Quantifying Command – Part One: Walk Rate

Series Introduction:

With the modern wave of information, every facet of a pitcher’s game can be quantified now better than ever. ‘Command’ – or the ability to locate a pitch – has remained elusive in being properly encapsulated. The goal of this series is to better analyze players’ command solely through the use of statcast data while providing insight on evaluating metrics along the way.

Part One: Walk Rate

You could pitch in the MLB. Well, that is assuming you can throw a baseball 50 miles per hour. That number may seem low, but history points to Rip Sewell and his famous ‘blooper’ pitch. Now more commonly referred to as an ‘eephus’, Sewell would lob a ball around fifty miles per hour up to 25 feet in the air, slowly dropping into the zone. It is the most unique pitch in baseball history and, ironically, anyone can throw it.

Plenty of pitchers have featured some variant of the eephus, but Sewell’s ability to command the pitch allowed him to throw it with great frequency and success. He did not throw it every pitch, but if he was perfectly able to control it, he probably could have. One may be able to physically achieve what major leaguers do, but it is the precision of execution and ability to repeat that takes them to the next level. The better ‘stuff’ a pitcher has, the more leeway they have in other facets of the game like command.

The problem is, there is a great imbalance of quantification between a pitcher’s stuff and a pitcher’s command. Despite never seeing Zach Davies in person and only having watched him pitch on TV a handful of times, I can still aptly describe his arsenal of pitches. How many different pitch types he has, the average velocity of each, and the average movement – both with and without gravity, etc. However, if you ask me to quantify his command, there are far fewer publicly available metrics to cling to.

Walk rate is a decent place to start. Anyone with serious walk issues probably does not have the command to just get the ball over the plate. While it produces a fair list of indicators – a term which I will explain later – it has a few inherent flaws. First, it does not pertain to every pitch. With walks only occurring at the end of plate appearances, most pitches only contribute by inducing more or less walk-prone counts. This disregard for non-plate-appearance-finishing pitches means a four pitch walk is viewed the same as a full count walk on a pitch just off the black. Additionally, it means differentiating command differences on various pitch types is impossible. Zach Davies may have excellent command of his sinker, but at the same time be somewhat erratic in locating his curveball. Finally, it assumes everyone’s approach is the same. It is kind to pitchers who pound the zone and underrates the pitchers who prefer to bait batters into chasing pitches out of the zone.

These shortcomings do not make walk rate useless, it just needs to be paired with numbers that fill in its gaps. While Matt Strahm is elite at walk prevention, keeping the ball in the zone that much reduces his strikeout rate and induces harder contact. On the flip side, Brandon Workman may yield plenty of walks, but staying out of the strike zone produces softer contact and plentiful strikeouts. One of the harder to identify characteristics of elite command is staying on the fringes of the strike zone and taking advantage of an expanded strike zone due to hitting the spot. That’s where utilizing indicators can be useful in developing a metric.

If I introduced a metric claiming to boil down a pitcher’s raw “stuff” into one number, who would you expect to see at the top of the leaderboard? Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Jordan Hicks, maybe Max Scherzer. However, if Zach Davies sat near the top of the list, I probably did something wrong in crafting the metric. The analysis should not be predicated solely on matching expectations, but should somewhat align with conventional knowledge nonetheless. The top of the walk rate list features numerous renowned command artists like Josh Tomlin, Zack Greinke, and Kyle Hendricks. These are positive indicators that walk rate is doing a good job. Yet certain absences expose some of the issues I have touched on – notably that of Dallas Keuchel and Zach Davies. Both have reputations as sinkerballers with pinpoint command and yet both had near average walk rates. They sat at lower walk rates in previous years, but by no means have regressed to league average command. These are negative indicators as players one would expect to be near the top the list are not.

Going about subjectively confirming these established notions is difficult and necessary. Doing so not only allows the use of them as a sort of barometer of success for metrics, but also allows for the subjective spotting of what they are doing to defy the metric and thus what adjustments need to be made to compensate. In part two of this series, I will go over how to subjectively analyze a player’s trackman data to assess command and review the Edge% metric for its ability to analyze command.

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