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The Extreme Pitch-To-Contact Team

Watching the Nats' 9-4 loss against St. Louis on Saturday night triggered a digression about the whole pitch-to-contact approach -- which is, for Washington's soft-tossing starters, either the optimum approach or the only option. (Do you like your Kool-Aid strong or diluted?)

Why the digression? Well, the Cardinals cracked this game open with a pair of three-run homers. The first of those, from Matt Holliday in the third, came one at bat after a Craig Stammen walk. The second, from Colby Rasmus in the fifth, came one at bat after a critical Cristian Guzman error -- a muff that kept the inning alive and led to four unearned runs. What-if baseball is never quite as simple as sportwriters like to make it, but what the heck: Take away one walk, and Holliday has a two-run homer. Take away the E6, and the Rasmus homer never happens. So maybe it's a 2-2 game instead of a 7-2 game.

Anyway, here's the point. Pitch-to-contact teams must be supported by good defense. And non-strikeouts pitchers need on-point control. If the Nats make errors and walk guys, they're asking for trouble. More so than most teams.

Before I go on, let me state clearly that the whole pitch-to-contact approach can work. Exhibit 1A: John Lannan. Steve McCatty actually preaches the pitch-to-contact approach. It's friendly for pitch counts. And it can make for efficient innings.

But right now, the Nats -- mostly because of who they have on their staff -- are an extreme case. With Ross Detwiler in the minors and Jordan Zimmermann on the disabled list and Stephen Strasburg merely trying on jogging shorts in Florida, the Nationals have only one starter -- Garrett Mock -- with strikeout stuff.

Consider the numbers...

* The Nats rank 30th in baseball in strikeouts by starting pitchers. They have 411 this year. (The Giants, who rank first, have 717.)

* The Nats' starters rank last (first?) in the National League in something called "contact percentage" -- the frequency with which a batter makes contact when swinging at a pitch. Looking only at starters, Washington's contact percentage is 84.8. (In other words, batters swing and miss only 15 percent of the time.) In the last 30 days, with J.D. Martin in the rotation, that contact percentage is 86.0, worst (or best?) in baseball.

* Below I list the starters (among those with 100+ IP) with the highest contact percentages. Three of the top eight pitch for the Nats... and J.D. Martin (who doesn't qualify, actually has a higher contact percentage than anyone, at 91.1).

1. John Lannan (WAS) -- 89.1
2. Nick Blackburn (MIN) -- 88.3
3. David Huff (CLE) -- 87.7
4. Joel Pineiro (STL) -- 87.7
5. Jeremy Guthrie (BAL) -- 87.2
6. Mike Pelfrey (NYM) -- 87.0
7. Livan Hernandez (WAS) -- 86.9
8. Craig Stammen (WAS) -- 86.9

By Chico Harlan  |  August 29, 2009; 11:19 PM ET
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Next: Lineups From Busch


No one has posted on the status of Jeff Kobernus, who went down after 10abs. He's positioned to be the second baseman of the future. What's the problem, and will he be ready for the fall leagues or ST?

Posted by: clarquito | August 29, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

what's happening with Jeff Kobernus, second baseman of the future?

Posted by: clarquito | August 29, 2009 11:28 PM | Report abuse

Great post, Chico, and you are right. You can't play soft toss AND make the type of errors Goozie made tonight. Let's get some 95 mph fireballers (SS) out there. Any word on Belly-hard getting traded by Tuesday? Knight all but traded him on the telecast tonight, saying Orr has made him expendable. When you are made expendable by Orr, something is terribly wrong. Stay on this. Belly is gone. Is Goozie next?

Posted by: jdschulz50 | August 29, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Orr has been here for, what, 2 games? Belliard is expendable because they can finish in last place without him, regardless of what Orr does or doesn't do, long term.
I hope he's the next Ryne Sandberg, I'm just not convinced after 2 games.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | August 30, 2009 12:47 AM | Report abuse

In other words, this is a staff of 4th or 5th starters, if they live up to their potential and stay healthy.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | August 30, 2009 12:49 AM | Report abuse

Vermont's Web site shows Kobernus as still on the 7-Day DL.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | August 30, 2009 12:56 AM | Report abuse

Kobernus blew out his knee a month ago and is out for the season.

