Power pitching is what seems to drive the attention of most when it comes to advanced metrics in fantasy. Swinging strikes, velocity, and spin rate are the terms most often referred to when searching for the next big strikeout machine. This is not an incorrect approach, and there is certainly more to it than that with metrics such as O-Swing percentage and Z-Contact rate in regards to how we evaluate pitchers.
There is one skill that is often overlooked, or bunched in with other metrics, and that is finesse. This may be immediately confused with command, but it is not quite the same thing. Command can be achieved without finesse, but finesse cannot be achieved without command. The art of not only placing a pitch in the ideal location, but also mixing pitch mix, speed, and eye level in order to get a called strike is an art.
Unfortunately, it is also very difficult to measure. There are so many variables at play when it comes to called strikes. First of all, there is pitcher skill as you either have command or you do not. Second is the opposing batter, which may come down to sample size considering the results of finesse pitching have very much to do with manipulating your opponent. If a starting pitcher has faced nothing but inferior offensive teams then their results will obviously be skewed, as would it be for the opposite. The third variable is the catcher. A catcher’s ability to frame pitches, before the robots take over, can have a huge impact on called strikes in the shadow zone (which will be discussed in this article). Lastly, the final variable is the umpire. Unfortunately, this is not a variable that can be controlled in the slightest other than a pitcher’s reputation having an impact. However, that is hardly something that can be counted upon.
Overall there are a lot of variables at work when it comes to a successful called strike, and perhaps this is why they are overlooked. Called strikes are hard to predict and difficult to rely upon consistently. This is why we are taking a look at called strikes for early season player analysis because it’s crazy to do. Just remember that this is one of many tools are your disposal and should not be used as a singular data point to determine player value.
2020 Called Strike Leaderboard
To begin, let’s take a look at the league leaders at starting pitcher last season in called strike percentage (min 100 pitches).
As you can see, many elite arms such as Aaron Nola, Kyle Hendricks, Brandon Woodruff, Sonny Gray, and Zack Greinke rely heavily on called strikes for their overall production. However, several pitchers such as Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, and Yu Darvish have the ability to generate high swinging strike numbers as well. The key here is how to use this information to find value in your fantasy league.
The Shadow Zone
The higher the reliance on called strikes for strikeout production, the higher risk you take without a large sample size. Even then it’s a difficult statistic to trust given the variables discussed in the article’s introduction. In order to give a different point of view on both skill and variance, let’s take a look at a different chart citing only called strikes in the “shadow zone.”
What is the shadow zone you ask? Baseball Savant separates the pitcher’s attack zone into four main components rather than “in-zone” or “out of zone.” Those components are the heart, shadow, chase, and waste (shown above). The heart is where most of the action takes place, and where hitters do most of their damage. Pitchers will look to avoid this area of the plate unless they have “swing and miss” stuff. For those that don’t, the shadow is where you want to operate as it covers both the inner and outer edge of the strike zone.
A pitcher can still sequence a hitter into taking a pitch in the heart by sneaking a fastball by them or dropping a curveball that buckles the knees. However, this approach is still very reliant on having swing and miss potential rather than finesse. We want to look at both for player evaluation, but for now let’s take a look at the called strike leaderboard again, this time for just pitches in the shadow zone.
The list looks just a bit different than the full leaderboard doesn’t it? Most of the power pitchers have either dropped down the list or dropped off completely. This is where the line between aggression and finesse seems to form. These are the pitchers that like to sneak up on you like a ninja, that is why they call it the shadow. Well, not really, but it should be.
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How to Use Called Strikes
The trick is finding who has the ability to use called strikes as a skill and who rode a wave of variable luck. This is almost like the BABIP of pitching to a certain degree. There is a league-average result, but some pitchers have the skill to outperform expectations. This statement is not to be taken literally, but more of a way of framing your outlook when thinking about this from a player evaluation standpoint. In other words, who is going to regress and who has the skill to use called strikes as a weapon.
A good starting point is simple: track record. If a pitcher has shown the ability to master called strikes over time, like Zack Greinke, it is easy to assume results. The complication comes when you do not have a track record to fall back on. This is often the case when trying to locate a breakout or value in fantasy leagues. If something were obvious, everything would act on it.
So let’s take a look at the called strike leaderboard so far in 2021 to see if we can locate so candidates to believe in:
I’ve Been Framed
The next variable to research is catchers. Until human umpires are rendered obsolete by robots, they are still in charge of calling the game and therefore susceptible to being fooled by crafty catchers with superior framing ability. This talent naturally helps their pitching staff generate a higher rate of called strikes than league average. Below is a leaderboard from 2020 of those catchers who can generate value through their framing ability:
Now let’s look to the leaderboards for called strikes in the shadow zone this season. We will dig into the difference in a little bit as far as total called minus shadow called, but for now, just try to notice similar names that jump out:
At 16.7 percent of called strikes in the shadow, Nationals right-hander Joe Ross takes the top spot of the leaderboard along with repeat names like Rich Hill, Brady Singer, Michael Pineda, Charlie Morton, David Peterson, Lance McCullers, Cristian Javier, and Zack Greinke.
