The Folly of Pitching to Contact

‘Pitching to contact’ and ‘throwing ground balls’ are classic baseball buzzwords. Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson has essentially built a career around this philosophy. It seems like every time a young pitching phenom arrives and starts striking hitters out, people start talking about how he needs to pitch to contact. The strategy has been around since this guy played, and while Kirk Rueter pitched in his last game in 2005, Kevin Correia is still hanging around and Jeremy Guthrie signed a three-year deal last offseason. And, lest we forget, Aaron Sele got a Hall of Fame vote. To take a more in-depth look at the merits of pitching to contact I grouped all 394 starting pitchers from 2002 onward (the batted ball era) who had thrown 200 or more innings, and organized them by Contact% into eight groups. The following spreadsheet details the results of my study. Groups 1-4 are classified as contact pitchers, while groups 5-8 are strikeout pitchers.

Group Contact range xFIP- ERA- WAR/200 IP RA9-WAR/200 IP GB% K% BB% HR% BABIP FB velo FB% Pitches/IP
MLB 80.0—82.2 101 103 2.4 2.3 43.0 16.8 7.9 2.8 0.295 90.3 59.3 16.2
Group 1 85.2—89.9 109 112 1.7 1.5 44.7 11.8 6.8 2.9 0.299 89.2 64.3 15.8
Group 2 84.0—85.2 106 110 2.1 2.0 43.7 13.8 7.2 2.8 0.300 89.6 61.7 16.0
Group 3 83.1—84.0 106 112 2.0 1.7 44.0 14.6 7.3 2.8 0.295 89.3 59.0 15.9
Group 4 82.1—83.1 105 110 2.4 2.0 42.4 15.6 7.6 2.8 0.299 89.4 60.1 16.2
Group 5 81.0—82.0 105 106 2.3 2.3 42.4 16.8 8.3 2.7 0.290 90.0 60.3 16.4
Group 6 79.7—80.9 100 101 3.0 3.0 43.2 18.4 7.5 2.7 0.292 90.5 59.0 16.0
Group 7 78.0—79.6 98 98 3.0 3.1 43.1 19.5 8.2 2.6 0.290 91.1 58.8 16.2
Group 8 71.3—77.8 89 90 3.8 3.7 42.1 22.7 8.2 2.5 0.290 91.9 58.5 16.2

Of the Group 1 pitchers, only 5 had an xFIP- better than the league average, and only 6 had an ERA- better than league average.  Two of these were posted by aging control artists Rick Reed and David Wells, who had success on the strength of their walk rates of 4.0% and 3.7%, respectively. Chien-Ming Wang rode his 59.5 GB% to a 98 xFIP- and 99 ERA-. Overall, Nate Cornejo was more typical of the group than these three. xFIP- went down with decreasing contact, and except for a small blip between groups 2 and 3 (both contact groups), so did ERA-.

There is a strong connection here between fastball velocity and contact rates, but there is also a strong connection between fastball usage and contact rates. Group 1 had both the slowest average fastballs and the highest use of fastballs. As anyone watching Gerrit Cole and the Pirates can tell, contact rate has almost as much to do with fastball usage as fastball velocity.

Though the contact pitchers had lower walk rates than the strikeout groups, their strikeout rates were far below average. The separation between strikeout and walk rates was better for the strikeout pitchers, with an average separation of 11.3, compared to 6.7 for the contact pitchers. In terms of K/BB, the strikeout pitchers posted a 2.4 K/BB, and the contact pitchers were at 1.9 K/BB. The old adage that groundball pitchers prevent home runs did not bear out. While the contact pitchers had a groundball rate of 43.7% compared to 42.7% for the strikeout pitchers, the contact pitchers had a HR% of 2.8, and the strikeout pitchers had a HR% of 2.6. Home runs are connected to contact.

The contact pitchers also slightly underachieved their peripherals. The ERA- for the contact groups was an average of 4.5 points higher than their xFIP-, while the ERA- for the strikeout groups was on average less than 1 point higher. The contact pitchers had an average BABIP of .298 compared to the .291 for the strikeout pitchers. High strikeout pitchers can often sustain slightly lower BABIP than their counterparts.

The connection between contact and efficiency is slight. The difference in Pitches/IP was the biggest between group 1 and group 5. The difference of 0.6 Pitches/IP translates to only 120 pitches per 200 IP. While the pitch count and innings limit debate has overtaken the nature of starting pitching, pitching to contact does not seem to be the answer. Teams and pitching coaches that are advocating pitching to contact as a means to pitch longer in games are essentially sacrificing a lot of quality for a tiny amount of quantity. And with 12 or 13 man pitching staffs being the rule of the day, this strategy seems absurd.

