Pitching Inside: The Best of 2012

One of the oldest truisms in baseball is that, to be successful, pitchers need to pitch inside. Establishing the inside of the plate allows pitchers to more effectively use the outer-half of the plate — and get batters to swing and miss or make weak contact more often on pitches thrown to the outer part of the zone. But it isn’t easy to pitch inside. Pitchers who lack the ability to get away with throwing inside tend to stay away from that part of the plate for fear that hitters will drive those pitches for extra-base hits. This can lead to hitters cheating on outside pitches and can force pitchers to throw fatter pitches as a result of throwing behind in the count.

So who were this year’s best pitchers when it came to throwing inside? I dove into our PITCHf/x data and found out.

I kept the definition of inside narrow, so I only focused on pitches with a horizontal value of less than or equal to -.5 when thrown to right-handed hitters and greater than or equal to .5 when thrown to left-handed hitters. Essentially, I was looking at pitches on the inner-quarter of the zone, based on batter handedness.

I based the run values per pitch on Joe P. Sheehan’s early work from 2008. Joe originally broke out values by count, but for this study I took his values and calculated a weighted average based on how many times each count occurred during the 2007 season. The table below lists the final run values that were used:

ValB ValS Val1B Val2B Val3B ValHR ValOut
0.07 -0.08 0.50 0.79 1.07 1.41 -0.28

The actual values today are likely a bit different — given the changing run environment — but this at least gives us a way to compare pitchers, even if the actual run values might be off slightly.

For each pitcher, I took the total number of pitch outcomes listed in the table above for 2012 and multiplied those outcomes by their respective run values. Add it all together, and you get their total run value (positive or negative) when throwing inside .

Here are your top-25 starters from 2012 (negative values are better):

Top-25 Throwing Inside to LHHs & RHHs: Minimum >= 150 IP

Name IP Runs Runs/100 XBH% HR%
Clayton Kershaw 227.2 -20.2 -2.1 1.5% 0.2%
R.A. Dickey 233.2 -11.4 -1.4 1.1% 0.9%
Joe Blanton 191 -8.9 -1.3 1.7% 0.6%
Blake Beavan 152.1 -4.3 -1.3 1.8% 0.6%
Justin Verlander 238.1 -5.9 -1.2 1.7% 0.2%
Gio Gonzalez 199.1 -7.2 -1.2 0.3% 0.0%
Lance Lynn 176 -4.9 -1.2 2.2% 0.7%
Matt Cain 219.1 -4.6 -1.2 1.5% 0.5%
Jarrod Parker 181.1 -4.9 -1.1 1.1% 0.0%
Felix Hernandez 232 -7.1 -1.1 0.8% 0.3%
Adam Wainwright 198.2 -6.5 -1.0 1.7% 0.3%
Travis Wood 156 -5.7 -1.0 2.3% 0.9%
Ross Detwiler 164.1 -5.8 -1.0 0.8% 0.5%
Yu Darvish 191.1 -5.7 -1.0 1.5% 0.2%
Madison Bumgarner 208.1 -8.1 -0.9 1.3% 0.4%
Lucas Harrell 193.2 -4.7 -0.9 1.7% 0.6%
Jon Niese 190.1 -6.0 -0.8 2.2% 1.0%
Roy Halladay 156.1 -4.4 -0.8 1.5% 0.4%
Stephen Strasburg 159.1 -2.5 -0.7 1.0% 0.5%
Jeremy Hellickson 177 -3.4 -0.6 1.9% 1.3%
Wandy Rodriguez 205.2 -3.6 -0.5 2.1% 0.4%
Homer Bailey 208 -2.4 -0.5 1.9% 0.6%
Johnny Cueto 217 -2.7 -0.5 1.5% 0.4%
A.J. Burnett 202.1 -3.0 -0.4 0.8% 0.3%
Jeremy Guthrie 181.2 -1.9 -0.4 2.9% 0.8%

Clayton Kershaw was the best, posting a -2.1 Runs/100 (run value per 100 pitches thrown). Most of Kershaw’s success was based on his performance against right-handed hitters, where he posted a -2.3 Runs/100. He did post a negative run value against left-handed hitters, although he wasn’t as dominant (-.1). That was mostly due to his 1.5 ball-to-strike ratio. The only hits Kershaw allowed on inside pitches to lefties were a pair of singles.

