Picking up the pace

Since the All Star Break, Joba Chamberlain has had two fairly impressive starts. Well, impressive when compared to his previous starts. We’re not exactly talking vintage Maddux here.

Here’s his line from his last three starts before the Break:

Date       Opponent    IP  H  R  ER  BB  SO  HR  Pitches  Game Score
June 30    Seattle     5.1 9  3  3   3   4   1   96       39
July 5     Toronto     3.2 9  8  3   1   1   2   86       21
July 10    Los Angeles 4.1 9  5  4   1   4   1   94       30

And his last two:

Date       Opponent    IP  H  R  ER  BB  SO  HR  Pitches  Game Score
July 19    Detroit     6.2 3  1  1   3   8   1   107      69
July 24    Oakland     7.0 2  1  1   3   6   0   100      72

Chamberlain has given up fewer hits, struck out more, and consequently has allowed fewer runs and pitched deeper into the game.

Now there’s nothing that special about these last two starts, and normally it wouldn’t even be worth studying. But reading the recaps after the Oakland game, something caught my eye.

image
Joba Chamberlain appears to be back on track after the All Star break. (Icon/SMI)

Numerous Yankees were attributing Chamberlain’s success to improving his pacing.

Apparently the team had noticed Joba taking a lot of time between pitches, to the point where it was affecting his concentration. Jorge Posada provided an illustration of just how bad it had become:

“He was wandering. I’d look up and half the time he wasn’t on the mound, especially with men on base.”

Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland agreed with that assessment. Girardi stressed the importance of pace, explaining

“It’s understanding what you have to do very quickly. Knowing exactly what you want to do with the baseball and doing it.”

Even the Captain, Derek Jeter, weighed in:

“He did a lot better job of working quick. The last thing you want to do when you’re out there playing defense is have someone working slow. And offensively, pitchers that work quick give you a problem too. His pace of game was a lot better.”

That’s all well and good and sounds completely plausible. But did it really happen?

Luckily for us, the PITCHf/x data gives us the exact moment (well, precise to the second anyway) when each pitch was thrown. If there’s anything to what the Yankees are claiming, we’d expect to see the time between Chamberlain’s pitches go down in his most recent starts.

The methodology I used is pretty simple. Look at each one of Joba’s appearances, count the time between pitches and figure out the average for that appearance. Following in Mike Fast’s footsteps, I’ve thrown out any set of pitches with more than one minute between them under the assumption that some non-pitcher related happened (a coach’s visit, for example).

Let’s start off with a graph showing Joba’s average time between pitches for all his appearances since 2008 (when the pitch time became available).
image
The red dotted line is the average time between pitches across all measured pitches. For this set of data, it’s just over 26 seconds.

Chamberlain has been all over the map in terms of his pacing. This graph is a little misleading though. Many of his appearances over this time frame were relief appearances, and suffer from small sample size concerns and well as possibly a difference in approach.

Here’s another chart showing the same information, but only for appearances with more than 30 pitches.
image
Many of the peaks and valleys from the previous graph have disappeared in this view. The line representing his average time between pitches has stayed at roughly 26 seconds.

It is true that Chamberlain had slowed down in June, and has gotten faster in July. Of course the average difference is only somewhere between two and three seconds per pitch. I’m not sure how noticeable that really is on the field. It is five to 10 percent faster, but does it really make that much of a difference to the game play?

One way to find out is to compare Chamberlain’s game score with the time between pitches. Although game scores aren’t that scientific, they do give a pretty good indication of a good start versus a bad start. So if there’s anything to be found, game scores might give an indication.
image
It doesn’t look like much of relationship, does it? He has both good and bad starts at both ends of the time spectrum. The red line represents the best-fit equation, which tries to mathematically describe the relationship. As you can see from the R2 value in the upper right corner, the best-fit line doesn’t do a very good job of explaining the data.

