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
- Edward Mujica, 39.1%
- Koji Uehara, 38.3%
- Sergio Romo, 36.4%
- Cliff Lee, 36.3%
- Glen Perkins, 36.2%
- Mariano Rivera, 35.8%
- Phil Hughes, 35.7%
- Sean Doolittle, 35.6%
- Matt Belisle, 35.1%
- Neal Cotts, 34.9%
Bottom 10, rate of pitches thrown when ahead in the count, 2013
- Jason Marquis, 20.3%
- John Lannan, 21.3%
- Jeremy Affeldt, 21.7%
- Roy Halladay, 21.8%
- Andre Rienzo, 22.0%
- P.J. Walters, 22.1%
- Joe Kelly, 22.1%
- Matt Magill, 22.2%
- James McDonald, 22.4%
- 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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