Here is Kershaw’s 2012 on the inside part of the zone:

Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey came in second to Kershaw, with a -1.4 Runs/100, and was followed closely by pitchers such as Joe Blanton (-1.3), Blake Beavan (-1.3), Justin Verlander (-1.2) and Gio Gonzalez (-1.2).

It’s not surprsiing to see pitchers like Kershaw, Dickey and Gonzalez near the top of the list. But I admit it was a bit surprising to see Blanton and Beavan.

The 23-year-old Beavan started 26 games for the Mariners in 2012 and posted a 116 ERA- and a 125 FIP- — not exactly stellar numbers. But Beavan was actually better pitching inside to RHHs than was Kershaw (-3.6 Runs/100). He was, though, not so great when pounding the inside of the plate against lefties (5.3 Runs/100 and 4.7% XBH%).

Blanton was generally good when her thrw inside to both righties (-1.9 Runs/100) and yo lefties (-.4), but didn’t have a great year by most measures (121 ERA-, 101 FIP-). Both Blanton and Beavan are good examples that while pitching well inside might be necessary, it’s not sufficient for overall success.

So how about relievers (min >=50 IP)?

Name IP Runs Runs/100 XBH% HR%
Rafael Betancourt 57.2 -4.0 -5.1 0.0% 0.0%
Craig Kimbrel 62.2 -6.4 -3.8 0.0% 0.0%
Jake McGee 55.1 -6.3 -3.8 0.0% 0.0%
Robbie Ross 65 -9.7 -3.2 1.3% 0.0%
Grant Balfour 74.2 -3.7 -3.2 0.8% 0.8%
Ryan Cook 73.1 -5.2 -2.8 0.5% 0.0%
Matt Belisle 80 -5.6 -2.7 1.0% 0.5%
Dale Thayer 57.2 -4.1 -2.7 0.0% 0.0%
Matt Thornton 65 -7.4 -2.7 0.7% 0.0%
Burke Badenhop 62.1 -2.8 -2.7 3.8% 1.0%
Aroldis Chapman 71.2 -10.2 -2.6 0.3% 0.0%
Mike Adams 52.1 -3.7 -2.5 1.3% 0.0%
Wesley Wright 52.1 -4.0 -2.3 0.0% 0.0%
Jerry Blevins 65.1 -4.2 -2.2 1.1% 0.0%
Darren O’Day 67 -4.2 -2.2 1.1% 0.0%
Octavio Dotel 58 -3.7 -2.1 1.1% 0.6%
Jeff Gray 52 -3.8 -1.9 0.0% 0.0%
Luke Gregerson 71.2 -3.0 -1.9 0.0% 0.0%
David Hernandez 68.1 -4.1 -1.9 0.9% 0.0%
Brad Ziegler 68.2 -3.7 -1.9 0.5% 0.0%
Kelvin Herrera 84.1 -6.1 -1.8 1.5% 0.0%
Joaquin Benoit 71 -2.1 -1.8 0.9% 0.9%
Casey Janssen 63.2 -3.4 -1.7 1.0% 0.5%
Ronald Belisario 71 -4.4 -1.6 1.5% 0.4%
David Robertson 60.2 -2.5 -1.6 0.0% 0.0%

In a bit of a surprise, neither Craig Kimbrel nor Aroldis Chapman came out on top. The best at throwing inside? Rafael Betancourt. The 37-year-old Rockies reliever was dominant overall (63 ERA-, 70 FIP-), but especially so when throwing inside. He posted a -5.1 Runs/100 and didn’t surrender a single extra-base hit.

