Which Pitchers Are Doubling Up to Start an At-Bat?

This is Nate Freiman’s fourth post as part of his August residency. Nate is a former MLB first baseman. He also played for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and spent time in the Atlantic and Mexican Leagues. He can be found on Twitter @natefreiman. His wife Amanda routinely beats him at golf. To read work by earlier residents, click here.

On June 7, 2013, I got the start against Chris Sale in Chicago. Roughly 22,000 people were there to see us beat the White Sox 4-3 on a Josh Donaldson sixth-inning grand slam.

I was on deck when Donaldson homered, and consequently faced a very angry Sale. He started me off with a slider. The pitch appeared to start more or less in the first-base dugout before catching the better part of the outside corner. Then he threw a changeup. I was geared up for 97. I buckled and took a second called strike. I was down 0-2 and still hadn’t seen the fastball. If you’re concerned about catching up to the fastball, the key is to slow down and think, “Be on time.” Hopefully that doesn’t translate to start a little early. That’s when you chase the back-foot slider.

Sale’s next pitch was 97 mph at the top of the zone. It looked even harder because I hadn’t seen the fastball. Strike three swinging. I got soft-soft-harded.

In my last post, I mentioned that at-bats are “path dependent,” meaning that each pitch is going to depend on the previous pitch. It’s nice to know what percentage of fastballs a guy throws. It’s really nice to have it broken down by count. Luckily there’s a really cool graphic for that on Baseball Savant. Here’s what it looks like for Blake Snell:

The chart shows that Snell throws 45.4% fastballs in 0-1 counts. In those counts, sometimes he got ahead with a fastball and sometimes he got ahead with offspeed. Do the pitches that came before it matter? Because soft-soft-hard is merely one example of a three-pitch sequence. I was curious whether MLB pitchers have measurable pitch-sequencing tendencies in other counts, too.

I filtered and grouped the 2018 Statcast data from Baseball Savant to look at approximately 52,000 plate appearances. In order to have a decent sample, I broke it down further between soft and hard. Usually, that’s about as much info as you can get in a game. When players relay pitches from the dugout or second base (just kidding, that never happens), oftentimes it’s just fastball or offspeed. In my experience, four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs, sinkers, and cutters all counted as fastballs. (There is a fine line between a cutter and a slider in the pitch data, so that is something to keep in mind.) Everything else was offspeed.

I looked at a pitcher’s fastball percentage when the previous pitch was a fastball and when the previous pitch was offspeed. Then I divided them to get a pitcher’s Ratio. A Ratio of 1.0 means that a pitcher has the same observed fastball rate regardless of the previous pitch.

This could have gone on forever, with nearly endless permutations, but I limited it to the most common two-pitch sequence a hitter sees: the first two pitches of an at-bat.

Let’s start by looking at that 0-1 count. A painted fastball for a first-pitch strike is a very different thing than a get-me-over breaking ball. As a batter, it’s incredibly frustrating when pitchers execute first-pitch offspeed for a strike, because it forces one into an 0-1 without having seen the fastball. The one has to rely on whatever info was gained while standing over in the on-deck circle.

Some pitchers appear to have no difference in what they throw based on the previous pitch.

Pitchers Without Pronounced 0-1 Tendencies
Name 0-1 After
1st Pitch FB
FB% After FB 0-1 After
1st Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Derek Holland 158 51.3 113 51.3 1.00
James Paxton 220 68.1 75 68.0 1.00
Jason Hammel 138 51.4 121 51.2 1.00
Mike Montgomery 133 45.9 79 45.6 1.01
Blaine Hardy 132 62.9 40 62.5 1.01
MLB Average 55.6 50.9 1.09

Some pitchers, though, throw noticeably more fastballs after they get ahead with a fastball.

Pitchers Who Throw More 0-1 Fastballs
Name 0-1 After
1st Pitch FB
0-1 FB% After FB 0-1 After
1st Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Justin Verlander 277 64.6 68 33.8 1.91
Junior Guerra 202 75.7 46 43.5 1.74
Jose Berrios 208 64.9 127 38.6 1.68
Sam Gaviglio 126 65.1 64 39.1 1.67
Kyle Gibson 152 60.5 115 36.5 1.66
MLB Average 55.6 50.9 1.09

Justin Verlander, Junior Guerra: they’re following fastballs with even more fastballs.

Other pitchers, meanwhile, have the the tendency.

Pitchers Who Throw More 0-1 Offspeed Pitches
Name 0-1 After
1st Pitch FB
FB% After FB 0-1 After
1st Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Blake Snell 161 36.6 66 60.6 0.60
Ty Blach 127 46.4 68 67.6 0.69
Lucas Giolito 158 40.5 83 53.0 0.76
Brian Johnson 74 43.2 85 56.5 0.77
Andrew Suarez 118 43.2 96 56.2 0.77
MLB Average 55.6 50.9 1.09

There’s Blake Snell again. It turns out that while Snell throws 45.4% fastballs overall in 0-1 counts, the times he gets ahead with an offspeed pitch, he’s significantly more likely to come back with a fastball. It’s also interesting that the top-five pitchers on this leaderboard have ratios much closer to 1.0 than the first group.

