The Importance of Avoiding Predictability

Two balls and no strikes, one ball and no strikes — those are the counts that are called hitter’s counts. Pitchers are forced into a predictable corner, since they have to get back into the count, and are more likely to throw a fastball so they can put it in the strike zone. They have to come into the zone, at least, and that’s always better for the hitter. Some of these things are true, and important to the lesson the 23-year-old Cody Reed is currently trying to learn from 28-year-old former teammate Dan Straily. Some of these things are also not true.

It’s true that the league throws more fastballs. In those counts, fastball percentage goes up to 64% from 57% overall. And the OPS on balls in play in one-oh and two-oh counts is a hefty .978. But when it comes to predictability, it’s not as easy to say anything prescriptive.

Cody Reed averages 93-plus from the left side, which is like 94-plus from the right. His sinker gets two inches more fade and three inches more drop than the average lefty sinker. He’s got a really nice hard slider that got above-average whiffs last year. His changeup doesn’t look great by movement, but it got above-average whiffs. The fastball and slider, at least, are major-league worthy.

Reed also gave up twelve homers in ten starts and had an ERA over seven last year. But he knows what he wants to work on. “My change is one thing I’m working on,” the lefty said in camp on Tuesday. “I got into counts where I couldn’t throw it. I wasn’t confident enough to throw it.”

He had a role model on his team last year that showed him the way forward. “I’d love watching [Dan] Straily pitch,” Reed admitted, despite the veteran’s slower fastball. “He’d go 2-0 and boom, flip a change in there, and he’s back in the count. I couldn’t do that.”

Last year, Straily talked about maturing from a thrower to a pitcher, and one of the things he talked about was this predictability, this ability to throw anything in any count.

Predictability has been something Straily has been thinking about, too. “A couple of years ago I figured out that I was like 87% fastball at 2-0,” the righty said. “I was wondering why I was getting hit so hard, so I started throwing different things.” The change has been minor, but it has helped. He’s now throwing fastballs 73% of the time in those counts, or 190th-most out of the 303 pitchers who have had 20 or more 2-0 counts.

Reed must have hung out with the veteran, because he echoed the now-Marlin this week in Arizona. “You have to be able to throw anything for strikes in any count, and that’s where I struggled. I’d get to two-oh and have to throw my fastball and then I get hurt. Guys in the major leagues are supposed to do stuff like that.”

At first glance, Reed’s predictability has hurt and Straily’s unpredictability has helped, but continue scanning down this table and you’ll see that it’s not so simple.

Outcomes by Predictability in Hitters Counts
Pitcher Hitter’s Count Fasball% Hitter’s Count BA Hitter’s Count OPS
Cody Reed 74.2% 0.550 1.340
Dan Straily 65.0% 0.297 0.959
League Average 63.8% 0.375 0.978
Top 10% FB% 88.7% 0.370 0.971
Bottom 10% FB% 34.9% 0.383 1.009
Hitter’s counts = one-oh and two-oh for the purposes of this study; Top-ten FB% is top-ten pitchers by hitter’s counts fastball percentage, minimum 75 such fastballs.

Yes, Reed was more predictable, and yes, his outcomes were worse. But there are a ton of caveats.

It looks like being completely unpredictable is worse for you than being average, but that’s probably not true. Because when you never go to your fastball in fastball counts, you’re predictable, just in a different way. Perhaps it’s best to be closer to league average, so that hitters can’t tell that you’re different from other pitchers.

And closer study would want to account for the quality of the fastball from a velocity and movement standpoint. Aroldis Chapman may want to go to the fastball in a two-oh count and let’s not be the ones to tell him to do any different.

Lastly, location within the zone matters. There’s a constant struggle for any batter to cover the inside and outside parts of the plate. If you were living on the outside, and not getting the calls, going inside with the fastball could be unpredictable even if it was a fastball in a hitter’s count.

There’s no better illustration of that last adage than Reed himself. Take a look at his four-seam fastball location in neutral and pitcher’s counts (left) and in hitter’s counts (right). That’s real predictability on the right.

Good hitters swing more than bad hitters in two-oh and one-oh counts, and Reed was offering them a very predictable fastball away. And he was offering more fastballs than most pitchers do in the same counts.

Good news is, he knows it. “My last two outings here, I was down, and in and out and in and out,” he said. “I’m a low three-quarters slot and throwing it in, it’s a tough pitch for the hitter because it feels like it’s going into them,” Reed said of throwing inside to righties. “It’s always more comfortable to throw arm-side,” he admitted, “but if you always throw away, then bang.”

He’s responded by working on fastball command inside, throwing the slider inside, and working on the changeup. “I threw my changeup for ground balls,” he said of his last two spring starts. Maybe Reed’s changeup isn’t that great. “I’m 93-96 and my changeup is 88, I wish it was 84-85,” he admitted. But just throwing it will help him the third time through the order, and in hitter’s counts, so he’s working on his confidence with the pitch.

That can be tricky in the spring, though. “Spring Training is Spring Training, but I’m also trying to make the team, so I don’t want to give up so many hits, but I have to work on stuff,” the lefty said. That said, the team understands this dichotomy as well as the player, and Reed nodded. “Against the Royals, I threw some changeups that got hit, but at least I was throwing them for strikes,” he said, and he figured the team would appreciate the effort on the pitch, too.

Last year in camp, Joey Votto said Reed had the “nastiest stuff,” and there’s a lot to that. But there’s also a lot more to the dance that is to being a good major league starter. Whether or not Reed can translate his tools to success may depend on hitting the inside corner, and trusting a meh changeup.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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