Last week we took a look at the most important counts for O’s starters. It became clear, after pouring through the data that when a pitcher finds themselves in an 0-1 or 1-1 count, the next pitch they deliver will be critical. The performance of at-bats that result after a ball or strike is thrown in those counts ranges wildly depending on the outcome of that pitch. As such, it’s important to take a look at how the O’s pitchers are attacking those counts. This first installment will take a look at the O’s pitcher that has thrown the most innings this season: Chris Tillman.
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The best way to start understanding a pitcher’s approach is to take a look at the numbers. For Tillman I’ve isolated all of the instances where he’s faced a batter in an 0-1 count below. The chart shows the pitches he’s thrown after getting ahead 0-1.
First, a quick guide to understanding the chart. The image you see is the strikezone from the catcher’s perspective. The box inside is the actual strikezone, while the outlying zones are just off the plate and/or above and below the zone.
The top number, in black text, is the raw number of pitches thrown in that zone. The percentages below are the percentages of pitches in that zone that are a certain type. The color key is to the right of the strikezone, with “hard pitches” in red, breaking balls in blue, and offspeed pitches in green. For example, Tillman threw 17 pitches right down the middle of the plate. Of those 17 pitches, 71% were “hard pitches” (fastballs, cutters, or sinkers), 12% were breaking balls, and 17% were offspeed pitches.
So what does this chart tell us about Tillman’s approach to the 0-1 count? Well, Tillman throws a lot of fastballs. Ignoring balls below the zone for the moment, Tillman throws fastballs more than 70% of the time in 14 of the 20 zones from the bottom of the strikezone and up. The other 6 zones come in at 69%, 67%, 62%, 62%, 60%, and 50%. On average Tillman has thrown his fastball 61% of the time. Adding in cutters and sinkers gets us to the 70% figure mentioned above.
On pitches below the zone we’re seeing another promising trend. To the right side of the zone Tillman favors breaking balls – specifically his big breaking spike-curveball. To the left side of the zone, Tillman uses his changeup in the dirt to try and get swinging strikes. Both of these trends show that when Tillman isn’t trying to pound the strikezone with fastballs, he’s looking for swinging strikes while not throwing terribly hittable pitches.
It’s important to maintain a balance, and Tillman has done that effectively by mixing his offspeed pitches in to keep hitters on their toes. Ultimately though, his approach is clear. He’s looking to get strikes, and do it with pitches he can control better than the change or curve.
Is he using the same approach in a 1-1 count when the hitter has a chance to go up 2-1? Remember that previously we determined that the advantage a hitter sees from getting a ball in an 0-1 count is roughly the same as in a 1-1 count. The perceived difference though, is likely much greater as there is always going to be a stigma attached to falling behind the hitter at 2-1. It would stand to reason that perhaps Tillman doesn’t go fishing for swinging strikes as much to avoid this.
We have a smaller sample size here so I’ll use some percentages to put this into perspective a little more clearly.
For the purpose of this comparison I’m considering breaking balls and offspeed pitches in the bottom third of the strikezone or below as pitches he’s using with the intention of getting a swinging strike. Certainly he is looking for swinging strikes on a fastball, but I’m more concerned with his approach here.
In an 0-1 count he threw breaking balls or offspeed pitches in this zone roughly 47% of the time, or 61 of the 131 pitches he threw to those zones.
In a 1-1 count, that percentage changed to 55% or 60 of the 110 pitches he threw to that part of the zone. This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, as Tillman throws more pitches to that part of the zone that are more difficult to control.
The reality is that Tillman isn’t getting a lot of swinging strikes in those parts of the zone, but the fact that he’s willing to throw the ball there keeps the hitter off-balance. The chart below shows the whiff rate for breaking and offspeed pitches on 0-1 counts. As you can see he’s getting them in the bottom right portion of the zone predominantly.
As you can see, there is a pattern of Tillman getting swinging strikes down in the zone while keeping hitters off-balance. The high percentage of fastballs up in the zone are pitches where Tillman is attacking the zone, showing that he’s willing to get that important strike by any means necessary.
The 0-1 and 1-1 counts are by far the most important when it comes to limiting the performance of the batter. Tillman clearly goes into these counts with a distinct approach. He attacks the strikezone with pitches that he typically commands better. To mix it up he throws breaking balls and offspeed pitches, but generally keeps them down and out of the zone in the hopes of getting a swinging strike. Either way, his approach is solid and could be a large part of the reason he’s been effective once again this season.