Posted by: WashOut | August 30, 2009 1:22 AM | Report abuse

I said to my tv that the rout was on before Carpenter did, so in retrospect: yes, Bobby, it's on. (I also said the following to my tv: ORRRRRRRRRRR!!!)

Seems to me that Rizzo is working and will continue to work on improving our defense, so I think that's coming. Not pretty now, at times.

Re. fireballing pitchers, the saying that what comes in fast goes out fast comes to mind. There was a great Storen interview in the latest Inside Pitch. He recounted his welcome to the bigs moment, where he decided to challenge a hitter and throw one by him. The hitter connected and the HR ball went 500 feet. Storen said that he later asked someone who was monitoring how fast his pitch had been. He noted that it was 96 MPH but right down the middle or something to that effect. Funny guy. I think I'm gonna like him.

Oh, and I still miss Dibbs.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Editor: He was pitching in MiLB, of course, but the point was the contrast between the hitters he'd faced in college and the hitters he was facing there.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 7:03 AM | Report abuse

"I'm having fun playing. It's too bad we didn't get the win today, but I'm having fun, and that's the most important thing" and "errors are just part of the game".......

Not too quotes I like to read after a game like last night.

Posted by: JayBeee | August 30, 2009 7:39 AM | Report abuse

Re. the Storen piece (evidently originally from the NatsTown blog), about his second pitch of pro ball that went about 500 feet, the actual quote was "And I asked the guy doing the radar how hard I threw it and he said 96 and I was like 'wow, that's pretty hard' but it was belt high'".

(A raconteur I am not.)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Especially the second quote. Would you accept that from a bank teller?

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

There's a reason that most dominating #1 starters throw their fastballs 92-95 MPH. It's harder to hit. All this pitch to contact nonsense is nice. Yes, the Nats' pitchers do need to attack the hitters, but really all it means is that they need to throw strikes. Really good pitchers miss bats; they don't hit them. The only front of the rotation pitcher on that list is maybe Pineiro. I bet if you had the reverse list - maybe a K/9 list - you'd have more aces and quality closers. The bottom line is that the Nats have a bunch of #3,4, and 5 starters right now. Guzman's error last night was brutal, and their up the middle infield defense is not good. However, when you have pitchers who can miss bats, it can make up for some of these deficiencies. Now, if they can develop Strasburg as #1 and NN as a #2, they might be in business.

As for Pete Orr, he's a nice bench player. If he's the starting 2B next year though, they will not have solved 1/2 of their middle infield problem.


Posted by: db423 | August 30, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

I don't mind Pete Orr "having fun". He just got here, he's hitting well and looks OK in the field--and who knows how long he'll be around or starting?

Everyone else having fun? Maybe not so much. There are times you hate your job and only do it because you are getting paid--this might be some of those times. You wanna have fun in MLB, then play major league baseball.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

And that doesn't mean I don't care about Willie's mom more than losing any individual game. You don't have to sulk and go into a depression every time you lose a game (especially one like Friday's). But a lousy game like last night puts me in a BAD MOOD.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

The preaching of "pitch to contact" is fine until you let runners advance into scoring position. Then pitching to contact works against you if you have less than two outs. AT that point a pitcher needs a strike out pitch. This is where the Nats starters are deficient, they lack the ability to pitch like a ninth inning closer when you have to shut down a rally. Stocking an infield with Guzman, Belliard and Dunn is not going to work with contact pitchers.

I wonder if Rizzo is getting tired of Sosa's "relief" efforts.

Posted by: driley | August 30, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Have heard several times here that guys like Martin just need to add another pitch like a splitter.

Naive question then: how hard is it to add another pitch?

Posted by: derwink | August 30, 2009 9:01 AM | Report abuse

The bullpen staff is overworked from the spate of 5-inning starters the Nats offer. I don't think it's possible to grade them now, given their overuse.

If we are going to have weak-armed starters, someone's got to find a way to lower their walks and also get them into the seventh inning. Errors will happen, especially when guys are standing out there a long time waiting for the "out" pitch that never comes.

Rob Dibble has noted these things just about every game, so this is not exactly new territory.

Posted by: JohnRDC | August 30, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

We are getting killed by the homerun ball. Seems to me if you are going to pitch to contact you want to go for the ground balls rather than the outfield flies. In other words, there is contact, and there is contact.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I don't think it's a naive question at all. Book I am reading right now says that in general, it's more difficult for the really hard throwing fast-ball types to add another effective pitch (cf., MacDougal).

