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Good Intent: Answering What Couldn’t Be Answered With Traditional Metrics

 

In the third installment of a series on our advanced baseball metrics, we examine what Command+ and Whiff+ tell us about the brilliance of Masahiro Tanaka, the emergence of Lucas Giolito and which pitchers are the best at generating whiffs. 

By: Stats Perform

Elite pitchers usually have two things in common: great stuff and the ability to command that great stuff.

With better technology and understanding, the baseball community has gotten much better at determining what makes pitches great. However, the ability to measure command has not evolved in the same way.

In an effort to fill that void, Stats Perform has developed a means to more thoroughly differentiate command from control through its Command+ metric. Control is the general ability of a pitcher to throw strikes, something other websites evaluate through simple metrics like zone percentage and walk rate. But command has more to do with a pitcher’s ability to locate – whether it be in the zone or not.

Stats Perform dissects every pitch to determine actual intent, starting with four key variables – count, pitch-type, the pitcher’s trends and the catcher’s mitt location and body position during his setup. The last of which is not factored into Baseball Prospectus’ command metric. We then factor in over 20 other key variables, including things like the hitter, game situation and the runners on base.

Masahiro Tanaka

From there, the intent of a pitch is narrowed to one of 13 zones, which corresponds with a concept. For example, a pitch that is supposed to be located on the outside edge of the plate is known as “black or better” because the intent is to paint the corner or be just off the plate. The data allows us to make a distinction between pitchers who are throwing balls because they are struggling with command and those who are purposefully missing the plate in an effort to get hitters out.

“It answers a question that you would never be able to answer with traditional metrics,” veteran baseball analytics writer Eno Sarris said. “It requires an ability to code what’s happening in every game and turn basically a bunch of research behind the game to tell you, “Did that pitcher do exactly what he wanted to with that ball?” That’s an extremely difficult question to answer.

“It’s something that most analysts have stepped away from because they can say, “I can’t be in the pitcher’s head.” They took a question they thought nobody could answer and tried a different approach with it, and really tried to get into the pitcher’s head and try to give him credit for shaping a curveball. It might be a ball, but it might be the shape that he wanted and in the general location he wanted – which I think is the true definition of command.”

Let’s look at some examples. Here are two sliders from New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka that end up in the same location, low and inside and out of the strike zone. But these are two different situations:

In the first video, Tanaka has a 1-1 count on Yolmer Sanchez, a relatively low-power hitter at the bottom of the Chicago White Sox lineup. The pitch is a slider, so it moves in toward a left-handed hitter. Generally, this would not be used as a chase-pitch off the outside edge because it would start out of the zone.

Given that information, the game situation, and the position of the catcher, Tanaka misses on a pitch that is supposed to be thrown on the outside part of the plate and Sanchez singles to right field.

This breakdown also illustrates why the catcher’s mitt is not a good indicator of intent on its own. This pitch is intended to be a strike, yet the catcher sets up with his mitt below the batter’s knees for some reason (anticipating a block, just out of habit, etc.).

Now, let’s look at the second video’s situation:

This time, Tanaka has a 2-2 count on Chicago’s Yonder Alonso with a runner on second and two outs. Tanaka has a pitch to work with, so he can afford to throw the slider for a ball in hopes of getting a swing-and-miss strikeout. The catcher sets up inside for a common back foot slider location, and Tanaka hits the spot, unlike in the previous video, nearly getting Alonso to chase.

This is the beauty of looking at intent rather than results. From the data, we’re able to find that, for the most part, Tanaka throws his slider in two common places against left-handed batters – low and outside, and low and inside.

Tommy Milone

Both sliders shown in the videos ended up in that low and inside zone and seemingly fit in with Tanaka’s pitching trends. However, we can distinguish one as a missed location and the other as a hit location.

“Things like Command+ have come from an internal curiosity,” Stats Perform AI Data Analyst Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads said. “We’re essentially answering the scouting question about which pitchers have the best command.”

To find that answer, we compare that data we’ve compiled with the results of the pitches to extrapolate the command of every pitcher, sortable by pitch-type, with the league average set at 100.

