Last week we looked at Dustin McGowan’s rare combination of excellent outcome statistics despite horrible command and control, based on Baseball Prospectus’ corresponding metrics, CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average) and CS Prob (Called Strike Probability). In that piece there is a scatter plot showing what an outlier McGowan was with regard to these numbers. He was not the only aberration, though — there was another lonely point on that plot that stood out. As it turns out, it belongs to Brad Ziegler, McGowan’s new Marlins teammate.
McGowan was in the lower left hand corner, having fared poorly in both metrics. Ziegler is marked with the arrow where his uniqueness is plain to see. Among all pitchers who threw at least 60 innings in 2016, he had MLB’s second-best CSAA at 2.9 percent but the worst CS Prob at 37.8 percent. In other words, he seemed to have terrible control and exceptional command.
It’s counterintuitive — conventional wisdom suggests that the two concepts go hand in hand — but that’s not necessarily the case. Let’s break down why Ziegler finds himself sitting relatively alone on this scatter plot, starting with his poor control. This quote from Baseball Prospectus’ excellent companion piece to the metrics will be our guidance for his CS Prob.
Having a high CS Prob is an indication that the pitcher in question is throwing a lot of strikes and largely keeping the ball around the strike zone. CS Prob fundamentally tells us which pitchers pound the strike zone, regardless of the quality of those offerings.
Ziegler’s MLB-worst CS Prob squares with another 2016 statistic in which he brings up the rear: zone percentage. According to PITCHf/x, again among those who pitched at least 60 innings, his 33.6 zone percentage was more than six percentage points lower than the next lowest pitcher, Braden Shipley.
Envision zone percentage as a set, robot enforced strike zone and CS Prob as the more fluid, human called strike zone. By then comparing Ziegler’s zone percentage of 33.6 percent to his higher CS Prob of 37.8 percent we can see that he is the beneficiary of around four extra called strikes per 100 pitches. This squares logically with his fantastic CSAA, which we’ll get to later.
Here’s every pitch Ziegler threw in 2016.
It’s remarkable how little he uses the top part of the zone. By dividing the strike zone horizontally into thirds on Baseball Savant, we see that Ziegler threw just eight pitches in the top third, or .77 percent of his total pitches last season. With a baseline of pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches in 2016, this is yet another instance where Ziegler is last in baseball. Here they are in all their glory, the eight rare pitches he threw high in the zone.
For all intents and purposes, Ziegler uses only two-thirds of the strike zone. He is entirely focused on keeping the ball down, but that means he’s going to throw a lot of balls outside the zone, which explains his major league-worst CS Prob. He’s able to make it work in part by inducing a 40.8 percent swing percentage on pitches outside the zone, which according to PITCHf/x was the third-highest in baseball last year (minimum 60 IP).
Throwing low balls outside the zone is part of Ziegler’s strategy, which is where the command portion of our inquiry comes into play. Again we’ll quote from Baseball Prospectus’ explanation piece on CSAA to help light the way.
The very best command pitchers—guys who are one standard deviation or more above the mean—also have a high propensity to throw pitches in the sub-10 percent band as well. When these guys are trying to work out of the zone, they really work out of the zone. That means spiked curveballs, down-and-out sliders, and eye-high fastballs.
There it is — just replace “eye-high fastballs” with “grounder-generating sinkers,” and you have Ziegler. His intent matters a great deal, and it’s a credit to BP’s metric that it takes an approach like this into account. As we saw earlier, Ziegler’s plan of attack results in fewer pitches thrown in the strike zone than almost anybody. The catcher’s ability to consistently anticipate where his pitches will end up and the umpire’s knowledge of the submariner’s tendency for pitching low helps him execute this plan.
CSAA credits Ziegler for hitting his spots, because he does! It’s just that a lot of time his spot happens to be outside of the zone. Even if we control for the quality of framing and umpiring he received, Ziegler was 2.92 percent more likely to have his pitches called for strikes than the average pitcher.
Traditional thinking holds that command and control are two sides of the same coin, the former coming only after a pitcher has a grasp of the latter. When we’re discussing scouting and player evaluation, those meanings may remain in place as a shorthand baseball vernacular, but Ziegler proves that command without control — in the strictly defined sense of the latter — is possible, and potentially a road map to success.
You won’t see him pound the strike zone, but that doesn’t mean Brad Ziegler is pitching without a compass. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
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Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.