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Another thing Max Scherzer is pretty good at: Controlling the running game

Max Scherzer recently mentioned wanting data on controlling the run game. Here we look at how he rates on a couple of the new base running measures.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Max Scherzer just completed an excellent couple of weeks. On Sunday night against the Brewers he threw a complete game shutout with 16 strikeouts, which was the sixth best nine-inning start by GameScore since 1914. He was perfect through six innings before a Carlos Gomez bloop single to lead off the seventh broke up his bid for perfection. Spencer Bingol has more on the historic outing. Before that start, Scherzer was invited to tour the ESPN campus in Bristol, Connecticut. As part of that visit he sat down with Mark Simon for a Q-and-A on the role of numbers in baseball. The interview is excellent, and I strongly recommend you read it (when you are done here, of course). Scherzer's interest in the application of analytics to baseball strategy is well documented, and this excellent conversation with Simon really shows his awareness. Simon asks Scherzer about how his interest in sabermetrics has evolved, how he uses numbers to help him gain an advantage in his starts, specifically focusing on defensive shifting, and also what numbers Scherzer would like to see that are not currently available. Scherzer's answer to this last item was interesting. Here it is:

"[Something on] the ability to hold baserunners and limit the running game. That's a very undervalued aspect of trying to evaluate a pitcher. When you allow stolen bases, that changes the game. That's overlooked."

Well, such a thing does exist and Scherzer has typically been worse than the average pitcher, although not by a large amount. But, for the last couple of seasons he has been a lot better, which makes me wonder if, given his question, it has been an item of recent focus.

When the incredible gang at Baseball Prospectus introduced Deserved Run Average (DRA) to the world (read all about it here), they included a base-stealing component that includes two statistics. A description of the base-stealing component is described in the linked article, but for those of you who have not read it, I will do my best to summarize it here.

One of the statistics looks at base-stealing success, and the other looks at the frequency with which baserunners attempt to steal. Generally, these statistics measure how pitchers compare to other pitchers in controlling the running game. Certain pitchers are better than others at holding runners, keeping runners from trying to steal bases, and/or being an effective part of throwing a runner out on an attempted steal. These are important for limiting run scoring. For the better part of baseball history, base-stealing defense has been entirely the task of the catcher, which is not at all fair. There are many factors involved. Importantly with these new statistics the context of the situation is considered. So things like the inning, the stadium, the underlying quality of the pitcher, the catcher, and the lead runner are factored in.

The first statistic, relating to base-stealing success, is called Swipe Rate Above Average (SRAA). This judges each participant in a base-stealing attempt for his role in the likelihood of success. To really oversimplify the idea, a pitcher-catcher battery that allows Billy Hamilton to steal a base will not be docked as strongly as they would if David Ortiz is successful in stealing a base against them. But of critical note is that the role of each participant in the battery is isolated with SRAA.

The second statistic, relating to base-stealing attempts, is called Takeoff Rate Above Average (TRAA). It is similar to SRAA, but slightly more complicated as it includes some other contextual aspects (e.g., the score differential, the hitter on-deck) and the success of the stolen base attempt does not matter. What matters is whether the runner tried to steal. If runners are trying to steal a lot against a certain pitcher relative to other pitchers it indicates that the runner perceives their likelihood of success to be high, and that is something we want to know about that pitcher. With SRAA and TRAA everything is compared to average, so zero is average, and pitchers can be good (below average; negative number) or bad (above average; positive number) at these base-stealing aspects of pitching.