Looking at the table below, you can see that Tanaka’s Command+ rating for all his pitches was the best in the league among starting pitchers (with at least 500 plate appearances face) at 132 or 32% better than the MLB average in 2019:

RankPitcherTeamCommand+
1Masahiro TanakaYankees132
2Tyler MahleReds122
3Kyle HendricksCubs119
4Jose BerriosTwins117
5Mike LeakeMariners/D-backs116
6Zach DaviesBrewers116
7Trevor WilliamsPirates116
8Zach EflinPhillies115
9Aaron NolaPhillies115
10Zack GreinkeDodgers115

2019 Command+ relief pitching leaderboard (minimum 250 PA faced):

RankPitcherTeamCommand+
1Tommy MiloneMariners127
2Jesse ChavezRangers117
3Ross StriplingDodgers115
4Wade LeBlancMariners115
5Josh TomlinBraves113
6Matt AlbersBrewers113
7Craig StammenPadres111
8Yusmeiro PetitA's109
9Chad BettisRockies109
10Ian KennedyRoyals108

With Command+, teams can also track how a pitcher’s command is improving or trending in the wrong direction for each pitch in his arsenal.

Chicago White Sox right-hander Lucas Giolito is a prime example. He went from being one of the worst pitchers in the league in 2018 to 14-9 with a 3.41 ERA and 228 strikeouts in 2019. Using our model, we can illustrate how a lot of Giolito’s improvement can be attributed to his improved command.

Pitch Type2018 Command+2019 Command+
Fastball9192
Curveball8180
Slider9097
Changeup93102
Total Command+9096

Giolito commanded his slider and changeup particularly well in 2019, improving 7% and 9%, respectively, relative to the league average. He also had one of the best Whiff+ ratings in the majors (more on this to come).

His emergence led to a sixth-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

Whiff+

While Command+ attempts to provide a more complete and accurate examination of a pitcher’s command, Stats Perform’s Whiff+ can give a closer look at a pitcher’s stuff by determining the rate at which he generates swings and misses.

Gerrit Cole

Whiff+ was developed as a tool that enables analysts to compare players of different years on the same scale, which is something other swing and miss rate statistics aren’t able to accomplish. How is this done? Whiff+ is based on the league average pitch type for that season. Understandably, whiff rate has been steadily trending upwards as the percentage of all plate appearances resulting in a strikeout has risen in 14 consecutive seasons. Whiff+ adjusts for that.

Let’s say the average fastball has a swing and miss rate of 8% and a pitcher coaxes a whiff on 10% of his fastballs. By this, we can assess that he has a Whiff+ of 125 – 25% above the league average.

The analysis is done across a pitcher’s entire repertoire to determine a weighted average, because whiff rate increases dramatically for some pitch types like sliders and splitters. The goal of Whiff+ is to discover how good a pitcher is at generating whiffs based on his pitch types.

Here are the top starters and relievers in Whiff+ in 2019:

RankPitcherTeamWhiff+
1Gerrit ColeAstros164
2Justin VerlanderAstros145
3Max ScherzerNationals144
4Lance LynnRangers142
5James PaxtonYankees133
6Jacob deGromMets132
7Lucas GiolitoWhite Sox131
8Jake OdorizziTwins130
9Charlie MortonRays127
10Matthew BoydTigers125

2019 Whiff+ relief pitching leaderboard (minimum 250 PA faced):

RankPitcherTeamWhiff+
1Josh HaderBrewers246
2Nick AndersonMarlins/Rays192
3Emilio PaganPadres176
4Edwin DiazMets171
5Liam HendriksA's163
6Mychal GivensOrioles161
7Kenley JansenDodgers151
8Freddy PeraltaBrewers149
9Roberto OsunaAstros147
10Josh JamesAstros145

It’s not surprising to see Gerrit Cole and Josh Hader top these rankings by wide margins. Hader easily led the majors in both Whiff+ among pitchers who faced at least 250 batters and strikeouts per nine innings (16.4) among those with at least 75 innings in 2019.

Cole went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and an MLB-best 326 strikeouts. He also finished second to Hader in SO/9 (13.8) among pitchers with at least 75 innings.

We have always known that not all balls and strikes are equally effective (or ineffective), but now we have more tools to measure the difference in effectiveness for every pitch.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Lucas Haupt