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  • Geeking Out: Pitch To Contact And Team Pitching

    Pitch To Contact - at this point, I think we can go with capital letters, don't you? That phrase and philosophy have drawn a fair amount of criticism, a chunk of which is just snark, but some of which at least tries to ground itself in statistical analysis. In a thread started yesterday on Twins Daily, there was a lot of debate on Pitch To Contact, what it means and what we really know about its effects.

    When Bill James unveiled several new tools for analyzing baseball, the most fundamental ones usually started by analyzing team stats.
    For instance, by studying teams' wins and losses, he found a correlation with runs scored and runs given up. And by studying team runs scored, he discovered a correlation between getting on base and total bases. From there, it's a short step to assuming that if you get a lot of players who get on base or hit for power, you'll score more runs.

    But how about teams that don't give up many runs? If we take a look at teams for the last few years, can we see a trend in those that don't give up many runs? And does that trend match or contradict a "Pitch To Contact" philosophy.

    So let's do a very quick-and-dirty back-of-the-napkin study. I looked at 150 teams, or all the teams from the last five years, ranked them by runs/game (R/G) and then searched the stats that most closely correlate with it. I did this using the "CORREL" function in Excel, which generates a coefficient between 0 and 1. 1 means a perfect correlation. 0 means it is entirely random. The full results are at the bottom, but here is a summary.

    Those who are critical of the Pitch To Contact philosophy are usually reacting to the reduced emphasis it puts on striking people out. The K/9 correlation to runs per game is .54, one of the lower correlations on the list. That's lower than I would have expected. Clearly, having a staff that strikes out a ton of batters isn't especially important.

    The defenders of the Pitch To Contact philosophy like to say that it's essentially saying "throw strikes." Presumably, that would imply not walking people, something that the Twins have certainly emphasized. However, the correlation of BB/9 to R/G is about the same: .56. Like strikeouts, not walking players is good, but not great.

    Combing the two gets us a little closer. SO/BB has a .69 correlation. Close to that correlation is something else the Twins have been especially good at this year: not giving up home runs. HR/9 has a .65 correlation.

    But the winner, without question, is hits. H/9 has a correlation of .88, crazy high compared to the other traditional stats in the list. That might seem obvious - if you don't give up hits, you shouldn't give up runs. So the question changes....how do you avoid giving up hits?

    Well, it isn't just "strike people out". In fact, we proved just the opposite - that's fine, but a very small part of the story. So the difference is...defense? Luck? Secret sauce?

    The truth is we don't know what it is. Sabrmetrics is still remarkably poor at predicting pitching. But we know what it isn't - it isn't as easy as gathering Ks. And whatever philosophy one adopts, its goal better be limiting hits.
    ~~~

    Here is a link to the spreadsheet to check things or play with it yourself:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-8j...it?usp=sharing

    ~~~
    And here are the final numbers....

    Stat Correl
    R/G 1.00
    R 1.00
    ERA 0.99
    ER 0.99
    WHIP 0.93
    H/9 0.88
    H 0.86
    ERA+ -0.81
    BF 0.80
    SO/BB -0.69
    L 0.66
    W-L% -0.66
    W -0.66
    HR 0.66
    HR/9 0.65
    tmSHO -0.65
    SO -0.57
    BB/9 0.56
    SO/9 -0.54
    #Pitch 0.54
    BB 0.53
    SV -0.53
    IP -0.51
    cgSHO -0.36
    GF 0.32
    CG -0.32
    HBP 0.27
    WP 0.27
    BK 0.20
    PitchAge -0.13
    IBB 0.01
    This article was originally published in blog: Geeking Out: Pitch To Contact And Team Pitching started by John Bonnes
    Comments 38 Comments
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Good stuff.

      The full results are at the bottom, but here is a summary.
      where where? Seems that they were censored

      Wonder how defensive metrics correlate with RA, as well. Especially the "defensive runs saved" type of measures.

      Did you check composites, like WHIP?
    1. jorgenswest's Avatar
      jorgenswest -
      Nice study.

      There must be teams that have lower than normal strikeouts and lower than normal hits.

      What is the key?

      Groundball/Flyball rate?
      Low line drive percentage?
      Good defense? All around? Up the middle? IF? OF? Pitch framing?

