November 27, 2022

Fighting Fire with Fire

April 8, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the defining features of our national pastime—and what lends it to such close statistical scrutiny—is the head-to-head match-up between the batter and pitcher. It’s an intricate dance that, repeated hundreds of times over the course of a season, yields meaningful insight into the nature of the game. This inherent importance is only heightened when the two men involved are especially well equipped for the contest.

For instance, Albert Pujols and Roy Oswalt have squared off 76 times, in which El Hombre has knocked out 22 base hits. Two such cerebral and successful players have certainly learned a thing or two about one another over so many confrontations. Another example: Nellie Fox, who struck out as seldom as anyone who’s ever played, faced off 177 times (post-1954) against strikeout artist Whitey Ford. Who got the best of those matchups? Both of them, actually—Fox only struck out five times in 177, but also put up an OPS of just .546.

That leads to the point of this article. What happens in a match-up between a pitcher and batter with opposing strengths? For example, when a home run hitter goes up against a pitcher who is particularly stingy in yielding homers? I crunched the relevant numbers for walks, strikeouts and home runs in 2007 and 2008 with the intention of providing an answer.

First, the methodology: for both 2007 and 2008, I prepared lists of the top 15 pitchers in the major leagues in terms of walks (fewest BB/9), strikeouts (most K/9) and home runs (fewest HR/9). Only pitchers who started 60% of their appearances and qualified for the ERA title were counted.

For the batters, similar top 15 lists were made for each season: most walks, most home runs, and fewest strikeouts (qualified for batting title). I then looked through the head-to-head match-ups among these players, within the categories of walks, strikeouts and home runs, to determine what happened when the best go up against the best. 2007 and 2008 were calculated separately, then the totals were added together to come up with a sufficient sample size.



7.90 1241 157 top vs. top
12.65 17729 1402 top batters vs. league
4.21 24969 5937 top pitchers vs. league
5.78 376211 65073 league average

The important number for our purposes is the one on the left, which says how many plate appearances it takes for a given hitter (or set of hitters) to strike out against a given pitcher (or set of pitchers). The chart says, for instance, that in all of baseball through 2007 and 2008, one in every 5.78 plate appearances resulted in a strikeout.

More specifically, we’re interested in how the PA/K rate among the top hitters and top pitchers (facing each other) compares to the rate of each of those two groups against the league as a whole. The top 15 strikeout pitchers recorded one K for every 4.21 batters faced throughout the league; in 1241 match-ups with the top 15 strikeout-avoiding batters, however, they got only one per 7.90 PA’s, for a difference of 3.69.

The top batters, meanwhile, struck out once per 12.65 PA’s against the league compared to once per 7.90 against the top pitchers. Those marks are 4.75 apart; we can then compare 4.75 and 3.69—measures of how much the hitters and pitchers were ‘off,’, respectively, from their usual performances—and conclude that hitters had a slight upper hand in these match-ups over the last two seasons. That is, in their match-ups against the best strikeout pitchers, they were able to more closely approximate their usual K/9 numbers than those same pitchers did against the best hitters, in terms of avoiding strikeouts.

Among this mass of data are some interesting nuggets. For instance, in 2008, Randy Johnson faced the top 15 batters 45 times but managed only one strikeout (Joe Mauer). Jeff Keppinger navigated 34 PA’s in 2008 without striking out once, while Juan Pierre struck out just once in 50 PA’s the year before. The best pitching performance came from Edinson Volquez in 2008; the rookie managed to set down 8 of 40 opponents on strikes.

Home Runs


25.43 1348 53 top vs. top
17.56 19451 1108 top batters vs. league
67.94 25817 380 top pitchers vs. league
38.46 376211 9756 league average

Among home run hitters, the advantage is much more pronounced. The top 15 home run hitters averaged one long ball per 17.56 plate appearances against the league at large, and were hardly put off when facing the top no-home run pitchers, at 25.43 PA’s per. The pitchers, conversely, saw their PA/HR ratio plummet from 67.94, to a mark even worse than the league average of 38.46. Preliminarily, this could be chalked up to two different thoughts. First, that the greater home run hitters are better at capitalizing on inevitable pitcher mistakes. Second, that even when the top pitchers make a quality groundball pitch—the names on these lists include Derek Lowe, Brandon Webb and Roy Halladay—good home run hitters are still able to golf them out of the park.



9.89 1295 131 top vs. top
6.36 19440 3059 top batters vs. league
22.04 26667 1210 top pitchers vs. league
11.61 376211 32416 league average

This is probably the least significant of the three analyses. That is because it doesn’t account for intentional walks, which were a major part of the total for batters like Barry Bonds, Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn. With that in mind, it is predictable that batters fare better, with a difference of 3.53, than pitchers, with a difference of 12.15. So, despite a flaw in the methodology (for which I could find no convenient remedy), the base-on-balls data echoes the home run and strikeout numbers in demonstrating an advantage for batters over pitchers when matching strengths.

The reason these questions are important is that they go beyond the standard debate of whether good pitching trumps good hitting. I’ve tried to go further by matching strengths more specifically—high strikeout pitchers vs. low strikeout batters, control pitchers vs. prolific walkers, and home run hitters vs. ground ball pitchers. In each of the three cases, the batters replicated their usual strong numbers much better than the pitchers did their own.

This analysis could be improved upon by expanding the sample size, by controlling for intentional walks, and by stating the changes among groups more elegantly. In theory, though, it could be useful in several applications—for instance, ground ball pitchers vs. flyball hitters. Outside of baseball, it could perhaps be most interesting in hockey, with shootout statistics, or in other one-on-one sports such as tennis or boxing.

For an Excel file with the raw data, please email me: Naturally, none of this would be possible without the baseball-reference Play Index.   

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