I ran some queries over at Baseball Savant and came across this tidbit of information. Since 2015, no other pitcher froze hitters on strike three more than Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber.
I decided to write an article on Kluber’s caught looking data along with how he’s able to be the best at getting hitters held up on that third strike.
Sifting through the last three years of Statcast data, and filtering the results down to a 5000 pitch minimum, Kluber ranks second overall to Clayton Kershaw (2.38%) in called third strike ratio to total pitches (2.28%).
So, why am I not writing about Kershaw? Well, I’m not concerned with ratio because, in this case, the ratio is independent of the number of times Kluber is able to deal that third strike. Kershaw might be better at working over hitters (thereby throwing less) but that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to more swing-less third strikes.
Kluber has thrown with two strikes nearly 1500 more times than Kershaw has in the last 3 years. But, Kershaw his pitched much less (mainly due to injuries), so we’re not going to ‘punish’ Kluber for this. And, we’re talking about a difference in the ratio that’s a tenth of a percent.
Moving on, I wondered if there is any advantage pitching in the American League? First, I looked at the overall plate discipline numbers for the entirety of Major League Baseball from 2015-2017.
So we have a 3-1 ratio of swings, as well as contact, in verses out of the zone. Now I’ll compare the AL vs NL three-year average.
We’re talking about fractions of a percent difference, with the only real disparity (if you can call it that) is the out of zone contact where the AL has a nearly 1% difference. So, there is no advantage to pitching in either league in terms of the type of at-bat you’ll experience.
Using a minimum of 1000 pitches each year, I found that Kluber finished first in 2015, third in 2016, and 2nd in 2017 in strikeouts looking. Furthermore, in context of plate appearances with two strikes, Kluber is ahead in the count (1-2/0-2 count) 24% of the time, even at 45%, and behind (or, a 3-2 count) 31% in those three years. Nearly a quarter of every two-strike situation, hitters are forced to be aggressive at the plate; and just under a third of the time, the batter has to make a mandatory choice.
Before I proceed, I need to point out that there is some discrepancy as to what Kluber actually throws. He uses something of a sinking fastball that is hard to classify; it goes either way but my main source of research indicates it’s basically a sinker. And with his breaking pitches, which some sites call it a slider, some call it a curve, but it may be a slurve. For argument’s sake, we will refer to both of them as a sinker and a slider.
So what is it that Kluber is using that’s laying waste to hitters on strike three? His sinker, which he’s thrown for strike three 108 times (50%) since 2015.
The above graph is his pitch selection after strike two the last three seasons.
His sinker location when he throws regardless of the count. Good luck telling a hitter where to concentrate his swing when he throws it.
However, something changed in 2017; he cut back on his bat-confining sinker by 7% and increased his change-up and slider/curve/slurve usage 1.5% and 7.3% respectively.
Just for curiosity’s sake, Kluber’s release points are nearly identical on all three pitches. So the hitter may not know whats coming at him with the intention of ending up as strike three (until its too late).
OK, so he leaned more on his slider last year. What can we make of that using his last three years’ run values in the context of runs above average?
The sinker, his bread and butter pitch for strikeouts, seems to hover around league average in terms of run value. Upping his change and slider usage appears to have paid dividends; Kluber seems to believe those are better suited to set the batter up for the strikeout. I would also venture to guess his sinker isn’t nearly as effective when thrown earlier in the count, hence the negative run value.
To note, Kluber’s two-strike stats: .136 BA/.392 OPS/10-1 K-BB
His sinker is clearly working when he needs it to. Overall, it’s his least-effective pitch as hitters eat it up for a .300 average. Nevertheless, according to the data, it’s a tough pitch to gauge when used for that third strike.
Maybe Kluber will start using his slider more with two strikes. However, if he does so, that could cause him to be dethroned as the ‘King of Caught Looking’; his slider is swung at more than any other pitch he has, thereby causing a swinging strikeout.
Regardless, Kluber should still be able to put batters away with that devastating sinking fastball; opponents have 2-to-1 odds they’ll be dealing with it when the count has their backs are against the wall. It usually doesn’t end well.
Pitching strategist. Driveline Baseball pitch design-certified. Systems Administrator for a high school by day, I also provide ESPN with pitching visuals and am the site manager for SB Nation's Bucs Dugout.