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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Stephen Strasburg must get back to putting first-pitch strikes first

In 2011, Strasburg threw first-pitch strikes 71.6 percent of the time, the highest in baseball. He carried over his “challenge” mentality from college and put fear of shame into hitters. Last year, he threw 62.3 percent, 34th among starters. Wednesday, he was down to 56.2 for the season, an awful 84th among 107 starters.

...

Until he gets his 0-0 phobia fixed, until he reverses the balance of terror between him and hitters, getting back to the level of confidence he showed when he arrived in the majors four seasons ago, he’s going to be a very good pitcher who doesn’t go as deep into games as he’d like.

Nibble nibble.

Dan Evensen Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:25 AM | 42 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: nationals

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   1. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 25, 2013 at 10:02 AM (#4425433)
This is one of Boswell's better columns, and I'm glad to see that it's already been posted. He's absolutely right, and not just about Strasburg.

How can the pitcher with, perhaps, the best four-pitch stuff of his generation — any one of which he can use to challenge hitters with arrogance if not impunity — shy away from contact on the pitch which, if it’s a strike, opens the door to outs? Every year, the average on-base-plus-slugging percentage in MLB is more than 100 points lower after 0-1 counts than 1-0. Everything else in pitching is hard. “Strike one” is lesson one on day one.

Strasburg’s first-pitch issues are especially important because they typify the Nats’ starting staff across the board. This lack of aggression, a failure in many cases to make full use of some of the game’s most dominant stuff, may be the Nats’ biggest pitching problem. Perhaps it’s even a symptom of a team that has gone from being the hunter to the hunted. Jordan Zimmermann’s percentage of first-pitch strikes has dropped from 69 to 55 percent, Dan Haren from 64 to 55, Gio Gonzalez from 59 to 55 and Ross Detwiler just a tad from 61 to 59.

The data sample may be smallish, but the pattern is uniform. Some Nats may be prospering now, but no pitcher wants to give away his first-pitch edge for long. Strasburg matters most because his potential is greatest.


One of the best pitching coaches of the modern era, Ray Miller, used to hand out T-Shirts to his Orioles' pitchers that maybe Davey Johnson should consider giving to his own rotation:

PITCH FAST**
CHANGE SPEEDS
THROW STRIKES


**meaning no fidgeting and dawdling between pitches
   2. Tom Nawrocki Posted: April 25, 2013 at 10:11 AM (#4425449)
Yeah, it's a great piece. It's also a really good use of modern statistics.
   3. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 10:44 AM (#4425494)
This is one of Boswell's better columns, and I'm glad to see that it's already been posted. He's absolutely right, and not just about Strasburg.

This is one of Boswell's better columns. But I see no reason at all to think he's right. Let's start with the fact that Strasburg's OPS allowed (.611) is actually better than last year's (.649). Since he is pitching better, the evidence would seem to suggest that throwing fewer first-pitch strikes is a good thing not a bad thing -- a pretty big problem for Boswell's thesis.

There's also an important fact that Boswell reports but ignores: that batters were frequently swinging at Strasburg's first pitch. And that was working (for the hitters)! Last year hitters had an OPS of .879 on his first pitch (when ball is put in play), about the same as league average (.885). Needless to say, we expect Strasburg to be much better than average, so he performed poorly on the first pitch last year. Thus, Strasburg is almost certainly correct to throw fewer strikes on the first pitch, at least until hitters stop swinging. And it's working: his 1st pitch OPS is down to .688 this year.

And while 0-1 is obviously preferred to 1-0, Strasburg is doing extremely well after 1-0 counts so far this season: a .661 OPS allowed, compared to .815 last year. So allowing more 1-0 counts doesn't appear to be hurting Strasburg much, while he's doing better on first pitch outcomes.

Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems like there is a huge increase lately in writers (and BBTF posters) imagining that they can identify clear errors in pitch selection, or batting approach by hitters. "Hitters should swing more." "Pitchers should throw more strikes." Please be advised that this reflects only your aesthetic preferences for game pace and style, and has nothing at all to do (at least 98% of the time) with what these players should actually do in order to win baseball games.
   4. Obo Posted: April 25, 2013 at 10:57 AM (#4425508)
PITCH FAST**


A brief search suggests it's "work fast", which is less ambiguous.
   5. boteman Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:01 AM (#4425511)
Maybe it's my imagination, but it seems like there is a huge increase lately in writers (and BBTF posters) imagining that they can identify clear errors in pitch selection...

It might not be your imagination. Just this morning, for your perusal:

Robothal to the rescue! - In which he compares and contrasts Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg

Mark Zuckerman - Nats Insider - Maybe it's not the first pitch, maybe it's the first inning?

