Monday, July 9, 2012

Mental Approach to Baseball: Limit WALKS + ERRORS to 5 or Fewer

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--This article is my contribution to a youth baseball education series for the St. Louis Gamers Elite Travel Program. The topic was "The Game Within the Game," speaking towards attainable victories for players to make their goals. 

One of the biggest misnomers I see in baseball today is the thinking that walks and errors are these counterproductive anomalies that occur independently. From the department of “everything in moderation” comes the adage that a walk can be a successful tool for a pitcher. Lead-off doubles happen. Sometimes you have a base free and a guy in that other dugout circled as “the one who we cannot allow to beat us.” There is such a thing as the intentional base on balls for a reason. But what we must first grasp is why we have a cap on walks, as a goal for our program, and how pitching around a hitter is the exception, with pitching to contact being the overriding rule.

Generally speaking, a pitcher chalks up walks as what he can control, but the errors are the onus of others around him. This is the fundamental thinking that needs to change. Treating teammates as scapegoats is never the way to effectively (or maturely) pitch. The criticism that Johnny’s miscue forced you to unnecessarily stay on the mound to record a “fourth out” is not always fair. That is to say, the criticism is a two-way street, so tread with caution. Should the circumstances be applicable, Little Johnny has every right to quip back, “If one out of every 20 pitches was actually put in play, I wouldn’t be asleep over here at third.” Never assign blame as a pitcher. It is cowardly to treat umpires and your own players like they are sabotaging your efforts.

As a player, after an error, I would always wonder what I could have done differently to give my defense a better chance to make the play. Let’s investigate some numbers to see if anything a pitcher does can keep the error totals in check.       

As players in our program reach the next level, they need to understand that A) walks and errors are two inevitabilities of baseball. Mistakes on the micro scale are what make the sport unique, so there is no need for any player to beat themselves up over either. And B) the two types of gaffes are tied together in a way that pitchers can dictate. At the very least, a pitcher can put his defenders (himself being on e of them) in the best position to succeed by throwing strikes. Activating the defense draws their full attention to the plate with every pitch; it has fielders eager to receive their next chance, and has players more mentally prepared for where the play will take place before the various scenarios even arise. 

Pitchers need to assume a larger accountability in how a low strike percentage affects others around them. Errors occur due to a lack of concentration and/or an elevated stress level of the situation. Sometimes the moment can become “too big” for the player to handle. Doubt creeps in, the mind becomes reactive with where to go with the ball—instead of proactive—and mistakes happen. These moments commonly occur when runners are on base, when the defense has not been tested yet. Infielders typically want a low-pressure ground ball in the early innings to get into the flow of the game. Not too many players want their first chance of the game to come with runners on first and second via back-to-back walks. Ballplayers require the sound of bat hitting a ball—even if the play is to another teammate—in order to almost relearn the established pace of the game. Without that subtle noise to cue the timing, pressure builds. Missteps are more prevalent when an untested fielder has scoring implications riding on his first assist, or put-out, of the game. 

The wordage makes errors feel so insurmountable or detrimental. It has its own spot on the scoreboard and it carries this ominous name that basically says Fielder A “messed up.” It is all an unnecessary stress that coaches need to overcome. Baseball players would play looser without that “E” column. Even as a former pitcher, I feel it is hypocritical to not tally walks and wild pitches in the same vein. Why do the fielders have to visually live with their mistakes, for all the people in the stands to see?  Perhaps this is because we do not think of walks as comparable to errors in their disastrous repercussions. That is a mindset that needs to change in order to win more games.

There are many other botched plays in the game of baseball that are “errors” but do not go down as an error. You hear coaches say, “That error in the ninth cost us,” all while that day’s pitching staff racked up seven walks. Walks and errors need to meet in the middle on their negative connotations. We must learn to downplay the fielding errors as not as traumatic as they seem, as they come flashing across the scoreboard in lights. Simultaneously, walks need to be talked more about. They need to be elevated to the status of half an error (at least). The two work with extreme correlation in how to lose a game. This is why we tally walks and errors together, and set a target of five or less.

