Sunday, July 21, 2013

Unleashing the Braves' Secret Weapons!

In the modern age of baseball statistics, everything has been counted, quantified, explained, and received interesting names like WAR.  And SIERA.  And RAR!  Sometimes, the numbers are quickly thrown to the side.  Anyone remember VORP?  Other times, they are investigated and altered to better explain the story the statistic attempts to tell.

With this ease of finding information, I came to a conclusion that I believe helps to explain the success Atlanta has experienced on the mound, Saturday's Southside Embarrassment withstanding.

There are a good deal of theories for successful pitching based on conventional wisdom.  Location, location, location.  Pitch to your strengths.  Keep your arm-slot consistent.  Wearing hats and sleeves at this level, Vaughn.

One such belief is rooted with some degree of factual support.  A great many studies, most notably Craig Burley's 2004 study, have shown that there is a correlation between pitching well and throwing first-pitch strikes.  Throwing that first-pitch strike often seems like the difference between bad outings and good ones.  I don't think all that much about the All-Star Game, or even its rosters, but let's operate under the premise that the game features many of the best pitchers in baseball.  Of the 16 starting pitchers named to the All-Star Game, six placed among the top 20 in first-pitch strike percentage.  It's not an end-all stat, obviously.  Throwing a bunch of first pitch strikes doesn't necessarily mean there will be a good number of second strikes or even an important third strike.  Nor does it mean you will continue to stay ahead of hitters.  Nor does it truly mean you are a skillful master on the mound.

But it does increase the likelihood a pitcher will find success.  For Atlanta, it seems to be one of the main reasons for their pitching staff's success. In the following table, I include the Braves starters, their first-strike percentage, and their placement among qualified major-league pitchers. Note that the league average is 60.4%, up 0.6% from last year, and all stats were entering Saturday's action.
Pitcher F-Strike% Rank
Julio Teheran 67.2% 6th
Kris Medlen 65.7% 12th
Tim Hudson 65.4% 15th
Mike Minor 64.2% 22nd
Paul Maholm 63.1% 36th

Of the 92 pitchers that qualify for rate statistics such as ERA or F-Strike%, the Braves hold five of the first 36 spots in the latter.  The Cardinals hold four of the first 33.  The Phillies have 3 of the first 31.

As a staff, the Braves have thrown a first pitch strike to 63.6% of the batters they have faced, barely second behind the Diamondbacks.  The Braves are also second in ERA, fourth in FIP, and 8th in xFIP.  To add a little more perspective, of the top 5 in team ERA, 3 of them rank in the top five in F-Strike%.  As history has indicated, there is a correlation between first pitch strike efficiency and run prevention.

But again, it's not just first-pitch strikes.  The Diamondbacks throw a lot of first-pitch strikes, led by Patrick Corbin's league-leading 70%.  Yet, they rank 11th in ERA and 19th in FIP.  Where the Braves pitchers go the extra mile is that they are also getting swinging strikes.  SwStr% is the percentage of total pitches that a batter swings and misses at.  Atlanta is fourth in the league with a 9.8% rate.  The league average is 9.2%.  The Diamondbacks are right at 9.4%.  Let's see the previous chart with two added categories.  SwStr% and MLB Rank.
Pitcher F-Strike% Rank SwStr% Rank
Julio Teheran 67.2% 6th 10.2% 22nd
Kris Medlen 65.7% 12th 9.5% 34th
Tim Hudson 65.4% 15th 9.3% 36th
Mike Minor 64.2% 22nd 10.4% 18th
Paul Maholm 63.1% 36th 7.1% 80th

Now, the numbers aren't as tremendous and the bullpen power arms are clearly helping the Braves here as far as the team stats go, but outside of Maholm, the Braves starters are above average at getting hitters to swing through pitches.  Note that this number doesn't include foul-balls.  Only strikes that were swung at and missed are included in the number.

This is not something that Baseball Tonight will talk about or even Chip Carey and Joe Simpson.  But are these numbers important?  Of the ten teams currently on pace to appear in the postseason, seven rank in the top 13 in F-Strike% and eight rank in the Top 13 in SwStr%.  Clearly, there is a degree of importance to throwing first pitch strikes and getting swings-and-misses.  Hell, we have been told that since we were young and in this case, it's true.

Pairing these two numbers doesn't guarantee the Braves will be the toughest team in the playoffs.  There is something to be said, and I have said it, to having "ace-quality" pitchers.  There's something to be said about having a shutdown pen or an offense that is more productive than Atlanta's to this point.  But excelling in difficult skills to master like throwing first-pitch strikes and getting the hitter to offer at pitches he fails to connect to...that will go a long way toward getting the Braves to October.

(For more information on first-pitch strikes, read this excellent article.)

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