Back in the early 80s, when Dale Murphy was one of the best players in the game, my brother had him on his fantasy team and thought he was the greatest. Looking to take him down a peg, I told him – you get to 0-2 on Murphy and throw him a curve out of the strike zone and it’s a guaranteed strikeout. His reply was – okay, good luck getting to 0-2.
My theory in 2018 is that Mets pitchers don’t have a ton of problem getting to 0-2 (or 1-2) but struggle to put hitters away. And the reason they struggle is that they throw pitches that never appear to be strikes. It’s okay to throw pitches out of the zone. But at some point they have to look like a strike in order to get a hitter to chase. So, instead of being out of the AB in three or four pitches, those consistently last six or more, driving up pitch counts and leading to early exits and unsatisfying results.
So let’s go ahead and test this theory. Baseball-Reference shows that when the PA ends immediately after the 0-2 pitch NL hitters post a .141/.147/.210 triple slash line for a .357 OPS. At 1-2, those numbers are .148/.155/.223 and .379, respectively. Clearly, you want to end the PA when you get that far ahead. The longer the batter stays alive, the higher his OPS gets. With a full count, NL batters have an .800 OPS.
Over at TexasLeaguers.com they have the ability to look at pitch locations by counts. We’ll examine what pitchers do at 0-2 and 1-2. Let’s start by looking at Max Scherzer, arguably the best pitcher in the NL right now. In the month of May, Scherzer has gotten to an 0-2 count 28 times and thrown pitches in the zone 12 times and ones outside the zone 16 times. That doesn’t sound all that impressive. But, the key is that those pitches outside the zone are ones that the batters think might be strikes. Of those 28 pitches, batters have swung at 21 of them. Meanwhile, Scherzer has thrown a 1-2 pitch 26 times this month. Of those, 16 have been out of the strike zone but batters have swung 15 times.
The majority of pitches Scherzer throws in these counts when he’s way ahead with two strikes are out of the strike zone. But batters are still swinging the majority of the time. Now let’s compare that to Mets pitchers.
Jacob deGrom has been on the DL, left one start early and had another last just one inning this month. So he has just eight pitches with an 0-2 count. Seven of those have been out of the strike zone yet batters have swung at five of them. He’s thrown 16 pitches this month with the count 1-2 with seven of those out of the zone. Batters have swung at 13 of those pitches, with one of those that they took being a called strike three.
Noah Syndergaard has 16 pitches at 0-2, seven out of the strike zone and batters swung at 11 pitches. He’s thrown 19 1-2 pitches and 11 of those have been out of the zone. Batters have swung at 12 of those.
Steven Matz has nine pitches this month at 0-2 and six of those have been outside the strike zone. Batters have swung at four pitches in this count. At 1-2, Matz has thrown 13 pitches and five of those have been outside the zone. Batters have swung at eight of them.
Zack Wheeler has thrown 20 0-2 pitches so far this month and 13 of them have been outside the strike zone. Batters have swung at 10 pitches in this count. Wheeler has 26 pitches at 1-2 and has thrown 15 outside of the zone. Batters have swung at 16 of these offerings.
Jason Vargas somehow has gotten to 0-2 eight times and has thrown five balls outside the zone. Batters have swung three times against him at this count. At 1-2, Vargas has 13 pitches, of which five have been outside the zone. Batters have swung nine times.
Let’s put this into chart form:
|Player||0-2 Counts||Balls/Strikes/Swings||% Balls||% Strikes||% Swings|
And here’s the same chart for 1-2 counts:
|Player||1-2 Counts||Balls/Strikes/Swings||% Balls||% Strikes||% Swings|
At an 0-2 count, the difference between Scherzer and Wheeler/Matz is striking. While Scherzer throws more pitches outside the zone than in the box at this count, Matz and Wheeler throw roughly twice as many pitches outside the zone. And they’re not getting batters to chase as many of these as Scherzer. And that’s not even taking into account pitches that get fouled off in these situations. The end result is fewer outs and more pitches.
Scherzer has not been as efficient with 1-2 pitches this month. For the year as a whole, batters have a .162 OPS against Scherzer with an 0-2 count, less than half the league average of .357 mentioned above. Hitters have managed a .330 OPS against Scherzer at 1-2, much closer to the .379 league average.
Let’s do one more chart. This time let’s track how many swings and misses our pitches get at 0-2 and 1-2 counts:
|Player||0-2 Counts||Whiffs||W%||1-2 Counts||Whiffs||W%|
The lefties fare the worst in this regard, not getting a single whiff on an 0-2 count. For the year, opposing batters have a .692 OPS against Matz when the PA ends after the 0-2 pitch. And Vargas has a .500 OPS against in this situation – both of those significantly higher than league average. And they’re the worst in 1-2 counts in whiffs, too. And the OPS follows suit, with Matz surrendering a .538 OPS and Vargas’ mark is at .700, again both considerably worse than league average.
While Wheeler does quite well getting strikeouts, it’s not like he’s cleaning up in the OPS category, either. Opposing batters have a .619 OPS against him with an 0-2 count and a .419 mark at 1-2, even with the strikeouts he’s getting. Syndergaard is much better, at .310 and .285, respectively.
There’s no one size fits all approach here for the Mets’ pitchers. Maybe Syndergaard needs to throw a fastball to make hitters move their feet when he gets far ahead. Perhaps Wheeler needs to quit trying to strike guys out with a breaking ball. And whatever Matz and Vargas are doing, they should try the exact opposite. But deGrom should just keep doing what he’s doing. And all of the other pitchers should take notes.