SABR Analytics: Research Confirms Hard-Throwers’ Advantage

The Society for American Baseball Research hosts its second annual Analytics Conference in Phoenix this week. SABR president Vince Gennaro said in his opening remarks that the conference exists to assemble the thought leaders in the field of analytics to discuss topics important to the game. The three-day event includes research presentations, featured speakers such as Bill James and Joe Posnanski, as well as moderated panels with players, general managers and agents.

PHOENIX--Teams may be justified in their pursuit of hard throwers by analytics as well as scouting.

Not only do pitchers who light up the radar gun tend to record the most strikeouts, but when those pitchers allow balls to be put in play, they also tend to allow fewer home runs and extra-base hits than average. That's the conclusion drawn from research presented by Graham Goldbeck in his presentation "Batted Ball Success by Depth in the Zone."

Goldbeck, a data analyst for Sportvision--the company behind Pitch f/x--determined that batters who make contact with the ball well in front of home plate tend to hit for more over-the-fence power, while those who let the ball travel deep do not. Therefore, pitchers who force batters to make late contact--or no contact--have an advantage.

Batters tend to make contact with fastballs deeper in the zone than they make contact with curveballs, sliders or changeups--a fact that makes intuitive sense based on reaction times.

For his study, Goldbeck had at his disposal more than 600,000 ball-in-play results recorded by Hit f/x since 2008. Hit f/x offers similar data as the more familiar Pitch f/x, tracking a batter's contact point as well as batted ball speed, horizontal spray angle (think of a spray chart) and vertical launch angle (with a pop-up being 90 degrees straight up).

Goldbeck arrived at an average major league contact point of 21 inches, measured from the back of home plate. So on average, a batter strikes the ball about four inches in front of the plate, given that home plate measures 17 inches deep. Furthermore, he found that a batter's contact point stabilized after about 25 balls in play.

He found that some batters, such as Jack Cust, Dan Johnson and Josh Willingham, hardly ever stray from their points of contact, indicating rigid swing patterns that could leave them vulnerable to specific pitches or pitch sequences. Other batters adjust their point of contact with regularity, with Ichiro Suzuki, Coco Crisp and Ian Desmond being prime examples.

Goldbeck found that batters maximize their power, as measured by isolated slugging percentage, about a foot in front of home plate--a contact point of about 29 inches. The sweet spot for home runs occurs between 12 and 29 inches, with the caveat that batted-ball velocity decrease rapidly after 22 inches.


Batted ball speed by depth in zone

Graph courtesy of MLB Advanced Media and Sportvision


His research confirmed that batters who meet the ball out front tend to pull for power, while those who wait often hit to the opposite field. While most batters conform to career norms, Goldbeck noted one player whose contact point has progressed forward through the seasons.

The Royals' Alex Gordon went from about 50 extra-base hits per season in 2007 and '08 to about 70 in 2011 and '12, all while steadily meeting the ball farther out in front of the plate.

Another fascinating point in Goldbeck's presentation was that while the hardest throwers tended to induce contact deeper in the zone, there were three notable exceptions. One was Mariano Rivera--who doesn't throw as hard as he did in his prime but still generates plenty of awkward swings--but the other two were situational relievers with low arm angles.

Both righthander Brad Ziegler and lefty Randy Choate sit in the high 80s, relying on deception and movement, yet their fastballs produced deeper contact in the zone than most pitchers. In other words, their fastballs play up and must appear a few miles per hour faster to unsuspecting batters.


Fastball speed vs. average contact point

Graph courtesy of MLB Advanced Media and Sportvision