Apr. 20, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Brandon Beachy (37) throws during the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

How Important Is Pitch Efficiency?

In my season review, I mentioned the surprising drop in efficiency for Brandon Beachy, actually throwing more pitches per plate appearance this past season compared to 2011.  With the increase in success, I was wondering how pitch efficiency affects performance.  I created correlation tables for starting pitchers who threw at least 60 IP in a season the past three seasons.  Here are the correlations with respect to P/PA:

2012 2011 2010 Mean StDev
ERA -0.14 -0.08 -0.17 -0.13 0.05
FIP -0.08 -0.14 -0.20 -0.14 0.06
xFIP -0.04 -0.14 -0.12 -0.10 0.05
BABIP -0.18 -0.09 -0.04 -0.11 0.07
LOB% 0.19 0.19 0.17 0.18 0.01
LD% 0.09 0.03 0.04 0.05 0.03
GB% -0.32 -0.39 -0.19 -0.30 0.10
IFFB% 0.24 0.26 0.17 0.23 0.05
HR/FB -0.09 -0.03 -0.21 -0.11 0.09
K% 0.50 0.60 0.53 0.55 0.05
BB% 0.46 0.43 0.54 0.48 0.06
Swing% -0.28 -0.17 -0.17 -0.20 0.06
Cont% -0.42 -0.46 -0.44 -0.44 0.02
FBv 0.29 0.35 0.33 0.32 0.03
IP/GS -0.16 -0.16 -0.14 -0.15 0.02

As you can see, the correlations are not particularly strong, but most of them have an effect on performance.  After giving it some thought, most of these relationships should make sense, as the LD% was the only surprising one to me, but that is the weakest correlation on the board.  There are some covariance issues, most notably between K% and GB%.  In general, the lack of sign change (positive to negative, or vice versa) shows the consistency of the relationships.

Starting with the obvious trends, more pitchers per PA means less contact and swinging, leading to more K’s and walks.  It would also seem correct to assume harder throwers use more pitches to get through hitters.  BB and K have been the staple of finding inefficiency, so I can’t imagine anyone arguing with these results.

The home run trend was smaller than I thought it would be, since more pitches means more two-strike counts, which should be harder to hit for power.  The popup rate is not surprising, since the two-strike swings are more defensive and easier to get jammed.  The inverse relationship with GB% is probably due to strikeout pitchers being flyball pitchers more than batters hitting more flyballs late in the count.  The line drive trend was the surprising one to me, but I guess the defensive swings create more liners, though they’re likely weaker than normal. Putting all of that together, the BABIP trends down a bit, which results in a higher strand rate (LOB%).

In the overall performance, more pitches per batter faced leans towards a lower ERA, FIP, and xFIP, though it’s not particularly strong.  The increased K’s and decreased homers outweigh the increased walks.  The caveat here is the length of outings.  The range of the P/PA values is 3.25 to 4.25, so if the pitcher on average gets through the order three times, you’re talking about a maximum of 27 more pitches.

Let’s say we have Pitcher A who throws 3.5 P/PA and Pitcher B who throws 4 P/PA.  They each average 104 pitches a game, which leaves pitcher A facing 28.5 hitters a game, while B faces 25 a game.  Since the league average OBP is around .320, you’d expect one of A’s extra hitters to get on base, leaving him getting 2.5 outs more per start.  However, the expected ERA for A is about .4 runs higher than B, so would you rather have a pitcher throw 190 innings with a 3.60 ERA or 215 innings with a 4.00 ERA?  I don’t see a difference between the two, so pitch efficiency may not be as big of a deal as we make it out to be.  I would be more concerned about Beachy’s drop in K’s coinciding with the rise in P/PA.  That is probably more of a problem than the pitch count itself.

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  • Lee Trocinski

    My ending comparison was essentially like asking if you’d rather have Tim Hudson or Wandy Rodriguez last year, and they were of nearly the same value.

  • fireboss

    Efficiency is important is the long run. When you’re a young horse with a rubber arm burning through pitches isn’t an issue. But there are only so many bullets in that gun and to carry that analogy farther firing those bullets rapid fire makes the barrel heat up and even if there are bullets left you may not be able to put them on target. As you get older the gun requires better care. Part of this is mechanics. The Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens drop and drive pitchers went deeper and threw more because they pitched with their legs. The new stand tall and fall guys don’t use their legs as efficiently so they can’t go as deep and their arms are hurt more often. The less pitches these guys throw now the longer they are likely to last in a game and the season. Stretch runs and post season affect that too. Extra bullets early in the year can’t be used late.
    Control is linked to efficiency as well. Pitchers like Halladay and Lee get lots of early swings because hitters don’t want to be behind in the count to a guy who can put the pitch where he wants it so often he gets close call benefit of the doubt. That was Medlen’s secret last year; throw strikes and they’ll swing early and often.
    I want my pitcher out of the inning in under 15 pitches. A little quick math tells you he goes 8 if he does that and my bullpen isn’t exhausted every night. So pitching efficiency is important to the pitcher game to game and each season but also to the defense, the bullpen and the length of the pitcher’s career

    • Lee Trocinski

      I can’t argue with the entire first paragraph and the first two sentences of the second one. Medlen’s secret was not throwing strikes; it was hitting spots and showing plus offspeed stuff. Aaron Cook had the fewest P/PA last year, 3.29 compared to Medlen’s 3.52 mark, but Cook couldn’t miss bats, leading to a 5.65 ERA.

      As far as your 15 pitch per inning mark, only 44 of the 510 pitchers over the three years were able to do that, so that’s a lot to ask on average. Also, no one average 120 pitches a night, as Verlander easily led at 114 per, so you would get 7 IP a start, not eight. Keeping the bullpen fresh is helpful, but if your guy is averaging three runs in 7 instead of 2 in 6, the efficiency isn’t helping. 7 of the top 10 ERA guys were above the average 3.8 P/PA mark, while only 2 of the 10 worst ERAs were above it. Unless you have impeccable command like Medlen had last year, you don’t get away with throwing strike after strike.