Wasted Pitches and the Pitchers Who Make the Most of Them

You’ll often hear of a pitcher “wasting” a pitch. Up 0-2 in a count, for example, the pitcher fires off something well out of the zone, hoping the defensive hitter will hack at it, missing or putting the ball in play weakly. The cost here is minimal – the cost of that pitcher having thrown an extra pitch and the change in count from 0-2 to 1-2.

Count AVG OBP SLG
After 0-2 0.167 0.196 0.250
After 1-2 0.179 0.227 0.271
0-2 0.151 0.159 0.216
*Since 2012

The value there is pretty clear. Enticing a batter to swing 0-2 means little chance of damage being done, while the cost of the count shifting more favorably towards the batter is small.

But do pitchers only waste pitches in these unique situations where the cost-benefit trade-off is so obvious? And how effective are they in actually coaxing swings?

Thanks to the wonder that is Daren of Baseball Savant, even someone without database skills (like myself) can sift through all of the league’s pitch data and (eventually) get a grasp on the league-wide usage of “waste pitches.”

The parameters I’ve set for waste pitches are shown in the chart below, and you can see right away that the “usable” pitch zone is wider than the strike zone and slightly higher. Pitches outside of this second box are called balls 80 percent of the time and called strikes just 0.7 percent of the time, so it’s roughly the area in which any non-swing is going to be called a ball.
strikezone wastedzone
I can tell you off the bat that batters still swing and miss at pitches out of this second zone 9.5 percent of the time and are particularly susceptible to low waste pitches (a 15.1 percent swinging strike rate despite just a 0.2 percent called strike rate).

So, looking at everything together, we know right away that these waste pitches go for balls 80 percent of the time, meaning a pitcher is improving his situation just once in five tries. But not all of these are created equally, of course, so it’s necessary to filter down by count – knowing how often these pitches are thrown in each count will give us an idea of how often pitchers are actually wasting a pitch and how often they’re just missing wildly.

The data below is for 2013 and the 2014 season so far (I had hoped to go beyond that, but Excel tops out around a million rows):

Count Total Pitches # Wasted % Wasted # Wasted Swings % Wasted Swings # Wasted Called Strikes Wasted Called Strike %
0-0 222923 68770 30.85% 7011 10.19% 1278 1.86%
0-1 109580 42674 38.94% 8798 20.62% 202 0.47%
0-2 54031 29444 54.49% 8209 27.88% 44 0.15%
1-0 88599 26003 29.35% 3799 14.61% 501 1.93%
1-1 87652 29699 33.88% 7050 23.74% 229 0.77%
1-2 79421 37368 47.05% 12208 32.67% 87 0.23%
2-0 30777 8613 27.99% 1010 11.73% 170 1.97%
2-1 45177 12497 27.66% 3105 24.85% 151 1.21%
2-2 67706 25473 37.62% 9104 35.74% 99 0.39%
3-0 10267 3280 31.95% 39 1.19% 108 3.29%
3-1 18543 4376 23.60% 819 18.72% 63 1.44%
3-2 40098 10654 26.57% 4061 38.12% 55 0.52%

The numbers are actually quite striking – it turns out that over 2013 and 2014, pitchers have wasted more than half of all 0-2 pitches and nearly half of all 1-2 pitches. In return, defensive batters have swung at these wasted pitches more than a quarter of the time. Particularly in 2-2 and 3-2 counts, when the incentive for the batter to stay alive is stronger, batters appear to be much more defensive, creeping up to nearly a 40 percent swing rate on bad offerings. Chip something fringey away and hope for a juicier offering on the next pitch.

It’s also worth noting that the data here backs up previous research on umpire trends, in that umpires are far more likely to call one of these wasted pitches a strike in a 3-0 count than in any other situation, and they have hardly called them as such at all in 0-2 counts.

But not all pitchers are created equally, of course. We know this because the O-Swing rate for qualified pitchers over the past two seasons ranges anywhere from 25.3 percent to 39.9 percent, and the qualified Zone rates range from 38.4 percent to 53.5 percent. Different pitchers are going to approach these waste pitches differently, either due to a lack of command or an assumed ability to coax more swings on them.

