Throwing and Not Throwing Balls in the Dirt

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about athletes in other sports who might hypothetically be able to make a decent transition into baseball. It’s something I think everyone’s thought of at least a few times before, and the first thing that came to my mind was that hockey goalies could and would make for good backstops, since they’re highly skilled at keeping things moving quickly from getting right past them. I know, for example, Dan Wilson used to be a goalie, so it’s not a surprise he was also a good defensive catcher when it came to blocking low pitches. It requires pretty obviously the same kind of skill.

Yet, while it’s clearly important for a catcher in the majors to be able to block challenging pitches, it’s also true that, in the majors, there isn’t a lot of spread in skill. Which means there isn’t a lot to be gained by being particularly excellent at preventing pitches from flying by. Last year, by our measures, the A’s were baseball’s worst pitch-blocking team, and it cost them 5.5 runs. The Cardinals were baseball’s best pitch-blocking team, and it gained them 6.4 runs. From worst to best, it’s a spread of about a win, which makes it maybe an unjustifiable thing to be concerned about one way or another.

But pitch-blocking can also have other, indirect effects. Most obviously, it can have an effect on the pitches actually selected to be thrown in the first place. A particularly capable blocker might end up getting thrown more balls in the dirt than a lesser-effective blocker. Not only might the catcher call for more such pitches; the pitchers might throw more such pitches, having a greater amount of confidence in the catcher to block them if need be. Basically, the better a catcher is at blocking, the greater the number of pitch options in all situations. In theory. Because the risk of extra bases is reduced.

To be honest, these are all just words around a sortable table, which is following shortly. I got curious about pitches in the dirt, and I got further curious about pitches in the dirt with a runner on third, since that’s when a wild pitch or passed ball is the most costly. It’s not that tricky a thing to look up — PITCHf/x lets us know when a pitch was a ball in the dirt, and it lets us know when a pitch was swung on, missed, and blocked. Armed with that knowledge, I dug into the 2013 data, postseason included for the corresponding teams. Invaluable help was provided by Baseball Savant.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular — I just wanted to see what the numbers would say. So, you’ll see a table, broken down by team. The first set of columns shows the rate of pitches in the dirt in 2013 overall, and the number of standard deviations above or below the mean. The second set shows the same data for pitches thrown with a runner on third. The third set shows the same data for pitches thrown not with a runner on third. The final column simply shows the difference between the latter two z-scores. In other words, it shows the teams who threw relatively more and relatively fewer balls in the dirt with a runner on third.

It’ll be easier to say more after the table, so here’s the table.

Team Rate, overall z, overall Rate, 3rd z, 3rd Rate, other z, other z Diff
Angels 3.1% 0.9 7.4% 0.9 2.6% 0.7 0.2
Astros 3.3% 1.3 7.2% 0.8 2.8% 1.2 -0.4
Athletics 2.1% -1.4 5.4% -0.8 1.8% -1.4 0.6
Blue Jays 2.7% 0.0 6.5% 0.2 2.3% -0.1 0.3
Braves 2.1% -1.5 5.5% -0.7 1.8% -1.6 0.9
Brewers 3.1% 0.8 7.6% 1.1 2.6% 0.6 0.6
Cardinals 3.0% 0.5 6.5% 0.2 2.6% 0.6 -0.5
Cubs 3.3% 1.2 8.1% 1.5 2.7% 0.9 0.6
Diamondbacks 3.2% 0.9 7.0% 0.6 2.8% 1.0 -0.4
Dodgers 2.9% 0.4 5.6% -0.6 2.7% 0.8 -1.4
Giants 2.4% -0.9 5.1% -1.0 2.0% -0.9 -0.2
Indians 2.3% -1.1 4.8% -1.3 2.0% -1.0 -0.3
Mariners 3.1% 0.9 7.0% 0.6 2.7% 0.8 -0.2
Marlins 2.4% -0.8 6.2% -0.1 2.0% -0.9 0.9
Mets 2.3% -1.1 5.6% -0.6 1.9% -1.2 0.5
Nationals 2.7% -0.2 7.0% 0.6 2.3% -0.3 0.9
Orioles 2.0% -1.7 4.8% -1.3 1.7% -1.7 0.4
Padres 2.7% -0.2 6.2% -0.1 2.3% -0.3 0.3
Phillies 2.7% -0.2 5.2% -1.0 2.3% -0.1 -0.9
Pirates 3.8% 2.3 8.5% 1.9 3.2% 2.2 -0.3
Rangers 2.7% -0.1 5.5% -0.7 2.5% 0.2 -0.9
Rays 2.6% -0.4 5.8% -0.5 2.3% -0.2 -0.2
Red Sox 2.6% -0.4 6.0% -0.2 2.2% -0.5 0.2
Reds 2.3% -1.0 4.5% -1.6 2.1% -0.7 -1.0
Rockies 3.0% 0.5 6.5% 0.1 2.6% 0.5 -0.4
Royals 3.5% 1.6 9.4% 2.7 2.9% 1.3 1.3
Tigers 2.8% 0.0 5.9% -0.4 2.4% 0.2 -0.5
Twins 2.3% -0.9 5.4% -0.8 2.0% -1.0 0.2
White Sox 2.6% -0.3 6.9% 0.5 2.2% -0.5 1.0
Yankees 3.2% 1.0 5.9% -0.4 3.0% 1.5 -1.9

