Strikes outside the strike zone: skill or luck?

Why is there a picture of Craig Kimbrel here? Read the article and find out. - Doug Pensinger

Is it possible some pitchers are better than others in getting strikes on pitches outside the strike zone? Using PITCHf/x data can help provide the answer.

PITCHf/x data is both a blessing and curse. Sites like Brooks Baseball have changed the way pitching is viewed, but with over 700,000 pitches thrown each year, the amount of data can be overwhelming. The interface at Brooks is wonderful for individual pitchers, but doesn't allow for comparisons. This creates another instance where I can promote someone I've run across in the past six months and have really come to respect -- Daren Willman, who runs Baseball Savant. Part of his site includes a PITCHf/x search form that allows filtering through the approximate 4.2 million pitches thrown since 2008.

Searches need to be kept narrow since the amount of data can quickly become overwhelming. For this post, I wanted to find out how many pitches outside the strike zone were called strikes, and how many were called strikes vs. swinging strikes. I also was curious how often this happened with two strikes.

That's already too many questions, so I went with the last one--how often did a player strike out, either called or swinging, on balls outside the strike zone? I gathered the data and winnowed it down to a manageable set, choosing pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches, or 500 for current pitchers for a total of 863 pitchers. This chart breaks down how often they got a strikeout on pitches outside the strike zone: Pitchfx

17.4% of the time these pitchers recorded a strikeout on a pitch outside the strike zone. The vast majority (81.5%) were on swinging strikes.

This chart shows the best at getting called strikes:

Pitcher From To Pitch OZ OZ% Strike 2 Swinging Swing% Called Call% Strike%
Duchscherer, Justin 2008 2010 2385 1529 64.1% 434 39 9.0% 42 9.7% 18.7%
Rivera, Mariano 2008 2013 5290 3580 67.7% 1283 159 12.4% 110 8.6% 21.0%
Mussina, Mike 2008 2008 3135 1858 59.3% 628 47 7.5% 49 7.8% 15.3%
Maddux, Greg 2008 2008 2628 1493 56.8% 386 33 8.5% 29 7.5% 16.1%
Putkonen, Luke 2012 2013 778 454 58.4% 139 16 11.5% 10 7.2% 18.7%
Glavine, Tom 2008 2008 1091 871 79.8% 182 15 8.2% 13 7.1% 15.4%
Clemens, Paul 2013 2013 1168 670 57.4% 188 18 9.6% 13 6.9% 16.5%
Coello, Robert 2010 2013 537 325 60.5% 103 12 11.7% 7 6.8% 18.4%
Lee, Cliff 2008 2013 20791 10829 52.1% 3721 485 13.0% 249 6.7% 19.7%
Wilson, Brian 2008 2013 5372 3377 62.9% 1130 149 13.2% 75 6.6% 19.8%
Gray, Sonny 2013 2013 1204 708 58.8% 196 37 18.9% 13 6.6% 25.5%
Locke, Jeff 2011 2013 3572 2273 63.6% 568 74 13.0% 37 6.5% 19.5%
LeCure, Sam 2010 2013 4083 2533 62.0% 762 99 13.0% 49 6.4% 19.4%
Farquhar, Danny 2011 2013 977 573 58.6% 159 33 20.8% 10 6.3% 27.0%
Valdes, Raul 2010 2013 2371 1502 63.3% 499 71 14.2% 31 6.2% 20.4%
Siegrist, Kevin 2013 2013 773 457 59.1% 161 18 11.2% 10 6.2% 17.4%
Wright, Wesley 2008 2013 4331 2632 60.8% 808 125 15.5% 50 6.2% 21.7%
Moyer, Jamie 2008 2012 8703 5561 63.9% 1589 123 7.7% 98 6.2% 13.9%
Collins, Tim 2011 2013 3437 2125 61.8% 617 76 12.3% 38 6.2% 18.5%
Janssen, Casey 2009 2013 4556 2784 61.1% 929 124 13.3% 57 6.1% 19.5%
Dumatrait, Phil 2008 2011 2396 1422 59.3% 380 31 8.2% 23 6.1% 14.2%
Wagner, Billy 2008 2010 2079 1179 56.7% 432 89 20.6% 26 6.0% 26.6%
Jimenez, Cesar 2008 2013 964 586 60.8% 183 20 10.9% 11 6.0% 16.9%
Machi, Jean 2012 2013 857 527 61.5% 151 31 20.5% 9 6.0% 26.5%
Price, David 2008 2013 16118 9449 58.6% 3276 375 11.4% 194 5.9% 17.4%
Halladay, Roy 2008 2013 18034 10766 59.7% 3381 515 15.2% 200 5.9% 21.1%
Marte, Damaso 2008 2010 1731 1002 57.9% 357 48 13.4% 21 5.9% 19.3%
Lincoln, Mike 2008 2010 1896 1192 62.9% 342 33 9.6% 20 5.8% 15.5%
Pena, Tony 2008 2011 4234 2442 57.7% 651 81 12.4% 38 5.8% 18.3%
Cloyd, Tyler 2012 2013 1594 991 62.2% 292 39 13.4% 17 5.8% 19.2%

Click on column headings to sort

To explain the table, Justin Duchscherer has thrown 2,385 pitches in his career, of which 1,529 were outside the strike zone (OZ). 434 of those pitches were with 2 strikes, with 39 (9.0%) resulting in a swinging strikeout and 42 (9.7%) resulting in a called third strike. It's impossible to determine if these pitchers got the calls due to reputation or skill, but certainly fun to speculate upon.

