Juan Nieves and Throwing Strikes | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Before the 2013 season, the Red Sox hired Brewers legend Juan Nieves as their pitching coach. Why Nieves? Well, aside from the fact that they felt he would be a good personality fit, General Manager Ben Cherington said that Nieves preached the philosophy the Red Sox were looking for: “attacking the strike zone.” Fresh off a world championship, Nieves is sticking to his message in 2014, telling pitchers that they need to “pound the zone and get people out.”

Nieves is primarily known for throwing the sole no-hitter in Brewers’ history. In fact, aside from that singular moment, his career was short and unspectacular.  Nieves also came of age well before advanced statistics conquered baseball front offices, while Cherington heads one of baseball’s most advanced front offices. The fact that they agree so strongly on this point suggests that they might be on to something. And, they are.

We know that baseball’s best pitchers minimize walks, maximize strikeouts, and avoid giving up home runs. We summarize a pitcher’s ability to do those things in the Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic, which is strongly predictive of the number of runs a pitcher will allow over the course of a season, as well as the season thereafter.

What about the other 70% of plate appearances that do not result in a walk, strikeout, or home run? This is where throwing strikes matters. Indeed, there are few things more important than the ball-strike count, a/k/a the “pitch count,” in determining what the result of a batter’s plate appearance will be.

Let’s start with something simple.  All pitch counts can be separated into three categories: Pitcher Ahead, Even, or Batter Ahead. Look at the average production per batter in 2013 for each one of those categories, when each plate appearance ended. We’ll use Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) for our production rate. Higher is better:

Pitch Count Batter wOBA Representative Hitter
Batter Ahead 0.421 Mike Trout
Even Count 0.295 Nick Hundley
Pitcher Ahead 0.218 Henry Blanco

Bit of a difference, huh? The average major league hitter produces at the plate like Mike Trout when he is ahead in the count, like Nick Hundley when the count is even, and like a backup, no-bat catcher when the pitcher is ahead. So, you want to see Mike Trout, or at least his bat, at your local stadium? No need to be in the AL West; just have your pitchers consistently get behind in the count to batters, and you’ll get the experience at no extra charge.

Individual ball-strike categories are a bit more volatile, but the pattern is generally the same. Here is the average production by wOBA in 2013 for each pitch count when a plate appearance ended. We’ll stick to just the numbers this time. Again, higher is better:

Pitch Count Batter wOBA
3-0 Count 0.679
3-1 Count 0.556
2-1 Count 0.395
3-2 Count 0.380
2-0 Count 0.375
1-0 Count 0.371
0-0 Count 0.363
1-1 Count 0.358
0-1 Count 0.331
2-2 Count 0.200
1-2 Count 0.180
0-2 Count 0.164

Again, the pattern is clear. Pitchers who have batters facing two strikes, or are otherwise ahead in the count, absolutely dominate their opponents. Pitchers who can’t stay out of 2-ball or 3-ball counts, however, are a disaster. With a trend this clear, it’s pretty obvious where you want your pitchers to spend much of their time.

Of course, no pitcher in the major leagues is going to spend all of their time pitching either ahead or behind. In fact, the average pitcher in 2013 split his pitch counts evenly, 1/3 of the time to being ahead, even, and behind in the count against batters. One key to better production for a pitcher is to beat this benchmark and consistently place batters into unfavorable pitch counts. There will still be some variance and bad hops, but the overall trend of pitching ahead in the count is unmistakable.

With that, let’s look at how the pitchers in the Brewers’ rotation performed in 2013. Remember that we want as low a number as possible in the “Batter Ahead” column and as high a number as possible in the “Pitcher Ahead” column.

Pitcher Batter Ahead Even Count Pitcher Ahead Most Common Final Pitch Counts
Kyle Lohse 29% 35% 36% 1-2, 2-2, 0-1
Matt Garza 32% 36% 33% 2-2, 3-2, 0-1
Marco Estrada 33% 34% 33% 3-2, 2-2, 1-2
Yovani Gallardo 39% 36% 25% 3-2, 2-2, 1-2
Wily Peralta 39% 31% 30% 3-2, 1-2, 2-2
League Average 34% 34% 33% 1-2, 2-2, 3-2

“Final pitch count” refers to the ball-strike count when the plate appearance finished.

The starters last year sorted themselves into three fairly distinct categories:

  • Kyle Lohse was absolutely sublime, with one of the best ball-strike mixes for starters in the league.  You can see that in his most common final pitch counts: 1-2, 2-2, and 0-1.  Lohse is essentially a dream pitcher for Juan Nieves: he pounds the zone relentlessly, keeping hitters off-balance.  It is why, despite being a fly-ball pitcher who doesn’t get many strikeouts, Lohse remains consistently effective.
  • Matt Garza is not quite as controlled as Kyle Lohse, but he still is above average, and throws a fair amount of first-pitch strikes.
  • Marco Estrada was basically league-average last year.  Although he strikes batters out, he didn’t get in favorable situations as often as he should, and he found himself in full counts way too often.
  • Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta were notably subpar, two of the worst starters in the league last year.   Both were well-below average in letting the batter get ahead in the count, and were consistently facing the wonderful decision of walking a batter or giving the batter something to hit.

I am reasonably confident that Estrada will do a better job with his ball-strike counts in 2014, as long as he is healthy. Estrada was much better in 2013 after he got off the the DL. Moreover, in 2012, Estrada’s control was terrific. He was in pitcher’s counts 38% of the time and behind only 29% of the time. That is a Kyle Lohse level of control, and it is reasonable to expect Estrada can marshal it again this season, with good results.

There is less reason for confidence in Peralta or Gallardo. Peralta has never had good control, and Gallardo has pretty much spent his career pitching from behind in the count, and somehow still tricking batters into swinging the bat. Peralta is young enough that he may improve, but Gallardo almost certainly won’t.

The Brewers are a solid rotation overall, and virtually every rotation has a few pitchers with good command and others who struggle a bit.  But the Brewers’ quest for the postseason would be easier if Gallardo, Peralta, and Estrada could channel the words of Juan Nieves, and throw more strikes.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @bachlaw

All data from Baseball Reference, except for the wOBA calculations, which are mine, based on Baseball Reference data.

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