Nobody threw a greater rate of pitches in the dirt than the Pirates. Nobody threw a lesser rate of pitches in the dirt than the Orioles, at just about half the Pirates’ rate. The Orioles and Pirates were separated by four standard deviations, with the league average being about 2.8%.

Interestingly, you’d think the rate might be lower with a man on third, since teams don’t want to give up runs with passed balls and wild pitches. Broadcasts often talk about how, with a runner on third, the ball in the dirt might be off the table. Yet, league-wide last year, 6.3% of pitches with a runner on third were thrown in the dirt. Meanwhile, just 2.4% of pitches not with a runner on third were thrown in the dirt. This might well call for deeper research, but based just on this, teams are willing to risk the ball getting away for the sake of maybe getting more whiffs or grounders. Teams, generally, aren’t worried that the catcher behind the plate won’t be able to stop a low pitch if he knows that it’s coming.

I wondered about teams with different approaches with runners on third. I should say right here that I’ve attempted no corrections or adjustments for pitcher identities. I also didn’t break anything down by individual catcher. But, with runners on third, the Royals threw the greatest rate of dirtballs, and the Reds brought up the rear. In other situations, the Pirates and the Orioles were the leaders and laggards, respectively.

With runners on third, the Royals’ rate was 2.7 standard deviations above the mean. With runners not on third, they came in around 1.3 above, and the difference here of about 1.3 was the greatest in baseball. Implied is that Salvador Perez trusted himself, and Royals pitchers trusted Salvador Perez, even with a runner 90 feet away. At the other end, the Yankees were 0.4 standard deviations below with runners on third, and 1.5 standard deviations above with runners not on third. The difference here of about -1.9 was the lowest in baseball, so either pitchers didn’t trust the catchers, the catchers didn’t want to deal with the chance, this is small-sample-size noise, or a correction is needed to take the pitchers into account. The Yankees still threw twice as many balls in the dirt with runners on third as with runners not on third, but everything has to be considered within the league context.

There’s basically no relationship between the z Diff — the last column in the table — and our pitch-blocking metric. There’s only a very weak relationship between overall ball-in-dirt rate and our pitch-blocking metric. The Pirates were second in baseball in wild pitches, and first in rate of balls in the dirt. The Orioles were 29th in baseball in wild pitches, and last in rate of balls in the dirt. The Cardinals were 30th in baseball in wild pitches while throwing a greater-than-average rate of pitches in the dirt, which speaks to the skill of Yadier Molina. Yet the Cardinals were also relatively more cautious about balls in the dirt with a runner on third. The A’s went the opposite way, even though their catchers were sort of the anti-Molina, on the whole. We can’t tell from this whether it’s better to be more aggressive or more careful with a runner 90 feet away. We can tell that teams pick up their dirtball rates overall even when there’s a runner threatening to score. This might be the opposite of one’s expectation.

As usual, I’m left with plenty of questions and only hints of some answers. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you dive into statistics without a hypothesis to test. This was more exploring for the sake of exploration, and I might choose to run some further exploration down the road. If nothing else, we know that teams as a whole aren’t that afraid of a runner on third, or at least they aren’t that afraid of a wild pitch in the same situation. Better, it seems to have been decided, to keep all the pitches on the table, and maybe make the batter pay for over-aggressiveness. Because at the end of the day, if you’re catching in the majors, you’re probably damned handy with heaters and breaking balls low. Even if you’re Wilin Rosario.




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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.