Harper Gordek - What, me worry?

There are probably others, but then I'd start to look like a link whore and that is just not me.
   6. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:02 AM (#4425513)
Obo,

Noted, and thanks for the correction.
   7. Chris Needham Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:07 AM (#4425516)
The problem is the binary focus on strike or not strike. Not all strikes are created equal, and it seems that in an effort to being too fine, he's either missing (1-0) or throwing something too fat. I've only seen two of his games this year, but it seemed like his near pinpoint command was off. Which could be just a temporary scuffle... or could just be him learning to adjust post-surgery still.

If he doesn't have the command to nail the black, then that could lead to some wariness.

I'd like to see a more specific accounting of what his first pitches actually look like. With PitchFX, someone could be all over this to show the type/location, etc. (Please do my homework for me!)
   8. ASmitty Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:08 AM (#4425519)
There's also an important fact that Boswell reports but ignores: that batters were frequently swinging at Strasburg's first pitch. And that was working (for the hitters)! Last year hitters had an OPS of .879 on his first pitch (when ball is put in play), about the same as league average (.885). Needless to say, we expect Strasburg to be much better than average, so he performed poorly on the first pitch last year. Thus, Strasburg is almost certainly correct to throw fewer strikes on the first pitch, at least until hitters stop swinging. And it's working: his 1st pitch OPS is down to .688 this year.

And while 0-1 is obviously preferred to 1-0, Strasburg is doing extremely well after 1-0 counts so far this season: a .661 OPS allowed, compared to .815 last year. So allowing more 1-0 counts doesn't appear to be hurting Strasburg much, while he's doing better on first pitch outcomes.


It seems like it should be easy to create a crude, or not so crude, EV formula for this issue. Pitch #1 can be either ball 1, giving you a 1-0 count, strike one, giving you an 0-1 count, a ball in play, currently yielding a .688 OPS , or a HBP. Plug in the percentages of those occurences and the resulting OPS for the non-contact counts, and compare last year to this year.

Obviously, Strasburg isn't throwing as many first pitch strikes, and hitters aren't hitting that first pitch nearly as hard when putting it in play this year. But I would be curious to know if that is at all offset by a decrease in resulting 0-1 counts and increase in 1-0 counts when they DON'T put in play. Neither result would surprise me much.
   9. Greg Pope thinks the Cubs are reeking havoc Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:14 AM (#4425525)
Swinging strikes vs. looking would also be important. If last year Strasburg threw 100 first pitches (that were not hit) and 50 were fastballs in the zone and 50 were sliders out of the zone, maybe he got 50 strikes on the fastballs and 35 swinging strikes on the sliders. This year he does the exact same thing and gets 50 strikes on the fastballs and only 20 strikes on the sliders.

So it's possible that he's doing the exact same thing as last year and getting fewer strikes. Which would lead to him actually needing to change from last year, not go "back" to it.
   10. Jose Is The Most Absurd Thing on the Site Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:16 AM (#4425526)
And while 0-1 is obviously preferred to 1-0, Strasburg is doing extremely well after 1-0 counts so far this season: a .661 OPS allowed, compared to .815 last year. So allowing more 1-0 counts doesn't appear to be hurting Strasburg much, while he's doing better on first pitch outcomes.


I wonder if there is a case to be made that while it may not be hurting him in those specific at bats it is hurting him overall. If a pitcher is consistently behind wouldn't it make sense that he has to throw more high leverage pitches over the course of a game?

When people talk about pitch counts we often hear talk about how much or how little effort has gone into those pitches. One guy can have 85 pitches but be pitching with runners on base all night and in trouble and really working hard while another can be at 110 and cruising. Would the same effect occur in small moments like getting behind 1-0, 2-0, 3-1 with regularity creating a fatiguing effect?

Of course saying that and then looking at the numbers that say he's actually been extremely effective the third time through the order makes me think I'm full of crap here.
   11. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 11:55 AM (#4425559)
I wonder if there is a case to be made that while it may not be hurting him in those specific at bats it is hurting him overall.

It's not hurting him overall given his current performance after 1-0 and 0-1. However, if we think his 1-0 outcomes will get worse going forward -- which is likely -- then it could become a problem. Last year SS went 0-1 52% of the time and 1-0 37% of the time, this year it's 45% and 43%. I haven't run the numbers, but I doubt his improved outcomes on the first pitch are enough to outweigh that shift (IF you assume his 1-0 and 0-1 outcomes will revert to 2012 levels). Perhaps SS has overshot in trying to avoid having hitters pound his first offering. But we don't yet have enough data to say that.

