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Complete Control, That's a Laugh: Pitching Strategy is the Result of a Series of Tradeoffs

Last night, in the gameday thread, we discussed profiling pitchers based on how they attack hitters (or, more specifically, the results of their attacks on hitters).  An interesting question was posed this morning (or, I suppose, late last night, depending on when you go to bed, I did not see it until this morning) about what constitutes the ideal pitcher.  Now, the concept of the "ideal pitcher" is kind of a loaded term.  Theoretically, the "ideal" pitcher would be someone who could make batters swing and miss on every pitch, thus throwing 81 pitch, 27 K shutouts every start.  Of course, outside of Albert Brooks/Brendan Fraser films, this is impossible to do.

More practically, the <em>best</em> pitchers often have high groundball-rates to go along with high K-rates and low BB-rates.  Now, it's possible to make up for an average groundball-rate if the pitcher strikes more batters out or almost never walks anyone.  As an example, someone like Cliff Lee continues to be one of the best in the game in spite of league-average (or below) groundball-rates because of his strikeout- and walk-rates.  It is more difficult to compensate for low strikeout-rates (though pitchers with superlative groundball-rates, like Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson are solid, though unspectacular, arms).

As was mentioned earlier, pitching deep into games is an important factor to consider as well.  Considering that games are nine innings long (generally), pitchers who excel for five or six less innings still leave three or four innings for the opposition to score off the bullpen.  The knock against pitchers like Brandon Morrow is legitimate.  Morrow is an exceptional pitcher for six innings and an excellent pitcher overall.  Most pitchers pitch into the eighth inning by relentlessly pounding the zone.  Since it is difficult to strike batters out when everything is over the plate, there is a tradeoff associated with keeping the ball in the strike zone all the time.  However, to maximize pitch efficiency, pitchers need to keep the ball in the zone, otherwise they'll be lifted from the game with a pitch count of 110 in the sixth inning.  There is also a tradeoff associated with pitch location within the strike zone -- pitches up in the zone are more likely to generate swings and misses (and, consequently, strikeouts), but also more likely to generate flyballs (and, thus, homeruns).  Pitching down in the zone leads to more groundballs, but also more contact.  Even poorly hit balls can squeak through the infield, leading to baserunners and, eventually, runs.

Realistically, a pitcher's plan of attack should change with each batter that he faces.  While this is not an exhaustive list, some of the factors affecting his strategy (in addition to his personal repertoire and feel for pitches at that time) include the batter he is facing, the quality of his defence behind him, his pitch count that day, and the game situation (how many outs and how many bases are occupied).  Pitchers are likely to change their strategies between pitches within a single plate appearance:  if a pitcher has a batter at 1-2, why not try for the K?  Alternatively, if he's fouled off four or five pitches, maybe it's time to just try and get him to ground out.  Thanks to Jonathan Silvertown, plant population ecologists know that plant resource allocation strategies require tradeoffs between survival, growth, and fecundity.  In fact, pitching strategies are a result of a similar series of tradeoffs.

Thanks to The Clash for today's post title.