Numbers Game: Pitching to contact is like facing Konerko every at-bat
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Numbers Game columns are where we dive a little deeper into stats, trends, sabermetrics, and basically make peoples' heads explode.
The Minnesota Twins don't hide it.
In fact, if anything they go out of their way to preach it.
Pitching to contact -- the organization's pitching philosophy for at least the last decade, and a philosophy that trickles down to every level of the minor leagues.
It's a philosophy that has helped earn six division titles since 2002, but it's also a philosophy that relies heavily on external factors such as defense, limiting walks, etc.
In 2011, the Twins pitched to more contact than any other staff in baseball. Opposing hitters made contact on more than 83% of their swings against pitches thrown by Twins pitchers. The Atlanta Braves (77.6%) allowed the least amount of contact.
That gap may seem small, but over the course of 162 games and 23,000 pitches, it's actually pretty large.
Like facing Konerko every time
In 2011, major league hitters made contact and put a ball into fair territory 130,536 times. Of those 130,536 times when bat met ball, 4,552 went for round-trippers, 898 for triples, 8,399 for doubles and another 27,000 or so for singles.
That works out to a .331 batting average and .518 slugging percentage when contact was made.
In other words, pitching strictly to contact is sort of like facing Paul Konerko (.300, .517 in 2011) or Joey Votto (.309, .531) every trip.
And for those wondering if 2011 was maybe just an anomaly for contact, take note that hitters hit .334 with a .523 slugging percentage when making contact in 2010.
With those numbers in mind, it becomes pretty clear that pitching to contact is a risky strategy unless teams also meet these three prerequisites:
A.) Rarely issue walks
B.) Possess a top-notch defense
C.) Induce a high number of groundballs
"And that's what we do in spring training," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said in an interview with 1500 ESPN in mid-November, "is get all the pitchers together and talk about all we're going to do is focus on throwing to the glove and down, everything down, and below the glove. And focus everything down, and that makes it below the knees where you'll get a lot more groundballs there."
Anderson added, "I'm not a big stat guy... But I have been proud of two things that we have led the league in, two different categories over the years -- fewest walks, and the other one is hits allowed.... But if you don't walk guys and give up hits, you still survive."
Well, sort of. Giving up groundball hits is one thing, but fly-ball hits are more damaging. The 58,874 groundballs hit into fair territory by major league hitters in 2011 worked out to a .237 batting average and .257 slugging percentage. Pretty harmless.
The 47,574 fly balls produced a .218 batting average and a .575 slugging percentage. To put that into context, Miguel Cabrera slugged .586 last season. Much more dangerous.
As for defense, by using both Denard Span and Ben Revere in the outfield at the same time, the Twins -- with a spacious, pitcher-friendly ballpark -- can help cut down on extra-base hits allowed.
But the infield defense -- probably the most important factor for turning batted balls into outs -- is a different story. Jamey Carroll isn't an elite defender, but he's better than the shortstops the Twins used last season. In fact, Twins infielders allowed 45 runs below average in 2011 according to Baseball Info Solutions scouting data. No other team rated worse. That doesn't exactly qualify as top-notch defense.
And after leading the league in fewest walks issued, or finishing second, for eight straight years, Twins pitchers fell back toward mid-pack in 2011, issuing 3.04 free passes per nine innings.
Twins starting pitchers
MLB averages for starting pitchers in 2011 (plus individual league leader):
Contact: 81% (73%)... K/9: 6.8 (10.5)... BB/9: 2.9 (1.14)... Grounders: 44% (59%)
Twins starters in 2011 (number of starts):
Carl Pavano (33): Contact: 85%... K/9: 4.14... BB/9: 1.62... Grounders: 51%
Scott Baker (21): Contact: 80%... K/9: 8.20... BB/9: 2.19... Grounders: 34%
Brian Duensing (28): Contact: 83%... K/9: 6.45... BB/9: 2.71... Grounders: 42%
Francisco Liriano (24): Contact: 73%... K/9: 7.43... BB/9: 4.98... Grounders: 49%
Nick Blackburn (26): Contact: 89%... K/9: 4.61... BB/9: 3.28... Grounders: 54%
Anthony Swarzak (11): Contact: 87%... K/9: 5.09... BB/9: 1.84... Grounders: 39%
Scott Diamond (7): Contact: 84%... K/9: 4.38... BB/9: 3.92... Grounders: 46%
Kevin Slowey (8): Contact: 89%... K/9: 5.44... BB/9: 0.81... Grounders: 27%
Liam Hendriks (4): Contact: 83%... K/9: 6.17... BB/9: 1.16... Grounders: 46%
Total (162): Contact: 83%... K/9: 5.7... BB/9: 2.68... Grounders: 45%
In 2012 the Twins will add...
Jason Marquis (23): Contact: 85%... K/9: 5.18... BB/9: 2.93... Grounders: 55%
Marquis should bring a large chunk of groundballs, but as a staff the Twins are pitching to too much contact without excelling in the other corresponding areas -- groundballs, defense and limiting walks.
So yes, the Twins can continue to pitch to contact.
But just know that it comes with prerequisites -- prerequisites they may or may not be able to provide in 2012.