Jeff Sullivan recently suggested that despite his reputation Tom Glavine did not pitch to a significantly more generous strike zone. Sullivan points out Glavine did not get significantly more called strikes than other pitchers, even during the peak of his career. Sullivan’s analysis piqued my interest and made me wonder if Glavine’s reputation for getting a wider strike zone helped him succeed in ways beyond called strikes.
Glavine’s reputation alone likely influenced a batter’s behavior at the plate, encouraging batters who were behind the count to swing at questionable pitches. Batters believed if they did not swing these pitches would be called strikes for Glavine (when a batter swings at a pitch out of the zone when the batter is ahead of the count that has more to do with a pitchers stuff than the batter giving the pitcher an expanded zone). So, what would we expect from a pitcher who is getting batters to expand the strike zone? You would expect batters to make poor contact, yielding a lower BABIP. The batter would most likely swing at pitches outside the zone when the batter is behind the count.
Based on this reasoning, I hypothesize that Tom Glavine will see a greater reduction in quality of contact when he gets ahead of the count than a league-average pitcher. I’m going to look at the time span from 1991 to 2002 because that was the time span Jeff looked at and because I like palindromes.
To measure quality of contact I will be looking at BACON (batting average on contact). BACON is slightly different than BABIP because BACON includes home runs. If batters are expanding the strike zone when Glavine is ahead in the count we should see the quality of contact decrease. To measure the decrease in quality of contact, I will look at the ratio of BACON when Glavine is ahead to BACON to when Glavine is behind (the lower the number the greater improvement the pitcher experiences by getting ahead in the count). I will refer to this measure as EXP (a lower EXP shows a greater decrease in quality of contact, an EXP above 100 shows an increase in quality of contact). The graph below compares Glavine’s EXP to the league average EXP for each season during the 11-year span.
The league-average EXP is consistent year to year, hovering around 91, which suggests batters expand the strike zone for most pitchers when batters are behind in the count. Glavine’s EXP is not always better than the league-average EXP. In ‘94 and ‘96 Glavine was actually worse when ahead in the count than when he was behind. This is to be expected because BACON takes a while to stabilize. Looking at Glavine’s data for a single season is subject to a fair amount of random noise because you have a relatively small sample of data. One season for Glavine gives us about 170 fair balls with Glavine ahead and 280 fair balls with Glavine behind. However, over a larger sample BACON stabilizes. At around 2,000 fair balls (more than in a single season for Glavine) BACON stabilizes. For example, when looking at the league-average EXP for a full year BACON is stable — with 3,500 fair balls with the pitcher ahead of the count and 4,600 fair balls with pitcher behind the count.
To make sure we are not just attributing skill to some random variation we need to look at a larger sample for Glavine. Over the 11 year span form 1991-2002 Glavine induced weaker contact (lower BACON) than the league average both when he was ahead of the count and behind the count. This is not surprising as we would expect a good pitcher to be better than average ahead and behind the count. What’s interesting is Glavine has better than league-average EXP (87 vs. 92) which suggests Glavine is better at expanding the strike zone than league-average pitchers. This comes with the caveat that while we have 3,056 fair balls when Glavine is behind the count, we only have 1,853 fair balls when Glavine is ahead — just shy of the 2000 at which the measure should stabilize. Even so, the difference between Glavine’s EXP and the league-average EXP is very convincing.
To stabilize BACON, I increased the sample by looking at all the balls put in play. I compared balls put in play when the pitcher had two strikes to balls put in play when the pitcher had fewer than two strikes, which led to EXP2: the ratio of BACON when a pitcher has two strikes, to when he has fewer than two strikes. The table bellow shows a comparison of the quality of contact in two strike counts to non-two strike counts.
Even with this larger sample size Glavine’s BACON is still lower than the league average in respective counts. More importantly, his EXP2 is still better than league average (although higher than his EXP). Pitchers in general try to induce weaker contact when they are ahead of the count, but the data shows Glavine is doing something special to induce even weaker contact.
Is Glavine getting batters to give him a wider strike zone? We cannot definitively say what is causing this pattern in the data, but we are seeing the type of numbers we would expect to see if the batter was giving him a wider strike zone.
All splits number are from Baseball-Reference.
Article originally posted at www.fangraphs.com/community