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Pitching by the Numbers: Out of the zone

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

Watching Matt Harvey’s continued brilliance, what stands out is his ability to make hitters swing at pitches out of the strike zone, as illustrated so well here not just with his slider, but his changeup, too.

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Matt Harvey has done well at turning balls into strikes. (USAT)

You can’t overestimate, I don’t think, how important it is for pitchers to get hitters to swing at pitches out of the zone. Mainly, there’s a much better chance they’ll miss (we’ve included out-of-zone contact rate, too). But it’s far more difficult to do damage on a pitch out of the zone even if you happen to make contact. You’re not going to see many line drives or homers on pitches off the plate.

And the good thing is that due to advances in technology and tracking, we can now precisely quantify how effective pitchers are at getting hitters to flail at pitches off the plate. The range for starters since 2012 who have logged at least 70 innings is 22 percent to 37percent. That’s a very significant swing. Thanks to Fangraphs for the stats.

A caveat here is that the pitchers, good or bad, relatively speaking, at getting hitters to swing at non-strikes are not necessarily good or bad themselves. The good ones, it can safely be said, are good at maximizing their ability. But perhaps they lack even an average ability to challenge hitters in the strike zone when the need arises. Likewise the bad pitchers in this category may be able to get away with throwing strikes because they are so good. But being poor at getting hitters to swing at non-strikes is undeniably a performance drag.

So let’s start with the best in the business at this, noticing right away that most of the top 25 are the pitchers we covet the most.

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Karstens' breakthrough last year becomes a lot more understandable now. He’s about a week away from returning from shoulder woes and should at least be watched. Chen and Tomlin are not guys we would want but you can see that they are much better at getting guys to swing at non-strikes than they are getting hitters to actually miss them. Ditto Chris Young later down on the list.

But there are some interesting guys here. Dillon Gee, I have to say, makes so many of my lists in positive ways. I know he was hammered, as usual, by the Phillies in his last start. But you can at least stream his home starts plus starts against weaker hitting teams. So much data says really loudly that Gee should be widely owned. Kendrick I’m on the fence about. He doesn’t get the miss rate we’d look for and that we’re getting from Gee, for example. But he should be more widely owned, for sure. You can do worse than Kendrick at the bottom of a mixed-league rotation.

If you want to understand why Hernandez is great in two stats, here they are. He gets people to swing at bad pitches a lot, and miss them a lot.

But if you like that about King Felix, you have to love it about Harvey. I’m more convinced now than ever that Harvey will finish the year as a top 10 fantasy starter. I feel saying this is a layup, barring injury. But at only 93% owned and with many touts still looking desperately for fleas like innings limits (that will not happen short of 200), it must be said.

Garcia, of course, is another sleeper. He has arm issues, but consider this outstanding out-of-the-zone profile if you can pick him up in your league.

Halladay? You have to throw all the stats away with him now because we have reasons to believe he’s no longer the same pitchers as even last year.

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Just as we would want if we’re going to invest at all into this stat, the pitchers who are bad at it mostly are guys you would only roster at gunpoint. But let’s look at the exceptions: Wilson, Gallardo, Minor, Price, Morrow and McDonald.

Clearly Price shows you can get away with just challenging hitters to hit strikes. (But why would you if you didn’t have to?) To be clear, I’m not telling anyone to trade Price. But what Price owner doesn’t wish he was more elite at this? If he was he’d be significantly better.

Wilson, Morrow and Minor are guys who I never can really get behind without a really good reason, until now. Again, I think WILSON AND MINOR'S lack of overpowering stuff coupled with this inability to get hitters to swing at non-strikes results in a lower ceiling and floor than most pitchers at their respective ownership rates. They’re all No. 4 mixed league starters, and more safely No. 5s.

I’m generally looking for reasons not to believe in McDonald’s half season and here’s a good one.

Gallardo is more tricky for me. His walk rate is always the thing that holds him back from becoming elite. Maybe here we have the reason why that will never permanently change. When you can’t get hitters to swing and miss at non-strikes, you have to expand the zone even more – which makes the hitters even less likely to swing and more likely to walk.
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