Strikeout pitch sequences, by location

Max Scherzer can beat you high and beat you low. - USA TODAY Sports

We take another look at the most common pitch sequences to lead to strikeouts, but this time from the perspective of the pitch locations.

Recently, I skimmed the surface of the complicated subject that is pitch sequencing by looking at the most common two and three-pitch sequences of pitch types employed by big league pitchers to strike out hitters. While the type of pitch tells us one piece of information, there are obviously other aspects of these pitches that play a role in their overall description and effectiveness.

Today I'm going to revisit the same data set from 2013, but this time focus on pitch location. For now, I'm breaking up location into its horizontal and vertical components. At least for me, I would like to see each pitch characteristic separately first, and let some observations based on those results direct the next level of inquiry. As before, I will examine both two-pitch and three-pitch sequences.

Horizontal Location

For the purposes of this study, I have broken up the horizontal plane into five regions, based on the strike zone that I have found is being called in 2013 as discussed here. The regions are "OutB" for pitches that would be balls off the outside corner, "OutS" for pitches in the outer third of the zone, "MidS" for pitches in the middle third of the zone, "InsS" for pitches in the inside third of the zone and finally "InsB" for pitches that would be balls off the inside corner.

2-pitch sequences

Here are the most common sequences to strike out hitters.

Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Count
OutS OutS 1831
MidS OutS 1740
MidS MidS 1647
OutS MidS 1469
InsS OutS 1138
MidS InsS 1137
OutB OutS 1126
InsS MidS 1090
OutS InsS 1029
InsS InsS 966

Most common 2-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts, 2013

The first observation is that basically every strikeout ends with a pitch that crosses the front of the plate in a location that is within the horizontal extents of the typically called strike zone. This tells us that hitters are not chasing pitches off the outside edge and whiffing at an alarming rate, for example.

There is certainly a greater affinity for the outer edge of the strike zone than the inner, which is not surprising to me. I do find it interesting that the middle of the zone is pitched to as much as it is, but remember the vertical component is missing from this perspective, so "middle" could still mean the pitch is down below the knees in a relatively safe location.

Here is the pitcher leaderboard for more common strikeout two-pitch sequences.

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Count
Cliff Lee MidS InsS 22
Yu Darvish OutS OutS 20
Lance Lynn MidS OutS 18
Eric Stults OutS OutS 18
Bartolo Colon OutS OutS 18
Tim Lincecum OutS MidS 17
Shelby Miller OutS OutS 17
Max Scherzer OutS MidS 17
Max Scherzer MidS MidS 17
Lance Lynn OutS Outs 17
Greg Holland MidS MidS 17
CC Sabathia MidS OutS 17

Most common 2-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts by individual pitcher, 2013

Impressively, Cliff Lee leads the pack here and does so by finishing off hitters on the inner third of the plate, a much less common horizontal location. Of note as well here is Tim Lincecum, whose three most common strikeout sequences finish with a pitch in the middle third of the zone. This tends to agree with his woeful ranking on Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman's Edge% leaderboard at Fangraphs.

3-pitch sequences

For consistency with the previous pitch types article, here are the abbreviated leaderboards for the league and individual pitchers for most common three-pitch strikeout sequences from a horizontal location perspective.

Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Pitch 3 Count
OutS OutS OutS 575
MidS OutS OutS 568
MidS MidS MidS 536
MidS MidS OutS 518
OutS MidS OutS 495

Most common 3-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts, 2013

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Pitch 3 Count
Yu Darvish OutS OutS OutS 11
Bartolo Colon MidS OutS OutS 11
Max Scherzer OutS MidS MidS 9
Chris Tillman MidS OutS OutS 9
Tim Lincecum MidS MidS MidS 8
Max Scherzer OutS OutS MidS 8
Matt Moore MidS MidS MidS 8
Greg Holland MidS MidS MidS 8
Eric Stults OutS OutS OutS 8
Cliff Lee MidS MidS InsS 8
A.J. Griffin MidS OutS OutS 8

Most common 3-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts by individual pitcher, 2013

A few new names pop up here. One trend appears to be that guys with elite fastballs are showing up throwing to the middle third of the plate a lot. This agrees with some work that I have done before, showing how velocity and strike zone location play together.

Vertical Location

Based on the same defined strike zone, I have broken up the vertical plane into five regions as well. The regions are "TopB" for pitches that would be balls above the strike zone, "TopS" for pitches in the upper third of the zone, "MidS" for pitches in the middle third of the zone, "BotS" for pitches in the bottom third of the zone and finally "BotB" for pitches that would be balls below the strike zone.