As pitchers age and their hard stuff slows downs, the good ones learn to adjust and "mix it up". If they don't adjust, they don't stay. So the incentive to change goes up for the veteran pitchers.

So, I'd say, it's probably pretty challanging to add another pitch and make it effective, especially for a young guy who hasn't been around the league for several years seeing veteran pitchers, and taught by good pitching coaches.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

This is a great discussion, and I'm not trying to derail it. But let's just remember that Stammen only gave up only three earned runs.

It was another bullpen flameout that kept the Nats from having a chance. Three earned runs between Villone and Sosa, not to mention the unearned runs (charged to Stammen) on the home run. Six runs in 4 and 1/3 innings? Yikes.

And I was a little surprised to see Riggleman go to Villone after the Guzman boot. Slowes noted that "it's an out you have to get," and I understand that. My 20/20 hindsight makes me question the move, though.

Posted by: JohninMpls | August 30, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of 'pen flameouts, the OP sez that the major league season record for bullpen losses is 40 (2004 Rockies), and that the Nats are currently at 36. So maybe we still have a shot at making the books for historic ineptitude. Yay.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

What book, Nats_Lady?

Posted by: Scooter_ | August 30, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I am reading LIving on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, by John Feinstein.

Someone on here, I think, recommended it order to better understand pitchers and pitching. I'm about 1/2 way through (I got it as an e-book so it was only $10). It's not a statistical type book, rather it's more anecdotal, in that the author followed the two pitchers and interviewed them and their teammates, managers, coaches, etc., during the 2007 season.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, NatsLady. I was wondering about the book, too. I think that NatsNut may have mentioned it at one point, if memory serves (which it doesn't always).

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

The two pitchers were Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine for the Yankees and Mets, respectively.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The Rox are so totally an inspiration to me. Think what we could do in five years---just even think how they were at the begininng of THIS season.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Chalk one up for memory:

Mussina talked about that fear in Feinstein's new book. The constant fear starters have that they're one bad outing from ending their career. Even the best ones have it.

Bergmann should read Feinstein's book, for that reason and also because he's mentioned on page 260. ;)

Posted by: NatsNut | August 8, 2008 10:54 PM

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I was so rooting for the Rox in 2007, NatsLady. (love those underdogs)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Hey, I'm rooting for them THIS year. Underdogs again, and their stadium looks so beautiful on TV.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

1A, how'd you DO that? I tried to search for the post I remembered, but couldn't find it. Someone asked about pitching and someone else recommended that book by name.

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Good point re. this year, NatsLady. I was thinking of postseason play, which is when I start to focus on other teams more (until such time as our Nats are there, of course).

Re. my search strategy, I've not had a lot of success using the search function on this site. I prefer to punch terms into Google or another search engine. I typically use "Washington Nationals Journal" along with other terms specific to the search in question. In this case, if memory serves, I added "Feinstein."

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Nats Lady; John Feinstein has written a lot of books most of them pretty good. The whole pitch to contact subject is a non factor where the Nats are concerned because they are almost forty games under .500. The pitcher,catcher,manager,and pitching coach all play a role over the course of a season, skull sessions, computer read outs, and physical skills combine to make a pitching staff effective and when losing seeps into a season none of these theories matter not pitch to contact,pitch count or any of that mumbo jumbo that seam heads pour over for hours. This team that all of us love(at least i do) has a lot of work to do this offseason i.e. keep Dunn at first is Gonzo ready at second, keep Guz at ss, Dukes in right, Da Bama in left, spend money for FA starters? keep Riggs as the manager and let him bring in his own staff ? There is plenty to do this offseason, should keep Rizzo very busy.

Posted by: dargregmag | August 30, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, 1A, I found it (you are right, the site search engine is uselss).
> I have always had a hard time understanding pitching.

You should read John Feinstein's book Living on the Black, about Mike Mussina's and Tom Glavine's 2007 season. You'll learn a lot.

Posted by: nunof1 | July 25, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

You're welcome, NatsLady. Good work!

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I wasn't the one who asked the question, but nonof1 was right, I'm learning a lot from the book.