So, how does Max Scherzer rate at controlling the running game? After that description of the new-fangled advanced statistics, let's begin with some conventional numbers. Between 2009 and 2014 (his full seasons), Scherzer allowed on average 13.5 stolen bases in 22.7 attempts and 284.2 opportunities. He has seven pickoffs in those years, which doesn't seem like all that many, but is actually the 13th highest total among right-handed pitchers. All together, those numbers are decent, certainly not great, and fit closely with the advanced measures over the same time frame, which for the most part have him rated as slightly above average (the bad kind of above average):

2009 + 0.14 - 3.48
2010 + 3.49 + 1.25
2011 - 1.05 - 1.00
2012 + 0.28 -1.92
2013 + 0.59 + 0.80
2014 - 0.46 -1.25

You can see that Scherzer has been good at limiting attempts, as most of his TRAA marks are negative, but when an attempt happens he has been a poor at limiting its success, as most of his SRAA marks are positive. In 2014 he was on the negative side for both measures, and so far in 2015 he has really strong marks of -3.10 SRAA and -5.71 TRAA. The strong SRAA number is a bit odd given that runners are 3/3 in stolen base attempts against him this season. But it needs to be noted that those 2015 numbers are based on only 93.0 innings pitched and 113 stolen base opportunities, which are about 45 percent and 40 percent of his typical totals.

It is not clear if he has changed his approach, or if it is simply due to random variation in a smaller sample. Although, last year he reportedly began practicing holding the ball while in the stretch for long periods of time in order to get runners to lock up. This tactic basically stalls the runner. Again, given that it was the one statistic he mentioned wanting to see more on, it might be that he has made this effort to be better at this aspect of his game and was seeking statistical evidence to support his work. That is obviously speculative on my part, but certainly plausible. According to teammates and his manager, Scherzer is meticulous in his preparation and execution of a game plan. Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest controlling the run game is another part of that preparation.

While Scherzer's SRAA numbers have lagged above average, the TRAA numbers are on the right side of things. He is doing something (e.g., holding the ball) to keep runners from attempting to steal bases against him. I noted that Scherzer has only picked off seven base runners in his career, which is fine, but nothing close to A.J. Burnett (26 in same time frame), James Shields (26), or Johnny Cueto (21). However, pickoffs are not necessarily the best measure of a pitcher's move to throw to a base. Runners may be staying close to the bag at least partly because of the move, and this will limit the pickoff total. As far as I know Scherzer does not have a great move to first, so he is not going to see high pickoff totals, and is not going to necessarily keep runners close to the bag. But his hold the ball approach is doing enough to keep runners from taking off for the next base.

Another thing that almost certainly helps Scherzer hold runners is the frequency with which he throws fastballs, and the velocity of them. Being quick to the plate with pitch delivery is important. Teams want their pitchers taking no more than 1.3 seconds from point of initial movement to ball hitting the catcher's glove. This amount of time gives the catcher a fighting chance at throwing out a stealing base runner. I don't have access to Scherzer's time to the plate, but it is fairly simple math that tells us that throwing a lot of hard fastballs will keep that time down. According to FanGraphs, since 2008, Scherzer's 61.4 fastball percentage ranks him 77th on the list of qualified starting pitchers. The average velocity of those fastballs is 93.4 mph, which ranks 25th.

These marks are overall averages, but do not change very much when he has a runner on first or second. The point is that Scherzer is often delivering pitches that get to the plate quickly, and should be easy for the catcher to catch. The opposition is likely aware of this factor and including it in their decision to attempt a steal, or so the numbers suggest. Yet the SRAA numbers show that if these runners takeoff on a steal attempt, they have been more successful against Scherzer than the average pitcher, which should also factor into their decision making. Perhaps the low TRAA numbers are more a result of Scherzer not allowing a lot of base-runners - 29th lowest WHIP for pitchers with at least 500 IP since 2008 - and therefore teams do not want to risk erasing the few they get.

In sum, Scherzer will be happy to know that there is a strong effort within the analytics community to measure a pitcher's ability to control the running game. Further, by the advanced measures that have been developed he has generally been better than the average pitcher at preventing runners from attempting steals against him, but, slightly worse than the average pitcher in limiting successful attempts.

. . .

Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He would probably pull a hamstring trying to steal a base against Max Scherzer. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.