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.