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Swinging at pitches outside the strike zone

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Hitters have been told since they began playing Little League not to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. How well do they listen to this sage advice, and should they?

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Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

One of the blessings of PITCHf/x data is the ability to see not only how often players swing at pitches, but how often they swing at pitches in or out of the strike zone. It needs to be stated explicitly that PITCHf/x renderings are not the absolute truth, and there are literally thousands upon thousands of pitches that are incorrectly labeled each year (estimates are between ten and fifteen percent), ones right on the boundaries of the strike zone, but it still helps in reviewing how teams and players adjust in the face of more and better information.

This post is centered on the Chicago Cubs but has information on all teams. The Cubs have high expectations for this season and are looking for big contributions from established players like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, new additions Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, and Dexter Fowler, and continued development from the next level of talent. Fans already had glimpses of Arismendy Alcantara, Javier Baez, and Jorge Soler last year and quickly became dismayed by the proclivity of Baez to swing at balls outside the strike zone.

The strike zone must be defined first, and this is the diagram used at Baseball Savant.com:

Strike Zone

This is from the catcher's perspective, with Zones 1-9 in the strike zone and Zones 11-14 outside the zone. To give an example of what pitches really look like, this shows the pitches in Zone 11 for the Cubs in 2014:

Zone 11-2

There are plenty of pitches way outside the strike zone, but also no shortage of pitches that are right on the edge of the strike zone, depending on the hitter involved.

This table shows how teams approach pitches outside the strike zone, with extensive explanation to follow:

Team Total Pitches Z 11-14 Swinging Foul IP, no out IP, out Swing Pct HBP
Red Sox 25253 15029 1365 1821 440 955 30.5% 68
Twins 24943 14811 1433 1767 459 976 31.3% 53
Athletics 24270 14401 1191 1559 439 956 28.8% 49
Indians 24268 14480 1299 1738 454 980 30.9% 42
Angels 23937 14482 1538 1752 497 1037 33.3% 60
Pirates 23906 14428 1471 1717 448 1001 32.1% 78
Phillies 23882 14539 1549 1785 472 963 32.8% 55
Marlins 23851 14267 1577 1681 460 881 32.2% 35
Blue Jays 23834 14682 1419 1832 520 1021 32.6% 40
Mets 23821 14017 1319 1607 387 925 30.2% 54
Yankees 23772 14560 1199 1839 463 1048 31.2% 56
Dodgers 23739 14161 1429 1725 513 1017 33.1% 58
Rays 23709 14118 1225 1573 423 896 29.2% 66
Nationals 23654 14039 1472 1551 435 895 31.0% 55
Cubs 23592 14207 1767 1709 410 848 33.3% 54
Astros 23561 14095 1550 1614 412 853 31.4% 54
Tigers 23531 13803 1452 1678 469 907 32.6% 44
Orioles 23329 14169 1670 1750 494 1055 35.1% 62
Cardinals 23287 14092 1295 1860 450 1007 32.7% 85
White Sox 23132 14025 1698 1771 433 944 34.6% 60
Rangers 23113 13678 1286 1681 472 1004 32.5% 61
Diamondbacks 23064 13539 1290 1682 431 1003 32.5% 43
Giants 22900 14091 1563 1906 515 1016 35.5% 43
Braves 22876 13725 1624 1721 447 929 34.4% 43
Rockies 22830 13777 1477 1974 515 1032 36.3% 48
Padres 22725 13728 1512 1579 375 941 32.1% 41
Royals 22690 13521 1245 1878 478 1043 34.3% 53
Reds 22657 13525 1528 1705 418 960 34.1% 52
Mariners 22342 13271 1359 1565 425 955 32.4% 60
Brewers 22195 13092 1504 1718 452 967 35.4% 72

Click on column headings to sort

In 2014 Cubs hitters saw a total of 23,592 pitches, of which 14,207 were outside the strike zone (Z 11-14), or around sixty percent, right around the league average.

The separation begins in the next column, which shows Cubs hitters whiffed on 1,767 of pitches outside the strike zone (Swinging), leading the majors both in the absolute number and percentage (12.4 percent, not shown). When Cubs hitters did make contact, they fouled off pitches 1,709 times (Foul), put the ball in play and made an out 848 times (IP, outs) and put the ball in play and didn't make an out 410 times (IP, no out).The second-to-last column shows the percentage of pitches outside the zone at which players swung (Swing Pct), 33.3 percent in the case of the Cubs.

Another way to state this is to say that Cubs hitters swung at pitches outside the strike zone 4,734 times and had a successful outcome 410 times. This is an oversimplification since a sacrifice fly could have driven in a run or a sacrifice bunt might have advanced a runner, but in general, for most teams, swinging at balls outside the zone rarely results in a positive outcome.

The chart is sorted by total number of pitches seen, and it's hard to miss that Red Sox hitters saw over 3,000 more pitches than the Brewers. Given that the typical 9-inning game has around 150 pitches per team, that's around twenty games of pitches Brewers hitters didn't see compared to Boston. The amazing thing is that these are similar numbers to 2013 (or I grabbed the wrong year's data -- this is a joke, feel free to laugh).

The Cubs have some free swingers. Junior Lake is even more likely to swing at pitches outside the strike zone than Baez, but there's a very good chance he won't be a factor in their plans going forward. Javier Baez most certainly is expected to play a big role, and it will be interesting to see what influence Joe Maddon may have, both in cutting down a swing that can only be described as violent and to reduce the number of swings on pitches outside the zone.

I'd like to confirm this sometime, but I strongly suspect pitchers rarely intend to throw pitches in the strike zone and that most pitches down the middle are mistakes, be it a fastball that is off in velocity, a breaking ball that doesn't break, or a slider that doesn't slide. If hitters are willing to swing, what reason do pitchers have to give them good pitches to hit? The Cubs can make large strides if they can cut down on the bad swings and force pitchers to stay closer to the zone.

This past Monday brought two things to my house -- fifteen inches of snow (boo!) and my Baseball Prospectus 2015 (yay!). This is the last sentence regarding Javier Baez:

If Baez can learn a little more patience at the plate, his obscene power from a middle infielder position will make him an All Star.

Careers are made out of "ifs," and in Baez' case it's not an understatement. Seeing more pitches and swinging on fewer outside the zone are two improvements the Cubs can make as they begin their return to playoff contention.

All data from Baseball Savant

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.