To say that pitching in Major League Baseball has improved throughout the last three years is an understatement. Just look at the fact that there have been 16 no-hitters since the start of this decade already. Pitchers have already matched the total amount of no-hitters that occurred in the 2000s in just three seasons.
Many will point out and say that the reason why pitching has improved is because we have finally departed from the steroid era. Hitters aren’t juiced anymore and as a result, offense has died down. While that may be true to some extent, I won’t be the first to point out that Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez are currently involved in steroid controversies. You never know who is taking the magic juice and we can’t safely say that we’re out of the steroid era until MLB can go at least two years without a major positive test.
So why has pitching improved then?
I remember watching Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox throw a no-hitter in 2008 against the Kansas City Royals. Throughout the broadcast, NESN announcers Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy constantly highlighted the fact that Lester was consistently throwing first pitch strikes. He was getting ahead of the count on hitters and as a result, he was more successful.
Are we now in the “pitcher’s era” because pitchers are getting ahead in counts more often? Does getting ahead in counts correlate with winning? Is it as important as Remy and Orsillo said it was in that broadcast?
It’s important to note that pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes today than they were in the so-called steroid era. While the trend was pretty constant in the 2000s, there has been a slight uptick in first-pitch strike percentage throughout the last couple of years. Here is a graph that exemplifies this notion. All credit for this graph goes to www.fangraphs.com:
So we know first-pitch strike percentage has been up throughout the last few years. We also know that throwing a first-pitch strike is extremely favorable for pitchers:
As seen in the graph above, hitters consistently perform better (higher OPS, higher AVG) when the first pitch of a count is a ball compared to a strike. Thus, it’s fair to say that the rise in first pitch strike percentage over the last three or four years has been beneficial for pitchers. They are getting ahead in the count and it’s helping them get outs.
Further evidence for this notion is found when we look at each individual team’s first pitch strike percentage and compare it to the number of wins per season.
For this part, I used what I like to call the “non-in-play first pitch strike percentage.” This takes out all first pitch strikes that were hit into play. It makes no sense to call a first pitch swinging home run a strike when it actually hurts the pitchers. In fact, hitters perform very well when they hit the first pitch into play. Throughout the past six seasons, batters hit well over .330 when they hit the ball into play on the first pitch. Considering the fact that pitchers throw first pitch strikes often (59 percent of the time last season), hitters know they’re going to get a good pitch to hit on the first pitch. So they swing and get good results. As a result, we will ignore balls hit into play for the rest of this study.
After running correlation tests between “non-in-play first pitch strike percentage” against team wins, I found that the correlation between the two variables has been getting stronger since 2007. (The closer R is to 1, the stronger the correlation is between two variables.)
In other words, teams that threw first pitch strikes more often, won more games. Last season, for instance, eight playoff teams finished in the top 13 in terms of “non-in-play first pitch strike percentage.” 12 of those 13 teams had at least 80 wins. The only team that didn’t win 80 games were the Seattle Mariners, but they have a guy named Felix Hernandez on their roster so that explains why they made it in the top 13.
We see the correlation getting stronger over the last six years, especially since pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes these days. But why hasn’t the correlation always been strong for a longer period of time? After all, the graph we saw above shows that first-pitch strike percentage spiked up as early as the late 1990s.
The answer: Pitching has increasingly become more important than hitting because of longer at-bats by hitters throughout the last decade.
What exactly does this mean?
We saw earlier that first-pitch strike percentage has increased steadily throughout the past several years. Interestingly, first-pitch SWING rates by hitters have declined throughout the same time span. Again, from http://www.fangraphs.com:
Hitters have become more patient. As a result, pitchers are throwing more strikes and getting ahead of the count. Rather than having their strikes be hit into play, the pitchers are getting patient at-bats from hitters and this is helping them get ahead in counts.
Pitches per plate appearance have increased, too. Throughout the last decade or so, a new fad developed in baseball to take pitches. Teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees would incorporate this strategy incessantly. (As a result, games between the Sox and Yanks would sometimes exceed the four hour mark.) Here is a table that demonstrates the rise in pitches per plate appearances throughout the last six seasons.
To recap: the league’s swing rate is down and pitches per plate appearances are up. From earlier, we also know that pitchers are forcing more 0-1 counts by throwing strikes. In fact, since 2007 there have been about 4,000 fewer 1-0 counts and around 2,000 more 0-1 counts. This means that if a team has strong pitching, they’re going to be more advantageous because a) hitters are not swinging at the first pitch and b) pitchers are throwing more strikes. In the past, although pitchers were still throwing strikes on the first pitch to some extent, hitters were swinging at them and not working the count. This means that games were decided by hitting to a greater extent than pitching. This is why we don’t see a strong correlation between first-pitch strikes and wins in the middle of 2000s, but we see it now.
One can say that because of the fact hitters are taking pitches and working counts, pitchers are more inclined to be accurate and throw strikes. Why throw it outside if you know the hitter isn’t going to swing? Coaching staffs are probably aware of the fact that hitters are taking more pitches and working counts, so they’re asking their pitchers to throw it over the plate more often.
On the flip side, it’s also interesting to note that “working the count” doesn’t exactly equate to more runs. There was zero correlation between pitches per plate appearance and runs scored in 2012.
For instance, the Oakland A’s saw 3.98 pitches per plate appearance last season – the most in the majors. They averaged 4.4 runs per game, which was in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the Colorado Rockies were the most free-swinging team last year, taking only 3.73 pitches per at bat. However, they averaged more runs per game than the A’s.
It’s important for teams to study which pitchers they are facing on a given night. Every pitcher is different. Using a “work the count” philosophy thinking it’s going to help you win more games against a pitcher who throws many first-pitch strikes is foolish. Similarly, using a free-swinging approach against a guy who isn’t going to give you great pitches to hit is not a great recipe for success.
It sounds simple, but again this year, the Oakland A’s are working the count and at the top of the league in pitches seen per plate appearance. Rather than adjusting to the type of pitcher they are facing, most teams just subscribe to an approach and stick with it. Most, as we explained earlier, are subscribing to the “take pitches” strategy. Pitchers are taking notice and they’re taking advantage of it.
As a result, we’re in a pitcher dominated era right now. It’s not because the steroid era is over. It’s because batters are taking more pitches and not being aggressive. On the other end, pitchers are being more aggressive than they have ever been and hitters are refusing to adjust. The end result is a league where pitching matters more than anything right now and throwing a first pitch strike only puts pitchers at even a greater advantage.
This trend will not change until the hitters start swinging more often on first pitches. If pitchers don’t adjust and continue to throw it over the plate, the correlation will break and we may then see a correlation between first pitch swings and winning percentage.