Pirates Pitch Inside More Than Any Organization, But is it Wrong?

Last night, Tim Williams wrote about the situation involving the Arizona Diamondbacks hitting Andrew McCutchen, and how Tony LaRussa shifted the blame to the Pirates pitching inside. The key quote from the article is as follows.

“So what’s happened is some teams have developed this idea that they can pitch in and up,” La Russa said. “Well it’s got rewards because I don’t care if you’re a right-hander or left-hander, that spot right there, nobody gets to that pitch. So it’s a hole for everybody. The problem is, unless you have Greg Maddux pitching, that’s a very risky area to throw in.”

It’s true that the Pirates are a team that focus on pitching inside. At the end of the 2013 season, we highlighted the Pirates style of pitching in the minors, which in part includes pitching inside, leading to plenty of hit batters. It’s now nearly the end of the 2014 season and everything is status quo. The Pirates have five affiliates that lead their leagues in hit batters — Indianapolis, Altoona, Bradenton, West Virginia and Jamestown. Those clubs represent the top five levels of their minor league system. If Bristol pitchers had just one more hit batter, they would lead the Appalachian League.

Without knowing the Pirates pitching philosophy in the minors, you would assume that their pitchers are wild. That isn’t the case at all, they are taught to pitch inside with a purpose and while the purpose isn’t to hit batters, that will happen occasionally when you’re trying to own the inside of the plate. That seems to be a forgotten art in the sport of baseball. Years ago, pitchers worked both sides of the plate and if you crowded the inside, they would let you know. If batters are comfortable in the box and they know they can look middle-away all the time, you’re making them more productive. If you get in their head that they can’t just dig in at the plate, then the advantage slides back to the pitcher.

The Pirates minor league pitchers are middle of the road with their control, which is likely due to the “fastball academy” they put the pitchers through. The key to success for Pirates pitchers is fastball command, and working off the fastball, so their pitchers tend to go fastball heavy compared to other teams. That sometimes leads to poor results that don’t match the pitchers ability, such as the somewhat pedestrian numbers that Jameson Taillon has put up over the years despite the fact he possesses two plus pitches. He had to work on fastball command just like everyone else, and if a batter sees a lot of fastballs, he’s going to look for the fastball and time the pitch.

The Pirates also teach kids to keep the ball down in the zone and of course, own the inside of the plate. The pitchers that grasp this concept the best tend to move the quickest. That style doesn’t lead to a lot of strikeouts, it’s basically pitching to contact to get quick outs, trying to get those outs in three pitches or less. In fact, none of the Pirates minor league teams rank in the top half of their league in strikeouts, and five of them — Altoona, West Virginia, Jamestown, GCL and DSL — are all last in their league in strikeouts. While some would point to that as being an awful performance, it points more to the “pitching to contact” philosophy. The quicker the outs, the more efficient the pitcher, the longer they can go in games.

The eight Pirates affiliates have combined to hit 419 batters. As mentioned, five of their teams lead their leagues, while Bristol is just one behind the top spot. None of the Pirates minor league teams lead the league in walks. Altoona is the closest, with the third highest total in the Eastern League. Neither the DSL, nor GCL Pirates are close to the league lead in hit batters, but covering the DSL closely the last few years, I can tell you that you get the same answer from all the pitchers about their style of owning the inside half of the plate. It’s something taught from the lowest levels on up and with the GCL Pirates this season filled with DSL players from last year, they have obviously carried that pitching method over to the States with them.

The basic summary of the Pirates coaching philosophy is pitch inside, keep the ball down and get quick outs. The excessive amount of hit batters is just a result of the pitchers embracing the philosophy and putting it to use. It would seem like the philosophy in the minors is working its way up to the majors, because the Pirates lead MLB with 61 hit batters this year, one year after leading the Majors with 70 hit batters.

Digging into the numbers, it looks like no one embraces the idea of pitching inside like the Pirates. They currently rank second overall throwing inside to right handers, behind only the Colorado Rockies. They rank first overall throwing inside to left-handers. But what about the advantages of throwing inside? Here are two charts, via FanGraphs, that display the batting average on pitches in each zone, to both left-handers and right-handers, along with the swing percentage for both sides. We’ll start with left-handers.

AVGLHH

SwingLHH

You can see that the average per pitch is low, while the amount of swings is relatively high. The one area to focus on would be the top inside corner of the strike zone. That gets a swing 41% of the time, but has the lowest average of any spot in the strike zone. This is the area that LaRussa specifically complained about, along with the areas surrounding it outside of the zone, which all have the same tendencies.

AVGRHH

SwingRHH

It’s the same story for right-handers. That top corner gets a lot of swings, and yet very few can hit the pitch.

You probably don’t need to look at the heat maps above to know that hitters on either side do a better job of hitting when the ball is in the middle of the strike zone, rather than on the inside half of the plate. There’s a reason why teams pitch inside. LaRussa even said that reason in his complaint about pitching inside.

The Pirates pitch inside more often than any team in the majors. Based on the HBP numbers in the minors, and the low walk rates, we can assume they also carry this approach in the minors. LaRussa seems to be going with the unwritten rule approach that teams shouldn’t pitch inside. But there is no rule saying teams can’t pitch inside, and as long as there are obvious benefits to doing so, we can expect that to continue.

Tim Williams contributed to this story.

John Dreker

Author: John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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  • xHoratiox

    A team can’t get upset when one of their players does a check swing on an inside pitch that hits his hand. There should be no retaliation for something that is 1. A likely accident. 2. Partly the fault of the one getting hit. (by not trying to move away) Some pitchers have less control than others, does that mean that a pitcher should not be allowed to throw inside unless they are Greg Maddux? Otherwise you will get hit in retaliation? LaRussa is just like Paterno used to be, it was always someone else at fault. The most despicable thing is, this coming from a guy who put many lives in great danger driving so drunk that he couldn’t even remember the alphabet when asked to say it. Please check the youtube police video of LaRussa drunk, and tell me he should be a source for the safety of ANYONE!