That said, I was too quick to say SS is pitching "better" this year. That's mainly a function of a low BABIP. If that rises, while his K% remains down, his performance will decline. But with a sample of only 5 starts, it's way too early to start worrying about him....
   12. valuearbitrageur Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:09 PM (#4425567)
He's thrown 105 first pitches this year. He threw 580 last year. Sample size, folks.
   13. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:24 PM (#4425577)
It's not hurting him overall given his current performance after 1-0 and 0-1.

It's not just performance, it's how deep he can go into games.
   14. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:43 PM (#4425587)
It's not just performance, it's how deep he can go into games.

He's throwing 4.02 pitches per batter this season, compared to 3.97 last year, a trivial difference.

I understand that people want games to move faster. I understand we'd rather see our pitchers get ahead in the count than fall behind. But personal preferences aren't actual evidence.
   15. Jose Is The Most Absurd Thing on the Site Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:55 PM (#4425593)
He's thrown 105 first pitches this year. He threw 580 last year. Sample size, folks.


This is a good point by KT, Strasburg's problem is he isn't throwing enough first pitches!
   16. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 12:56 PM (#4425594)
He's throwing 4.02 pitches per batter this season, compared to 3.97 last year, a trivial difference.

I understand that people want games to move faster. I understand we'd rather see our pitchers get ahead in the count than fall behind. But personal preferences aren't actual evidence.


And last year's total was too many. If you're going to throw 100 pitches, and use 4/batter, even with a superb WHIP of 1.00, you're only going to get through 6 IP.

A guy with Strasburg's stuff should be challenging hitters and getting them out earlier in the count.

Felix Hernandez averaged 3.65 pitches/BF last season. That's why he can go so deep in games.
   17. Jim Wisinski Posted: April 25, 2013 at 01:21 PM (#4425616)
Does anyone know of a site that has easily sortable innings pitched/start numbers for individual pitchers and teams? I've never been able to find anywhere that has it.
   18. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 01:27 PM (#4425625)
Does anyone know of a site that has easily sortable innings pitched/start numbers for individual pitchers and teams? I've never been able to find anywhere that has it.

BRef has pitches and BF in their game logs. For the season totals, you need to highlight all the games, and the pop-up window gives you the sums.

Edit: FG also has pitches, strikes and BF in their pitching leaders boards. It's easy to export to Excel and create what you want.
   19. ASmitty Posted: April 25, 2013 at 01:34 PM (#4425633)
Not Strasburg, but this link may interest some:

A gif of all five of Yu Darvish's pitches at once: http://i.minus.com/i3SXAH4AAxtWS.gif
   20. RMc is a fine piece of cheese Posted: April 25, 2013 at 01:38 PM (#4425640)
A gif of all five of Yu Darvish's pitches at once: http://i.minus.com/i3SXAH4AAxtWS.gif


Beautiful. "Strike five! You're out...and almost out again!"
   21. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 03:46 PM (#4425749)
A guy with Strasburg's stuff should be challenging hitters and getting them out earlier in the count. Felix Hernandez averaged 3.65 pitches/BF last season. That's why he can go so deep in games.

Percentage of pitches thrown for strike: FH 64%, SS 64%
Percentage of first-pitch strikes: FH 61%, SS 62%

Strasburg "challenges" hitters exactly as often as Felix. Strasburg needs more pitches because hitters can't hit his strikes: Strasburg gets more strikes-looking (29% vs 24%) and more swinging strikes (19% vs. 16%). As a result, the percentage of strikes put in play is 29% for Felix, just 25% for SS. As you may have heard, this is a very, very good thing for pitchers to do.

And because Strasburg has a lower OBP-allowed than Felix, it doesn't take him any more pitches to record 3 outs. Felix goes deeper into games mainly because he's allowed to throw more pitches.
   22. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:03 PM (#4425768)
As a result, the percentage of strikes put in play is 29% for Felix, just 25% for SS. As you may have heard, this is a very, very good thing for pitchers to do.

Not as good as weak contact.
   23. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:18 PM (#4425781)
As a result, the percentage of strikes put in play is 29% for Felix, just 25% for SS. As you may have heard, this is a very, very good thing for pitchers to do.
Not as good as weak contact.

Yes, even better than weak contact. BABIP = .3000, BAK = .000. But I gather facts really don't matter here? You claim SS should "challenge" hitters like Felix does, but the information that Strasburg challenges hitters at exactly the same rate doesn't faze you in the least. This is pointless....
   24. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:26 PM (#4425789)
Yes, even better than weak contact. BABIP = .3000, BAK = .000.

That wouldn't be the way to measure it, because it doesn't account for the pitches saved by the weak contact.

