There is one of our despised phrases, and one of the Twins’ favorites and it’s “pitching to contact.” The Twins use this to justify their affinity of pitchers that don’t walk anyone, but unfortunately also fail to strike out many hitters. We’re seeing that phrase quite a bit this offseason, as the Twins have just signed RHP Jason Marquis to fill out the rotation, and he’s essentially a Carl Pavano or Nick Blackburn clone. Those three pitchers are going to go the chuck-’n'-duck route, whereas the other two starters, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, will actually be able to strike out some hitters.
Last season, there was some controversy when the Twins expressed they wanted Francisco Liriano to “pitch to contact” more. Here we had a starter whose main weapon was getting hitters to swing-and-miss, and yet the Twins wanted him to stray from that strategy. It was a comment that most of us (including myself) didn’t take to very well. However, beneath the surface, the Twins were trying to say that they wanted Liriano to reduce his number of pitches in an outing by getting quicker outs. In fact, here’s a quote from Ron Gardenhire in a Phil Mackey column from last season:
“Use that two-seamer, and use that slider down and in every once in a while, and that changeup, but pitch to contact early,” Gardenhire said. “That’ll get him deep into games. Because his stuff is so good. There’s times when you need to go for the strikeout.
“That’s when you save your Mr. Nasty, as they say. You throw the nasty pitches then. But those other times you need to pitch to contact to get you deeper into games. When you want that big strikeout, maybe with a man on second, and you’ve got an open base, take your shot with your stuff.”
When I first started thinking about the Twins’ strategy when it comes to starting pitchers, I thought they believed that high-contact pitchers had better ERAs than the Lirianos of the world. Then I saw Gardy’s quote above and realized that they employ so many of these pitchers because they favor the quick outs. It appears as though the Twins have a philosophy that striking out hitters, as Liriano has done in the past, raises your pitch count in a hurry. Think about Scott Baker. He spends so much time trying to make the perfect pitch for a strikeout that a hitter ends up fouling off about 6 pitches in an at-bat, and next thing we know, he’s at 80 pitches through 4 innings. At least this is what it sounds like from Gardy and Bert Blyleven. Meanwhile, since Pavano, Blackburn, and Marquis don’t strike out many hitters, the Twins seem to believe that these guys do a better job of getting deeper into games.
This is what I’ve chosen to focus on. I’m going to be checking for correlations by pairing two statistics that seem to be at the root of pitching to contact – K/9 and BB/9 – with each of these following statistics that appear to be related with the benefits of pitching to contact: innings pitched, pitches per start, and innings per start. Just for fun, I also checked K/9 and BB/9 against ERA to see if this would yield any interesting results. Also, I limited my sample to all 2011 starting pitchers that pitched at least 150 innings last season.
Just as a refresher, correlations range from -1.0 to 1.0, where -1.0 implies a negative correlation (as one goes up, the other comes down), 1.0 is a positive correlation (one goes up or down, the other goes the same direction), and 0 is no correlation. A disclaimer I’ll make here is that I was only checking for linear correlations. It’s very possible that nonlinear correlations existed for each data set, but I chose not to look for them for simplicity’s sake.
First, the just-for-fun correlations, K/9 vs. ERA and BB/9 vs. ERA.
ERA vs. K/9: -0.3644 ERA vs. BB/9: 0.3446
Well, I think most of us could have predicted that there would be some correlation between these two with ERA. More strikeouts means a smaller ERA, while more walks means a higher ERA. Now, I chose ERA over FIP for two reasons. First, because I feel the Twins look more at ERA than FIP, and second, because strikeouts and walks are part of FIP to begin with, and I didn’t feel the need to check the correlation of sugar and chocolate chips to chocolate chip cookies.
From these two correlations, we can see that the Twins are correct in wanting their pitchers to have low walk rates, but the low strikeout rates aren’t favorable in having a low ERA. It’s certainly not impossible (just look at Pavano’s 2010 season), but it’s more difficult.
K/9 vs. IP: 0.3599 BB/9 vs. IP: -0.2678
Well, it’s almost a repeat of the previous correlations. More strikeouts can mean more innings pitched, while fewer walks leads to more innings pitched. However, this doesn’t help pitching to contact much. Once again, limiting walks is beneficial, but there’s still no evidence that fewer strikeouts are helpful for a pitcher.
Pitches/Start vs. K/9: 0.5071 Pitches/Start vs. BB/9: -0.0545
Ah, here’s where pitching to contact starts to gain some traction. Having a higher strikeout rate can lead to more pitches in a start, which means more mileage on a pitcher’s arm. Meanwhile, there’s virtually no correlation between the number of batters a pitcher walks and his number of pitches per start.
Something I should note is rather obvious once I mention it. We all know how (most) pitchers have a 100 pitch limit in starts. The range for pitches/start is not very much, as it appears to be between 85 and just under 120, so even if there is a moderate positive correlation between pitches/start and strikeout rate, it’s not adding on many pitches on average. Also, these two pairings fail to take into account the pitchers that are legitimately going deep into their starts versus those that are getting to the 100 pitch limit in 5 innings.
IP/Start vs. K/9: 0.2399 IP/Start vs. BB/9: -0.5321
To remedy the issue with the previous correlations, I then looked at innings pitched per start versus strikeout and walk rates. With strikeouts, there is a weak positive correlation. While this doesn’t help the case of pitching to contact, it certainly doesn’t disprove it, either. As for walks, there’s a moderate negative correlation between that and getting deep into a start. I think that this can be easily explained. By limiting walks, a pitcher is limiting his number of baserunners allowed, and that means facing fewer hitters in a start.
After all this research, I felt that something was still missing. I’ve covered everything I said I would at the beginning, but it seemed like I needed to check strikeout and walk rates against one more thing. Then I remembered Gardy’s quote. The Twins preach getting quick outs, and none of the stats I’ve looked at seem to focus on quick outs. That’s when I determined what my last statistic should be.
Pitches/IP vs. K/9: 0.2362 Pitches/IP vs. BB/9: 0.7154
If a pitcher is successful at getting quick outs, then he should be able to limit his number of pitches per inning. The Twins seem to believe that a pitcher that strikes out a lot of hitters ends up throwing too many pitches in an inning, but the data here doesn’t fully support that claim. Yes, there is a positive correlation, but it’s weak. But if we look on the walk side of it, there’s the strongest correlation we’ve seen out of any of these. At 0.7154, it’s a moderately strong positive correlation between a pitcher’s walk rate and the number of pitches he throws in an inning. (In case you’re wondering, that one dot that is apart from the rest of the group on the walk graph is J.A. Happ.)
From all these correlations, it appears as though targeting pitch-to-contact pitchers is only a good idea if you’re focusing on those that limit their number of walks. However, there just isn’t a lot of evidence that suggests that sacrificing strikeouts for quicker outs is a good idea. For example, there’s a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play. It’s likely going to be around .300, so allowing hitters more chances to actually put the ball in play is going to mean more baserunners. This is partially supported as the correlation between K/9 and WHIP is -0.3846, so there is a weak-to-moderate negative correlation. If we go further, more baserunners means more hitters to pitch to, which leads to more pitches per inning.
Pitching to contact isn’t necessarily the wrong strategy, it’s just that from this data, I feel that its benefits are being overstated. Like I said in the last paragraph, if a pitcher wants to go deeper into a start, fewer walks are more important than fewer strikeouts. The Twins have definitely had it correct in preaching their pitchers to avoid the walks, but I don’t feel that avoiding the strikeout is as beneficial as the coaching staff believes.