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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pitchers and 'Hitability'

Today, my friend and I had a conversation that I thought might interest you guys. We were talking about pitchers and their 'hitability'. Surely you've heard someone, possibly a broadcaster, talk about how a certain pitcher is very hittable, or how another pitcher is able to prevent hits. This person, unfortunately, is misinformed.

Anyway, my friend and I were talking about whether or not pitchers can do anything to prevent hits. We know that once a ball is put into play it is out of the pitcher's control, but can a pitcher throw the ball a certain way so that when it is put into play, it is hit worse than when another pitcher allows a ball to be put into play?

My friend said that good pitchers are able to limit their hits. I said that they can't. They can help determine the type of hit it is (groundball, airball, or pop-up), but cannot determine how hard it is hit or whether it is more or less likely to become a hit. To attempt - albeit crudely - to prove my point, I looked up the career Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) for some of the greatest pitchers of our generation. HRs can be prevented by pitchers (by giving up more groundballs than flyballs), but hits in the field of play - I said - cannot be prevented. Here is a list of the pitchers I looked up. Keep in mind that league average BABIP is .290, so in order for my theory to be correct each pitcher should have a BABIP close to this (it can vary slightly due to luck and a tendency to give up either more groundballs or airballs, which fall for hits at slightly different rates).

Tom Glavine - .285
Johan Santana - .287
Pedro Martinez - .287
Greg Maddux - .288
Jamie Moyer - .289
John Smoltz - .290
Al Leiter - .291
Roger Clemens - .294
Mike Mussina - .295
David Wells - .300
Randy Johnson - .301

I chose these players because they are all considered good pitchers and all pitched for a good number of years. My viewpoint states that given enough time, all pitchers will put up the league average BABIP (or the variation for a pitcher with each specific GB and FB rates). Since league average is .290, it doesn't appear that any of these guys deviate too far from it. If anything, it looks like the deviation occurs in the opposite direction expected. Randy Johnson has given up more hits on balls in play than the average pitcher.

I think that this - while crude and dealing with a very small sample size - is a pretty good indicator that pitcher's can't control how many hits he gives up. It also gives further credibility to the statistics that I stress for pitchers. Since a pitcher cannot control hits or runs, we should focus only on what he can control - Strikeouts, Walks, and Batted Ball Types. The best of these Batted Ball types is the pop-up, but because this percentage is small for all pitchers I place more emphasis on talking about Groundball Percentage. Groundballs can't be hit out of the park and can be turned more easily into double plays than flyballs despite a slightly smaller Out Percentage.

I think there is a good chance that somebody out there has already proven this point - and most likely in a more scientific way - but I found the numbers above quite interesting and wanted to share them with you. Hope you enjoyed it!


Rich C said...

It would be interesting to see a similar list of average pitchers and bad pitchers.

Nice blog by the way.

Robert said...

good stuff guys. quick comment:

a pitcher can also control how hard balls are hit. this does not necessarily mean the batted balls that are hit 'hard' become 'hits', but a pitcher has some influence over the amount of solid contact.

also, according to bp league avg babip for 2006 was about .305. in 2005 it was .298. in 2004 it was .300. so you should probably up your .290 number. when i looked at babip for all pitchers in 2006, a quick glance shows the 'better' pitchers below the league average (santana at .273, zambrano at .259, carpenter at .278, etc). guys like buehrle and millwood and dontrelle were all above league average.

Tom said...

Interesting article. I know that BABIP is becoming commonly accepted as a universal baseball law in recent years, against all intuition, and your figures here for some of the best pitchers of the current generation fall in line with that theory, but it doesn't show when the hits come, only that if they do give up a hit (that stays in the park) that they have pretty much the same relative likelihood of falling in or not.

But, the great pitchers seem to come up with a timely strikeout or groundball-induced double play ball; they have better control (K/BB) and they keep the ball in the park (low HR/9). Basically, they generally, do a better job keeping hitters off balance and scattering their hits or "preventing them" in the first place.

Also, it's be interesting to see how hard these pitchers' balls in play are, on average, to lessor pitchers. I suspect these pitchers surrender fewer 2B's and 3B's.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to put much stock into some of these number because it weighs against the strikeout. Say a pitcher like Johnson faces 30 batters, strikes out 12 and gives up 6 hits. The BABIP would be .333 for him. Compare that to a guy like Glavine who faces 30 hitters, strikes out 3 and gives up 9 hits. His BABIP would be the same. So, are they equally hitable?

You have to also figure in, that not every ball put in play is equal. Some are hit hard and others are dribblers. Guys like Rivera have a good number of balls put in play, but most are rather weekly hit.

I don't know that there is a stat that can determine a pitchers overall hitability. It's more of a judgement thing from watching how hard he is hit. It is interesting to see how close the numbers are though.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your assesment, but i think you should definitely include 10 pitchers that played for many season that arent as good. Lets see if they fair differently. That could change the entire thinking behind BABIP if the results are well above 290.

Tom said...

Anonymous and Anonymous both make good points. And, even if the BABIP isn't significantly different between good and bad pitchers, there surely is a big difference (obviously) between the two groups of pitchers for what they allow "put in play" in the first place.

Aside from that, and just looking at BABIP by itself, I'm still a little skeptical and not quite sold on it, because homeruns get excluded, by definition. Surely, any ball that was hit so hard as to have been a homerun is more likely to have otherwise been a fair batted ball in play than out if there were no fence. I understand since there's no way to say for sure, especially on a HR that just goes over the fence out of reach of an OF'er, but still, probabilistically-speaking, excluding all HR's with one broad stroke, seems to me to bias the BABIP figures downward for bad pitchers that give up a lot of gopher balls and could even make them appear to be "unlucky" to have such a high ERA based on their "low" BABIP.

Keith said...

I think there are a couple guys who defy this...Zito is the first one that comes to mind (if someone wants to pull up his stats, I'm pretty sure is numbers are always well-below league average). I think the overall numbers tend to be between .290-.300 for just about every season, which I think has held close to true over history. The thing that I think is worth looking at are the types of batted balls. Line drive percentage is often looked at as a positive for batters, and should also be looked at as a negative for pitchers. The short flyball (popup) has the lowest probability of being a base hit, so I believe that pitchers who manage to induce the highest frequency of popups and weakly-hit grounders (I'm not sure if that's tracked) tend to have the lowest BABIP. SLG% against is another interesting thing to look at, as most extra base hits are really driven balls, whereas a guy like Webb tends to give up a higher ratio of seeing-eye singles.

On another note, I'd love to see a further in-depth analysis of Atkins. I have him in one league, and am trying to buy-low in another, and am just curious if any of his peripherals look way out of whack.