16 Responses to “Throwing and Not Throwing Balls in the Dirt”

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  1. jruby says:

    Seems like, with runners on third, teams are throwing low to keep guys from elevating the ball and getting a Sac Fly. Even lowering the target a little bit means a much larger percentage of misses will hit the ground.

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    • Princess Diana's Royal Tour of the Windshield says:

      Also, the mix of pitches may change with runners on. A pitcher may be more likely to try to get a strikeout with a breaking pitch in the dirt with RISP, as opposed to challenging the batter with a fastball.

      In addition, it seems possible that a pitcher is more likely to overthrow in a high leverage situation.

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      • jruby says:

        Was thinking this as well.

        In certain situations with a man on third (ie, 0 or 1 out, not loaded), Strikeout>Walk>>>>Fly Ball Out>Base Hit, which is different enough from the normal order of things that teams should really ought to be altering their game plans.

        I don’t have the skillz and/or motivation to do the research on this – that is, looking up pitch selection with man on third, less than two outs, and comparing it to the norm – but I would expect more strikeouts than average and more walks than average. Does that make sense/comport with reality?

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  2. Paul AB says:

    I had a friend who used to play catcher and goalie for Air Force (college). When it came to hockey he had a great glove hand, but his stick hand, not so much. He told me about facing an Olympic athlete who was practicing, and he was able to stop his shots to his glove side, but not his stick side.

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  3. Ian R. says:

    “From worst to best, it’s a spread of about a win, which makes it maybe an unjustifiable thing to be concerned about one way or another.”

    If we look at it from a team perspective, sure, pitch blocking isn’t a big deal. If we look at it as one component of the defensive skillset of one player (i.e. the catcher), a swing of a few runs either way seems pretty substantial.

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  4. TF says:

    Agreed, a one-win difference is significant for a player.

    An interesting table. Thanks!

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    • Ian R. says:

      Yeah. Granted, it’s probably not a one-win difference for an individual player, since every team uses at least two catchers throughout the year. Even if the difference is only about half a win for a regular catcher, though, that’s a pretty big swing.

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  5. Juicy-Bones Phil says:

    “I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. I just wanted to see what the numbers would say.”

    You really are lazy Jeff. Step it up!

    -7 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Dan says:

    How are those run values calculated? Is it just based on whether the ball was missed or not, or can a catcher still be penalized when blocking a ball and seeing the runner advance regardless?

    I don’t see a big difference in catchers’ abilities to stop the ball, but there is bigger spread in catchers who are able to keep the ball close to them rather than have it bounce ten feet in front of home plate.

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  7. Anon says:

    Yadier Molina elite in yet another defensive category.

    No one should disagree that he is an elite defensive catcher of the past decade, but how good is he all-time? Top 5? Who is better than him defensively? (not rhetorical, actually seeking opinions)

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    • jruby says:

      Hmm… Some random guy on Bleacher Report has his top 3 as:

      1. Ron Karkovice
      2. Roy Campanella
      3. Bill Dickey

      His rankings seem to be based primarily on assertions of “this guy was great defensively” without too much substance but, I dunno, it’s a place to start.

      If nothing else, it motivated me to find out who Ron Karkovice was.

      For what it’s worth, here are the Top 10 in terms of Career DEF component (which is tied to longevity, but so is our overall evaluation):

      1. Ivan Rodriguez – 316.7
      2. Bob Boone – 232.2
      3. Jim Sundberg – 223.7
      4. Gary Carter – 222.1
      5. Brad Ausmus – 183.7
      6. Charlie Bennett – 168.7
      7. Yadier Molina – 163.8
      8. Johnny Bench – 161.4
      9. Tony Pena – 155.1
      10. Rick Dempsey – 154.5

      So, by that measure, Molina should be Top 5 easy and probably 2 or 3

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  8. Joe says:

    Ha. You said balls.

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  9. E says:

    In a high leverage situation pitchers might be trying for a little more risk reward trade off with pitches.

    With a runner on third and less than two outs, a ball in play has a good chance of driving that run in. If the pitcher throws the ball in the dirt, they run the risk of a wild pitch but also take away the possibility of a ball in play.

    Maybe something else could be concluded if we could look at balls in the dirt with a runner on third and less than 2 outs?
    Could break it down again to balls in the dirt with a runner on third, less than 2 outs, and when the batter has 2 strikes on him.

    Not sure if we would run into small sample size but the numbers may tell us something more.

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  10. bob says:

    How often does the runner on third score when a pitch is in the dirt?

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