Yes, those last three names are all Astros. On a related topic, you will never guess who is the current leader among catchers this season in strike rate:
Ding, ding, ding. You are correct, it is Astros catcher Martin Maldonado leading the way with a 56.7 percent strike rate. Called strikes may be an art form by some, but they require a lot of help from variables beyond the pitcher's control. So how do you identify if a pitcher’s called strike success is a skill or luck? That requires a bit of homework.
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Called Strike Artists?
First of all, you should always check the pitcher's track record. Someone like Brady Singer who has limited major league experience has yet to establish a long track record, but his current called strike rate of 24.0 is a bit easier to believe based on the 22.8 percent mark he set last season. Singer makes for an interesting topic considering his CSW (called strikes plus whiffs) stands at 32.8 percent the date this article was written. This puts Singer among the league leaders in CSW despite carrying an 8.8 percent swinging-strike rate. That is a fairly large percentage of a pitcher's CSW to fall into the called strike column.
If you wanted to check a pitcher with a longer track record to study, look no further than Zack Greinke. Currently carrying a 20.9 percent called strike rate, the right-hander has typically sat in the 17-to-19 percent range for most of his career. If you combine that with his 21.4 percent mark from last season and the assistance of Martin Maldonado at catcher, you have an easy case to believe in. At least as far as called strike success goes.
Let’s pick out an example of a pitcher with a limited track record that is slightly tougher to analyze, Mets pitcher David Peterson. The 25-year-old is having a strong season so far thanks to his dominant slider and a strikeout minus walk rate of 31 percent. Peterson saw a CSW jump of 27.7 to 36.1 percent in his limited work for far in 2021, along with a sizeable jump in called strikes (17 to 22.8 percent).
The southpaw's success could be quickly dismissed as a small sample mirage, but when you notice a 2.6 point jump in swinging-strike rate and a vast improvement his Zone rate (37.2 to 48.7), the word fluke starts to slowly starts to fade away. Mets catcher James McCann also provides a significant boost to framing over Peterson’s battery mate last season in Wilson Ramos.
The examples discussed for positive examples above, and many others, show that getting consistently called strikes can be a skill. However, that is usually not the case. It’s true that some pitchers are able to command the respect of an umpire and get a needed called strike when needed. It is another thing to include “called strikes” as your weapon of choice. This is where your research maybe even more important in player analysis, avoiding a mirage.
Earlier in the article, two different leaderboards were posted for called strike leaders and called strikes within the shadow. The gap between these two numbers can be a guide to show which pitchers could be skating by on luck rather than skill. The idea being that no pitcher should generate the majority of their called strikes outside of the strike zone. This could point to luck, but also command issues are hidden by circumstance.
For the sake of argument, let’s cherry-pick an example of a pitcher that is carrying a high percentage of their called strikes in the shadow. Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright.
The right-hander has a lengthy track record of recording between a 19-to-20 percent called strike rate for most of his career. That number currently sits at 19.2 percent for the season, but with a whopping 14.6 percent coming from the shadow zone. As a contrast, Wainwright carried an overall called strike rate of 19.9 in his last full season in 2019. The big difference is that the 39-year-old only relied upon 11 percent of those calls in the shadow.
Yes, this is all based on a small sample argument for this season but that is the exercise we are practicing. Say you noticed this difference with any pitcher, how would you go about investigating the reason?
Is there a command issue? Bingo. Adam Wainwright has the lowest zone rate (34.9) of his entire career so far in 2021. But sure, you could have known that by looking at his 7.11 ERA so far this season, but there is a reason for the struggle. Can Wainwright turn it around? Perhaps. But the results so far suggest an early-season struggle to locate the ball. Expect the veteran to improve going forward, but be wary of his command and called strike profile.
How about Matthew Boyd? The post-sleeper breakout seems to be happening for the 30-year-old one season after disappointing fantasy owners with a 6.71 ERA and 2.24 HR/9. This season the southpaw is off to a great start posting a 2.03 ERA, 3.18 FIP, and 0.34 HR/9. Oddly enough the “strikeout pitcher” is also carrying a surprising 6.41 K/9.
Many fantasy managers may look directly to Boyd’s CSW of 30.4 percent, which is the best mark of the left-hander’s career, and assume that mark is going to jump. That looks like it could be the case when you notice a massive dip in his swinging-strike rate, especially with how poorly Boy’s slider is performing. After a 39.4 percent whiff rate in 2020, the Tigers’ pitcher currently holds an 18.6 mark this season.
So where did the massive bump in CSW come from? That’s right, called strikes. Boyd currently holds a 21.5 percent called strike rate which is well above his career-best, with 11.8 percent coming from the shadow (which is also well above his mark in the past).
It’s possible that Boyd will figure out his slider and improve his overall strikeout rate. However, anyone counting on the boost in called strikes to take the Tigers southpaw to new heights should probably keep their expectations in check. As seen in the video above, some of Boyd’s called strike calls have some pixie dust sprinkled on them and that will not last forever.
Hopefully, you have been able to take something away from this discussion on called strikes and can use the thought processed to have fun in future player analysis. Remember that not everyone is a bust or a breakout based on single statistics. Each metric helps paint a picture and the idea is to fill in as much of the picture as you can before being forced to make a decision. That is sometimes difficult early in the season, but that is what makes it a challenge.