A few weeks ago, I took a look at Carlos Santana’s swing-take profile, one of the newest tools from Statcast/over at baseballsavant.com. We do not yet know how predictive the tool is, but there are certainly some trends present. These profiles also exist for pitchers, pulling from a much larger sample size than hitters, as they throw more tracked pitches than a hitter sees in a given season.
Pitching is a beautifully complex endeavor, but the broader goal is simple – do not get beat in the middle of the zone. Shane Bieber took it one step further in 2019, according to our new friend, swing-take.
He did not just avoid getting beat in the middle of the zone, he baffled hitters there. The righty was tied with Aaron Nola and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander for fifth in baseball this season with -16 take runs in the heart of the zone, trailing only Trevor Bauer (-20), Gerrit Cole (-19), Charlie Morton (-19) and Stephen Strasburg (-19).
(Again intuitively, pitchers look for negative runs in this tool, whereas hitters look for positive runs.)
To reiterate, we still do not know how predictable the swing-take tool is, but it is rather obvious who some of the best pitchers in the league are just by sorting through. Using this small group, you could take the take runs in the heart of the zone, add their swing runs in the heart of the zone, then rank them how you thought they performed this season, and you would be pretty darn close when comparing to their outcome stats. We will get to how swing runs effect one pitcher in that group in a second.
So, what does a handful of take runs in the middle of the zone indicate? Well, we know that this is where hitters want to swing in the zone, compared to the other three quadrants. We know nasty stuff will cause whiffs. What would make a hitter take so many pitches in the heart?
Let’s look at how those take runs fit overall. For our sample, using qualified pitchers only, we will use that group of the seven best in the category. Because swing-take runs are cumulative, let’s shy away from grouping by that number, especially given that no one is going to gain runs from taking in the heart, where everything is a strike.
Out of 61 qualified pitchers, let us grab the three worst by FIP: Mike Leake, Reynaldo Lopez, and Ivan Nova. We will also grab the middle three: Homer Bailey, Joey Lucchesi, and Marco Gonzalez.
Here is how our group lines up:
Heart Runs vs. Success
We see there is a pretty strong correlation between take runs and FIP, though there is not much deviation between the numbers. Again, no pitcher is going to give up runs by a hitter taking a definite strike, so anyone that pitches a certain amount will rack up a decent amount.
Trevor Bauer, despite leading the league in take runs, is a bit of an outlier because he was absolutely smoked in the middle of the zone. His 25 swing runs allowed is in the bottom five of baseball, as well.
So we know that overall heart runs are decently indicative of overall success. Steal more strikes, have more success. This we know. We do not know if it is more or less indicative than the shadow zone, where the most pitches are thrown, and they really muddy-up results returning more random results. But there is more of a correlation between take runs and some of those result metrics than swing runs, which is a bit of a surprise.
That seems to indicate a heightened importance of deception in this zone. What other reason would a hitter have to take strikes than that they are on their heels? Sure, many players take strikes early in the count, but leverage matters in how swing-take runs are calculated, so players like Bauer and Bieber toward the top of the list are getting called strikes in key situations.
Inversely, why are these two the outliers in terms of quality of contact?
As we continue to hash out the predictability of swing-take runs, perhaps we can get a little closer to answering that question, and others. Yet we can see that Bieber is elite when it comes to keeping hitters off of his pitches that lack relative command. That matters a great deal. It kept Bauer from being a complete shell of himself in 2019, and it helped Bieber ascend to greater heights.