As much as we’ve all grown accustomed to citing FIP, and trusting FIP, the theory is always kind of staggering at first, no matter who you are or what your background. The principle is that pitchers have little control over the results of their balls in play allowed. The evidence is convincing and exhausting. And it’s so challenging to come to terms with, because it flies in the face of what people are taught playing baseball growing up, and because different pitchers have different abilities to put the pitches where they want. How could location possibly be that unimportant, at least in that one particular regard? Don’t some spots lead to worse contact than others? Can’t some guys throw more pitches to those very spots?
Some people are still working on the investigation, and of course we know that BABIP isn’t completely random. For example, there’s the meaningful difference between groundball pitchers and fly-ball pitchers. But the general conclusion’s still valid. It never stops being a little weird when you stop and think about it, and what’s presented below contributes to the weirdness.
We have lots of information on which guys induce swings at pitches out of the zone, and which guys don’t. It’s good to get swings at pitches out of the zone, because those swings are less likely to lead to contact. They’re also less likely to lead to damaging hits and home runs, because the strike zone covers most hitters’ sweet spots. As a pitcher, you want to be able to trick the hitter into chasing something in or out or high or low. Do that often enough and you’re cut out for the major leagues, probably.
We also have information on out-of-zone contact rates. Those numbers get cited somewhat frequently. What I don’t read much about, however, is the location of pitches hit and hit fair. It can be as simple as a percent of balls in play that were hit on pitches in the zone. I thought I’d dive in for a quick examination, just to see what might turn up. My first thought was that pitchers who allowed more fair balls on pitches in the zone would allow higher BABIPs, because those pitches are more hittable. Allow more fair balls on pitches out of the zone, and those probably get weaker contact, and those probably lead to fewer hits. It sounded good enough to me.
In generating data, I turned to Baseball Savant, and looked at all pitchers who threw at least 1,500 pitches last season. This yielded a sample of 151. I figured out how many fair balls each allowed on pitches out of the zone, and then on pitches in the zone, and then I generated this long and really easy table. I figured showing the whole list would be better than just showing ten players at either end. From Samuel Deduno to Jered Weaver, here are the 2013 results:
|37||Jorge De La Rosa||70%||30%|
According to the numbers, Deduno allowed 344 fair hit balls, and 279 of those hit pitches within the strike zone. At the other end, Weaver allowed 471 fair hit balls, and 268 of those hit pitches within the strike zone. Intuitively, it’s not surprising to see a command guy like Weaver in that position, nor is it surprising to think that hitters might’ve forced a guy like Deduno to throw more over the plate. In terms of in-zone rate, Weaver finished 2.9 standard deviations below the mean. Deduno, meanwhile, finished 3.4 standard deviations above it. Here’s a comparative chart, showing the locations of pitches hit fair for both guys:
This, like usual, is from the catcher’s perspective,and for Weaver you see a lot of balls hit fair on pitches off the plate to the left. Deduno is mostly collected in the middle. This is just a graphical representation of the numbers that looked so different above, and if this is all you knew, you’d think, all right, Weaver was a lot better, then. He probably allowed fewer hits, and fewer damaging hits.
And it’s true that Weaver allowed a .268 BABIP, while Deduno came in at .291. But then, hitters slugged .382 against Weaver, and .375 against Deduno. The four guys right above Weaver at the bottom of the table allowed BABIPs over .300. The top ten pitchers in the table allowed an average .288 BABIP. The bottom ten pitchers in the table allowed an average .300 BABIP. There’s barely any correlation between IZ% and BABIP, and what correlation there is is slightly negative. In two ways, that’s the opposite of what one might’ve expected.
You’d think a pitcher would be better off getting more balls in play on pitches off the plate, relatively speaking. That doesn’t actually seem to hold true in the majors. Maybe it does hold true at other levels, but I suspect the majors are selective for pitchers who are successful however they are, and if you’re a guy who allows balls in play on pitches in the zone, then to cut it in the bigs you have to demonstrate some ability to keep those hit balls from hurting too bad. Not all pitches in the zone hit fair are created alike. Nor are all pitches out of the zone hit fair created alike. It turns out that this, like everything, is complicated, yielding results that demand further and closer attention. Follow-up studies. The whole enchilada.
It could be that guys toward the bottom throw more hittable pitches out of the zone than guys toward the top. The bottom ten averaged an O-Contact% of 68%. The top ten averaged an O-Contact% of 60%, and the correlation between O-Contact% and IZ% comes out to about 0.3. Then there are going to be other factors as well, because there always are, in greater number than one could ever imagine. I’m sure you’ve thought of a few. I’m still thinking of more, but I don’t want this post to meander.
Up there: results. They’re not what I expected, and for me, that makes them interesting. Four of five balls hit fair against Samuel Deduno were on pitches in the zone. Four of seven balls hit fair against Jered Weaver were on pitches in the zone. Batters posted a higher slugging percentage against Weaver than against Deduno. There’s no meaningful correlation between IZ% and BABIP. Nobody needed more evidence that there are several different ways to be successful in the majors, but you can throw this on the pile anyway. Don’t stand too close to the pile, for your own safety.
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