  • lonleylibertarian

    Great article John – and you anticipated a question I was going to research – the HBP stats for Pirate minor league teams…

    I think that there is another trend at work – but not sure how to research – prove it – batters leaning into the strike zone. Do not think Goldshchmidt did this – but his hands seemed pretty close to the zone.

    I have notice a number of players try and take away this inside are by crowding the plate – including our own Russell Martin – who is getting HBP fairly often this year.

    • jalcorn427

      We also get hit by pitches a ton, #1 in baseball with Walker and Marte always among the league leaders. Its almost as if the Pirates have a good idea about taking away the inside as hitters and getting it back as pitchers, hmmm. How novel ?!

  • William Wallace

    Good article- LaRussa should not be complaining about batters getting hit. LaRussa should be banned from baseball for condoning all the juicers he coached. Then MLB HIRES HIM AND HE “SNAKES” HIS WAY INTO THE D-BACKS. I get tired of hearing his and all of baseball’s sanctimonious good old boys.

  • William Wallace

    Oh I include Hurdle into that group also.

  • Jared

    This is simple: one approach tries to get batters out and win games (Pirates approach)…the other approach is the DBacks approach: retaliation which helps absolutely no one, especially when uncalled for, and hurts the game by turning it violent and potentially causing injuries to the best players only out of spite. One of those approaches is fine because it tried to win baseball games…one of those approaches is the approach of a bully and should not be tolerated. Plain and simple.

  • Dave Parker’s Unfiltered Camel

    Larussa is a pud.

    • unfurious

      I haven’t heard the term pud in over a decade. Bringing it back for Larussa is perfect. Good job.

      • John Dreker

        I believe that reference is an insult to Pirates pitching great Pud Glavin, though his nickname came from the word pudding, so it rhymes with “good”….carry on.

  • bucsws2014

    When Marte gets hit in the hands (not the head), how many of us blame the opposing pitcher? I don’t hear much of that at all. Instead, what I hear is what a moron Marte is for continually getting his hands in the way and risking a DL visit.

  • Mornacale

    John, you point out that the inside corner seems like a great place to pitch, but don’t your graphs show that outside pitches are even more effective? Against RHP especially, the best average in any location in the outer 6th of the plate is equivalent to the 5th-best on the inner 6th. And pitches just off the plate middle-inside get hit at a fairly decent rate, while on the outside the AVG/P is uniformly dire. Certainly I accept that pitching inside forces hitters to cover the whole strike zone and keeps them from crowding or diving over the plate, but I think a fair bit more work is needed to sell me on inside pitches as unusually good at generating outs in and of themselves.

    • gregenstein

      I will say that I remember the Littlefield days when guys like Kip Wells and Ian Snell would try and pick apart only the outside corner. I like the approach now much better. I agree though that the article can lead one to believe the Pirates only pitch inside, and we know that’s not true just by watching the games. What the Pirates are teaching though is correct. Go in there, high in the strike zone, frequently. If you happen to hit people while doing it, that’s life.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      I’m really not sure what you’re asking here. Are you saying that because there are other zones that are effective, that means the inside zone isn’t effective?

      • Mornacale

        I guess what I’m saying is that the graphs show me that pitching inside is much better than pitches over the middle, but I already knew that. They may indicate that it’s better than pitching low, which would be interesting. But I think, just glancing at the data, that outside pitches seem to be more effective than inside ones (high pitches, too, potentially). So I’m not sure if I accept that we should be happy the Pirates lead the league in inside pitches, vs teaching their players to consistently hit the outside corner and just coming inside enough to keep hitters honest.

        I’m not claiming that the Pirates are actually wrong; I’m just glancing at some graphs, after all. But I think it’s an interesting question and I’d like to see it addressed in more depth.

    • Lukas Sutton

      One can also argue that showing no fear of going inside and keeping hitters aware of the inside pitches is what allows the outside pitch to be as effective as it is. Each pitch allows a pitcher to set up following pitches.

      • John Dreker

        Yeah, I don’t believe we are breaking any ground by saying you can’t pitch too one spot all the time and still be successful. The point is that the Pirates have a game plan that they teach pitchers from the lowest level to the Majors and they pitch inside more than other teams, but they have a purpose when they do it and it’s not to hit batters, it’s to make them feel uncomfortable at the plate.

        • http://batman-news.com NMR

          Well done article, John. As you said, I think we can all agree the Pirates have a gameplan, that plan is not illegal or unethical, and Tony Larussa needs a nap.
          .
          I’d be interested in a follow-up looking at whether or not the 2014 Pirates are actually GOOD at pitching inside. I’m stating the obvious, but hitting a batter is not a good thing in isolation. It’s a baserunner, just like a walk. The Pirates are 17th in the league in walk rate(8.0%), but only three teams are worse at putting free batters on base when factoring in HBP(9.4%).
          .
          It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to isolate all the variables needed to determine a definitive answer, but I think it’s a question worth asking if I was them.

        • Lukas Sutton

          Great article and absolutely agree. Nothing the Pirates do is anything more than having a gameplan and executing it. I dont even find it inherently dangerous for hitters.

  • John

    Your article greatly points out the hypocrisy of Tony LaRussa since all his mlb teams were heavy on keeping guys off the plate. While he only played 132 mlb games he managed thousands and in the era where pitching inside was baseballs mantra just not one organization.