Nor is BABIP .300 on balls put in play with weak contact.
   25. zack Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:34 PM (#4425796)
A gif of all five of Yu Darvish's pitches at once: http://i.minus.com/i3SXAH4AAxtWS.gif

Jeez, the guy throws multiball and Pujols can't even make contact with one?
   26. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:40 PM (#4425804)
Yes, even better than weak contact. BABIP = .3000, BAK = .000. But I gather facts really don't matter here? You claim SS should "challenge" hitters like Felix does, but the information that Strasburg challenges hitters at exactly the same rate doesn't faze you in the least. This is pointless....

First of all, BABIP isn't .300 on weak contact, as SBB points out. On pop-ups, for example, its' ~.000.

Secondly, you're only showing first pitch results. Strasburg may be nibbling on subsequent pitches.

Hernandez gets out every bit as effectively as Strasburg, and does it with significantly fewer pitches per batter. All else being equal, Felix will get 10% more BF out of the same number of pitches. The lower pitches/BF is strong evidence that Hernandez is being more aggressive at challenging batters.
   27. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:55 PM (#4425828)
That wouldn't be the way to measure it, because it doesn't account for the pitches saved by the weak contact. Nor is BABIP .300 on balls put in play with weak contact.


Felix's BABIP is exactly .300. I'm assuming that's what was meant by "weak contact," since Snapper recommends that SS pitch like Felix. If the sage advice to SS is simply "let hitters make more contact, but make sure they don't get base hits or ROE," well, I don't even know what to say.

Yes, allowing the batter to make contact more often results in fewer pitches per PA. It also results in fewer Ks, higher BA, and higher OBP. That is not a good trade off. Why do you think strikeouts are a good thing for pitchers?

But I guess this is what I should expect from history's 41st greatest monster.....
   28. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 25, 2013 at 04:59 PM (#4425829)
Felix's BABIP is exactly .300. I'm assuming that's what was meant by "weak contact,"

No. That's the average on all contact.

Pitching for weak contact means when you get ahead in the count, instead of nibbling for 2 or 3 pitches to try and get the K, throw them a strike they can hit, but not drive.

Pop-up are the classic example. There is no better outcome from a single pitch than a pop-up.

Pitching for weak contact would be throwing high fastballs 0-1 or 0-2 to get a pop-up rather than throwing 2 sliders way out of the zone, hoping he'll fish.
   29. Walt Davis Posted: April 25, 2013 at 06:27 PM (#4425903)
I was gonna work out that expected value, was about 1/4 of the way through when it struck me ...

every batter sees a first pitch so the expected final outcome of the first pitch is the overall OPS. Ignoring sample size issues you go with Guy's answer -- Strasburg's OPS against is lower this year than last so whatever he's doing is working. And as Guy noted, their OPS is much lower this year than last when the first pitch is put in play, much lower when the first pitch is a ball and 60 points higher when the first pitch is a strike ... which bring that after 0-1 OPS up all the way to 541.

It's still obviously true that he's better off at 0-1 than 1-0 and, at the moment, there's virtually no difference between first pitch IP (and HBP) vs after 1-0 ... so, all else magically equal and constant, he'd be better off throwing more strikes.

Once we bring sample size into it, nobody knows what they're talking about with regard to Strasburg the individual because the standard errors are huge. That's no fun.

0-0 phobia

The working title for "Su Su Sudio"

EDIT: changed to a better punchline for the joke
   30. TDF, situational idiot Posted: April 25, 2013 at 06:33 PM (#4425905)
And because Strasburg has a lower OBP-allowed than Felix
Strasburg pitches in the NL (.705 OPS so far), Hernandez in the AL (.720). Also, while the season is young, Nationals Park has been hideously pitcher-friendly this year (PF of 79) while Safeco has been mildly so (PF of 96). EDIT:..and Strasburg has 3 starts (out of 5 total) at home, 1 at GABP (PF 86), and 1 at Citi (PF 85).

it doesn't take him any more pitches to record 3 outs. Felix goes deeper into games mainly because he's allowed to throw more pitches.
Hernandez has thrown 2 more pitches than Strasburg this year. With those 2 pitches, he's recorded 10 more outs.
   31. valuearbitrageur Posted: April 25, 2013 at 07:19 PM (#4425927)
Felix's BABIP is exactly .300. I'm assuming that's what was meant by "weak contact,"

No. That's the average on all contact.

Pitching for weak contact means when you get ahead in the count, instead of nibbling for 2 or 3 pitches to try and get the K, throw them a strike they can hit, but not drive.

Pop-up are the classic example. There is no better outcome from a single pitch than a pop-up.

