Numbers don’t lie: Pitchers must study up to get best of big bats

Since the start of 2013, pitchers are throwing inside more to Baltimore slugger Chris Davis.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When it comes to looking at hitters, there are two ways to come up with a scouting report. One way is to do the scouting yourself. The other is to let the pitchers do it for you.

Every hitter has his own unique skillset, so every hitter gets pitched a little bit differently. As much as pitchers say they prefer to use their strengths over trying to attack the hitters’ weaknesses, what we end up observing is a compromise, an approach that blends knowledge of the pitchers’ strengths with knowledge of the hitters’ strengths.

While a good number of hitters are fairly similar, certain players are attacked in a variety of ways.

FanGraphs has ready access to data about the types of pitches that different hitters see. Owing to their respective strengths and weaknesses, San Francisco’s Marco Scutaro gets a lot more fastballs thrown his direction than Pedro Alvarez.

FanGraphs also has ready access to data about whether hitters see more or fewer pitches in the strike zone. Again, Scutaro sees a lot of strikes, because generally speaking the worst he can do is hit a single. Guys like Josh Hamilton (Angels) and Jose Abreu (White Sox), meanwhile, are pitched around, because they can hit the ball hard and they’re willing to expand their zones.

AROUND THE HORN

There are still other ways to identify additional differences.

Consider the second set of data, above. The stats display who gets pitched in the zone, and who gets pitched out of the zone.

But what if we went about that a little differently, with a little more granularity? Let’s look at the guys who get pitched inside the most and the least often? What does that information tell us?

The below data is from the start of 2013, splitting up right-handed hitters, left-handed hitters and switch-hitters, with a minimum of 1,500 pitches seen, to avoid any small sample sizes. I split the plate into thirds and defined inside pitches as being pitches over the inner third or beyond.

First, here are the league averages:

The results show that righties get pitched more inside than lefties. There are a few reasons for this.

One, on average lefties stand a little closer to the plate. Two, righties more often face same-handed pitchers, and same-handed pitchers are more likely to work inside. Three, the strike zone against lefties extends outside off the plate, so there are strikes out there to earn in spots where it’s difficult to make good contact.

The result is that, while one out of four pitches to lefties counts as inside, with righties it’s closer to one out of three.

Now how about the individual players? Below are three tables. On the left, the top five in inside-pitch rate. On the right, the bottom five in inside-pitch rate.

Baltimore’s Davis gets pitched inside more than any other lefty. Philadelphia’s Utley gets pitched inside less than any other lefty, although it’s almost a tie with Cleveland’s Murphy. Part of this, presumably, is that Utley hangs over the plate, but there are other factors (discussed later in this column).

That’s pretty dramatic. Between extremes, the Dodgers’ Puig sees inside pitches almost twice as often as the Pirates’ McCutchen. Both are among the league’s elite, but it’s clear they go about their business in very different ways — because they’re treated very differently.

There’s a little less to be gleaned here, and it might be more interesting to break the switch-hitters down by the two sides since it stands to reason they have different swings and different strengths. There’s a big difference between Baltimore’s Wieters and Philadelphia’s Rollins. This is also a rare opportunity to see the name of the Cubs’ Bonifacio right next to the name of the Indians’ Santana.

What can be made of all this?

Pitchers are trying to stay out of the hot spots. Guys like Davis, Philadelphia’s Howard and San Francisco’s Morse are most dangerous when they’re able to get long and extended, so pitchers try to tie them up. Utley, though, has quick wrists and a good ability to yank the ball.

THE 500-HOME RUN CLUB

Since the start of last season, Davis has posted a slugging percentage of .435 on inside pitches and .615 on outside pitches; Utley has slugged .549 on inside pitches and .392 on outside pitches; and McCutchen, interestingly, has about equal slugging percentages, but he’s hit for a much higher batting average on balls in play covering the inside, which is a testament to his wrists. While Pittsburgh is a difficult environment for a right-handed batter to pull the ball, pitchers still haven’t taken many chances with McCutchen in the box.

Of particular interest is Puig. More than anyone else, he’s been busted inside. From the June day he debuted in 2013, the Cuban slugger demonstrated power to the opposite field. Yet, he’s slugged better on inside pitches than outside pitches.

On inside pitches, his batting average on balls in play is .460. On outside pitches, it’s .309. He’s shown more power away, so pitchers have risked singles and doubles instead, but it’s worth noting that Puig saw inside pitches 45 percent last season and 40 percent so far this year. It could be that pitchers are realizing Puig can turn on pitches as well as go the other way with them.

That’s a trend we can monitor, and there are other trends within this data. Since 2009, Utley’s inside-pitch rate has hardly budged.

The same can’t be said for Davis:

Nor can it be said for McCutchen:

Since 2012, Davis has seen a big increase and McCutchen has seen a big decrease . It’s evident that the scouting reports have changed and pitchers are trying to find new ways to retire improved hitters.

It was in 2012 that Davis emerged as a solid middle-of-the-order threat. Meanwhile, McCutchen’s always been a good hitter, but in 2012 he reached another level. It’s worth noting that, while pitchers have adjusted to McCutchen, he hasn’t slowed down one bit. So pitchers will continue to adjust until they figure something out or they don’t have to face McCutchen anymore.

There are a lot of ways to break down this sort of data. Looking at inside-pitch rate simplifies some things, but in certain cases it doesn’t need to be complex. McCutchen, Puig, Utley and Davis are among the league’s most dangerous hitters. All four require their own special considerations when they’re in the box, lest they be able to do real damage.

Which, of course, they’re continuing to do anyway. Because against the best, one can do only so much.

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