How do you feel when a pitcher walks a batter? I hate it. One reason is that, you’re a pitcher, you should be able to throw the ball in the strike zone. When you walk a batter you don’t give me confidence that you can do this, and that makes me sad. Another reason is that the rise of Moneyball has greatly increased focus on metrics like OBP that involve walks. Subsequent studies by Tango et al. have showed empirically that a walk is a valuable tool in a hitter’s repertoire. It follows that whatever is good for hitters is bad for pitchers.
Finally, baseball at its heart is a battle over the strike zone. When a pitcher walks a hitter, that pitcher has unequivocally shown that, at least for that moment against that batter in that situation, they are inferior to the hitter in terms of strike zone dominance.
You’ve probably guessed that this is leading up to Ubaldo Jimenez. When the Orioles signed him, I looked at his walk rate (BB%) and saw that it wasn’t good. That was fine to me because he had decent strikeout and groundball rates as well. What I wasn’t expecting is for Jimenez to have, as he currently does, the worst walk rate among starting pitchers with at least 50 IP this year. In 2014 it’s Jimenez at 13.5% and Brad Peacock at 13%, then a 1.1% drop to Tony Cingrani at 11.9%.
After his most recent game, a five-walk/two-strikeout performance, I wondered what was going on with him. I thought to myself, obviously he is throwing a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. And obviously batters are not chasing. That led me to look up his O-Swing%, which is the percent of pitches thrown out of the zone that hitters to swing at.
According to the PITCHF/X statistics, Jimenez is 12th-worst in the major leagues in this regard. Hitters swing at only 24.5% of his pitches out of the zone, fewer than one out of four. This is great, because he throws out of the zone so rarel-- err, no, wait, he throws out of the zone 53.6% of the time. Dang.
So I thought to myself, this can’t be good. And then I thought to myself, I wonder how other starters are faring in this regard? To find out, I created a scatterplot of normalized O-Zone (1 - Zone%) and O-Swing rates as reported by PITCHF/X on FanGraphs.
(Click that to make it bigger and see the names.)
100 is average on both axes. The upper-left quadrant contains pitchers who don’t throw outside the zone that often, but when they do, hitters chase. Phil Hughes is the undisputed king here, throwing out of the zone just 40% of the time yet getting swings 36.6% of the time. Guys like David Price, Cliff Lee, John Lackey, and Jordan Zimmermann also work mostly in the strike zone but frequently get hitters to chase outside of it.
In the upper-right are pitchers who throw lots of balls but also get hitters to chase. Masahiro Tanaka and his disappearing spitter rule the roost here. Tanaka leaves the zone a whopping 55.5% of the time yet hitters chase 38.4% of the time. Felix Hernandez and Alex Cobb are his understudies this year, as is Zack Greinke. Francisco Liriano wants to be like them but just can’t get hitters to chase.
In the lower left are pitchers who throw lots of strikes but who can’t get hitters to chase out of the zone that often. This isn’t necessarily a bad place to be. Bartolo Colon is an outlier here, but his walk rate is a miniscule 3.3% this year. Nathan Eovaldi has just a 4.1% walk rate. These pitchers have probably learned that if you can’t get hitters to chase your pitches, it’s best to stay in the strike zone.
That’s a lesson that those in the lower-right quadrant could well heed. These poor souls throw out of the zone more than other pitchers, yet they can’t get hitters to chase. You may be able to discern Jimenez’s name here, sandwiched in between Tony Cingrani and C.J. Wilson. Yovanni Gallardo wears the dunce cap in the major leagues; he throws out of the zone nearly 56% of the time yet hitters chase just 22.1% of the time.
Finally there is Clayton Kershaw, with his looping curveball and wicked slider, sitting atop the major leagues in O-Swing rate. The lesson here should be clear: pitchers who excel have figured out how to get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone.
We know the Orioles starters aren’t excelling, but they’re doing okay, right?
All Orioles starters have below-average O-Swing rates. Yet, most of them stay in the zone more than average. This is probably as good as we can hope for. But of this quartet, Chris Tillman looks to be the worst. He could stand to throw more strikes. Still, he’s better off than Jimenez. The two pitchers have similar O-Swing rates, yet Ubaldo throws out of the zone much more often than Tillman does.
Two metrics are good when you want details, but one metric is better when you want to answer, "Who’s the best?" To find out, I divided O-Swing% by O-Zone%. This tells us how often a pitcher gets hitters to chase regardless of how often he throws out of the zone. I named the resulting toy stat Frequent Out-Of-zone Lunges, or FOOL -- because that’s what’s going on here. Then I normalized each pitcher's FOOL to league average to get FOOL+.
Here are the FOOL+ leaders and laggards for 2014, with the Orioles pitchers thrown in for good measure. Again this is for starting pitchers with at least 50 IP, and 100 is league average.
Phil Hughes (155)
Clayton Kershaw (135)
John Lackey, Jose Fernandez (131)
Jordan Zimmermann (128)
Cliff Lee (122)
David Price, Stephen Strasburg (121)
Masahiro Tanaka (118)
Adam Wainwright (117)
Miguel Gonzalez (95)
Wei-Yin Chen (93)
Bud Norris (91)
Chris Tillman (85)
Ubaldo Jimenez (78)
C.J. Wilson (73)
Shelby Miller (72)
David Phelps (72)
Yovani Gallardo (67)
As we saw earlier, Gonzalez, Chen, and Norris are holding their own, just a bit below average. That’s something to feel, well, okay about. These guys aren't great, or even good, but they're not bad. Tillman can't hang with them so far this year, but he's not terrible either.
Jimenez, though, is bad. In order to succeed, he's going to have to start throwing more strikes. He's always had low O-Swing rates, but until 2014 now he's kept the ball mostly in the strike zone. He may still be struggling to adapt to the loss of his fastball, which he throws rarely now. Or he may be getting unpredictable movement on his breaking pitches. Whatever it is, let's hope he figures things out, starting with tonight's start in the Bronx.