If a pitcher can learn to live with the shot to the ego that is having the crack of the bat heard often, they will find that a higher Opponent’s Batting Average is just a mere negative statistical side effect for a bigger equation at play: higher strike percentage = fewer walks = fewer errors = more wins. Noisy outs are still outs, and the game is a race to 27 (or 21 for seven innings). They all count the same. A ten-pitch strikeout is a double-edged sword; it can be just what the other team wanted. They saw all of your pitches (likely twice) and ate into your pitch-count. As Crash Davis [Kevin Costner] says in Bull Durham, “strikeouts are boring, besides that, they’re fascist.” I will take a three-pitch groundout every time.

For Major League Baseball precedence on this topic, I like to use the 2004 and 2005 seasons by former Cy Young winner, Brandon Webb. He was a tremendously successful sinkerball pitcher, but a person with flawed mechanical issues that pointlessly cut his career short (a topic for another day). In 2004, before really reaching the peak of his career, Webb walked 119 batters. This was one of the highest walk totals for a single-season by a picture in the modern era—third most this century.  So what did this astonishingly high number of walks translate to, in terms of end-of-season statistics? Webb posted a 3.59 (NL Average that year: 4.31), a 1.51 WHIP (not terrible), and 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings (a solid SO/9). For all intensive purposes, Webb had an above-average season. But he finished with a record of 7-16. Say what you want about a pitcher’s win/loss record, but I think it still has merit. And in this case, it was telling of what 119 walks—and 11 HBPs—do to your team’s chances of winning baseball games.

The proof is in what happened that 2005 season for Brandon Webb. He put up an almost identical 3.54 ERA and 6.8 SO/9, but cut his walk total down from 119 to 59, his HBPs from 11 to 2. A sixty walk disparity in back-to-back seasons by the same pitcher is unheard of. So what changed? His personal winning percentage saw an 11-win swing: 14-12 record. His WHIP dropped to 1.26 and his Opponent’s Batting Average fell from .353 to .311—despite giving up 35 more hits (an average of one more per start). This is what young pitchers need to understand. Webb gave up more hits in 2005 than in 2004, but hitters’ success rate dropped. Live around the strike zone and, yes, batters will hit you more. But remember that at-bats are isolated, individual battles; the bigger picture victory is having the collective group in the opposition’s dugout reach base less. If given the choice between surrendering one more hit per game or handing out one more walk per game, the statistics reflect base runners on via a free pass score more often.

Pitching to contact will result in more hits, but it also engages the defense to play better around you. The 2005 Arizona Diamondbacks committed 14 fewer errors behind Webb than they did in 2004, even though he pitched 21 more innings. Sure, there were personnel and managerial changes in between these seasons—both of which are proven to change win percentage and clubhouse morale, but that is not the whole story. A new set of coaches and a new set of defenders are not going to entirely account for a 14 error decrease behind one pitcher. Brandon Webb activated his defense by throwing more strikes. His strikes were put into play at a higher rate and his defense felt a part of the game at all times. They executed their throws and catches with better frequency and the result was more individual and team wins. It is a pretty simple concept.

I treated my time on the mound with a mentality that a team arrives at the ballpark with a finite number of hits, like bullets left in the chamber. I usually set this number around nine or ten. The rare 15+ hit games do occur, but as a pitcher, I knew I would not be around long enough to give up all of them. From there, I simply did the math—noticing that it is heavily skewed in the pitcher’s favor. For a nine-inning, non-rain-shortened game, even the winning team records 24 outs. So you know that in the ebb and flow of the game, ten hits might be scattered intermittently with 24 outs. If the starter goes seven innings, he still will record 11 more outs than he mentally prepares to give up hits. Those are odds I would take every time. Each at-bat was a statistically-favorable opportunity to convert it into an out. I felt it was a victory for me if one of those hits was a two-out single, with a weak groundout or fly out to follow. It was one of their bullets now “wasted,” as it did not lead to the start of a rally.

This is the trouble with walks. If you add a base on balls to this two-out scenario, suddenly guys are in scoring position and the other team used up only one out of their complement of bullets. You gift-wrapped the other team a precarious situation for yourself. You are now an extra base hit away from giving up two runs. It really makes you want to have a do-over with the previous hitter; go back, throw him strikes, and take your chances.
In my head, I thought with confidence about how hard it is for offensive players to even record a two-hit day. If a player just “got his lone hit out of the way,” I felt free and clear. Sure, that guy could have come back in his next at-bat and hit a double off the wall. It was false bravado and irrational logic, but it gave me assurance to pitch in a way that was hit-oriented and not nibbling on the corners. 

