Did the Count Take His Tongue? Think of the Broken Ball

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Falling behind on the count puts tremendous pressure on the shooter. It’s in his interest to take a hit and regain control, but hitters who know this are more likely to be swept away. Aiming outside of the zone is risky: great if the shooter bites, disastrous if they don’t, and the risk often outweighs the reward. A pitcher will ideally attack at a border that shooters can’t help but cross, but that’s easier said than done. This situation is difficult to handle, and from a purely numbers standpoint, whoever is at the top is almost always in trouble. The question isn’t “can the shooter win” but “can he get away with minimal damage?”

For decades, shooters have relied on their fast cannons to fight these tough battles. One reason was that, long ago, some believed it wasn’t very manly to actually take a slider or other secondary step. I guess you’re not tough unless you blow a 2-0 warmer from your opponent. But really, it’s because the fast ball is the court most pitchers are comfortable with and where they can most reliably throw for a hit. If your goal is to even out the number, why would you risk using an irregularly moving curveball to achieve this?

Unfortunately for these old-timey shooters, they’re probably rolling in their graves with the obvious cowardice of modern pitchers. Rather than sticking to axioms, shooters are challenging notions of what’s “right” or “wrong” in shooting with the help of advances in shooting and body tracking technology. An example of this kind of disrespect is the ever-increasing proportion of balls thrown at disadvantage numbers – sliders, curveballs, and the like:

It’s true that whatever the number or circumstance, the use of crushed balls is increasing, but I find it particularly interesting that the trend remains strong even when shooters lag behind. The name of the game is optimization. We wouldn’t have seen this happen if teams didn’t feel like choosing to break the ball when they were behind the score gave them an advantage. Of course, just because teams do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective, but an eight percent league-wide jump in pitch usage is significant and worth investigating.

Is there anything undeniably true? fast balls has landing for strikes is easier, plain and simple:

League Region Rate, 2020-22

Field Type Strike% Ball%
fast balls 58.6% 41.4%
Last minute 51.2% 48.8%

Only 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1 and 3-1 count.

There isn’t much to add here. Raw disparity in area ratio when behind in census huge, but that’s a big deal, considering that throwing the ball in these situations costs the shooter an average of 135 wOBA points. Add that increase in wOBA to a lifeless hitter and he’s suddenly an All-Star. On the face of it, there’s nothing made-up about fastball-centric Bibles. (They are, however, misleading. We’ll talk about that later, though.)

Perhaps broken balls are becoming more common because they offer another advantage: minimizing damage on contact. Just as the average shooter is better at locating the fast ball than the broken ball, the average shooter is better at attacking the shooter than the floating ball. But if we look at the numbers, the difference between the two types of steps in terms of wOBAcon – this is wOBA in contact – is negligible (again, only when counting behind):

League wOBAcon, 2020-22

Field Type IZ wOBAcon OZ wOBAcon
fast balls .413 .312
Last minute .408 .298

IZ = In-Zone / OZ = Out-of-Zone

Based on what we have so far, there is a clear best option. If you know that kickers will perform similarly well on touch, you can also go to the field where they are more likely to equalize. And it seems a bit confusing that a growing number of shooters are opting for…not this one. It’s time to put on our foil hats: advocates of breaking ball confidence should be peddlers of weighted balls and other pointless athletic junk!

no; we are missing important variables that have been deliberately omitted for a stronger rhetorical effect. The lure of the countdown ball is not found in the zone odds and is not related to the wOBA in contact. Instead, it can be found in the following table showing the percentage distribution of possible outcomes by a given stage:

League Results Breakdown, 2020-22

Field Type At game% smell % Foul% Receive%
fast balls 18.3% 9.0% 19.3% 53.4%
Last minute 13.3% 15.1% 13.4% 58.2%

What causes broken balls passivity. Hitters are less likely to sway against them and more likely to go blank even if they commit. This is probably because major league scorers accustomed to the baseball tradition still expect a fastball when the score turns in their favour, and a looping curveball catches them off guard. If they recognize the turn, they probably also know not to chase after it. So a shooter with a solid break command can easily gain the upper hand knowing that a well-executed breaker will maximize their chances of achieving a safe result.

But an exchange continues. There are exceptions, but in general, a shooter’s fast ball command is greater than or equal to a break ball command; this means that the fastball still has an advantage in field speed. Which is more valuable: seven percent zone rate, or five to six percent sniff rate and hit acquisition rate? The answer, as it usually is, depends on the individual shooter and who they’re up against, but let’s look at the general idea. Assuming the average conditions of the league, and with the help of some not-so-rigid math, we can arrive at a fair estimate of what the answer might be.

You know how baseball works: The pitcher throws a hit or ball that the batter puts in, sniffs, fouls, or receives. This produces eight different results. For each result, I calculated the wOBA made by the shooter, using league-wide data in shooter-friendly counts. An example: When pitchers are behind the field, they throw quickballs 58.6% of the time for the hit, and shooters enter the game 18.3% of the time for a .413 wOBA. Multiply everything and we get -0.044, or a 44-point “cost” of wOBA, the inverted sign to reflect the shooter’s point of view. The process is repeated for each result. Putting it all together produces an expected value: the weighted average of the possible outcomes in an isolated pitcher-kicker match. Here’s the full matrix for quickballs only:

Fastball Results Matrix, 2020-22

Conclusion Strike Ball TOTAL
At game -.044 -.024 -.068
smell .004 .000 .004
Foul .008 .006 .014
Receive .023 -.030 -.007
TOTAL -.009 -.048 -.057

Then the breaking balls:

Breaking Ball Result Matrix, 2020-22

Conclusion Strike Ball TOTAL
At game -.028 -.019 -.047
smell .006 .005 .011
Foul .005 .005 .010
Receive .020 -.038 -.018
TOTAL .003 -.047 -.044

Notice how both final sums are negative. As mentioned earlier, the purpose of navigating a disadvantage is not to win, but to lose less. And by our calculations, it is the splintering ball that best supports this purpose. The key takeaway is that a decrease in zone rate is offset by an increase in summoned hit rate. While pitchers take more damage from an out-of-zone fastball than an out-of-zone fastball (not because one is inherently worse, but because of probabilities), wOBA’s eight points don’t break the deal. It also turned out that preventing kickers from putting in-field pitches in play made a noticeable difference: 16 wOBA points, to be exact. Breaking pitches have already broken down at this point and they get a slight advantage in smelling both on the strokes and on the balls. The only area where the fastballs have a clear advantage is in the foul ball division, but this is not enough to make up for their shortcomings in other areas.

All this is a generalization, but the point is valid. After factoring in all the results and expected gains or losses in wOBA, it’s clear why bursting into a 2-1 curveball is becoming more of a strategy rather than a novelty. It’s not enough to talk about the reliability of a speedgun, because shooters don’t just face lifeless targets. They need to retire real major league goalscorers, who are as routine as they can get to tackle a fastball at the end of the count. So far, though, they seem to have been thrown by an unexpected ball, and it’s a trend that more shooters can (and should!) take advantage of. Relying on a slider while behind may not work in the short term, but doing so consistently yields better results in the end – that is, assuming they’re dealing with more or less average hitters.

I won’t go into how the use of a broken ball could potentially aggravate the shoulder or create an imbalance in the shooting repertoire. This is beyond the scope of a single article. This is just a few of the basic logic behind what is called “stepping back” supported by basic but meaningful arithmetic. Sorry Old Hoss Radbourn; As long as you stay enraged at your current shooting state (I think), you’ll probably be tossing and turning for decades to come. But hey, if you decide to haunt the living because of frustration, feel free to let us know.

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