Pitchers to pickup or drop based off ability to get ahead of hitters

Michael Salfino
San Diego Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi is missing bats despite being a soft tosser. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
San Diego Padres starting pitcher Joey Lucchesi is missing bats despite being a soft tosser. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

It’s so early but we have to play and make decisions. With pitchers I’m interested in a stat that I explored in March. As far as I know, I created it so the problem is finding historical data. Why the stat doesn’t exist and hasn’t existed is a total mystery to me.

We’re simply looking at the percentage of pitches ahead of the hitter in the count versus the percentage of pitches behind.

Why is this important? Heading into Wednesday’s action, teams were hitting .348 with a .620 slugging while ahead in the count and just .206 with a .323 slugging when behind.

There are a few possibilities here.

If a pitcher is doing well and dominating this stat (high percentage of pitcher count pitches minus the percentage of hitter count pitches), you know why. It’s early and it doesn’t mean it will continue. But they are pitching downhill now and you have to think that feeds into itself because life is so much easier when you get ahead of hitters and stay there. Why would they stop doing it?

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If a pitcher is doing well in the stat and pitching poorly, that means they probably just aren’t good enough in terms of stuff to succeed. They’re pitching downhill and still getting hammered.

If a pitcher is doing poorly in the stat and pitching decently to well, that shows that they are just this small adjustment away from truly dominating, to my mind.

And if they are doing poorly in the stat and pitching poorly, again you know why. And again, it doesn’t mean this is predictive — they could turn it around. But this is the thing to watch for when monitoring them.

Note all stats are through Tuesday’s action. At that point, the average was 29% of pitches in pitchers counts and 21.9% hitter’s counts, for a 7.1% differential.

The surprising leaders who are widely available on Yahoo: Ian Kennedy (plus-24.8% ahead in the count minus behind in the count), Yonny Chirinos (21%), Tanner Roark (19.7%), Joey Lucchesi (17%), Tyler Skaggs (16.2%)

Kennedy is 54% owned and pitching very well in the averages. He teases like this often and often has been a sabermetric darling (trademark Steve Moyer) for his ability to pile up Ks while exhibiting decent control. Kennedy of course can get blasted at just about any time but this is true about all but maybe 30-to-40 pitchers.

Chirinos is 7% owned and has come out of nowhere but clearly knows the secret of pitching effectively. He’s going to get the most out of his ability, coming in as a rookie and already showing a veteran’s savvy when it comes to making life easier for himself. I don’t believe the Rays short-rotation is going to last and expect Chirinos to be a starter beyond the “bullpen game” in short order.

Roark is still struggling in giving up runs and falls into the category of a pitcher who probably can’t get much better. He’s OK as a wins play but less likely to be able to maintain an ERA below 4.00. Plus he’s 67% owned.

I was too slow to pull the trigger on Lucchesi in Friends and Family. But you should. He’s just 28% owned and pitches in a friendly park for the Padres. He’s young. He doesn’t throw hard but is a lefty. And his bat-missing has been good (13.3% swinging strikes, according to Fangraphs). He’s my top add here.

Skaggs is another lefty who has had his moments but can’t stay healthy. The Angels are a decent team. He should be more than 43% owned. He’d be my second add.

Now the notable guys who are pitching backwards: Lucas Giolito (MLB-worst minus-19.1%), Danny Duffy (minus-15.35% before Wednesday’s start), Michael Fulmer (minus-4.4%), Aaron Sanchez (minus-3.9%), Robby Ray (minus-1.1% before his Wednesday start), Francisco Liriano (minus-1.05%)

Giolito has post-hype prospect buzz and is 60% owned. The mystery is why he’s been ineffective this year after a good spring. Here’s your answer. I’d drop him.

Duffy is 78% owned. He was plus-8.3% last year, so a swing of about 24 percentage points in the wrong direction. You can say this will fix itself. It certainly explains his bad pitching. But maybe he’s lost command due to an injury, throwing only 61 of 101 pitches for strikes on Wednesday. You need to watch Duffy like a hawk if you own him.

Fulmer has been bad two years now in staying ahead of hitters. But the results this year and last are good. So here’s a guy you can hold saying, “If he could just figure this out, maybe he will get way more Ks and be truly dominant.”

Sanchez almost threw a no-hitter on Tuesday. But here you see why he’s disappointing in the averages and the Ks. Remember, when you are ahead of the count, you can make hitters chase on put-away pitches. Unless he reverses this profile, Sanchez is doomed to be a tease relative to his obvious elite stuff.

Ray was upside down last year, too. You’ll get Ks but last year was about as good as he’s capable of pitching unless he summons much better control. Getting roughed up is always quite possible as are inconsistent starts like Wednesday’s when he couldn’t go five innings. Ray’s no more than a No. 3 starter — a healthy Danny Salazar.

Liriano did not have enough innings last year to qualify for my list. But this number shows he still has his old spots when it comes to control. If you look at Liriano and think he’s figured something out, you’re likely wrong. But maybe being only this bad is good for him. It’s hard to know without the historical data, which I don’t have. Watch his starts and see how often he gets ahead and stays ahead — and then decide whether to hold him or ship him back to waivers.