I am not a believer that a person can be “too much in the strike zone.” Even the most accurate pitchers miss the zone with enough regularity to keep a hitter honest. A guy who gives up four consecutive doubles probably needs to exit the game, but not because he was throwing too many strikes. On that day, for whatever reason, his stuff was more like batting practice to the other team. That happens. Asking him to throw more balls would not solve anything. In fact, it would add fuel to the fire; as a few extra base runners (via walks) would have been aboard for those gap shots.

I never fully understood how a pitcher feels pressure to throw strikes in certain situations, most commonly seen in a bases-loaded jam. The “pressure” should be a consistent gradient throughout the game, since the importance of strike-throwing is no different from the first batter to a bases-loaded scenario to the last out. The magnitude of the moment can change, but base runners and cheering fans should not be altering the pitcher’s primary objective. Consistently throw strikes at every point during the game and that anxiety will be on the hitter to execute, and not you.

Another common phrase is that a pitcher is “effectively wild.” While I think it has some merit, we need to understand it has limitations on it being a good thing. “Effectively wild” pitchers love to give up hits to the nine-hitter. Hits recorded by the other team’s bottom of the lineup typically occur when a pitcher is consistently missing the strike zone to those in front of them. When you fall into an erratic pattern, everyone in the stands knows that a four-seam fastball is the “get right” pitch; the one thing you can throw to find your arm slot and get back into the groove of throwing strikes. This allows for a batter, that you would ordinarily overpower, to hone in on that one fastball down the middle that he knows you must throw. Stay in the strike zone all game and this situation never happens. 

Pitchers do control their walk rates, but their hit rates reside largely outside their control and are prone to fluctuations and luck. A pitcher might as well pitch to contact and allow the Law of Averages to take it from there. Meaning, if a great hitter gets himself out 7 out of 10 tries, you should probably oblige him that opportunity.

Swings get lazier when there is not a sense of a rally brewing. You would be surprised at the frequency outs are handed to the pitcher in two-out scenarios without a man in scoring position. The sports psychology behind this thinking is fascinating. Research shows that the average player has very pessimistic thinking with bases empty and two outs: so much good would have to happen, while all the opposition has to do is get one out. The “fear” of building a big inning, only to have it squashed by one poor at-bat has players (not necessarily the hitter at the plate, but those around him) pack it in mentally. Players and coaches get lulled into this feeling of “save the middle of the order for next inning when we have no outs.”

When the lead-off hitter gets on first base (whether it's a walk, a single, catcher's interference, or a dropped third strike) he is about 40% likely to score a run in that inning (as opposed to 27% and 13% with 1 and 2 outs, respectively. Generally speaking, it takes three singles in an inning to score just one run. That is asking the offense to have a .500 batting average in one frame. That is a tall order for a team to link together hits like that, and the mathematics of baseball bear that out. If there is a walk or an error sandwiched between any of those singles, then suddenly the run total starts to balloon. This is why the phrase "walks kill" exists. Walks fuel rallies and move guys into scoring position without offense effort exerted. They cause pitchers to work from the stretch, which is a trouble spot for most starters. A base runner of any variety disrupts the rhythm of the windup and typically sees a slight dip in velocity and deception. Subsequently, Opponent's Batting Averages rise as hitting becomes contagious. Lead-off walks immediately put the pitcher in this defensive mode. It typically takes 3 outs before the pitcher can return to the comfort of their windup. The other alternative is clearing the bases via extra base hits, and that is never a welcome way. Back-to-back walks can take a harmless ground ball through the right side of the infield and turn it into a 2-RBI single. 

I have personally seen teams commit four errors and win the game. On the other side of the coin, Jim Maloney famously threw a 10-inning no-hitter in 1965, but walked 10 batters and hit another. Weird things happen in the game of baseball, so there is no hard-and-fast rule all the time. But trying to limit defensive walks and errors to a combined total of five or fewer has a proven, near-.900 win percentage. It is a solid number to use as a jumping off point. Target five or less and the wins should correlate this game within the game.