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How to track pitching efficiency, and why it matters for fantasy

Jacob deGrom's abbreviated outing on Sunday highlights the importance of efficiency for pitchers. Getty Images

While working yesterday afternoon, I had the New York Mets-Philadelphia Phillies game on my TV, without any volume. Because my focus was split, I thought maybe there was something wrong with the broadcast or that perhaps the feed might have frozen: I'd look up and Jacob deGrom was on the mound in a scoreless first inning with two strikes on the batter, who would foul a pitch off. I'd take another glance and the same thing would happen -- again and again. I was beginning to get the feeling it was Groundhog Day and not Mother's Day.

After 45 pitches and just one (albeit very long) inning, Mets manager Mickey Callaway decided to pull his starter. "We just didn't feel good sending him back out," Callaway said. "We can't do that to anybody. That's a lot of pitches for one inning." And of course, frustrating as it might have been for fantasy managers who had started deGrom, given that the pitcher was coming off a DL stint for a hyperextended elbow and that this start had been delayed by around an hour due to rain, I think erring on the side of caution was smart.

However, had deGrom really thrown "a lot of pitches"? In today's era of baseball, pitch counts and innings caps are quite fashionable. Take a look at the following chart, through similar points in the seasons listed:

Entering play yesterday, deGrom had thrown an average of 14.9 pitches per inning this season, tied for 10th-fewest in the league. With just that one frame on Sunday, his average shot up to 15.5 and No. 28 overall. So, yes. A lot of pitches were thrown in that inning -- but that's not the whole story.

Tom Tango has done a lot of work with estimated pitch counts, especially figuring out the expected number of pitches a pitcher "should have thrown," based on their innings pitched, strikeouts, walks and hits allowed. It stands to reason that if we have a solid formula for predicting the expected number of pitches based on actual game outcomes -- which Tango's work does provide us -- then any variance between that number and the actual pitch count is likely the result of a pitcher working harder than he needs to.

Using Tango's formula, an inning like deGrom's "should have" resulted in about 29 pitches -- meaning that he ended up throwing 16 "extra" pitches. That's probably enough for Callaway to choose to shave off one inning of work from this outing, but not "all the rest" of them.

More to the point, though, many starters have innings and full outings in which they work too hard compared to what they "should have" done, but over the course of the season, you'd expect those games to be somewhat balanced by games where they cruise in terms of pitch count to the expected workload, given the outcome.

Where red flags should definitely be raised for fantasy managers is if a pitcher is consistently throwing "a lot of pitches." Over the course of the season, those extra pitches tend to add up and result in tired arms over the latter parts of the campaign.