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Exploring control and command for White Sox pitchers

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New Baseball Prospectus metrics try to control for catchers, even if White Sox pitchers couldn’t in 2016

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For those who are fatigued from the focus on pitch-framing, the reflexive question is, “What about pitchers? It’s just as much their fault if they’re not close to hitting the mitt.”

Once you control for the I-hated-Tyler-Flowers-and-I’m-sick-of-hearing-about-him crowd, that’s still a valid question. And that’s what Baseball Prospectus has undertaken with their major project this year.

In 2016, they showed off their recent developments in receiving metrics in a week they called “Catchella.” This year, this week is Pitcher’s Week, and they’re starting with control and command metrics that do just as much to filter what pitchers can’t control using the same metrics — Called Strike Probability, and Called Strikes Above Average.

The explanation:

Of the two, CS Prob—short for Called Strike Probability—is the more straightforward: the likelihood of a given pitch being a strike. CS Prob goes beyond what the strike zone ought to be and instead reflects what it is: a set of probabilities that depends on batter and pitcher handedness, pitch location, pitch type, and count. Good pitchers understand that while the strike zone is a dynamic construct, it nonetheless has some consistencies depending on which combinations of these factors are present. We calculate CS Prob for every pitch regardless of the eventual outcome.

The other statistic, CSAA, stands for Called Strikes Above Average; a measure of how many called strikes the player in question creates for his team. In the case of catchers, we isolate the effects of the pitcher, umpire, and other situational factors which allows us to identify how many additional called strikes the catcher is generating, above or below average. For catchers, this skill is commonly described as “framing” or, in more polite company, “presentation.”

For pitchers, we can apply a similar methodology—controlling for the catcher, umpire, etc. to identify the additional called strikes created by the pitcher. CSAA is calculated only on taken pitches, an important nuance. A pitch must be taken in order to be eligible to be called a strike by the umpire, so while CS Prob looks at all pitches, CSAA only takes into account pitches where the outcome is left up to the umpire.

The article goes to show how a guy like Bartolo Colon can pound the zone and get away with it due to excellent command, where lesser pitchers just get taken deep. It also explores the advantage somebody like Clayton Kershaw has by having Clayton Kershaw’s stuff, while Jered Weaver’s stuff can’t hang if he doesn’t have elite command.

John Danks serves the same example, although he was a less extreme success story beforehand. He threw more strikes in 2016, but bad strikes, and with less heat. Throw in zero help behind the plate, and that’s how a serviceable fifth starter crashed into an early-season DFA.

Year Innings CSAA CSPROB Pitches Called Strike Probability FB velo DRA
Year Innings CSAA CSPROB Pitches Called Strike Probability FB velo DRA
2014 193.7 0.81% 3,284 0.479 88 4.91
2015 177.7 0.65% 2,911 0.478 89 4.92
2016 22.3 -0.99% 387 0.493 87.2 5.56
John Danks year-to-year

I’ve spent the morning monkeying around looking for other things this new data might show, while not looking too hard for meaning, since we’re still getting accustomed to it. A few takeaways.

Remember CSAA for catchers.

When thinking about catchers’ ability to work the strike zone, I often think of framing runs rather than the percentage, so I had to revisit CSAA for catchers in order to get my bearings.

In 2015, Tyler Flowers registered a 1.8% CSAA. The following year, Dioner Navarro posted a -2.4% CSAA. That’s a 4.2 percent gap, which is huge.

How huge? Among pitchers, Zach Davies led all of baseball with a 3.5% CSAA. In other words, he got 3.5 percent more strikes than the CS Prob would otherwise indicate. That explains how he was able to post a 3.97 ERA over 163 innings despite being a 6-foot righty with a 90-mph fastball.

Zach Duke threw far more strikes last year.

An accompanying article on BPro shows that Duke had the greatest year-over-year increase in strikes thrown according to CS Prob. He jumped from 41.8 percent in 2015 to 46.5 percent in 2016. This helped him cut down on the inexplicable walks to lefties that hampered him in his first year with the Sox.

  • 2015: 15 BB in 101 PA
  • 2016: 3 BB in 77 PA

Miguel Gonzalez is fourth on this list of most-improved control, but it’s less meaningful since we didn’t watch him too closely in 2015.

Zach Putnam’s CS Prob is intentionally bad.

Because Zach Putnam is a splitter-first pitcher, he’s not supposed to be in the zone most of the time. Based on where he finishes among pitchers who threw at least as many innings as Putnam the last three years, he following the game plan.

2014: Last out of 332 pitchers with a 37.8% CS Prob. Francisco Liriano was second-to-last at 39.4%.

2015: Last out of 370 pitchers with a 36.2% CS Prob. Chasen Shreve was second-to-last at 38.3%.

2016: 507th out of 512 pitchers with a 39.1% CS Prob. Ryan O’Rourke was last at 36.8 percent.

The difference between Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.

Rodon’s control improved in 2016, so much so that he actually had a greater CS Prob than Quintana (48.3 percent to 47.7 percent).

Quintana still has him beat quite handily in terms of command. Quintana isn’t a Tom Glavine type in this regard — he set a personal best with a 0.7% CSAA. Then again, CSAA only measures pitches taken, and Quintana’s success has been more predicated on unproductive contact.

Either way, it’s better than Rodon, whose command has resulted in 1.5% called strikes below average in each of his two seasons. Rodon has room for improvement, but the White Sox should count on him being more hammer than chisel and adjust accordingly with the catcher.

Dan Jennings’ lack of command hurts; Tommy Kahnle might be fine?

Jennings had the worst command on the staff among pitchers who were around the whole season with a -1.9% CSAA for his work. His excellent 2.09 ERA belies a problem with inherited runners, as 21 of 50 scored on his watch.

If you expand it to partial-season pitchers, Tommy Kahnle (-2.14%) and Michael Ynoa (-1.17% CSAA) had him surrounded. Kahnle’s an interesting case, because his control and command numbers went in opposite directions:

  • 2015: 45.5% CS Prob, -0.46% CSAA
  • 2016: 49.8% CS Prob, -2.14% CSAA

Yet Kahnle might have the stuff that can overcome less precision. He allowed just 13 baserunners over his last 16 innings after struggling with major control issues early. He’s somebody who might have the stuff to throw strikes first and worry about location when they start beating him.

Chris Sale’s approach worked.

The Condor’s attempt to maximize his in-game durability is reflected in his CS Prob (49.3 percent, up from 47 percent), and his command didn’t suffer either (0.7% CSAA, up from 0.52%). He might’ve been occasionally burned by the harnessed fastball or the missing changeup, but he easily set a career high in innings (22623) with an above-average ERA (3.34) despite catchers who didn’t do him any favors. The latter is a big reason why Baseball Prospectus identified him as baseball’s most valuable pitcher by their measurements.