I was more interested in total strikeouts, since a swinging strikeout on a pitch outside of the zone is a credit to a pitcher as well. There will be duplicates from the previous table:

Pitcher From To Pitch OZ OZ% Strike 2 Swinging Swing% Called Call% Strike%
Kimbrel, Craig 2010 2013 3778 2230 59.0% 769 205 26.7% 35 4.6% 31.2%
Cabrera, Alberto 2012 2013 503 338 67.2% 88 26 29.5% 1 1.1% 30.7%
Santos, Sergio 2010 2013 2289 1390 60.7% 424 114 26.9% 16 3.8% 30.7%
Gregerson, Luke 2009 2013 5219 3274 62.7% 964 258 26.8% 26 2.7% 29.5%
Alburquerque, Al 2011 2013 2049 1290 63.0% 384 98 25.5% 15 3.9% 29.4%
Venters, Jonny 2010 2012 3701 2516 68.0% 710 192 27.0% 12 1.7% 28.7%
Buchholz, Taylor 2008 2011 1463 843 57.6% 216 56 25.9% 5 2.3% 28.2%
Holland, Greg 2010 2013 3480 2074 59.6% 670 160 23.9% 26 3.9% 27.8%
Crow, Aaron 2011 2013 2791 1697 60.8% 415 107 25.8% 8 1.9% 27.7%
Chapman, Aroldis 2010 2013 3515 2117 60.2% 724 175 24.2% 24 3.3% 27.5%
Brothers, Rex 2011 2013 3001 1770 59.0% 530 129 24.3% 16 3.0% 27.4%
Farquhar, Danny 2011 2013 977 573 58.6% 159 33 20.8% 10 6.3% 27.0%
Veal, Donnie 2009 2013 1049 653 62.2% 163 41 25.2% 3 1.8% 27.0%
Wagner, Billy 2008 2010 2079 1179 56.7% 432 89 20.6% 26 6.0% 26.6%
Machi, Jean 2012 2013 857 527 61.5% 151 31 20.5% 9 6.0% 26.5%
Medina, Yoervis 2013 2013 1128 729 64.6% 181 43 23.8% 4 2.2% 26.0%
Kuo, Hung-Chih 2008 2011 3316 1944 58.6% 607 124 20.4% 32 5.3% 25.7%
Edgin, Josh 2012 2013 912 548 60.1% 172 37 21.5% 7 4.1% 25.6%
Gray, Sonny 2013 2013 1204 708 58.8% 196 37 18.9% 13 6.6% 25.5%
Bulger, Jason 2008 2011 1991 1205 60.5% 322 75 23.3% 7 2.2% 25.5%
Darvish, Yu 2012 2013 6708 4079 60.8% 1257 293 23.3% 25 2.0% 25.3%
Hanrahan, Joel 2008 2013 6024 3658 60.7% 1157 261 22.6% 30 2.6% 25.2%
Putz, J.J. 2008 2013 4416 2629 59.5% 828 189 22.8% 19 2.3% 25.1%
Masset, Nick 2008 2011 4428 2874 64.9% 778 170 21.9% 25 3.2% 25.1%
Lyons, Tyler 2013 2013 787 447 56.8% 124 26 21.0% 5 4.0% 25.0%
Rodriguez, Paco 2012 2013 980 655 66.8% 208 46 22.1% 6 2.9% 25.0%
Calero, Kiko 2008 2009 1081 696 64.4% 226 48 21.2% 8 3.5% 24.8%
Wuertz, Michael 2008 2011 3335 2078 62.3% 617 147 23.8% 5 0.8% 24.6%
Jansen, Kenley 2010 2013 3853 2043 53.0% 737 142 19.3% 39 5.3% 24.6%
Schlereth, Daniel 2009 2012 1675 1030 61.5% 287 57 19.9% 13 4.5% 24.4%

Click on column headings to sort

This is why I chose Craig Kimbrel's picture--he has 381 strikeouts in his career, and 240 (63%) are on pitches outside the strike zone. I leave it to others to determine if closers are better at this because hitters face them less frequently, and as more data becomes available, it will be very interesting to see if these tendencies change over time. Since I'm a Cubs fan, I'll show Carlos Marmol:

Pitchfx2

Chicago fans often wondered why hitters didn't just sit at the plate and wait for Marmol to walk them, and that did appear to become the case after his very outstanding 2010.

I need to make it absolutely clear I'm not sure any of this has any relevance in the larger sense. We use statistics to make inferences and predictions, and sometimes numbers are just numbers and not indicative of a larger trend. In addition, the PITCHf/x data is still so new that until there's complete career data for the best pitchers of a generation we're still making little more than guesses. That doesn't mean it can't be interesting to see if there are trends, and the data and interface Daren makes available at his site allows for some fun investigating.

I've left the best for last--Daren also includes data on catchers...and umpires. Stay tuned to see if any variations exist in those groups.

All data from baseballsavant.com, and a big thanks to Daren Willman for his willingness to add features when I ask. I can't explain how guilty I feel when he adds something and my first response is "Could you add this too?" when my reaction should be "Holy buckets, do you have any idea how long I've been looking for that???" Since I amalgamated over 4 million lines of data, there is the possibility I made mistakes, and those are my responsibility.

Scott Lindholm is a web columnist for 670 The Score in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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