Kimbrel was tied for second with Jake McGee (-3.8 Runs/100), while Robbie Ross and Grant Balfour rounded out the top five (-3.2 Runs/100).

For the curious, here are the top-25 starting pitchers, broken out against right-handed and left-handed hitters:

Top-25 versus RHH

Name IP Runs Runs/100 XBH% HR%
Bartolo Colon 152.1 -5.8 -4.4 0.0% 0.0%
Blake Beavan 152.1 -8.9 -3.6 0.8% 0.4%
Rick Porcello 176.1 -12.4 -2.8 1.4% 0.7%
Lance Lynn 176 -10.0 -2.8 1.4% 0.6%
Doug Fister 161.2 -9.2 -2.4 1.6% 0.8%
Johnny Cueto 217 -10.6 -2.3 1.1% 0.2%
Clayton Kershaw 227.2 -20.1 -2.3 1.7% 0.2%
Lucas Harrell 193.2 -9.7 -2.2 1.4% 0.5%
Justin Verlander 238.1 -8.5 -2.1 1.5% 0.3%
Matt Cain 219.1 -6.4 -2.0 1.6% 0.6%
Joe Blanton 191 -7.9 -1.9 1.5% 0.5%
Jeremy Guthrie 181.2 -7.7 -1.8 2.9% 1.0%
R.A. Dickey 233.2 -8.1 -1.8 1.3% 0.9%
Yu Darvish 191.1 -4.8 -1.7 2.5% 0.4%
Adam Wainwright 198.2 -5.4 -1.7 1.6% 0.3%
Kyle Lohse 211 -5.3 -1.7 2.8% 1.3%
Justin Masterson 206.1 -5.3 -1.7 0.9% 0.3%
Jarrod Parker 181.1 -6.2 -1.6 1.3% 0.0%
Felix Hernandez 232 -5.8 -1.6 0.8% 0.3%
Homer Bailey 208 -5.4 -1.5 0.9% 0.3%
Stephen Strasburg 159.1 -4.3 -1.4 1.3% 0.7%
Ryan Vogelsong 189.2 -4.9 -1.4 2.0% 0.6%
Zack Greinke 212.1 -2.8 -1.3 1.4% 0.0%
Ubaldo Jimenez 176.2 -2.5 -1.3 1.0% 0.0%
Travis Wood 156 -6.7 -1.2 2.2% 0.7%

Top-25 versus LHH

Name IP Runs Runs/100 XBH% HR%
Jason Vargas 217.1 -7.9 -5.4 2.0% 0.7%
Ross Detwiler 164.1 -7.6 -4.7 0.6% 0.6%
David Price 211 -7.2 -4.4 0.6% 0.6%
Matt Harrison 213.1 -8.1 -3.8 0.5% 0.5%
Randy Wolf 157.2 -1.6 -3.1 0.0% 0.0%
Wade Miley 194.2 -3.8 -2.6 2.1% 0.0%
Clayton Richard 218.2 -2.5 -2.1 0.0% 0.0%
Gio Gonzalez 199.1 -1.9 -1.9 0.0% 0.0%
Chris Sale 192 -2.3 -1.9 0.8% 0.0%
Derek Holland 175.1 -2.7 -1.7 1.8% 0.6%
Joe Saunders 174.2 -1.8 -1.5 0.8% 0.0%
Roy Halladay 156.1 -4.3 -1.4 1.0% 0.0%
Bud Norris 168.1 -2.9 -1.3 1.9% 0.0%
R.A. Dickey 233.2 -3.4 -1.0 0.9% 0.9%
Jordan Zimmermann 195.2 -3.6 -1.0 1.1% 0.5%
Felix Doubront 161 -2.2 -0.8 0.7% 0.7%
Ervin Santana 178 -2.1 -0.7 0.3% 0.3%
Phil Hughes 191.1 -1.7 -0.6 1.4% 1.1%
Cole Hamels 215.1 -1.3 -0.6 0.9% 0.0%
Chris Capuano 198.1 -0.3 -0.5 3.1% 1.6%
Felix Hernandez 232 -1.3 -0.5 0.7% 0.4%
Joe Blanton 191 -1.0 -0.4 2.0% 0.8%
Adam Wainwright 198.2 -1.1 -0.3 1.9% 0.3%
Mat Latos 209.1 -1.4 -0.3 1.2% 0.7%
Yu Darvish 191.1 -0.9 -0.3 0.7% 0.0%