So those are 0-1 counts. How about at-bats that start with a ball? When the pitcher misses with a fastball 0-0, the hitter not only has the advantage of having gotten ahead in the count, but also (hopefully) of having gotten his timing down. Pitchers: can you execute a 1-0 right-on-right changeup? It’s a valuable skill at the upper levels to command a 1-0 offspeed offering after missing with the fastball. But what if the pitcher missed with first-pitch offspeed? I used to sit dead red and look middle-middle. The fastball was coming, or at least so I thought.

Here are the pitchers who have no apparent sequencing tendencies in 1-0 counts.

Pitchers Without Pronounced 1-0 Tendencies
Name 1-0 After
1st Pitch FB
FB% After FB 1-0 After
1st Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Reynaldo Lopez 149 59.7 79 59.5 1.00
Mike Leake 126 65.1 88 64.8 1.00
Michael Wacha 107 71.0 61 70.5 1.01
Ty Blach 84 57.1 71 57.7 0.99
Matt Boyd 108 50.0 110 50.9 0.98
MLB Average 62.9 52.8 1.26

Here are the pitchers who have pronounced splits.

Pitchers Who Double Up After Falling Behind
Name 1-0 After
1st Pitch FB
FB% After FB 1-0 After 1st
Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Rick Porcello 90 55.6 98 18.4 3.02
Mike Montgomery 95 73.7 58 31.0 2.37
Jacob deGrom 112 54.5 86 24.4 2.23
Jhoulys Chacin 138 60.1 97 30.9 1.94
Jake Odorizzi 108 68.5 109 35.8 1.92
MLB Average 62.9 52.8 1.26

The pitchers on this list — most notably Rick Porcello — often double up their first pitch if they go 1-0.

There are also pitchers who tend to throw the opposite of whatever they fell behind with, though this tendency is much weaker.

Pitchers Who Throw the Opposite of Their First Pitch
Name 1-0 After
1st Pitch FB
FB% After FB 1-0 After
1st Pitch OFF
FB% After OFF Ratio
Carlos Carrasco 92 33.7 88 63.6 0.53
Mike Clevinger 98 40.1 103 66.0 0.62
Alex Wood 96 32.3 64 45.3 0.71
Ian Kennedy 96 39.6 64 51.6 0.77
Clayton Richard 148 64.9 79 79.7 0.81
MLB Average 62.9 52.8 1.26

As we saw with 0-1 counts, these ratios approach one much more quickly than with pitchers who double up.

Now let’s look at the entire league.

The chart above largely confirms what we saw in the leaderboards. As a whole, pitchers are close to neutral in 0-1 counts, though there are some with more pronounced tendencies. The 1-0 curve is noticeably shifted to the right, suggesting that the league leans towards doubling up after missing with a first-pitch fastball. I also looked at the effect of adding 1-1 counts to the sample. There’s more variation once you look deeper into an at-bat.

Is there a best way to sequence early in the count? I looked at both Pearson and Spearman correlations between the Ratio and both ERA and FIP and found nothing. These are tendencies that aren’t right or wrong, but are simply intrinsic to the pitcher.

These Ratios are observed and don’t control for matchups, defensive positioning, or situation. They also don’t take into account whether the first pitch was a called or swinging strike or a foul ball. We should also keep in mind that pitch-sequencing isn’t random. Consecutive pitches are dependent events. If the situation calls to start a hitter off with a fastball, there’s a good chance it would call for another.

There is a lot of information to go over before a series. Tendencies, while certainly useful, are still just percentages. And anyway, it’s possible to know what’s coming and still — if the pitcher executes his pitch — have a hard time hitting it. If I were a hitting coach, I might distill this entire report to a line or two in an advance meeting. Likes to double up. Likes to mix the first two pitches. Now go hit a double.

We hoped you liked reading Which Pitchers Are Doubling Up to Start an At-Bat? by Nate Freiman!

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2013-2014 Oakland A’s

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docgooden85
Member
Member
docgooden85

Great article! The charts are well done. Snell definitely has too much of a pattern (also a few others highlighted above).

I always thought it would be intimidating and potentially effective for the pitcher to totally randomize his pitch selection. No tendencies at all. Unfortunately you would need some kind of device (digital like a watch or analog like dice) that would be illegal to have on the field to achieve something like actual randomness. You’d also want 3-4 quality pitches you can throw for a strike in any count. Smart hitters would hate this.

Tom Jitterbug
Member
Tom Jitterbug

You could throw dice in the dugout and signal the catcher via the base coaches.

A Salty Scientist
Member
A Salty Scientist

You touched at the end on why this would be so difficult for a pitcher to execute. They would need to have roughly equal quality pitches that are all equally well commanded. Off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of pitchers in recent history that could maybe pull this off–Pedro, Maddux, Kluber, Cliff Lee, Kershaw. Would be interesting to see if they were also more random in pitch selection than expected.