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Thursday, March 25, 2010
Get the Inside Edge

By Doug Kern, ESPN Stats & Info

All week on Baseball Tonight, we've been taking a look at some "next-generation" statistics-- things like Value Over Replacement Player and Runs Saved-- but let us not forget the old real-estate adage: "Location, location, location." For a batter, having an idea of which pitch is coming, and where it's likely to be, is key to being able to hit it (or at least not looking too foolish when you miss). Likewise for a pitcher, knowing whether to work a hitter inside, outside, with certain pitches, etc., is the trick to getting him out. This research of each other's strengths and weaknesses goes on every day between managers, players, advance scouts, and even us here at ESPN.

Our friends at Inside Edge Scouting Services charted every one of the 187,079 plate appearances in the major leagues during the 2009 regular season. That's almost three-quarters of a million pitches. Below are some things we can learn from that data.

1. Mauer Power is not a myth. The Twins' Joe Mauer was the best hitter in the majors last season if you isolate only those plate apparances that end on a fastball. (As we'll see later, don't throw him one down and in, either.) Since most pitchers' fastballs don't have a lot of movement, the key for hitters is simply catching up to it. As you'd expect, most of these leaders are your traditional "power hitters". Albert Pujols ranks eighth on the chart below.

2. Hitting an off-speed pitch is not the same as hitting a fastball. To catch up to a fastball, you need bat speed. On the other hand, the best off-speed hitters aren't power guys. They're batters with good eyes who can follow the movement on the pitch. And last season's leaders include some names who wouldn't roll off the tip of your tongue.

3. Know the hot zones. We've all seen those 3x3 charts that look like a tic-tac-toe board or a telephone keypad. Every ESPN GameCast has them when a batter comes to the plate. Sometimes it's a batter's stance that influences whether they can hit high heat or low "nasty" stuff. You've often seen pitchers with good control who can "lead" a batter, gradually throwing pitches farther and farther outside/inside/up/down until the hitter can't reach them anymore. Different batters have different zones. And waiting for a pitch that's in one of them-- or not throwing him a pitch there-- is a huge part of the strategy.

The best moral, though, is that if you can't hit it, don't try. You'll end up on a highlight reel-- and not in a good way.

4. Strike early. A long at-bat becomes a battle of wits between hitter and pitcher. Some players prefer to just get it over with. Although the conventional wisdom frowns upon swinging at the first pitch, a select few have done very well at it.

5. Strike early. It's true for pitchers also. You've heard that "the best pitch in baseball is strike one." Getting ahead in the count puts the batter on the defensive and allows the pitcher more flexibility. But for some hitters, it's a challenge they can rise to.

6. Being "clutch" is, well, clutch. It's fun to watch Albert Pujols rip one out of the park. But only 35% of the runs scored last season actually came on homers. A hitter who can drive runners in, especially with two outs, can often be the unsung hero on his team. These are the quiet guys who don't make a lot of home-run noise, but the team would flounder without them.

7. It all starts with contact. Some of the toughest outs are hitters who refuse to swing at bad pitches. It requires a good eye and a lot of self-restraint. But when a pitcher is forced to stay in the zone, the batter ends up with more pitches to hit. "Chase percentage" measures the number of pitches outside the strike zone that a batter swings at. "Swing-and-miss percentage" measures a batter's ability to make contact, whether inside the strike zone or out. A hitter can be equally selective by not swinging at pitches he knows he can't hit.

We'll keep analyzing pitch types and locations throughout the 2010 season on Baseball Tonight and here in The Max Info. Studying what a pitcher throws, and where, often provides clues to why he had a great outing. Studying a batter's hot and cold zones, along with favorite pitch types, adds insight to a great day at the plate (or a terrible one), a hitting streak or slump, or just that amazing walk-off homer.