What Does Getting Ahead in the Count Mean to Pitchers?

| by Hardball Times

The great pitcher's are the ones who work the count in their favor and out the batter in a hole. There are twelve possible ball and strike counts. Out of those twelve there is one that seems to neutral, the first pitch, with five in favor of the pitcher and six in favor of the hitter. I based that on the wOBA and run expectancy of 12 the counts. The favorable five counts for the pitcher are: 0-2, 1-2, 0-1, 2-2, and 1-1. The six counts favorable to the hitter are: 1-0, 2-1, 3-2, 2-0, 3-1, and 3-2. So using the pitch by pitch data from MLBAM's Gameday, I can find the pitchers who have the highest and lowest percent of his pitches in a favorable count. The numbers are for this season with pitchers with at least 500 pitches.

Top FivePercent
Cliff Lee 55.1%
Phil Hughes 53.9%
Matt Capps 53.2%
Roy Oswalt 53.0%
Justin Verlander 52.4%

Bottom FivePercent
Charlie Haeger 36.2%
Brad Thomas 36.6%
Brian Burres 37.7%
Mitch Talbot 37.9%
Miguel Batista 39.0%

I feel this is why Cliff Lee is such a dominant pitcher, more so this season with an insane 19 strikeout to walk ratio in eleven starts. Only one pitcher has ever had a season with a K/BB over 10. Dan Haren and Josh Johnson aren't to far behind in the leader boards. But my sample might be a little high for some of the dominant relievers. Bringing the sample down to 250 pitches, relievers take over the top of the list with Rafael Bentancourt edging Cliff Lee by .5%. Relievers higher than Verlander are Jonathan Broxton, Matt Thorntan, J.J. Putz, and Hong-Chih Kuo.

The pitchers at the bottom of the list aren't surprising. Mainly guys who move from starting to long relief, rookies, or pitchers moving up and down the organizational pipeline. Of those with thousand pitchers, which should be starting pitchers for most of the season, Mitch Talbot, Aaron Cook, John Lannan, Dontrelle Willis, and Wade LeBlanc round out the bottom five.

These numbers could be skewed just slightly as I included the first pitch of the at bat, which every pitcher would throw no matter what and at varying rates. This, in my opinion, is the more telling number of the pitcher's skill in getting ahead of the count. So here is the top ten and bottom ten for this season for starting pitchers (400 pitch minimum).

Top TenPercent
Cliff Lee 81.8%
Dan Haren 77.0%
Roy Oswalt 76.6%
Phil Hughes 76.2%
Scott Baker 74.5%
Josh Johnson 74.2%
Justin Verlander 74.2%
Kevin Slowey 74.2%
Joel Pineiro 74.1%
Dallas Braden 74.0%


Bottom TenPercent
John Lannan 60.5%
Mitch Talbot 61.1%
Dontrelle Willis 61.7%
Gio Gonzalez 61.9%
Randy Wolf 62.1%
David Huff 62.7%
Carlos Zambrano 63.2%
John Ely 63.3%
Brett Myers 63.5%
Jonathan Sanchez 63.6%

Cliff Lee is on top again, this time by a sizable margin. The top ten is full of studs. The bottom ten, not so much. A couple of rookies with some sophomores mixed in and a few veteran pitcher who aren't exactly pitching like they used this season. The telling pitcher in this group for me would be John Lannan considering his putrid strikeout rate and BABIP that did not stay lucky this season. He along with Mitch Talbot and Randy Wolf are among the lowest in K/BB. On the other side, Cliff Lee, Scott Baker, and Dan Haren are among the top ten leaders in K/BB this season. It does seem like there is some correlation between getting ahead in the count more often and K/BB ratio, although a regression analysis would be needed to know for sure.

The leader boards are nice but we need to know the baseline for this. The average percent for each of the past three seasons are 68.1%, 68.1%, and 67.9% for 2008, 2009, and 2010 respectively. So the extreme deviation is about 10% points from the average. Knowing that, here is another leader board with the top ten and bottom ten percent for the past three seasons (1000 pitches).

Top Ten Percent
Cliff Lee 76.2%
Roy Oswalt 75.3%
Matt Thornton 75.1%
Randy Johnson 75.0%
Ricky Nolasco 74.5%
Joel Pineiro 74.5%
Mike Mussina 74.2%
Johan Santana 73.8%
Kevin Slowey 73.8%
Carl Pavano 73.3%


Bottom TenPercent
Kyle Kendrick 56.1%
Matt Palmer 59.2%
Gio Gonzalez 60.2%
Daniel Cabrera 61.2%
Oliver Perez 61.9%
Seth McClung 61.9%
Andrew Miller 62.1%
Ian Snell 62.3%
Kevin Gregg 62.3%
David Huff 62.7%

Surely getting ahead in the count frequently is a skill possessed by great pitchers. Cliff Lee has been doing it for three years in arow. Of course there may be some outliers, but even the old Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina was able to crack the top five. Greg Maddux would have been the starter with the second highest percentage if he made the sample (818 pitches in 2008). And upon looking at the leader boards with a smaller sample right before publishing this article, I see that with 995 pitches, Mariano Rivera has the highest percentage at 77.7%. Not to go all Mo here but his getting ahead percentage is down over four points this season, which was surprisingly at 78.5% for both 2008 and 2009.

This can work for hitters as well, although we might get the same kind of results here. Good hitters with a low percent, bad hitters with a high percent. Instead, looking to see which pitchers or hitters are or are not performing ahead in the count or are getting lucky when down in the count, etc. But this seems to be what individual pitch run values is suppose to calculate since most analysts base it on the balls and strikes count.

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