Jeter gave us a couple of other places to explore for a noticeable effect on the game. He suggested that the fielders might play better when a pitcher pitches faster, and that batters tend not to like pitchers who work quickly.

Let’s consider the fielders first. This isn’t new ground. In his article “Short work,” Mike Fast looked for any effects of “bored” fielders, breaking it down a variety of ways. He concluded an effect might exist, but it is small, and visible mostly at the extremes. I’m not going to rehash his work here. Instead, I’m going to see if Joba breaks away from the norm and demonstrates some noticeable effect.

This next graph shows the relationship between the time Joba takes between pitches and the defensive efficiency (DER) of the fielders behind him. I limited my data to only those appearances in which Chamberlain allowed at least 10 balls in play.
image
There are definitely sample size concerns here, so it’s impossible to make any firm conclusions, but there’s nothing that looks very promising. Some of the worst fielding performances happened when Joba took the most time between pitches, but some of the others happened when he pitched his quickest.

It doesn’t look very likely that the fielders perform any better or worse for Chamberlain depending on how quickly he gets back to the rubber and releases the next pitch.

What about batters? How is their performance affected by Chamberlain pitching faster?

I’ll be honest and say I’m not entirely certain where to look. What stats would indicate that batters have trouble with pitchers who pitch fast? It would have helped if Jeter had been a little more clear as to why pitchers who work fast cause problems for batters. Oh well.

Also, it’s very tough to disentangle the batter’s performance from Chamberlain’s. Anything indication of something going on could be the result of Joba pacing himself better, or it could be the result of Chamberlain just plain pitching better. So it’s almost certain we won’t be able to come to any sort of conclusion on this one.

A couple of places to look might be swing rate and contact rate. If a batter is a little out of sorts he might get a little jumpy and swing at more pitches. Of those pitches he swings at, perhaps he misses a higher percentage of them. Of course I could see it working the other way too. A batter who’s thrown off his game by the pitcher’s pacing might not feel ready to swing and take more pitches. Let’s see if there’s a noticeable difference when Joba is pitching.

First, we’ll look at the percentage of pitches a batter swings at for different levels of pacing.
image
Again, there’s really not a whole lot there. Definitely nothing to indicate that batters are more or less likely to swing based on the time Joba takes between pitches.

What about contact rate? Are batters swinging and missing more when Chamberlain works faster?
image
Still a whole lot of nothing in the data.

There’s absolutely no indication from these two measures that batters are at all affected by how much time a pitcher takes between his pitches.

We haven’t found a lot of evidence to support the Yankees’ theory that Joba Chamberlain is a better pitcher when he takes less time between pitches. We did see that he has spent less time in between pitches over his last few starts, especially compared to his starts just before the All Star break. But the total amount of time over 100 pitches is something like five minutes, which probably isn’t all that noticeable.

We looked at his overall performance in his starts, as measured by game score, and found little to no relationship to his pacing there. We also struck out while examining Derek Jeter’s claims that it’s better for the defense and harder on the hitters when a pitcher speeds up his game.

It’s getting pretty hard to lend any credence to the idea that a pitcher’s pacing has anything to do with his performance in a game.

There are some reasons to think we might not have the whole story though. First off, we’re working with a very small sample size – a handful of pitches in a handful of appearances. Any effects might be hidden by random noise in our data set.

Second, our measurement tool might not accurately affect Chamberlain’s pace. The batter may step in and out of the box causing a lot of time to pass between pitches even if Chamberlain is ready to throw. Also, Posada mentioned that Chamberlain was often wandering around the mound between pitches. Perhaps the improvement noticed by the team is mental focus and faster preparation as opposed to faster delivery.

Finally, maybe we’re not looking at the right metrics to detect an improvement. Maybe overall defensive efficiency isn’t the right measure because we should only be looking at tough plays. Or maybe batters aren’t more likely to swing at bad pitches, they’re instead more likely to hit the ball weakly.

So there are definitely some further avenues to explore. But based on our initial look at this, I’m going to have to call this one busted.

