Dirk Hayhurst, minor league pitcher and writer extraordinaire, just published an article on Bleacher Report about his opinions on pitching philosophy. I recommend checking it out, as it's a thought-provoking read. Here's a brief snippet:
Relying on a hitter's inability to make contact with what you throw usually makes you throw pitches that can't be hit, not because they're nasty, but because they're not strikes. And guess what: If you aren't throwing strikes, it's really hard to strike guys out, no matter how nasty you think you are.
A hitter wants to hit and you want outs. The two actually work quite well together. Contact is not the enemy when you pitch. Contact is your friend. Contact on a quality strike often results in an out.
Remember: If you think you HAVE to strike a hitter out, you're putting the pressure back on yourself. When you're ahead, the pressure is on the hitter, not you.
If you‘re continuously ahead, then you're continuously putting pressure on the hitter. Hitters' batting averages are lower in pressure situations across the board, which makes your chances of success higher.
Erik, Hayhurst, and I just had a fun conversation on Twitter about all this, and I wanted to expand upon my thoughts briefly because 140 characters only allows you to say so much.
This might seem contradictory, considering we love pitchers with high strikeout rates around here, but I actually agree with Dirk's point. Let me explain.
If you know anything about Defense Indpendent Pitching Theory (DIPs), then you know that analysts these days consider strikeouts a pitcher's best friend. Pitchers have little control over if a ball hit in play falls for a hit or an out, so pitchers that get outs by themselves and limit walks are really valuable players. This is one of the founding principles of modern pitching analysis, and although things have gone on and gotten much more confusing and complicated than that, the basic theory holds: strikeouts are good, and walks suck. As a result, "pitching to contact" has been viewed as the antithesis of sabermetrics -- why would you sacrifice strikeouts for balls in play??? -- and tends to get made fun of whenever it comes up, fairly or unfairly.
But what Dirk is advocating is actually kinda cool: teaching young pitchers to not be afraid of contact. And I think his point lines up really well with our DIPs ideal.
There's a big difference between what flies in analysis and what works when teaching. We don't normally think about the teaching aspect here, but it's a completely different ballgame (pardon the pun). As Hayhurst points out, does teaching pitchers to go for the strikeout actually work? It may cause certain pitchers -- especially those without overpowering stuff -- to overthrow or to throw waaay too many pitches outside of the zone. They start nibbling, trying to get batters to chase, while working themselves into deep count after deep count and exiting after only a few innings.
So ideally, you'd want your pitchers to be aggressive. Get ahead of batters, put the pressure on them, and then don't be afraid to challenge them with a pitch. If you make quality strikes and locate well within the zone, then batters will likely press -- making poor contact or striking out in the process. You don't need to be afraid of the batter hitting one of your balls in play -- if you're throwing them a tough strike, let them hit it! If strikeouts are a pitcher's best friend, then groundballs are...well, their other best friend.
The only problem I have with the "pitch to contact" approach is when a pitcher takes the worst of both worlds: the pitcher isn't getting ahead in counts and is walking a large amount of batters, yet is still relying on balls in play for the majority of their outs. Consider this the Wade Davis example. Davis was working the "good" pitch-to-contact approach earlier this season, getting ahead in counts and limiting his walks, but recently it's backfired on him as he's lost his command and he can't put batters away once he gets to two strikes. He's falling behind on hitters and walking more of them than he did last season, and he's relying on his fielders to get almost every out.
Dirk's philosophy would help Davis right now -- he really needs to start throwing strikes and hitting his spots -- and although I'm no pitching coach (I'm trained in education, but not baseball ed), his overall teaching strategy makes sense to me. Teach pitchers to be aggressive and challenge hitters, and good things will happen. You'll get a good amount of strikeouts (just by virtue of being ahead more often), the odds are that you'll induce weak contact and grounders, and you'll have a low walk rate. The saber-ideal, right?
But whatever you do, don't take that to mean you can just ignore strikeouts, walk batters, and let your fielders get all the outs for you. Because even if that works for you over a short period of time, it's a recipe for disaster in the long run. I still don't think "Pitching to contact" is a good idea, as it seems to imply just throwing the ball over the middle and letting the batter have at it. But "Don't be afraid of contact"? I can get behind that.