A pitch is a terrible thing to waste. Or is it? (Part 1)

In many ways the mind game between batter and pitcher represents the core of baseball. Yes, the pitcher has eight men behind him who can and will make the difference between a hit and an out, often spectacularly. But the heart of the game is the confrontation between the man on the mound and the man at the plate.

Many other researchers have examined various aspects of the struggle—from pitch sequencing, to pitch location, to the game theory aspects of a 3-2 count. I’d like to focus on a different situation—one of baseball’s cliches— that a pitcher should waste a pitch when he has the batter in the hole at 0-2.

The proper approach in the 0-2 situation is something of a debate. Many guides to youth baseball (and therefore youth baseball coaches) appear to teach that the pitcher should avoid the strike zone with an 0-2 count; perhaps hoping the batter will chase, but at least setting up the next pitch. That stance does not necessarily follow players up the chain to higher levels of play.

Joe Posnanski illustrates two opinions (although he doesn’t really discuss wasting a pitch).

There are different philosophies about what to do with an 0-2 pitch. There are some pitching coaches and pitchers who think that this is absolutely the time to go for the strikeout pitch … the nasty slider tailing away, the split-fingered fastball in the dirt, the fastball up around the eyes. But there are others—and I tend to agree with this—who think that batters are so defensive at 0-2, that this is perfect time to go get them with a pitch over the plate (especially with pitch counts being SO important in today’s game).

Part 1 of this series will identify the situations in which pitchers choose to waste a pitch. Part 2 will study whether wasting a pitch is a good idea.

The methodology

Diving right in, what do we mean when we talk about “wasting a pitch?”

Traditionally, it means throwing a pitch far enough out of the strike zone that the batter can’t put it into play, and using it to somehow set up the next pitch. This can take the form of forcing the batter to change his eye level (going high, then coming back with a pitch down), backing him off the plate before throwing a back-door breaking ball, or allowing him to gauge the fastball speed and then getting him out in front of a change-up.

How far out of the strike zone does a pitch need to be before we considered it wasted?

That’s not an easily answered question. It can’t be determined based on how a batter performs on the pitch for two major reasons. First, these pitches tend to be balls, so the sample size of actual outcomes is very small. Second, the balls that are put in play are likely hit by free swingers, introducing a selection bias into the mix.

If using results is out, we’re pretty much left with location as our only option for classifying a pitch as wasted. For lack of a better definition (and with some advice from PITCHf/x guru Harry Pavlidis), I decided to use a zone that extended roughly 16 inches above and below the strike zone, 16 inches wide, and 14 inches tight. Any pitch inside that zone was considered good. Any pitch outside that zone was wasted.

Since the actual strike zone differs slightly for right-handed and left-handed batters, the waste zone is slightly different as well.

Waste Zone for a RHB
Waste Zone for a RHB
Waste Zone for a LHB
image
There were 38,606 pitches thrown at an 0-2 count in 2008. Of those, 4,297, or roughly 11 percent, were wasted according to this definition.

By quality

Do certain pitchers waste more pitches than others? Are pitchers more likely to waste a pitch to a good hitter than a bad hitter?

There is basically no difference in FIP between pitchers who waste pitches and those who don’t. The FIP for wasting pitchers was 4.29, while non-wasting pitchers had a 4.28 FIP.

On the other hand, we can see a slight difference in batter quality.

As an aggregate, batters who reached an 0-2 count were slightly below average. The weighted average wOBA for such batters was .333 (for the entire season, not for the 0-2 count) compared to an average of .335 for all batters. This isn’t too surprising, as you’d expect weaker hitters to get to an 0-2 count more often than good hitters. If we remove pitchers from the equation, the remaining batters had a .337 wOBA compared to a .339 league mark.

Batters who saw wasted pitches had a .333 wOBA for the season, while batters who were pitched straight up had a .329 wOBA. That suggests that pitchers were more likely to waste a pitch with a better batter at the plate. Most of the effect appears to be related to pitchers at the plate. Because of their relative ineptitude at the dish, there’s very little reason not to challenge them each and every pitch. If we remove pitchers from our sample, the gap shrinks to .338-.337; or basically even.

By hand

What about handedness of the batter or pitcher? Do certain match-ups lead to more wasted pitches? And where are those pitches thrown?

There was no difference when looking at the handedness of pitchers or batters. No matter how the data were sliced, the waste rate was always just about 11 percent.

By examining where the pitches were thrown, we can get some idea of the intent of the wasted pitch.

