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Pitching to Contact is Probably Not the Answer for Justin Verlander

msnyder
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Ever since Jack Morris made the comments about Justin Verlander “enjoying strikeouts” too much and needing to get quicker outs, I’ve been uncomfortable. I was pretty sure that the last thing Justin Verlander needed to do to get better was strike out fewer batters.

We know what happened next; JV went out and tossed a no-hitter while only striking out four batters. Everyone seemed to speak of how Justin had followed Jack’s advice and how his new approach to pitching was working. I prayed and hoped that it wasn’t true. That Justin wasn’t going to throw away his talent like that.

Fortunately his last two outings were vintage Verlander. He finished eight innings in each of the starts, and struck out seven and nine respectively. One strikeout per inning, that’s even a tick above his career average. His pitch counts didn’t suffer for the extra K’s.

But two starts hardly proves a point. The guy that many often wished he pitched more like is Roy Halladay of the Phillies. The word is that Roy is so efficient because he’s excellent at pitching to contact and, although he strikes out a fair number of batters, only goes for the strikeout when he needs to.

But is that really true?

Not in the limited sample of data that I’m about to present. I took 11 samples of strikeouts from each of the past five years (55 total) for Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay (11 is the number that the free ‘event search’ at baseball-reference.com spits out), and compared them to samples of non-strikeout outs (11 each year, 55 total). I averaged the number of pitches that each guy threw to record a strikeout and to record a non-strikeout out.

Again, this is a pretty small sample for each pitcher (55 outs per pitcher in each category), and a more tedious analysis should probably be performed before we conclude anything too strongly, but we’re seeing hints that Roy isn’t actually more economical with his outs.

Sure, strikeouts “cost more”, in terms of number of pitches, than a non-strikeout out, but wer’re really only talking about 1.1 to 1.2 extra pitches per strikeout. And even that really comes out in the wash. Let’s take JV’s pitch numbers above and do a thought experiment. Say he needed to record ten outs. If he struck them all out, we would expect him to use 45.6 pitches. If attempted to get them all out with non-strikeouts, he’d need only 34.7 pitches to face the first ten hitters, but since he’s allowing balls in play he’s not going to retire every hitter because we know that pitchers can’t maintiain an ultra-low BABIP.

Instead, he’d probably need to face 14 batters to record 10 in-play outs (4 of 14 is a BABIP of .286). This would require 48.6 pitches. So an “in play” out usually does come with fewer pitches, but it comes at the cost of allowing some hits (and, in turn, more batters to face). A strikeout has a much lower chance of ending up with a guy on base.

So how is it that Halladay gets by with throwing fewer pitches per batter than Verlander? Roy’s at 3.76 pitches per plate appearance this season, and Justin’s at 4.08 (prior to last night), or a difference of about ten pitches (9.6) per 30 hitters (about a game’s worth). That’s a fairly significant difference. It allows Halladay to pitch approximately two outs deeper than Justin can in each outing.

So what gives? The big answer lies in their respective walk rates. This year (heading into last night’s game), Justin had walked 8.3% of batters (more or less league average), but Halladay had walked only 4%. The difference between those two marks is about 1.2 walks per game (per 30 hitters). If you figure about 5.5 pitches per walk (a reasonable estimate), we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.5 extra pitches per game for Verlander due to the higher walk rate.

That leaves us with about three pitches that are unaccounted for. Perhaps it really is that Halladay is more economical with his outs (and the data didn’t capture it), but even if that is the case, we’re only talking about three pitches per start. I’ll say it again. Saying that Justin needs to pitch to more contact “like Roy Halladay” means you want him to change his approach in order to save three measly pitches per start (at most). That’s less than half a pitch per inning, which is much less of a big deal than many folks make it out to be.

You could argue that Justin’s “strikeout approach” to pitching causes him to walk more batters, but the strikeout/non-strikeout numbers above don’t indicate that his approach is what’s elevating his pitch count above that of a guy like Roy Halladay. It’s simply a matter of walking fewer batters.

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