      I think everyone is concerned with the Twins outfield defense. There is great debate on how to measure defense and how much impact according to runs to attribute to defense. How many extra hits and therefore runs will the OF defense give up this year? No one knows. I do know that the pitchers will get the blame.
    1. Schafer9728's Avatar
      Schafer9728 -
      Sam Deduno! Does this mean he deserves another shot? Regardless of the walks, I'd think there is more to it, but he seems to hold the key to low H/9.
    1. troyhobbs's Avatar
      troyhobbs -
      It's about locating your pitches. No walks and nothing over the heart of the plate. Soft hits...not so bad. Hard drives and crumby hitters getting free passes...not good.
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      A strikeout is the best way to not allow a hit, yes?
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      Quote Originally Posted by snepp View Post
      A strikeout is the best way to not allow a hit, yes?
      And is the strikeout the only way to prevent the defense from factoring into the outcome of any particular at bat? Yes.

      I don't even liked the term "Earned Run." They're all earned in my book. Strike the batter out and you don't have to worry about your 3B throwing the ball in the stands.

      Awesome write up and the effort put into the research is great. Though this was writen right in the article:

      "So the difference is...defense? Luck? Secret sauce?"

      The strikeout takes away any unknown variables associated with defense or luck. Secret sauce? Well only Clay Buchholz knows, and he's not telling.
    1. COtwin's Avatar
      COtwin -
      Ok. I say we get 5 pitchers that...
      1) throw a lot of no hitters
      2) don't walk batters
      3) strike lots of guys out
      Seems simple enough.

      Thanks John. Interesting analysis.
    1. nicksaviking's Avatar
      nicksaviking -
      Quote Originally Posted by COtwin View Post

      Thanks John. Interesting analysis.
      I agree. But without the snark.
    1. B Richard's Avatar
      B Richard -
      I would be interested in a study that looks at average ball speed off the bat and how it correlates with H/9
    1. IdahoPilgrim's Avatar
      IdahoPilgrim -
      What I take away from this analysis is that there is no magic formula here for how to pitch effectively. Some have made the case that the game has changed and that hard-throwing pitchers that cause bats to miss are the gold-standard that all teams should be chasing. While that's not a bad thing, by itself it doesn't guarantee success. Hard-throwers with high K/9 rates can still make mistakes with the rest of their pitches and give up hits (and thus runs and thus losses).

      While that is one way to pitch effectively, one can also pitch effectively with less electric stuff when it is used smartly and with good location control, with an effective mix of pitches.

      Bottom line - there is no bottom line. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and whatever works for any individual pitcher to help him be effective is what that pitcher should emphasize and rely upon, and if an organization finds someone who is effective they should stick with him, regardless of how he does it.
    1. old nurse's Avatar
      old nurse -
      If the numbers are still in your spreadsheet you could run a correlation of k/9 and hits. Might only be the same .54.
      The k/9 people are correct in that a strikeout is the best way to prevent a hit.
      What is ignored though is the thought of pitcher mistakes and having the batter guess right. The more pitches thrown the greater the chance a mistake pitch gets sent somewhere. Context if you would like would be to think of your favorite Twin's pitchers not with the club who were inconsistent. Sinkers that don't sink are hittable. It is too bad the Pitch F/X people when analyzing pitches don't have a category for the obvious oops pitches.
    1. jorgenswest's Avatar
      jorgenswest -
      John,

      I would be interested in the correlation using percentages instead of per 9. Did you try a correlation with strike out, walk and hit percentage?
    1. Rick Niedermann's Avatar
      Rick Niedermann -
      Johan Santanas-good Nick Blackburns-bad is what this tells me.
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      Quote Originally Posted by snepp View Post
      A strikeout is the best way to not allow a hit, yes?
      What this quick-and-dirty study shows is similar to what you're saying: strikeouts are good. But they're far from everything and we probably put too much importance on them.

      This is what is interesting to me about this study: that it demonstrates a logical paradox. I think the root cause of that paradox is that we take sabrmetric studies and generalize them and expand them beyond their findings.

      The emphasis on strikeouts comes from several different places, but the most recent study that has raised their profile is Voros McCracken's study. But his study didn't really have anything to do with strikeouts. It was about hits.

      Specifically, what his study showed was that when you account for team defense, there is very little correlation in how many extra or how many fewer hits a pitcher gives up year-to-year. The correlation was something like .25. That seemed low. And I say "seemed" because that .25 doesn't have any real empirical meaning - its not like it means they control 25% of things. It was just a smaller correlation than was expected. (Like in this study.)

