On Zach Britton’s “Pitching to Contact” Comments

This past October, David Laurila conducted an interview with Zach Britton, the 23-year-old lefty who just finished up his rookie season with the Orioles. As a highly touted prospect, Britton didn’t put up impressive strikeout totals, but his groundball-inducing heavy sinker allowed him to enjoy much success in the minors. When Laurila asked Britton for his thoughts on his underwhelming major league 1.56 K/BB ratio, Britton responded as follows:

“I know that it could be better, obviously. I’m not going to be a guy who strikes out a ton of people; I’ll never lead the league in strikeouts. And with the movement I have, I’m going to walk guys. That’s something I can improve upon as I get older and more experienced, though. I can learn to make better adjustments… I pitch to contact. If I get a guy 0-2, I’m not necessarily looking to strike him out; I’m looking to get him to hit a ground ball. It’s a mindset. I’m not a huge believer in having to strike guys out in order to be successful. I’d rather keep my defense on their toes and get outs. Most times, when I strike guys out, it’s not on three or four pitches; it usually takes five, six or seven. Pitching to contact allows me to be more efficient.”

My first instinct was to be a bit skeptical of the effectiveness of this “mindset.”  Numerous studies have indicated that is issuing walks, not striking batters out, that ultimately increases pitch count to the point of being “inefficient.” Yet in sabermetric analysis, it is not uncommon to find outliers in these aggregate models — some players simply don’t fit the mold of generally accepted principles. Britton, after all, ought to know his own tendencies better than anyone else.

To test the validity of his statements, I looked at each of his 97 strikeouts this year and recorded how many pitches it took to retire the batter. The frequency for each amount of pitches was such:

On average, it took Britton 4.96 pitches to ring the batter up. This is on the lower side of his own anecdotal description of it usually taking, “five, six, or seven (pitches).” The league-average amount of pitches it takes to record a strikeout hovers around 4.8 with a standard deviation of 0.15. Relative to his peers, Britton it appears is slightly less efficient, but not by much. A simple hypothesis test shows that, at the 0.05 significance level, he is not less efficient than other pitchers.

This is not to say that Britton is wrong to have a “pitch to contact” approach, and this is by no means adequate grounds for concluding that he would be better off changing his mindset on the mound. His comments simply caught me off guard and I wanted to compare his words to the hard data. It does appear, however, that Britton is underestimating his ability to be efficient when striking batters out.

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John is an economics student at Duquesne University. Follow him on twitter at @john_ricco.

9 Responses to “On Zach Britton’s “Pitching to Contact” Comments”

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  1. James says:

    interesting study. i think he will trun out to be a brandon webb type grounballer, with more like 150 Ks compared to the 180 webb could get.

    lastly, how did you get the data on how many pitches it took to strike batters out?

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  2. Aaron says:

    “Britton, after all, ought to know his own tendencies better than anyone else.”

    Seems intuitive but doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. People believe what they want to believe, especially about themselves.

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  3. johnricco says:

    I got the data by manually going through Baseball Reference’s game logs–not sure if there was an easier way to get it.

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  4. Scott Lindholm says:

    Subscribing to B-R’s Play Index feature shows at-bat information going back to 1950. It is an amazing tool, reasonably priced ($36/year) and powerful as all get-out. And, since you’ll get this post in your email, email me back and I’ll send you Britton’s stats–it won’t invalidate your claims but perhaps give different angles from which to test them.

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  5. johnricco says:

    I actually do have Play Index for the month–I’ve been purchasing it on a monthly basis recently.

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  6. ncgostl says:

    John–good use of data to check Britton’s claims.

    Quick question: if the standard deviation is .15, then the standard error is .15 divided by the square root of n (n=number of pitchers in your sample). If you had a 100 pitchers, the standard error would be .015, and the difference between Britton (4.96) and the average (4.80) yields a t-statistic of 10.

    If .15 is the standard error, then the difference is not significant. Is .15 the standard deviation or standard error?

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  7. johnricco says:

    Wow, great catch there. Thanks for correcting me.

    That being said, although that gives us a statistically significant result, I don’t believe that makes it practically significant. We’re dealing in fractions of pitches here. But again, thank you. Lazy math on my part.

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  8. Bip says:

    I actually don’t think ncgostl is correct. He says that if you have 100 pitchers, your standard error is .015, which is correct, but we’re not looking at a sample of 100 pitchers, we’re looking at a sample of one, Zack Britton. Look at it like this:

    Let’s say we have a population of pitchers, and the mean pitches/K is 4.8 with stdev 0.15. we want to see if pitching to contact increases this rate, so we sample 100 pitchers who are known to pitch to contact as a strategy, and we find that they average 4.96 pitches/K. In this case, we use a standard error of 0.015. However, what you actually did is take a sample of only Zack Britton, n=1, and compare him to the population mean with standard error 0.15/sqrt(1) = 0.15. His comment about the sample of 100 pitchers is actually the population, and we disregard the sample size since we’re assuming that 4.8 and .15 are the figures the represent all major league pitchers.

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  9. G-Man says:

    Outside the lines and graphs Britton listens to Jim Palmer. He has spoken in local press about his admiration for Palmer. Palmer never came close to leading the league in strikeouts on his way to 6 20 win seasons and 3 Cy Young awards.

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