Many different qualities can work together to make a pitcher great.
Some blow fastballs past hitters with eye-popping velocity, others can break a batters ankles with a zone-bending curveball, while still many others butter their bread by painting the corners with perfectly placed pitches.
But for the most part, whether you’ve got the huge velocity or killer stuff, a pitcher needs to succeed in at least one of the following two ways: Command and/or Control.
And although the two words are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous.
According to the (slightly modified by me) Baseball Prospectus’ definitions … Control indicates a pitcher’s ability to keep the ball in the strike zone, though not necessarily in any particular location within that zone; While Command indicates a pitcher’s ability to precisely locate pitches (in or out of the zone as desired).
The difference between the two will become important in the discussion that follows.
At Baseball Prospectus (BP), Jeff Long, Jonathan Judge, and Harry Pavlidis took what we know about command and control and combined that knowledge with a couple of (catcher’s) pitch framing statistics to take a different kind of look at pitchers. The results are eye-opening.
The first statistic, Called Strike Probability (CS Prob), is pretty straightforward: the likelihood of a given pitch being called a strike. The second statistic, Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA), is a bit more complicated: a measure of how many called strikes a player creates for his team. Put more simply, this is the framing component of catching you hear so much about.
Again: although both CS Prob and CSAA are catching statistics, the guys at BP decided to apply them to pitchers in order to determine which pitchers have great (or poor) control, and which pitchers have great (or poor) command.
According to the writers at BP, pitchers with a high CS Prob are correlated with the types of pitchers we often consider to have good control. It doesn’t mean they’re successful, but it does mean they can get the ball over the plate. At the same time, pitchers with a high CSAA are correlated with the types of pitchers generally considered to have good command, and tend to purposefully work just outside of the strike zone.
Here are the top ten pitchers by CS Prob – the guys who throw pitches that are in the strike zone a whole lot – according to Baseball Prospectus:
- Bartolo Colon: 52.1%
- Rich Hill: 50.9%
- Jimmy Nelson: 50.7%
- Steven Matz: 50.4%
- James Paxton: 50.4%
- Mike Foltynewicz: 50.3%
- Hisashi Iwakuma: 50.3%
- Max Scherzer: 50.0%
- Shelby Miller: 49.9%
- Clayton Kershaw: 49.7%
A lot of strike-throwers on that list, which makes sense (throw more pitches that arrive within the rule book strike zone, and you’re probably going to actually get a lot of strikes).
But pitchers #9, Shelby Miller, and #10, Clayton Kershaw, are a perfect combined-example of how a high CS Prob (or: good control) is not the only thing that a makes a pitcher successful. Kershaw (1.69 ERA, 6.5 fWAR in 2016) gets away with throwing so much over the plate, because he has electric stuff (which, for our purposes here, can include healthy velocity) that makes hitting even pitches in the zone very difficult. Miller (6.15 ERA, 0.5 fWAR in 2016), on the other hand, clearly struggled to fool hitters when his pitches so frequently crossed over the meat of the plate.
In short, unless you have dynamite stuff, displaying good control isn’t always a good thing. Of course, as we know, plenty of pitchers without great stuff succeed every season, and, as it turns out, the extra strikes gained on the edges from superior command pitchers might be the key.
According to BP’s study, many of the most successful command pitchers actually have some of the lowest CS Prob. Put more simply, successful command pitchers often work further out on the edges of the zone, picking up extra strikes along the way (which helps on its own, but also indicates an ability to locate pitches well in other areas, and minimize damage-inducing mistakes).
Here are the top ten pitchers by Called Strike Above Average (percentage) in 2016, according to Baseball Prospectus:
- Zach Davies: 3.5%
- Josh Tomlin: 2.8%
- Kyle Hendricks: 2.5%
- Ryan Vogelsong: 2.5%
- Mike Leake: 2.3%
- Zack Greinke: 2.1%
- Wily Peralta: 2.0%
- A.J. Ramos: 1.9%
- Jon Lester: 1.9%
- Chris Young: 1.9%
As I’m sure you noticed right away, the Cubs placed two pitchers on the list – #3, Kyle Hendricks and #9, Jon Lester. In place of purely electric stuff, this Cubs duo (each of whom were finalists for the 2016 NL Cy Young) have succeeded in part by turning their command into extra strikes here and there. And we also know that the two have been excellent at limiting hard contact. (And, in case you’re wondering if this is actually just a reflection of good pitch-framing catchers like the ones the Cubs had last year: yes, BP controlled for catchers in this data, so that should not be a factor.)
All this said, we can’t suddenly abandon everything we know about pitchers with great stuff, but lesser command, because both stuff and command can erode or disappear.
For a “stuff” example, it would be a mistake to avoid pitchers like, say, Aroldis Chapman, solely because he relies so heavily on velocity, and isn’t much of a command specialist. Yes, if he was suddenly forced to pitch with Kyle Hendricks’ 89 MPH fastball, he’d be far less likely to succeed, and yes at some point his velocity will escape him, but that ignores the thing that makes him great right now. And it ignores the fact that command can leave a pitcher, too.
You don’t have to stray too far for a good example. The difference between the 2015 version of Jake Arrieta and the 2016 version of Jake Arrieta demonstrates the impact command can have on a pitcher, as he was historically good in 2015 (with pinpoint command), and something less than that in 2016 (with command issues). Fortunately for Arrieta, his stuff is sufficiently good that he was still successful, but if Kyle Hendricks lost his command the same way, it would probably be much more damaging.
So maybe there’s not a huge lesson to be learned here today that you didn’t already know on some level, but there were some important points along the way. Namely:
- Pitchers with great stuff can succeed with just control, by challenging hitters in the zone. HOWEVA, when they lose their stuff (velocity, break, spin, etc.), things will begin to fall apart.
- Pitchers without great stuff can succeed with just command, by picking up extra strikes on the edges of the zone and minimizing poorly-located mistakes. HOWEVA, if they lose their command (the way some pitchers lose velocity, break, spin, etc.), things will begin to fall apart.
The Cubs had two pitchers who demonstrated elite command in 2016, Hendricks and Lester. Of course, what made their results so good overall is that they combined the elite command with some pretty darn good stuff, too. Otherwise, perhaps the other eight names on that list would have been Cy Young finalists, too.
For much more on this study, including more examples, be sure to head over to Baseball Prospectus.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.