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Lefties who pitch inside to righties

Which left-handed pitchers throw inside to righties the most often? How does it help them?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

While it may surprise some, sabermetricians watch baseball first, and write about it after. Which is why I am writing this post now. I was watching the Dodgers' pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu on Wednesday night, and the announcer made a comment that intrigued me. He talked about Ryu not being afraid to "pound right-handed hitters inside even though he is a left-handed pitcher."

It made me wonder: how uncommon is it for lefties to throw inside to righties? Who is good at doing it? Does it make a difference in how well a lefty performs?

*Before we get too deep into this analysis, it would be reasonable to believe that a lot of the same logic and questions could be applied to right-handed pitchers against lefties, but we will examine that another time. For today, I want to focus purely on lefties pitching to righties.

Why is it hard for a lefty to pitch inside to a righty?

First, let's consider why a lefty pitching inside to a righty is a story at all.

Naturally, lefties, by being scarce, hold an advantage over batters who are accustom to seeing right-handed opponents. But there are still several advantages a right-handed batter holds against a lefty.

First, hitters generally see the ball better when it is breaking towards them rather than away. That is why lefties usually develop strong change-ups, to give them a pitch that tails away from righties. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is arm angle. This differs pitcher to pitcher, from the extreme, sidearms, to the conventional, over-the-top deliveries. The harder the angle, the tougher the match-up for like-handed batters. For instance, a sidearm pitcher from the left side is far less deceptive against righties than lefties.

Talking about Ryu, the announcer I was listening to had said "he wasn't afraid to pitch inside." Fear is actually a key component to a pitcher's reluctance to throw inside to right-handed hitters. A left-handed pitcher trying to hit his spot inside to a righty knows that if he misses, he misses over the middle of the plate, or worse, hits the batter. If he throws the same pitch away, he misses off the plate. Pitchers can psyche themselves out from "pounding righties inside."

So which lefties throw inside to righties the most?

We can use Baseball Savant to see how often a left-handed pitcher throws on the inside third of the zone against right-handed hitters. Qualified for enough total pitches, this list shows the top ten pitchers in 2014 by percentage of pitches that are either on the inner third of the strike zone, or off the plate inside, to right-handed batters.

Rank Results Player Total Pitches % of Pitches
1 400 Jon Lester 993 40.3 %
2 354 John Danks 970 36.5 %
3 303 Jorge De La Rosa 856 35.4 %
4 285 Alex Wood 809 35.2 %
5 280 Scott Kazmir 799 35.0 %
6 258 Tommy Milone 738 34.9 %
7 341 Madison Bumgarner 996 34.2 %
8 347 Jose Quintana 1036 33.5 %
9 281 Robbie Ross 845 33.2 %
10 281 Gio Gonzalez 865 32.4 %

As we can see looking at the numbers, not even the pitchers who throw inside to righties the most, do so much more than 35% of the time. In comparison, of the top ten lefties who throw outside to righties, all of them do it more than 38% of the time.

We also find looking at the numbers that one pitcher sticks out from the rest. Jon Lester pounds righties inside more than any other left-handed pitcher so far in 2014.

Does pitching inside to opposite-handed batters help lefties?

If we look at the top ten left-handed pitchers in 2014 who pitch inside to righties, sorted by the lowest slugging percentage against, we find which pitchers have the most success from this strategy.

Rank Results Player SLG %
1 8 / 53 Tommy Milone 0.151
2 26 / 91 Jon Lester 0.286
3 21 / 73 Wade Miley 0.288
4 20 / 67 Scott Kazmir 0.298
5 20 / 61 Alex Wood 0.327
6 22 / 65 Mark Buehrle 0.338
7 20 / 58 Travis Wood 0.345
8 22 / 61 Dallas Keuchel 0.361
9 21 / 58 Tyler Skaggs 0.362
10 27 / 72 Jose Quintana 0.375

Again, Jon Lester's name floats to the top of the list, ranking second, in allowing a .286 slugging percentage on his inside pitches to righties. Tommy Milone throws inside the sixth most often, and he is the toughest to hit.

We can tell how effective each of these pitchers are throwing inside rather than outside to righties, by looking at the difference in performance when pitching to the two different locations.

Rank Player SLG % inside SLG % outside Difference
1 Wade Miley 0.288 0.578 -0.290
2 Tommy Milone 0.151 0.349 -0.198
3 Travis Wood 0.345 0.508 -0.163
4 Alex Wood 0.328 0.408 -0.080
5 Scott Kazmir 0.299 0.298 0.001
6 Mark Buehrle 0.339 0.315 0.024
7 Jon Lester 0.286 0.239 0.047
8 Dallas Keuchel 0.361 0.288 0.073
9 Tyler Skaggs 0.362 0.286 0.076
10 Jose Quintana 0.375 0.247 0.128

Only four of the most effective left-handers who pitch inside to righties find better success than they do pitching outside. Jon Lester is pretty lethal no matter where he locates his pitches, but shows no real improvement by pitching inside.

There is one caveat, however, that we are leaving out in comparing performance based on location. It is easy to presume that lefties who are effective at throwing inside to righties, probably gain some advantage pitching outside due to that fact. It's not a hard rule, as nothing is, but we can see pitchers like Dallas Keuchel or Tyler Skaggs, with strong numbers pitching outside to righties, perhaps, benefiting from their ability to pitch inside when they need to.

What does this mean for when I am watching the game?

Next time a left-handed hitter is pitching, pay attention to how often they throw the ball inside to a right-handed batter. If you notice a pitcher doing it frequently in a game, you know that he is going against the trend. You can then judge his performance. Does it help him pitch more effectively on the outside of the plate? Like most things in baseball, asking questions about one facet of the game opens up a lot more questions. Baseball is complicated!

By the way, Hyun-jin Ryu only throws inside to righties 22.9% of the time, which is actually quite low. Statistics aren't meant to replace watching the games, but they help us understand the game better. We can trust what the announcer tells us, or check to see if their statements are accurate for ourselves. This particular one wasn't, but it led us to a lot of interesting information.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Jeffrey Bellone is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score and can also be found writing about the Mets at Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. He writes about New York sports at Over the Whitestone. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter @OverWhitestone.