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Monday, March 10, 2014

Trevor May and First Pitch Strikes

Trevor May
Courtesy of Kevin Pataky
Last season in New Britain, I watched 4 or 5 of Trevor May's starts. I'm still higher on him than most people are, because a few things became apparent to me after watching him -- all of which are fixable (to a degree, anyway): 1) the defense behind him was sometimes lousy (I'm looking specifically at the left side of the infield -- Danny Santana and Miguel Sano), leading to extra pitches made and extra batters faced to get the job done; 2) control issues plagued May, despite the fact that his walks/9 decreased somewhat; and 3) it seemed like he didn't get ahead of batters often enough, thus forcing him to work from behind in the count too often. It's that last item that I want to focus on in this post.

Unfortunately, there's no data tracking first pitch strikes for minor league pitchers, like there is for major leaguers (If you find a website that aggregates this in a searchable way for minor leaguers, do not send it to me. I spent too much time doing this on my own to realize now that there's a website that's done the work for me). But because this interested me, I decided to go through May's starts, game-by-game using Gameday so I could view what happened in each at-bat. This took a while, as you can imagine. I'm pretty confident that I didn't make any errors, but even if I did, I ended up with around 150 innings worth of data, so 1 mistake wouldn't make much a difference. Trevor May started 27 games for the Rock Cats in 2013. There's no first-pitch strike data for 2 games -- a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance; and a 2 and 2/3 inning, 8 earned run performance. Accordingly, I compiled data the remaining 25 games. Here are my findings:

Trevor May threw a first-pitch strike to 52.9% of batters he faced for New Britain in 2013. Yes, good that it's over 50%, but it is by no means an encouraging number.

What's an average first pitch strike percentage in the majors? 59 or 60 percent. May, then, is well below. But why does that matter? Well, here's some interesting data compiled from over 15,000 MLB plate appearances in the 2013 season (same source as previous link): Hitters that get ahead 1-0 have a .269/.383./.442 slash line, while hitters that fall behind 0-1 have a .221/.261/.341 slash line. That ends up being a pretty huge difference over the course of a single game, let alone an entire season. Now, I'm not suggesting that May (or any other pitcher) should just groove the first pitch of every at-bat, but it's also important to note that only 7.3 percent of those first pitch strikes turned into hits.

Because it's not as simple as "hey, throw strikes all the time on the first pitch, Trevor," let's look at May's first pitch strike percentages in some more depth. May had 11 quality starts in 2013 (meaning at least 6 innings pitched and 3 or fewer earned runs). Of those 11 starts, May had 50% or higher first pitch strikes in 9 of those games.

Here's a rough breakdown of May's 2013 season with respect to first pitch strikes. There were 2 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 30s; 6 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 40s; 13 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 50s; and 4 games with first pitch strike percentages in the 60s.

But there's not necessarily a magic correlation for May between first pitch strikes and dominant performances. May's most efficient performance -- in terms of first pitch strikes -- 67.8%, was in a 5 inning, 4 earned run performance in which he gave up 5 hits and walked 3 batters, proving that strike 1 isn't always effective when you are very hitable on the night and are still walking batters.

And how about his least efficient night? May had a 36.8 first pitch strike percentage night in a 4 inning, 2 run performance where he walked 3 and struck out 7. As you can see, although the strikeouts were there, the control issues, and the inability to get ahead in the count, cost him the ability to stay in the game.

I also wondered this: for May, is there a correlation between first pitch strikes and going deeper in ballgames? Short answer, "yes, but ...." For his 2 games with first pitch strikes in the 30s, May averaged 5 innings pitched; for the 6 games with first pitch strikes in the 40s, he averaged 5.6 innings pitched; for the 13 games with first pitch strikes in the 50s, May averaged 6 inning pitched; and for the 4 games with first pitch strikes in the 60s, he averaged 5.58 innings. In a general sense, then, May does do better the more he throws first pitch strikes, but only up to a certain level. All these numbers are interesting to me, but I think they're a little more meaningful when you look at what other pitchers do.

Fangraphs tracks the first pitch strikes in baseball. Here's the list for 2013 of the top first pitch strike hurlers. The Top 30 is by no means full of all-stars, but generally is a list of solid pitchers. Read the list for yourself, but just for fun here are the Top 5: Patrick Corbin (70.2); Cliff Lee (68.5); David Price (67.7); Jordan Zimmerman (66.9); Ervin Santana (65.9). Other notables in the Top 30 include Bronson Arroyo, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey, John Lackey, Cole Hamels and Chris Sale. Those players are all over 62 percent.

Trevor May is an interesting case. Maybe he's at his best when he's throwing first pitch strikes somewhere in the 50s? Let's separate the high 50s from the low 50s, just for fun: When May throws first pitch strikes 55-59 percent of the time, he averages 6.57 innings pitched for those starts. That covered 46 innings. And in those games, by the way, he gave up 8 earned runs total, good for a 1.56 ERA. Now for the low 50s -- 50-54 percent first pitch strikes. In those starts, May averaged 5 and 1/3 innings pitched. That covered 42 innings. And in those games, he gave up 20 earned runs total, for a 4.29 ERA. Incidentally, in those games where he was at or above 60 percent first pitch strikes, May's ERA was 7.25. Admittedly, this was a really small sample size, particularly impacted by one game in which he gave up 8 earned runs. Even throwing out that game and the corresponding innings, the ERA for those high first pitch strike games still sits at 4.91.

All together, it's kind of interesting. May seemed at his best last year when he's got ahead of batters between 55 and 59 percent of the time, but he struggles below those numbers, and even had trouble when he was his "most efficient." I think there are 2 takeaways here. The first is that May needs to do a better job getting ahead of hitters. He's wasting pitches, is not maximizing his efficiency, and is allowing (approximately) 5-7 percent of batters to gain an unnecessary edge over him. The second is that perhaps, for May, having a first strike percentage of 65 or 70 percent of the time (like Corbin, Lee, or Price) isn't optimal. Every pitcher is different, and May has to find out what works for him. When he was grooving first pitch strikes last season, May was a little too hitable, too predictable perhaps.

I don't expect that Trevor May will be a 1 or 2 starter on the next Twins playoff team. I do, however, see him as a reliable starter that can strike out double digits in a game -- keep in mind he did lead the Eastern League in strikeouts last season. But in order to get to that level, I see reducing walks, putting hitters away, and getting ahead in the count more consistently as the 3 major (and interrelated) things standing in his May's way.

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