RH Batter and RH Pitcher
RH Batter and RH Pitcher
RH Batter and LH Pitcher
RH Batter and LH Pitcher

LH Batter and RH Pitcher
LH Batter and RH Pitcher
LH Batter and LH Pitcher
LH Batter and LH Pitcher

Pitchers tended to waste pitches along a diagonal. Right-handed pitchers missed high and to the left side of the plate, or low and to the right side of the plate. Left handers were just the opposite.

I would guess that the high pitches tended to be fastballs, while the low ones were some sort of breaking pitch. The locations seem to suggest that pitchers are looking for batters to chase the ball rather than using the waste pitch to set up the next pitch.

By base/outs

Are pitchers more likely to waste pitches at certain times? Does it matter how many outs there are or who’s on base?

The number of outs in the inning appears to have no effect on a pitcher’s willingness to waste a pitch. The waste rate stayed at 11 percent in all cases.

Outs Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
0 1523 11776 11
1 1368 11548 11
2 1406 10985 11

The base state, on the other hand, showed major fluctuation in waste rate.

Base State Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
No runners 2589 19353 12
Runner on 1st 585 6414 8
Runner on 2nd 370 2662 12
Runner on 3rd 272 2434 10
Runners on 1st and 2nd 132 830 14
Runners on 1st and 3rd 121 941 11
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 106 717 13
Bases Loaded 122 958 11

Pitchers were least likely to waste a pitch with a runner on first base. With a runner on at first, pitchers wasted only 8 percent of their pitches. With runners on first and second, the waste rate skyrocketed to 14 percent. One possible explanation is that pitchers want batters to put the ball in play with a runner on first to get a double play, while with runners on first and second a strikeout becomes much more valuable.

For the sake of completeness, here’s the full breakdown by base/out state.

No outs

Base State Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
No runners 1154 8298 12
Runner on 1st 164 1947 8
Runner on 2nd 76 526 13
Runner on 3rd 52 501 9
Runners on 1st and 2nd 15 81 16
Runners on 1st and 3rd 28 140 17
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 20 131 13
Bases Loaded 14 152 8

One out

Base State Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
No runners 808 6241 11
Runner on 1st 203 2239 8
Runner on 2nd 116 907 11
Runner on 3rd 77 900 8
Runners on 1st and 2nd 46 301 13
Runners on 1st and 3rd 39 343 10
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 35 268 12
Bases Loaded 44 349 11

Two out

Base State Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
No runners 627 4814 12
Runner on 1st 218 2228 9
Runner on 2nd 178 1229 13
Runner on 3rd 143 1033 12
Runners on 1st and 2nd 71 448 14
Runners on 1st and 3rd 54 458 11
Runners on 2nd and 3rd 51 318 14
Bases Loaded 64 457 12

Wrapping up part 1

This post has been long on the data and short on the conclusions. But we have learned a few things.

Pitchers waste pitches about 11 percent of the time on an 0-2 count. Once we remove the results of pitchers batting, it doesn’t seem to matter how good the batter is, or how good the pitcher is; the waste rate will be about the same. The waste rate holds steady for batter and pitcher handedness and the number of outs in an inning as well.

The only real difference we found depends on the runners on base. Pitchers are less likely to waste pitches with runners on first base than they are in any other situation—only about 8 percent of the time they have an 0-2 count with a runner on first will they waste a pitch. Early conjecture suggests that might because a ball in play in that circumstance is more valuable than a strikeout due to the chance of the double play.

Looking at the pitch charts for the different batter/pitcher matchups, it appears that pitchers waste pitches mostly while trying to get batters to chase. So we see a lot of low pitches, which are more likely to fool batters.

In part 2, we’ll dive into the results of these at-bats to see whether wasting a pitch is a good percentage play for a pitcher.

References & Resources
Update: I realized I missed the most important check of all. Are we certain that more pitches are wasted at 0-2 than at any other count?

Luckily for this study, it’s not even close. The next highest waste rate is 7% at 1-2. This matches what I would have thought, but it’s still important to confirm the conventional wisdom.

Strikes

Balls Wasted Not Wasted % Wasted
0 0 4020 170652 0.02
0 1 3437 79018 0.04
0 2 4304 34383 0.11
1 0 1383 70157 0.02
1 1 2001 66415 0.03
1 2 4196 55008 0.07
2 0 337 24507 0.01
2 1 561 36304 0.02
2 2 2060 49218 0.04
3 0 85 7700 0.01
3 1 167 15443 0.01
3 2 567 30381 0.02

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