‘Pitching to contact’ and ‘throwing ground balls’ are classic baseball buzzwords. Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson has essentially built a career around this philosophy. It seems like every time a young pitching phenom arrives and starts striking hitters out, people start talking about how he needs to pitch to contact. The strategy has been around since this guy played, and while Kirk Rueter pitched in his last game in 2005, Kevin Correia is still hanging around and Jeremy Guthrie signed a three-year deal last offseason. And, lest we forget, Aaron Sele got a Hall of Fame vote. To take a more in-depth look at the merits of pitching to contact I grouped all 394 starting pitchers from 2002 onward (the batted ball era) who had thrown 200 or more innings, and organized them by Contact% into eight groups. The following spreadsheet details the results of my study. Groups 1-4 are classified as contact pitchers, while groups 5-8 are strikeout pitchers.
|Group||Contact range||xFIP-||ERA-||WAR/200 IP||RA9-WAR/200 IP||GB%||K%||BB%||HR%||BABIP||FB velo||FB%||Pitches/IP|
Of the Group 1 pitchers, only 5 had an xFIP- better than the league average, and only 6 had an ERA- better than league average. Two of these were posted by aging control artists Rick Reed and David Wells, who had success on the strength of their walk rates of 4.0% and 3.7%, respectively. Chien-Ming Wang rode his 59.5 GB% to a 98 xFIP- and 99 ERA-. Overall, Nate Cornejo was more typical of the group than these three. xFIP- went down with decreasing contact, and except for a small blip between groups 2 and 3 (both contact groups), so did ERA-.
There is a strong connection here between fastball velocity and contact rates, but there is also a strong connection between fastball usage and contact rates. Group 1 had both the slowest average fastballs and the highest use of fastballs. As anyone watching Gerrit Cole and the Pirates can tell, contact rate has almost as much to do with fastball usage as fastball velocity.
Though the contact pitchers had lower walk rates than the strikeout groups, their strikeout rates were far below average. The separation between strikeout and walk rates was better for the strikeout pitchers, with an average separation of 11.3, compared to 6.7 for the contact pitchers. In terms of K/BB, the strikeout pitchers posted a 2.4 K/BB, and the contact pitchers were at 1.9 K/BB. The old adage that groundball pitchers prevent home runs did not bear out. While the contact pitchers had a groundball rate of 43.7% compared to 42.7% for the strikeout pitchers, the contact pitchers had a HR% of 2.8, and the strikeout pitchers had a HR% of 2.6. Home runs are connected to contact.
The contact pitchers also slightly underachieved their peripherals. The ERA- for the contact groups was an average of 4.5 points higher than their xFIP-, while the ERA- for the strikeout groups was on average less than 1 point higher. The contact pitchers had an average BABIP of .298 compared to the .291 for the strikeout pitchers. High strikeout pitchers can often sustain slightly lower BABIP than their counterparts.
The connection between contact and efficiency is slight. The difference in Pitches/IP was the biggest between group 1 and group 5. The difference of 0.6 Pitches/IP translates to only 120 pitches per 200 IP. While the pitch count and innings limit debate has overtaken the nature of starting pitching, pitching to contact does not seem to be the answer. Teams and pitching coaches that are advocating pitching to contact as a means to pitch longer in games are essentially sacrificing a lot of quality for a tiny amount of quantity. And with 12 or 13 man pitching staffs being the rule of the day, this strategy seems absurd.
Despite mounting evidence that pitching to contact is a futile strategy, teams keep encouraging their young pitchers to stash away their strikeout stuff in the name of efficiency. Young pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Gerrit Cole currently own the 3rd and 4th fastest fastballs among starting pitchers. Both of them, and Cole in particular, posted very high strikeout rates in the minor leagues. Yet both of them own strikeout rates well below the NL average, and Cole and Eovaldi’s respective xFIP- rates of 99 and 101 are decidedly average. I know, almost anybody with a good fastball can rack up a lot of strikeouts in the minors, and Eovaldi in particular has a limited repertoire that may keep him from reaching his potential. But shouldn’t young pitchers focus on developing strikeout pitches rather than trying to get ground balls? After all, fastball velocity peaks early and Cole and Eovaldi will probably have a tougher time getting outs on contact when they aren’t throwing 96. While Mike Pelfrey has carved out a decent career for himself, I’m sure most teams hope for more out of their top pitching prospects.
Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves