Giants pitchers excel at 'stealing' strikes

August, 18, 2012
8/18/12
10:53
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There are many things that make the Giants' starting rotation unique. It's good mix of homegrown success (Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner), weird feel-good baseball story of the decade (Ryan Vogelsong), and Barry Zito. The Giants, over the past number of years, have been praised for being something of a pitching factory, and rightfully so; the team always seems to boast a strong front five in their rotation.

If you read or follow my blog, then you probably know that I'm something of a numbers nerd. Numbers and statistics have always been a huge draw for me to the game of baseball. So, when I stumbled across the following set of numbers after running some data queries, I was intrigued. After watching a Giants telecast one night -- one of the best in the business -- I noticed that Mike Krukow, color commentator for the Giants, kept making mention of Matt Cain and how he would often "steal strike one" by flopping over a big curveball into the strike zone or tossing an offspeed pitch when hitters were expecting a fastball.

The theory is that in 0-0 counts batters are most likely to see a fastball. I think that makes sense to almost anyone that's watched five minutes of baseball in their life. Pitchers often start hitters off with the hard stuff -- fastballs, cutters, sinkers -- and then proceed to use their specialty pitches -- sliders, curveballs, changeups -- in order to finish them off.

Here's what I did: Using PITCHf/x data, I took all the pitchers in baseball that had thrown in 0-0 counts and broke down their pitch selection by type. In order to tease out relievers from my dataset, I limited it to pitchers that had thrown at least 300 pitches in 0-0 count scenarios. The thinking is that relievers are more likely to come in and throw a "specialty" pitch when summoned from the bullpen. I also omitted knuckleballers, sorry R.A. Dickey!

(Note: In order to simplify things, I've consolidated all fastballs -- cut, two-seam, four-seam, sinker -- into one generic fastball category.)

So let's take a look at the top 10 pitchers that throw their fastball the least in the first pitch of at-bats.

After running my search, I came up with 158 pitchers that fit my criteria. The league average fastball rate for 0-0 counts is 68.1 percent.

Bruce Chen, Bronson Arroyo, James Shields, and Philip Humber all fit the profile of "junk-balling" pitchers that rely heavily on offspeed pitches, so it's not too surprising to see that they pitch backwards -- i.e., starting off batters with nonfastballs.

But Justin Verlander, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong are all pitchers with legitimate fastballs. And, as a Giants fan, I found it intriguing the Giants have three pitchers in the top 10 for throwing nonfastballs in 0-0 counts.

To break things down a little further, I took a closer look at Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong's pitch-types in 0-0 counts.

I have to admit that I love this table because I think it shows exactly why Cain is such a tough guy to face. If you sit on Cain's fastball, there's a good chance he's going throw something else. Cain shows a preference to the curveball (20.3%) in 0-0 counts, but the changeup (17.2%) and the slider (12.7%) are not far behind. For years, Cain has been defying the standard batting average on balls in play (BABIP) mindset and one has to wonder if his ability to throw multiple pitches in the early stages of at-bats has had an effect on his low BABIPs year after year.

Vogelsong, much like Cain, has leaned on his curveball in the first pitch of at-bats, throwing it 24.2 percent of the time. That's nearly double the league average of 12 percent. Much like Cain, I'd wager that Vogelsong's repertoire of pitches, and how he uses them, has something to do with his ability to suppress his BABIP and home run rates. Predictability as a pitcher can be a very bad thing.

Lastly, Bumgarner's numbers aren't too surprising when you consider that, according to FanGraph's pitch-type rankings, which are based on PITCHf/x, he throws his slider (38% of all pitches) more than anyone in baseball. Bumgarner's slider is a plus-pitch for the young lefty, and he throws it in all counts.

I have to wonder if the Giants preach the concept of "stealing strikes" early in counts. If it is indeed an organizational philosophy, the team could be on to something.

Whatever the case may be, the Giants are, once again, excelling at pitching.

Chris Quick writes about the Giants at Bay City Ball.

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