same category. I chose to set the minimum at 500 pitches, because I like that number a lot.

Top 10, rate of pitches thrown when ahead in the count, 2013

  1. Edward Mujica, 39.1%
  2. Koji Uehara, 38.3%
  3. Sergio Romo, 36.4%
  4. Cliff Lee, 36.3%
  5. Glen Perkins, 36.2%
  6. Mariano Rivera, 35.8%
  7. Phil Hughes, 35.7%
  8. Sean Doolittle, 35.6%
  9. Matt Belisle, 35.1%
  10. Neal Cotts, 34.9%

Bottom 10, rate of pitches thrown when ahead in the count, 2013

  1. Jason Marquis, 20.3%
  2. John Lannan, 21.3%
  3. Jeremy Affeldt, 21.7%
  4. Roy Halladay, 21.8%
  5. Andre Rienzo, 22.0%
  6. P.J. Walters, 22.1%
  7. Joe Kelly, 22.1%
  8. Matt Magill, 22.2%
  9. James McDonald, 22.4%
  10. Brad Peacock, 22.5%

I’m not sure what jumps out at you first. Possibly and probably nothing. For me, it’s still a complete shock to the system to see Roy Halladay on the bad list, on account of his being Roy Halladay and all. Last year, Halladay was at 32.0%. The year before, 31.4%. The problem with Halladay goes beyond his counts — the problem has been his body — but these numbers are a symptom, and they help explain Halladay’s sudden vulnerability.

Mujica is far and away the league leader in first-pitch strikes, so it’s not a surprise to see him at the top of the good list. A year ago, he finished at 31.2%. The year before, 31.0%. Used to be, in this regard, Mujica was a whole lot like Halladay. In 2013, they’ve shot in opposite directions, and Mujica is a closer on a contender, a few years after serving as a low-leverage nobody. Mujica loves his splitter, and he’s able to use it to get hitters to chase out of the zone. It wouldn’t be nearly as effective if Mujica wasn’t so good at getting ahead, and he also wouldn’t be able to throw it as often. A putaway pitch is only valuable if you’re consistently able to set it up.

Of note: for his career, Mujica has allowed 5.4% dingers on contact when behind. When even, he’s at 5.2%. When ahead, he’s at 2.6%. The samples are small, but to put it another way, Mujica’s allowed a .099 isolated slugging when ahead in the count, and his career mark overall is .165. It isn’t all about walks and strikeouts. It’s in large part about walks and strikeouts, but you can limit quality of contact, so long as you have the count in your favor. Sometimes pitchers will make mistakes, even when ahead 0-and-2, but they won’t make them very often. And a mistake 0-and-2 pitch looks not unlike an intended 2-and-0 pitch, a lot of the time.

In case you’re curious, those top ten pitchers up there have averaged a .269 BABIP and a 9.0% HR/FB over more than 700 innings. The bottom ten pitchers have averaged a .280 BABIP and a 13.2% HR/FB over more than 500 innings. This doesn’t prove anything, and a .280 BABIP is actually good, but I sense we’re selecting in part for guys who’ve gotten a little lucky, since if you’re falling behind and allowing hits, you probably won’t get up to at least 500 pitches. The idea, anyway, is more important than a comparison between two groups of ten guys over five months.

You’ve always known it’s important to pitch ahead. There isn’t any doubt in your mind, nor should there be. Still, you might not think about it enough, and it certainly seems to matter when it comes to divisive subjects like BABIP and home runs. Few things reach the soul quite like an unhittable secondary pitch with two strikes. Those pitches are made possible by the ways in which they’re set up, and, Edward Mujica? He knows how to set his splitter up.

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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.

26 Responses to “Pitching Ahead: A Baseball Fundamental”

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  1. tz says:

    Top 5 Little League Rules, Ranked by Major League Applicability:

    1. Save my ups (OBP – avoiding outs component)
    2. Get ahead in the count (see above)
    3. Walk is as good as a hit (OBP – getting on base component)
    4. Be very careful about throwing the breaking ball (injury rate)
    5. Put the worst player on the roster in right field (Dayton Moore’s law)

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    • GMH says:

      All good except for #4. A fastball is by far the toughest pitch on an arm, young or old.

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      • Anon21 says:

        I mean, you can assert that, but it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Sliders in particular are often thought to be hell on developing arms.

