Searching for Unusual Pitch Selections
Michael Lewis and Bill Simmons have written that "baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one." Some have reasoned that this is why baseball lends itself to statistical analysis, but I don't think that's the reason. Sure, some individual sports, like tennis, are great for analysis, but with others like boxing, I wouldn't know where to begin. I believe that what sets baseball apart from other team sports is that it can better be classified as a sequential game as opposed to a simultaneous one.
Basketball, hockey, and soccer are good examples of simultaneous games, as concurrent player interaction makes it extremely difficult to isolate any single event from the play as a whole. Football is difficult to categorize, as there are ten minutes of high-octane game action which I'd call simultaneous play, but the rest of the game involves more discreet decision-making. Play calling lends itself beautifully to analytics. As for baseball, most of the game is played in turns. Each defender positions himself, the pitcher chooses a pitch type and location, and the batter decides whether or not to swing. The rest is a matter of execution.
David Gassko wrote an awesome article using game theory to explore the batter pitcher match-up. In his analysis of pitch selection, he used Brad Lidge as his example. Lidge throws a fastball and a slider. Really good ones at that. His task is to mix his pitches in such a way that the batter cannot gain an advantage by anticipating one way or the other. That mix will depend on the batter (it's often convenient to assume that pitchers have perfect information with regards to the batter; they do not.), the park, the umpire, and a bunch of other stuff. I'm going to focus on the count. The count should only matter in determining the rate at which he chooses to throw strikes. Now, there's strong evidence to suggest that baseball players don't act rationally with regards to the count. Dave Allen has shown that batters swing more often 3-2 than they do 2-2. But most pitchers will follow the count in the sense that they throw more fastballs when they need strikes and mix in their harder-to-control off-speed pitches when they can afford balls. Here is Lidge's pitch mix for his career, data courtesy of FanGraphs.
That seems fine to me. I ordered the ball/strike count from from highest run expectancy to lowest, which should theoretically follow with highest fastball percentage to lowest.
A.J. Burnett, like Lidge, mainly sticks to two pitches. He might even adhere more strictly to the count than Lidge. When he falls behind, he refuses to throw a breaking ball. He hasn't thrown a 3-0 curveball since 2008. But when he has two strikes, he relies heavily on it.
And the best example of pitch selection based almost entirely on the count comes from Tim Wakefield.
I wanted to find a few pitchers who defy this trend. "Pitching backwards" is a common way to describe such an approach. I looked at a fair number of pitchers, and while some guys depend less on the count in selecting pitches than others, I didn't think I would find anybody who truly "pitched backwards." I e-mailed Rich Lederer, and he suggested I look into Bronson Arroyo. You should too.
I would guess that something funky's going on here. Arroyo's changeup probably isn't like your normal change. But since 2002, Baseball Info Solutions video scouts have been consistent in calling that pitch -- whatever it is -- a changeup. I don't know what to make of that. Still, how can he throw his curveball 30% of the time on a 2-0 count and 8% on an 0-2 count? Has Arroyo ever given an interview explaining his thought process? Are there any other pitchers at all similar to Arroyo?
The other way that pitchers can defy convention, other than by pitching backwards, is by not following a trend at all. Certain pitchers will only employ a certain pitch in certain counts.
Bobby Jenks has embraced the idea of the "out pitch." He’s a fastball-slider pitcher early in the count. When he gets to three balls, he’ll use the fastball exclusively. But when Jenks gets the count to 0-2 or 1-2, he busts out a curve nearly half the time. He neglects the pitch on other counts, but it’s this huge weapon in these scenarios.
Jenks isn’t alone. Another A.L. Central Closer who embraces his curveball as an out pitch is Joakim Soria. Soria, a four-pitch pitcher, mixes his fastball, slider and change regularly. His curveball, however, he keeps in his pocket until he gets to two strikes at which point it enters the hitters mind.
If you can think of any pitcher whose pitch selection puzzles you, please let me hear them.