Despite mounting evidence that pitching to contact is a futile strategy, teams keep encouraging their young pitchers to stash away their strikeout stuff in the name of efficiency. Young pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Gerrit Cole currently own the 3rd and 4th fastest fastballs among starting pitchers. Both of them, and Cole in particular, posted very high strikeout rates in the minor leagues. Yet both of them own strikeout rates well below the NL average, and Cole and Eovaldi’s respective xFIP- rates of 99 and 101 are decidedly average.  I know, almost anybody with a good fastball can rack up a lot of strikeouts in the minors, and Eovaldi in particular has a limited repertoire that may keep him from reaching his potential. But shouldn’t young pitchers focus on developing strikeout pitches rather than trying to get ground balls? After all, fastball velocity peaks early and Cole and Eovaldi will probably have a tougher time getting outs on contact when they aren’t throwing 96. While Mike Pelfrey has carved out a decent career for himself, I’m sure most teams hope for more out of their top pitching prospects.

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Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

16 Responses to “The Folly of Pitching to Contact”

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  1. Jonathan Judge says:

    Nice article.

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  2. Cyril Morong says:

    Good article. I did a couple of posts on this with a different kind of analysis. You went a little deeper than that what I did.

    Can “Pitching To Contact” Lead To More Scoring?

    Is “Pitching To Contact” Helping The Nationals?

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    • Chris moran says:

      Thanks for reading. I’ve read those blog posts and I’ve come across your cyber metric blog before. I’ve never been a fan of the strategy and after seeing a couple posts on the subject I wanted to take a more in depth look at it. I was a little surprised at how the most contact-heavy pitchers were almost universally ineffective.

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  3. Cyril Morong says:

    It seems a pitcher has to “let up” to let the batter hit the ball. That means you are not throwing your best stuff

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    • Chris moran says:

      That seems to be the theory with the nationals. With Gerrit Cole and the pitchers in the contact group I think the idea is to pitch to contact by throwing lots of fastballs and limiting the repertoire. Maybe Cole can be average doing it now when he throws 96 but it just doesn’t make sense for a guy throwing 89 to use his fastball 64% of the time.

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  4. Payroll says:

    I find that somewhat surprising about Cole. Did he simply never develop any effective secondary offerings? His teammate, Liriano, is throwing fewer fastballs than ever since joining the Pirates.

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  5. Chris moran says:

    From what I’ve seen Cole has plus secondary and a scout told me he has three plus pitches. If you look at his minor league stats there is a big drop off in strikeouts from AA to AAA, more than you’d expect. The pirates encouraged him to use his fastball, particularly his two-seamer in an effort to be more efficient. Cole certainly has the potential for strikeouts and if he changes his approach next year it will be interesting to see what happens. Pitch to contact might be more of a short term strategy for Cole while Eovaldi is more limited in his repertoire. Liriano has always been a slider heavy guy and he was actually 2nd best behind Kerry wood in swing and miss %.

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  6. jason says:

    I’d be interested in seeing David Price’s numbers on this since his DL stint.

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    • chris moran says:

      I considered mentioning Price in this article. He is currently 28th highest among qualified starters in Contact % and has often had fairly high contact numbers. He has a nice pitch mix (53 FB%), and still has had decent to very good strikeout numbers. Right now, he’s kind of in the Cliff Lee sweet spot where he gets a good amount of strikeouts and limits walks, and the contact tends to be of the groundball and IFFB variety. That being said, I wonder if possible trade suitors are at all worried about this approach holding up as his FB velo drops (93.5 this year compared to 95.5 last year) and he won’t have the Rays (MLB-best .722 Defensive efficiency since 2009) defense behind him.

      For a more in-depth analysis of David Price’s approach since his DL stint, I would refer you to this article:

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  7. jason says:

    Thanks, Chris. Out of curiosity, what are Price’s velocity numbers since the DL stint? He passes the eye i’d guess hes been well above that since on average.

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    • chris.moran says:

      His average since returning from the DL is 93.7 with the game range being 92.1-95. Price has always been a bit of an odd bird with his higher than average contact rates and reliance on the looking strikeout but the stuff has been so good for five years now that I don’t want to bet against him even though his way of success is somewhat unconventional.

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  8. Mel says:

    Nice article and confirms with stats what many of us presumably knew in our guts, i.e. pitching to contact is a less than ideal way to get the job done. As an aside, one of the great exceptions I can think of is Tommy John (yes, the guy who was named after a surgical procedure – or is it the other way around?). Career K/9 of 4.29; career fWAR of 75.

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    • Chris moran says:

      Thanks for the comment. Tommy John was very effective and even Jim Palmer was only 5 K/9 for his career. But strikeout rates were much lower then as was BABIP and HR on contact. Relative to the rest of the league those guys weren’t contact pitchers to the extent that the guys from 2002-2013 are. With the rise of HR on contact (higher now than at the height of the steroid era) and BABIP being high the strikeout is a necessity for successful pitching

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  9. lexomatic says:

    No references to Roy Halladay?
    cf. 2002, 2003, 2008-11 vs 2006/2007 (when he was reportedly pitching to contact)

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    • Chris moran says:

      Great point. I didn’t pick up on it because Halladay wasn’t in the high contact groups. His 2006-07 are still good because he limited walks and had a great GB% but the higher strikeout years are so much better.

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