@dargramps: yes, it will be a busy off-season. If Orr keeps showing well, 2B will be another decision (I guess it is anyway).

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

A little comic relief:

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | August 30, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Nats_Lady...sounds like a good read.

If it's that hard, maybe they should focus on teaching them how to doctor the ball with lubricants and sand paper. :)

Posted by: derwink | August 30, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

That has to be taught? I thought it came naturally. :)

If it's that hard, maybe they should focus on teaching them how to doctor the ball with lubricants and sand paper. :)

Posted by: derwink | August 30, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Nats_Lady | August 30, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Most pitchers today (starters, at least) have learned how to throw 3 or 4 pitches by the time they get to high-A ball. The basics are a 4-seam fastball (sinker); a 2-seam fastball (like a slider, but with less movement), a basic curve (higher torque on the forearm, breaks down & across), and a slider (a power-pitchers' breaking ball).

Sometimes a coaches' observation can lead to a small change in the way the ball is gripped to make a suspect pitch into an out-pitch; this can be particularly true with a curve. However, it is up to the individual pitcher to work on that pitch until they can throw it repeatedly & begin to "trust" it.

It isn't that pitchers like Stammen, Martin, Balester, et al need another pitch - what they need is to learn to 1) throw three of the basics for strikes, and 2) then learn how to take something off of those pitches without "tipping" the batter (don't change arm angle or mound position). Greg Maddux was a master of that - 88mph fastball in, 78mph curve, 86mph sinker at the knees, 82mph slider away, all from the same basic arm motion.

Posted by: BinM | August 30, 2009 1:23 PM | Report abuse

new post up.

Posted by: BinM | August 30, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

BinM -- a four-seamer is NOT a sinker. That's a two-seam fastball. And the motion of that is nothing like a slider. Generally, a sinker (from a righty) would dive down and slighty away from a left-handed batter (think towards 5 o'clock).

A slider generally would curve in more like a frisbee, though some pitchers (like Strasburg) have one that's more up and down, breaking sharply like a ball rolling off a table.

Posted by: Uncle_Teddy | August 30, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Ted is right. The two seamer is the pitch that sinks and has more movement than the four seam fastball. Many pitchers now use their two seamer as a sinker.

While I'm not comparing the Nationals young starter to Glavine and Maddux, if you look at the latter two's numbers, you will see that neither were huge strikeout (Maddux about 5.5 strikeouts per 9IPs and Glavine 3.5 to 5 strikeouts per 9IPs) pitchers the first couple of years. Neither threw particularly hard either. Early in their careers, both peaks at about 92-93 MPH.

If you look at that middle of each pitchers careers, you will see that they both started to strikeout pitchers at significantly higher rate, about 6 to 7 hitters/9 innings.

The reason they started striking out was likely two fold. First, they became better pitchers, if not harder throwers. Second, as the became known and good control pitchers, they soon earned more than the benefit of the doubt on close pitches on the outside corners of the plate. Maddux probably had 3-6 inches of increased strikezone on each side of the plate at the height of his career.

The Nationals two best control pitchers are Lannan and Stammen. Lannan walks just 2.9 hitters per 9IPs and Stammen is barely over two. Stammen gives up the fewest baserunners per inning (just 1.29) on the staff.

Stammen's WHIP (walks+hits/Innings Pitched) would rank him about 17th in the NL, among starting pitchers, if he had enough innings. It would put him ahead of pitchers like Derek Lowe, Cole Hammels, Barry Zito, Bronson Arroyo, Chad Billingsley and Zach Duke. It would have him within .05 points of pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Yovani Gallardo, Jason Marquis, Jair Jurgens and Rich Harden. Although Lannan's WHIP is a bit higher than Stammen's, mostly because of a recent slump, Lannan can keep runners of the bases.

Strikeouts are important but keep runners off the bases is more important. Big strikeout pitchers often come with base on balls baggage. I would be more concerned with pitchers like Mock and Detwiler, who walk a lot of hitters, than with pitchers like Stammen and Lannan.

Its most likely that Lannan and Stammen of mid-rotation starters but lets not quite doom them to mediocrity. Remember Lannan is in his second full year. Stammen is a rookie. They will improve with time and experience. Just look at what Glavine and Maddux did after not striking out a lot of hitters early in their careers.

Posted by: jeffreyt211 | August 31, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

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