What if Pitching Were a Carnival Game?
One of my favorite things about baseball is the sheer number of mind games going on before every pitch. Will the batter sit on a fastball? Will the pitcher give in to the count and throw that fastball the batter is sitting on? The batter is weak against changeups, but the pitcher’s best secondary is a slider – what does that mean for each of their mindsets? First base is open, but the next batter up is strong – what does that mean? The permutations and counters are endless.
It doesn’t stop with the batter-pitcher confrontation. What if there’s a pickoff called? The defense is back and shifted – would a bunt make sense here? Does the count matter for the defense? What about the score? You can spin endlessly around these decisions, and it’s wonderful. I spend plenty of time watching the game and daydreaming about which tactics each team might employ.
That’s all awesome, and a great part of baseball. This article is very much not about those mind games. There’s another part of baseball that I also enjoy – watching phenomenal athletes at the top of their craft. Forget the game theory and levels of counter-play – the physical skill on display in a random baseball game is immense.
You might think I’m talking about home run derbies and 100-mph fastballs. Those are great, but they’re hardly the only impressive skills on display on any given night. I’m not always a fan of the superimposed strike zone outlines that are ubiquitous on broadcasts these days, but there’s one thing I’ll always love about them: seeing a pitch dot the edge.
Don’t get me wrong — I know that line is artificial. That might be the border of the regulation strike zone, but it’s not like you win a prize for hitting the edge instead of missing by a fraction of a centimeter. That got me thinking, though: what if you did win a prize by painting the edges of the zone? What if pitching was more like a carnival game?
I initially thought of the milk bottle game, where contestants launch mis-weighted rubber balls at an enticing array of glass bottles, but that’s not quite right. The best throws there are at the exact center of the bottle, and that’s no fun. I’m imagining a different type of game, one where you need to hit a thin target, and I’m not sure it really exists. Regardless of whether it’s an actual game or not, though, imagine that pitching was completely different. Instead of trying to retire a batter, the entire point is to throw a pitch that touches the boundary of the rulebook strike zone.
I don’t know who would win if we staged this contest in real life. Pitchers are kind of trying to do that in real games, but only kind of. They’re throwing the ball hard and with movement, trying to both hit the corners of the strike zone and avoid bats. Remove the bats, and you’d see a lot more fastballs and cutters thrown at something less than maximum effort. You certainly wouldn’t see many sliders or curveballs – if you’re aiming at a target, why throw a pitch with that much break?
Almost as good of a question, though, is who won this contest in the 2022 major league season. Sure, no one was keeping track, but that doesn’t mean I can’t measure it. Statcast records the vertical boundaries of the strike zone on every play, as well as where the ball crosses the plate. The measurements reduce the zone to two dimensions, which is fine with me – the math is much easier that way. I can compare the spot where the ball crossed the plate to the boundaries of the zone – Statcast doesn’t have to give me the width of home plate, I already know that – and account for the diameter of a regulation baseball to come up with the answer to this burning question: did a given pitch hit the border of the zone?
There are a few caveats to note. First, the top and bottom of the zone are approximate, and there’s margin of error in both of those measurements and the exact spot where the ball crosses the plate. Measuring things is hard! Not only that, but Statcast takes a bit of a shortcut. On pitches where the batter swung, it records the average top and bottom of the strike zone based on that batter’s stance all year. On pitches where the batter doesn’t swing, it makes actual measurements. That means the zone won’t be perfect every time, but it’s definitely close enough for this silly exercise.
It’s not quite this, but you can imagine a metal wire describing the borders of the zone. Every pitch either hits the wire or misses it. That’s pretty close to what I’m trying to measure here. I’ll call it “edge percentage” – the percentage of the time that each pitcher would win my silly carnival game.
With that out of the way, any guesses for the best pitcher at dotting the edges? I came into this assuming it was Jacob deGrom’s contest to lose. If you’re going to be the best pitcher in the game while mainly throwing two pitches to one side of the plate, you better hit the best part of the plate fairly often. Indeed, deGrom is great at it: he threw 940 pitches in 2022 between the regular season and the playoffs, and 31.7% of them touched the edge of the strike zone when they crossed home plate. The league average is right around 27%.
Of the 636 pitchers who threw at least 100 pitches this year, deGrom was indeed one of the best at painting the corners. He ranked second – in the 99.5th percentile. That’s excellent, and downright unfair when you combine it with his velocity (ungodly) and movement (top-notch). He’s Jacob deGrom, after all. One thing he’s not, though, is the best pitcher at hitting the edges of the zone.
The king of edge percentage? That’d be Phillips Valdez, who threw 287 pitches and hit the edge on 31.7% of them. The astute among you will note that 31.7% is deGrom’s rate, too. In fact, this is an exceptionally close race. Valdez had an edge percentage of 31.707%, as compared to 31.702% for deGrom. That’s about as close as it gets; a single mis-measured pitch would be greater than the difference between the two. If you’re looking for premium control, look no further than deGrom… and Valdez.
Oh, you wanted a montage of Valdez dotting the corner? You’re in luck:
In reality, deGrom is likely the king of this statistic after accounting for sample size. He threw nearly four times as many pitches, after all, so I’m far more willing to trust his data. The only other player to throw even 500 pitches and have an edge percentage of 31% or higher was Phil Bickford, who checked in at 31% even on 990 pitches. The top of the charts has a reliever-ish bent overall. Here are the top 11 (it would be 10, but I wanted to include Devin Williams):
Strike Zone Edge Leaderboard
I don’t think of all of these pitchers as control artists. I’m not sure that this even measures control, exactly. The goal of pitching isn’t always to hit the exact boundary of the strike zone, though that obviously doesn’t hurt. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy making a leaderboard, or that I won’t think of this list the next time I see any of these guys pitch.
Of course, if there’s a top of the list, it stands to reason that there’s a bottom of the list as well. It brings me no joy to report that the single worst pitcher, when it comes to this hypothetical game, is Cubs prospect and Ben Clemens pitching crush Caleb Kilian. I don’t think this is his long-term true talent, not by a long shot. In fact, Kilian seems like a plus command and control guy to me; until 2022, he’d boasted excellent walk rates. On the other hand, he walked 21.4% of the batters he faced in his brief time in the majors, which certainly tracks with his inability to hit the corner of the zone.
Here’s the bottom 10 of that list, almost exclusively populated with pitchers who didn’t pitch very frequently in the majors in 2022:
Strike Zone Edge Leaderboard (the Bottom)
It’s really hard to locate this poorly and still get major league hitters out. The lowest rate for a pitcher who threw 1,000 or more pitchers in the big leagues this year was Hunter Strickland’s 23.9%, and let’s be honest – if I asked you to name someone who didn’t always know where the ball was going, you might name Strickland, who posted the worst walk rate of his career in 2022. If you want to look at the list as a whole, you can see it here.
Baseball isn’t turning into a sport of mini-games overnight. You won’t walk into the stadium next year and see a carnival barker asking the pitchers to step right up and try their luck. It’s still a sport of batter-pitcher confrontations and trying to out-think your opponent. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to mentally rank pitchers based on how good they’d be at winning teddy bears, though.