Pitching for weak contact would be throwing high fastballs 0-1 or 0-2 to get a pop-up rather than throwing 2 sliders way out of the zone, hoping he'll fish.


Felix should stop throwing to average contact and start throwing nothing but popups. Why does he suck so much he can't make that trivial adjustment?
   32. GuyM Posted: April 25, 2013 at 09:21 PM (#4426006)
And because Strasburg has a lower OBP-allowed than Felix
Strasburg pitches in the NL (.705 OPS so far), Hernandez in the AL (.720).

Over the past 3 years, OBP has been 3 points (.003) lower in the NL than the AL. Strasburg's OBP is 26 points lower than Felix's.

And all of the numbers I gave were career stats for FH and SS. Obviously, it would be idiotic to evaluate them using only 2013 data.

Felix should stop throwing to average contact and start throwing nothing but popups. Why does he suck so much he can't make that trivial adjustment?

Excellent point. I also think Dan Haren should start throwing his fastball at 96 mph rather than 89-90. There is now a lot of data suggesting that this would improve his performance.
   33. vivaelpujols Posted: April 26, 2013 at 04:28 AM (#4426081)
Is it really that important that Strasburg go deep into games? We know that even great pitchers are much worse each time through the order, based on both batter familiarity and fatigue, and the average 7th inning reliever is generally very good (3.50 ERA). I doubt there is any significant difference between Strasburg in the 7th and a fresh reliever.
   34. Fancy Pants Handles lap changes with class Posted: April 26, 2013 at 08:24 AM (#4426108)
Felix should stop throwing to average contact and start throwing nothing but popups. Why does he suck so much he can't make that trivial adjustment?

Excellent point. I also think Dan Haren should start throwing his fastball at 96 mph rather than 89-90. There is now a lot of data suggesting that this would improve his performance.

Personally, I think SS should just strike out everyone on 3 pitches. That's a lower number of pitches per batters faced than Felix, and you don't have to worry about BABIP at all.
   35. Ron J2 Posted: April 26, 2013 at 09:35 AM (#4426149)
#34 Clearly correct but incomplete. He should strive to strike people out on two pitches. This really addresses the workload issue.
   36. Mattbert Posted: April 26, 2013 at 10:24 AM (#4426183)
Throwing strikes is hard. Throwing quality strikes is really hard.
   37. GuyM Posted: April 26, 2013 at 10:31 AM (#4426191)
Throwing strikes is hard. Throwing quality strikes is really hard.

Then you're doing it wrong. You should get some coaching from Snapper and SBB -- they'll get you back on track.
   38. Joey B. Posted: April 26, 2013 at 10:46 AM (#4426209)
Is it really that important that Strasburg go deep into games?

Are you kidding? Strasburg is supposed to be the ace of this staff. Ummmm, yes, it's important that he be able to go deep into games, otherwise you end up with a toasted bullpen at the end of the year, which is exactly what we had last season.
   39. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 26, 2013 at 11:05 AM (#4426227)
Are you kidding? Strasburg is supposed to be the ace of this staff. Ummmm, yes, it's important that he be able to go deep into games, otherwise you end up with a toasted bullpen at the end of the year, which is exactly what we had last season.

Some people seem to think there is a magical unending supply of shut-down one-inning RPs, so that all you should ask of your good SP is 6 IP.
   40. Don Malcolm Posted: April 26, 2013 at 01:19 PM (#4426335)
While it's always enjoyable to watch you guys do your theoretical 12-oz. curls, it's time for us to visit William of Ockham and his handy-dandy razor.

The reason why SS is 1-4 this year is because the Gnats have averaged 1.84 r/g in his five starts.

Boswell needs to go deeper into his toilet, and bring along his scuba gear.
   41. GuyM Posted: April 26, 2013 at 02:34 PM (#4426390)
The reason why SS is 1-4 this year is because the Gnats have averaged 1.84 r/g in his five starts

That wouldn't have stopped Jack Morris. He'd be 4-1, winning 2-1, 3-2, 1-0, and 2-1, and shrewdly allowing himself to get blown out 1-11 in the other game. These kids need to learn how to pitch to the score, as well as throw strike one....

   42. vivaelpujols Posted: April 26, 2013 at 02:36 PM (#4426392)
Some people seem to think there is a magical unending supply of shut-down one-inning RPs, so that all you should ask of your good SP is 6 IP.


3.5 ERA != shutdown RP. You're telling me that 30 extra innings out of the pen over the year is gonna make a difference in anything? C'mon man. Hell you could replace Strasburg in the 7th with a replacement level reliever (4 ERA) and you'd lose about 2 runs over the course of a season.

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