2-pitch sequences

Here are the most common sequences of vertical pitch locations to strike out hitters.

Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Count
BotB BotB 1539
MidS BotB 1392
BotS BotB 1389
MidS BotS 1252
BotS BotS 1208
BotB BotS 1153
MidS MidS 1149
BotS MidS 986
TopS BotB 903
MidS TopS 875

Most common 2-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts, 2013

The overwhelming majority of strikeouts come on pitches in the lower third of the strike zone or below. I have to admit, I am surprised that there are not more strikeout pattern that end with "TopS" or even "TopB" vertical locations, given the ability of high fastballs to induce whiffs. In the previous study, we found that all fastballs still generate the most strikeouts, so I was expecting to see a more balanced result here. Certainly breaking balls and offspeed pitches would be expected to be more successful when kept low, so these would be contributing heavily to these totals.

A significant point to me is to see how many strikeouts actually come on pitches that would typically be called balls had the hitter been able to lay off the offering. This is a major difference between the horizontal and vertical views of the location, as earlier we did not see any common strikeout sequences finish out of the zone in the horizontal plane.

Here are the individual pitcher leaders for most common strikeout two-pitch sequences.

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Count
Yu Darvish BotB BotB 24
Mat Latos BotB BotB 21
Ervin Santana BotB BotB 20
Max Scherzer MidS BotB 18
Patrick Corbin BotB BotB 18
Felix Hernandez BotB BotB 18
Cole Hamels BotB BotB 17
Hisashi Iwakuma BotB BotB 17
Edwin Jackson BotB BotB 17
Justin Masterson BotS BotS 17
Adam Wainwright BotS BotB 17

Most common 2-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts by individual pitcher, 2013

Justin Masterson is the only pitcher to have made the leaderboard by staying within the called strike zone. The rest of the leaderboard shows how important it is for pitchers to keep the ball down. We recognize Darvish, Santana, Jackson and Masterson as having put away sliders from the previous study looking at pitch types.

Checking in on Tim Lincecum who we touched on above, his strikeout pitches are also heavily weighted toward a final pitch below the strike zone, mitigating some of the problems caused by hitting the middle third of the plate. He is in fact the first pitcher down the leaderboard to post a setup pitch above the middle third of the zone, with 13 "TopS" to "BotB" sequences leading to strikeouts.

3-pitch sequences

Finally, we consider the most common three-pitch sequences in terms of vertical location.

Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Pitch 3 Count
BotS BotB BotB 463
MidS MidS BotB 386
BotB BotB BotB 386
MidS BotS BotB 384
TopB TopB TopB 380

Most common 3-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts, 2013

Pitcher Pitch 1 Pitch 2 Pitch 3 Count
Yu Darvish BotS BotB BotB 11
Max Scherzer MidS MidS BotB 9
Edwin Jackson BotB BotB BotB 9
Max Scherzer TopB TopB TopB 8
Hisashi Iwakuma MidS BotB BotB 8
Ervin Santana BotS BotB BotB 8
Yu Darvish BotS BotB BotS 7
Patrick Corbin BotS BotB BotB 7
Max Scherzer MidS MidS BotS 7
Mat Latos BotB BotB BotB 7
Gio Gonzalez TopB TopB TopB 7
Ervin Santana BotB BotB BotB 7
Chris Tillman TopB TopB TopB 7

Most common 2-pitch sequences ending in strikeouts by individual pitcher, 2013

Interestingly, we see a new pattern hit the leaderboard when expanding to three pitches, one where every pitch is above the top of the strike zone. This is closer to what I thought I might see as a result of the frequency of FF-FF-FF leading to strikeouts found in the previous article. On the individual level, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Chris Tillman all have shown an aptitude for putting away hitters while staying up.

By adding a third pitch, we also start to see more sequences where at least one of the pitches would be in the strike zone, at least vertically speaking.

Through looking at the components of pitch location, we have gained a couple of additional insights into pitch sequencing leading to strikeouts. The bigger challenge, of course, is to combine the pitch type, horizontal location and vertical location information, at a minimum, in such a way as to start understanding pitch sequencing at more than a cursory level.

Here is an updated Google document that has the full list of two-pitch and three-pitch sequences for individual pitchers for pitch type, horizontal location and vertical location. Only those sequences that occurred at least four times are included in the tables.

. . .

Credit and thanks to Baseball Heat Maps for PITCHf/x data upon which this analysis was based. Data includes all games up to and including July 8, 2013 to match the previous pitch sequencing article.

You can follow me on Twitter at @MLBPlayerAnalys.

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