The table below shows the qualified pitchers (for this season) who have “wasted” pitches most and least often over this season and last:

Name Pitches Total Wasted % Wasted # Wasted Swings % Wasted Swings # Called Strikes % Wasted Called Strike
Roenis Elias 699 300 42.92% 76 25.33% 20 6.67%
Hiroki Kuroda 3874 1543 39.83% 378 24.50% 14 0.91%
Masahiro Tanaka 631 251 39.78% 94 37.45% 3 1.20%
Yovani Gallardo 3742 1454 38.86% 255 17.54% 14 0.96%
Drew Hutchison 665 256 38.50% 62 24.22% 4 1.56%
Yu Darvish 4063 1558 38.35% 337 21.63% 14 0.90%
Francisco Liriano 3109 1192 38.34% 313 26.26% 11 0.92%
Edwin Jackson 3599 1374 38.18% 296 21.54% 9 0.66%
Wily Peralta 3676 1366 37.16% 283 20.72% 19 1.39%
Tim Lincecum 3924 1454 37.05% 326 22.42% 7 0.48%
Mike Leake 3595 1130 31.43% 244 21.59% 4 0.35%
Hisashi Iwakuma 3183 995 31.26% 295 29.65% 7 0.70%
Jose Fernandez 3316 1027 30.97% 269 26.19% 4 0.39%
Bronson Arroyo 3482 1075 30.87% 237 22.05% 18 1.67%
Travis Wood 3817 1171 30.68% 244 20.84% 4 0.34%
Jhoulys Chacin 3048 934 30.64% 164 17.56% 5 0.54%
David Price 3450 1048 30.38% 228 21.76% 21 2.00%
Chris Sale 3699 1105 29.87% 251 22.71% 11 1.00%
Bartolo Colon 3449 922 26.73% 173 18.76% 11 1.19%
Cliff Lee 4090 1024 25.04% 241 23.54% 7 0.68%

Roenis Elias, what the heck are you doing? I guess since he’s been getting more called strikes in this waste zone than anyone else (more than twice as often as the next highest pitcher), perhaps he’s just really good at nibbling (note: not really). This does bring up a good question though, as to which pitchers are most effective at getting swings on these offerings.

Name Pitches Total Wasted % Wasted # Wasted Swings % Wasted Swings # Called Strikes % Wasted Called Strike
Masahiro Tanaka 631 251 39.78% 94 37.45% 3 1.20%
Hisashi Iwakuma 3183 995 31.26% 295 29.65% 7 0.70%
Clayton Kershaw 3619 1306 36.09% 379 29.02% 41 3.14%
Felix Hernandez 3968 1382 34.83% 375 27.13% 19 1.37%
Eric Stults 3787 1341 35.41% 363 27.07% 5 0.37%
Homer Bailey 3996 1364 34.13% 368 26.98% 11 0.81%
Cole Hamels 3713 1195 32.18% 322 26.95% 6 0.50%
John Lackey 3583 1130 31.54% 302 26.73% 11 0.97%
Francisco Liriano 3109 1192 38.34% 313 26.26% 11 0.92%
Jose Fernandez 3316 1027 30.97% 269 26.19% 4 0.39%

As it turns out, your list of “guys with filthy stuff” appear here, as do a few somewhat surprising names and then Eric Stults. Note that the correlation between the percentage of pitches a pitcher wastes and the rate of swings he gets on them was weak (R-squared=0.036), so this isn’t necessarily a case of guys widening their target zone because they’ve had success in doing so.

On the flip side, there are a handful of names I suppose you could call “ineffectively wild,” pitchers who rarely coax swings when they miss or try and induce a flaccid swing.

Name Pitches Total Wasted % Wasted # Wasted Swings % Wasted Swings # Called Strikes % Wasted Called Strike
Yovani Gallardo 3742 1454 38.86% 255 17.54% 14 0.96%
Jhoulys Chacin 3048 934 30.64% 164 17.56% 5 0.54%
Bartolo Colon 3449 922 26.73% 173 18.76% 11 1.19%
Mark Buehrle 3982 1352 33.95% 260 19.23% 19 1.41%
Ubaldo Jimenez 3795 1368 36.05% 264 19.30% 14 1.02%
Jeremy Guthrie 4104 1300 31.68% 251 19.31% 10 0.77%
Kyle Kendrick 3478 1166 33.53% 233 19.98% 14 1.20%
C.J. Wilson 4465 1619 36.26% 326 20.14% 8 0.49%
Gio Gonzalez 4008 1415 35.30% 285 20.14% 6 0.42%
Chris Tillman 4223 1463 34.64% 299 20.44% 21 1.44%

As for the hitters that swing at the most of these garbage pitches, well, I doubt many of the names will surprise you:

Player Total Wasted Swings Wasted Swing %
A.J. Pierzynski 815 316 38.77%
Adam Jones 1135 409 36.04%
Evan Gattis 628 222 35.35%
Alfonso Soriano 1133 374 33.01%
Pablo Sandoval 1166 382 32.76%
Alexei Ramirez 877 285 32.50%
Wilin Rosario 676 216 31.95%
Nolan Arenado 797 253 31.74%
Erick Aybar 833 259 31.09%
Delmon Young 535 165 30.84%

I mean, is this really fair?

tanakapierz



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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.


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Darryl
Member

Good stuff. As a sour Blue Jays fan, I hoped to see JPA on the “batters who swing at wasted pitches list”, but seeing Delmon Young make it was almost as satisfying.

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