A final caution: It’s difficult to analyze a pitcher’s performance on inside pitches in isolation from their other pitches. To some extent, if a pitcher is really effective when throwing to the outside part of the plate, then hitters will need to respect that. And that means hitters might cheat in ways that leave them vulnerable to inside pitches. An analysis that looks at how dependent throwing inside is on, say, pitches to the outside, would be interesting and could help us better understand why some pitchers are more dominant on the inner-quarter of the plate.

As for the truism about pitching inside, the correlation between Runs/100 and ERA- last year for pitchers who threw at least 50 innings was .52. Essentially, 27% of the variance in ERA- could be explained by how good a pitcher was on the inner-quarter of the plate. There’s certainly more work to be done here, for sure.

Additionally, these run values are not adjusted for park or for league, so these relative rankings might shift a bit if we incorporate park factors into the calculations. I might tackle this at a later date, but even with parks not factored in, this gives us a pretty good idea about the season’s best pitchers when it came to throwing inside.

—————–

Special thanks to Tom Tango and Jeff Zimmerman for help on this article. All erros are, of course, mine. Also, thanks to David Appelman, Eric Seidman, Brian Cartwright, Harry Pavlidis, and Jeff Zimmerman for database assistance.




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Bill works as a consultant by day. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, consults for a Major League Baseball team and appears on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Tumblr or Twitter @BillPetti.


7 Responses to “Pitching Inside: The Best of 2012”

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  1. JS says:

    Bartolo Colon should not be on this list due to being a drug cheat.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. JimLahey says:

    I recall reading something about how Rafael Betancourt refuses to pitch inside on Fangraphs this season… Here we have something showing that he was the best at doing it once he actually did it?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill Petti says:

      Jeff noted how he refused to pitch inside to LHH, and in fact he barely did. All of Betancourt’s value on inside pitches came against RHHs.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • MGL says:

      Right, Betancourt rarely pitches inside to anyone (from memory). So, it is not surprising that he would be so successful on inside pitches.

      Which is why you REALLY need to take these numbers in context. A pitcher who pitches a lot outside will have better numbers inside because batters are not expecting the inside pitch, and vice versa (although game theory would expect the values to be similar, everything else being equal – which they are not).

      Similarly, the count plays an important role – of course. If pitcher A pitches inside when ahead in the count and pitcher B pitches inside when behind in the count, well, I don’t have to tell anyone what impact that would have.

      So, while this is interesting and a good first step, I’m not sure of the overall value without more context…

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Baltar says:

    I was struck by the similarity between your starter list and any list of the best starters in both leagues. The reliever list struck me that way less so, maybe just because I’m not very familiar with who all the relievers are.
    The explanation is in one of your sentences: “Essentially, 27% of the variance in ERA- could be explained by how good a pitcher was on the inner-quarter of the plate. ”
    This amounts to saying that one-quarter of the variance among pitchers’ performance is due to how well they pitch in one-quarter of the plate.
    Am I missing something, or does that make this post trivial?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bill Petti says:

      This was mostly just to point out descriptively who was the best. Whether or not we would expect these run values to explain more or less than 27% I don’t know. That’s another study where you control for performance in other parts of the zone and how that impacts overall performance.

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