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      • Za says:

        Not true *at all*.

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        • Chicago Mark says:

          Where do you get this information if not true *at all*? So much more to say but simply, if a slider is troublesome on a developed arm isn’t it troublesome on a younger arm? Don’t throw breaking balls as a kid.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The research shows that a fundamentally sound throw curveball is no more dangerous to the arm than a fastball, and the FB is viewed as the safest pitch.

        The problem with the CB lies in coaches being able to teach and recognize good mechanics and to teach a properly thrown curveball.

        The slider is murder on a developing arm.

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  2. AK7007 says:

    First thought: Does count leverage break FIP? Of course not, but my initial thought was “They can control batted ball outcomes by manipulating count leverage!” If it were that easy, then nobody would ever fall behind.

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    • tz says:

      My guess is that count leverage is a driver of FIP. FIP is probably a function of count leverage, pitch quality (velocity and movement), and sequencing (which might only be measurable as a “plug” for the part of FIP unexplained by the first two components)

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  3. Scraps says:

    You know you’re going to get a “yawwwwwwn, tell us what we know, burble burble burble”. We don’t know which form it’s going to take, but it’ll be a cliche. Then the person who posts the comment will sit back and watch the negative votes pile up, smugly.

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  4. Adam says:

    Where did you get the data for the pitching ahead percentages Jeff?

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  5. Scraps says:

    To me, Roy Halladay’s place in the bad list makes total sense; I think you look for pitchers that recently struggle, no what matter what their history of success.

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  6. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Being ahead and throwing strikes like that is a very underrated quality.

    I thought league-average BABIP had been down to .280 for a few years now?

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  7. Ryan Pollack says:

    Curious: do you think the gap between .303 and .287 is significant? Those seem pretty close to me. It’s just an extra two or three hits a month over a regular season, right?

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    • John says:

      2-3 hits/month for one guy, but he was looking at league-wide stats.

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    • JP says:

      This ignores the fact that HRs, BBs and Ks aren’t factored into BABIP. Given that HR% is double when behind, we can assume a few extra hits there per month.

      The article doesn’t go into K% and BB% though I imagine there is a correlation between getting ahead and those stats. More Ks means less outs generated in play which means less hits in general. More walks doesn’t really affect BABIP but it produces extra base runners which is rarely good.

      So ya a .016 gap in BABIP seems small but I’d wager a bet that the hit difference in those situations is more significantly north of two or three extra hits a month.

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      • NATS Fan says:

        Typical MLB hitters usually hit much better with runners on base than without runners on base. Thus, increasing walks should increase hits.

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        • drel drel drel says:

          tell that to the gNats this year who are hitting .251 with bases empty and .243 with RISP.

          (just a braves fan enjoying the continued failures of the expo franchise)

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  8. Thor says:

    How does the data change by time through the order? If a batter has already faced someone once, does the rate of pitches thrown ahead vs behnd in the count change?

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  9. nj says:

    Just seeing Phil Hughes on the leaderboards makes me question the meaning of life.

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  10. Danny says:

    Did you write this after watching the O’s broadcast with Jim Palmer? Because he mentions this an average of 32 times a game and is right on each time. He has had me really paying attention to it and just how much a hitter is improved if you fall behind 1-0, 2-0, and how the 1-1 pitch may be the most important pitch in the game because of the difference in a 2-1 count and 1-2 count is so large. Watching Jim Johnson melt down this year is a great example. I have absolutely no data other than all his blown saves seem to come when he gets behind and groves a 2 seamer down the middle and it gets hit hard where fielders are not standing (like the bleacher seats).

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  11. KCC26 says:

    I’m curious to know how the first and second groups compare in terms of damage done against their 0-0 pitches. Does the strike throwing group lose some of that ground by being predictably in the strikezone to start an at bat?

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  12. Be interesting to see heat graphs by count and location.

    Getting ahead sounds easy enough, right? Just groove the FB on the 1st pitch and then expand the zone. Like, duh.

    I’d be willing to bet that MLB hitters fare quite well on 1st pitch fastballs in the center of the zone, which is why pitchers probably try a corner on the first pitch.

    What would be really interesting is looking at the pitchers that get ahead the most, and see HOW they do it. I mean we’ve all heard from LL through college that only idiots swing at a 1st pitch breaking ball. Those that disnt learn it in college ball learned it via Bull Durham.

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