      This led to a more general interpretation - that pitchers can't influence whether balls put in play are hits or outs. That's funny, because McCracken's study proved exactly the opposite - it's not completely random - it's just that they can less than we probably expected.

      This led to a more general conclusion - HAIL STRIKEOUTS. Partly that was because the importance of strikeouts was something that sabrmetricians had been touting for years, and this seemed like another very large brick in that wall.

      Finally, you can add to all of this that strikeouts are easy to sum and evaluate. They're much easier than strike percentage or other metrics. So we like to use them because they're readily available and easy to use.

      But the sum of each of those is that we are probably overemphasizing the importance of strikeouts. Strikeouts aren't that important. We can dance around it all we want, but the numbers aren't lying.

      Now, one can say "Well, it's the best thing we have." First I'm not sure that's true. But the more obvious logical reply to that is "Well, then keep looking." Instead, we seem to cling to them, perhaps at the expense of better research.

      And we certainly proclaim in our criticism and praise that they mean a lot more than they do. And then ignore that a team that is middle of the road in runs per game is dead last (and by quite a bit) in strikeouts. We call it lucky or small sample size or whatever. The truth is, it isn't that unusual.
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      By the way, I don't know if I have time tonight, but if I do, I'd like to do a similar study on hitting: what stats correlate closely to the number of runs per game a team scores. This is essentially restating Bill James 30+ year-old research, but I think you find the correlations a LOT higher. If I remember right, batting average (not even OBP or OPS) has a correlation around .90 or something. And we SAVAGE batting average for not being particularly valuable.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      By the way, I don't know if I have time tonight, but if I do, I'd like to do a similar study on hitting: what stats correlate closely to the number of runs per game a team scores. This is essentially restating Bill James 30+ year-old research, but I think you find the correlations a LOT higher. If I remember right, batting average (not even OBP or OPS) has a correlation around .90 or something. And we SAVAGE batting average for not being particularly valuable.
      interesting. I'd love to see that analysis (this entire thread is quite excellent). I wonder if BA correlates more because it is distinguished from walks which have less propensity to cause scoring? (They enable it by not making outs, but no walk ever scored a guy from second). Just a thought as I was reading, not to be taken as gospel.
    1. Seth Stohs's Avatar
      Seth Stohs -
      Many believe that a strikeout for a hitter is just another out. It then makes sense that, for pitchers, a strikeout is just another out. No more or less valuable than a ground out to short, a line out to left or a pop-up to the catcher.

      What is clear to me is that WHIP is what matters. Not allowing base runners. Walks are annoying, but figure equally to a single. (all else being equal, as in, didn't drive in a run or anything).

      I definitely think that strikeouts are a bit overrated. I like them. They're fun to watch for your team. But, things like pitch efficiency and hitting spots and keeping the ball off the barrel of the bat are just as important.

      Strikeouts just get expensive!
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      Quote Originally Posted by John Bonnes View Post
      By the way, I don't know if I have time tonight, but if I do, I'd like to do a similar study on hitting: what stats correlate closely to the number of runs per game a team scores. This is essentially restating Bill James 30+ year-old research, but I think you find the correlations a LOT higher. If I remember right, batting average (not even OBP or OPS) has a correlation around .90 or something. And we SAVAGE batting average for not being particularly valuable.

      I've always found this one to be a good read.

      Run Estimation for the Masses
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      Quote Originally Posted by snepp View Post
      I've always found this one to be a good read.

      Run Estimation for the Masses
      Thanks for that link. If OPS has a .92 correlation, I expect BA is a bit lower, like in the .8 range.

      But the more general point is that we're pretty good at knowing what additional stats (like OPS) correlate with a team's Runs Scored. The only one that is similar for Runs Against involved "hits," and I think we're poor at predicting hits. (Cracken's research suggests this, though it might be interesting to do some research on that, too.)

      But we certainly shouldn't treat strikeout rate as anywhere near as important as OPS. They're not in the same solar system.
    1. Oxtung's Avatar
      Oxtung -
      Very interesting. However this does not in itself tell us anything about individual pitchers. This only tells us about team strike out rates. It is entirely possible that higher strike out rate pitchers correlate to less runs scored but once they get mixed in with the inevitable back end starters their numbers are being obscured; or not.
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