Thursday, June 24, 2010

Do Twins Pitchers Throw Too Many Strikes?

I'm sure someone else has written about this within the Twins blogosphere, but if they have not, I think there may be something to the idea that some of the Twins starting pitchers throw too many strikes. Having lived in Chicago for the past 8 years, I've listened to many national broadcasts and a lot of White Sox broadcasts of Twins games and one thing I hear over and over is that the Twins organization prides itself on grooming their pitchers to "pound the zone". Brad Radke is a perfect throwback example and three current-day examples are Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. Before I go any further, here are their current stats:

Scott Baker
Record: 6-6
ERA: 4.61
WHIP: 1.298
Ks: 77
BBs: 19
Z Contact%: 86.8%
Contact%: 80.8%
Zone%: 66.5%

Let me quick explain. Z Contact% is "the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone." [My regards to FanGraphs] Contact% is the exact same thing as ZContact but takes into account all swings on all pitches, irrespective of their location. Zone% is the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone. The major league averages for those 3 categories are as follows:

Z Contact%: 88.2%       Contact%: 80.8%        Zone%: 47.2%

Kevin Slowey
Record: 7-4
ERA: 4.58
WHIP: 1.43
Ks: 57
BBs: 17
Z Contact%: 90.9%
Contact%: 87.6%
Zone%: 54.5%

Nick Blackburn
Record: 6-4
ERA: 5.80
WHIP: 1.63
Ks: 24
BBs: 19
Z Contact%: 96.4%
Contact%: 94.2%
Zone%: 52.3%

So a pattern emerges. Baker is the best of the bunch, his Z Contact and Contact percentages are pretty much in-line with league averages and though he truly does pound the strike zone (66%+ of his pitches are strikes), he misses bats. Kevin Slowey is a step down from that with a Contact% significantly about the league average and Nick Blackburn is downright terrible with Z Contact% and Contact% well into the 90th percentile range. To put that into perspective, Major League hitters make contact with almost 97 out of every 100 balls that Nick Blackburn throws in the strike zone and still make contact with 94 out of every 100 he throws PERIOD. As a comparison, let's look at Francisco Liriano.

Francisco Liriano
Record: 6-5
ERA: 3.11
WHIP: 1.22
Ks: 100
BBs: 25
Z Contact%: 86.9%
Contact%: 74.9%
Zone%: 46.6%

To summarize, Liriano is getting contact at about the league average on balls in the strike zone, but the key to his success has been getting batters to swing at pitches that are NOT IN THE STRIKE ZONE. Liriano doesn't throw even half of his pitches in the strikezone, but he still gets strikeouts.

Admittedly this is a somewhat shallow treatment of the subject because Contact and Zone percentages don't measure quality, well-placed strikes vs. pitches that are hung in the zone or those that go straight down the middle. Nevertheless, there is a clear line between the styles of Liriano and Blackburn/Slowey/Baker. Throwing strikes and "pounding the zone" is all well and good, if you can locate. Blackburn, Slowey and Baker have all had their outings this season where they are hitting their spots and the results are usually good, but it seems that they have had a high number of outings as a group where the command is not there and they end up getting hammered. I don't know if there is a remedy for such a thing, but being less predictable might be a good start. Throwing strikes is not the ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is getting batters out via weak contact or strikeouts. If you can't get the Ks, you gotta get the weak contact and if that means you give up a few more walks and are a little less predictable, so be it.


  1. ugh. someone needs to slap blackburn upside the head.

  2. The problem with Blackburn is not that he throws too many strikes. The problem is that he isn't very good, at all. Liriano gets batters to chase his stuff out of the zone because he's throwing good pitches, with good movement, and he's fooling batters into swinging. Blackburn doesn't because his pitches aren't very good. They don't have good velocity, or good movement, and so he doesn't strike barely ANYONE out. If he were to simply start throwing his pitches out of the zone more, he'd walk a ton of batters and get hammered. The only thing he could do is pitch better, but it appears that he is what he is at this point. Which is why his extension looks worse as every outing passes.

  3. Is there a quality pitch index somewhere out there? I mean, all I have to go off statistically is what batters swing at and the various rates at which pitchers throw their different pitches. Moyer is a perfect example of what I'm trying to get at. He throw mid-80 at his absolute best, but he gets people out and wins games. Blackburn can throw better than mid-80s, but he gets hammered almost every time out. Moyer throws better quality strikes and that's why he's effective despite his speed deficiency.

    Like I said in the post, pounding the strike zone is great, but if you're gonna do that, you have to hit your spots, you can't be just firing them down the middle.

  4. Moyer's not a good comp. because there's not really another one like him. I would think quality of stuff would be measured by hit rates and K rates.

  5. To clarify what I'm trying to say a little: by "pound the strike zone," people are really saying that the Twins staff is full of "control pitchers."

    I agree wholeheartedly that Blackburn appears to be fairly worthless and is not that good of a pitcher. Baker and Slowey, however, have shown flashes of brilliance amidst outings where they have been killed. Baker has essentially been the same pitcher in each of his last 4 starts (the 12K start was a bit of an anomaly) in terms of control and limiting walks, but has been ineffective in three of those starts.

    My point with the Moyer example is to say that if you can't be overpowering with your stuff like Liriano or [insert elite pitcher's name here] then you have to be able to hit your spots, and that's why Moyer is, at least, effective. Baker, Slowey and Blackburn need to exhibit better control than just "throwing strikes."