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Comments

  1. Paul Singman said...

    Dan I know you are a Yankees fan so you might have watched the games as well, but I was at the game when he pitched vs. Oakland and watched the first few innings of last nights start… I felt Joba was pitching well, but there were a lot of hard hit ground balls and line drives that instead of going for hits went into fielders gloves.

    My feeling is that he has not been pitching much better, just getting luckier on the balls in play. Just throwing that out there.

  2. a qwerty said...

    I’m skeptical that time between pitches would have a large effect on performance, but I disagree that 3-4 seconds between pitches wouldn’t be noticable. It’s a 10-15% difference in the amount of time taken. 5 minutes extra taken by a single pitcher is a lot. Looking at Mike Fast’s article, only about 5-8 seconds exist between the slowest and fastest pitchers on each team, and I wouldn’t think anyone would deny noticing which pitchers are slow and fast on their favourite team.

    A 9 inning game features 34 minutes of between half-inning breaks, which is probably closer to 40 minutes a game since the first pitch is rarely thrown precisely at the end of a commercial break. Throw in 4-5 pitching changes, and actual game play might be two hours? If five minutes is added to that hour by a pitcher just holding the ball, it’s noticeable.

    There’s a natural rhythm to pitching (throw, catch, return ball to pitcher, call signs, throw again). It looks like 17 seconds or so (Buehrle) is about as fast as it can go. So reducing from 29 to 25 seconds (and I’m also skeptical that the last two starts are anything but noise in the data) is in some sense going from 12 seconds to 8 – a much large % change. If the change in Chamberlain is permanent, it at least makes games better to watch (unless you’re a fan of staring matches).

  3. ackurv said...

    Posada’s quote specifically references Joba’s time between pitches with runners on base. Are you able to isolate the data and look at only those situations with runners on base?

  4. Rob in CT said...

    Another possibility, along with some luck on balls in play, is that Oakland and Detroit really can’t hit, can they?

    Toronto can, at least some.  The Angels can, even banged up (some day, I’ll figure out how the Angels can be good every year, no matter who they hand out uniforms to).  Seattle… well, not really, no, but that was the best of the bad starts.

  5. Rob in CT said...

    To follow my last post, though, he did then go out and pitch even better against the Rays:

    8IP, 0R, 3H, 3BB, 5K.  Against a good lineup.

    Whether or not it has anything to do with pacing, I’ll take it.

  6. James Mohl said...

    It all depends on how you look at it.  If you create a table of DER ranges by average time between pitches you get:

    DER   <27   28+
    80+    5   0
    70’s   4   1
    60’s   4   2
    50’s   1   4

    So if 70 is the dividing line between good and bad fielding he gets the good stuff 64% of the time when he’s under 27 but only 14% when he’s 28 and up.  I’d call that significant.

  7. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    @a qwerty

    I see your point.  I’d probably have to go back and watch the games to see if I noticed anything.  And now that I know about it, I’m sure I would.

    Maybe I’ll try to watch his next start and track my thoughts.

  8. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    @ackurv

    My parser of the Gameday data doesn’t have that information unfortunately.

    For those who are interested, his average last night was 24.3 seconds between pitches.

  9. Dan Turkenkopf said...

    @Paul,

    Unfortunately I didn’t see either of the games.  Getting ready for some new babies around here so I’ve been trying to get as much sleep as possible.

    I think he’s been a little more economical with his pitches (not hitting 100 pitches in the 5th) and that’s helped him pitch longer.

    Looking at the DER data by game, the defense did convert around 85% of balls in play in the two games I looked it, so there might be something to your theory.

  10. Daniel said...

    Something to consider, perhaps: is it possible that Posada only perceived a faster pace in these recent strong starts (which now certainly includes the July 29th effort – where it did, for what it’s worth, seem like Joba was rushing between pitches)? That is, maybe the time between actual pitches does not vary as much as does the time from the delivery of one pitch to Joba’s being “set” on the mound?

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