A pitch is a terrible thing to waste. Or is it? (Part 2)

In my last article I began delving into the topic of wasting pitches. The idea of wasting an 0-2 pitch by throwing it well outside the strike zone is something that I know I heard growing up, from my Little League coaches and from major league baseball announcers. But is there any merit to the idea?

When the pitcher has gotten ahead of the batter 0-2, there’s generally not a lot of offense to be found. Joe Posnanski found that batters hit .162/.173/.236 (AVG/OBP/SLG) when the 0-2 was the “action pitch” or last pitch of the plate appearance. For all plate appearances that pass through 0-2, batters managed only a .179/.210/.269 line.

Before we start looking at the results of wasted pitches, we should define what outcomes would constitute “success” for the waste strategy.

There are many possibilities to consider, but I think we can suggest some level of success in one of two circumstances:
1. Overall performance, measured by wOBA, is worse in a plate appearance where a pitch was wasted.
2. A higher percentage of strikeouts occurs when a pitch is wasted.

Keep those in mind; we’ll examine them again at the end.

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the pitch sequence at 0-2. Let me make it clear up front that there’s definitely some double counting here. Any time the ball was fouled off at 0-2, I counted both the initial pitch and the next pitch as 0-2 opportunities. Also, I’ve removed all pitchers batting to get a better feel for the effects with quality batters at the plate (sorry Micah Owings).

The 0-2 pitch

From Part 1, we know that on roughly 11 percent of 0-2 counts in 2008, the ball ended up nowhere near the strike zone. Let’s assume that this was a conscious decision most of the time. How did most pitchers accomplish their wasting?

This pair of pie charts shows the pitch selection in the case of wasted pitches and non-wasted pitches. I’m using the Gameday identified pitch types, so they need to be taken somewhat with a grain of salt.

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It’s clear that pitchers are throwing a lot more breaking balls when they’re wasting a pitch. While we’re assuming the wasting was intentional, it could be at least partially a result of pitch selection.

On the 0-2 pitch, when pitchers weren’t wasting a pitch, they managed to hit the strike zone about 35 percent of the time. By definition, there were no wasted pitches in the strike zone.

Batters chased non-wasted pitches out of the strike zone 39 percent of the time. I’m using chase to mean swung at pitches outside of the strike zone, not necessarily swinging and missing. Wasted pitches were chased only 5 percent of the time.

That’s not too surprising considering how far out of the strike zone these pitches were. But it does call into question one of the supposed motives for wasting a pitch. If pitchers are hoping the batter will chase a wasted pitch, they’re going to be disappointed far more often than not.

This next set of graphs breaks down the outcomes of the 0-2 pitch.

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Pitchers fared extremely well when they chose not to waste the 0-2 pitch. They managed to turn this pitch into the action pitch more than 35 percent of the time, resulting in a .147 OBP for the batters. Batters swung at 54 percent of non-wasted 0-2 pitches and struck out in 61 percent of the times the at-bat ended, or nearly 16 percent of the time overall.

Not surprisingly, not many plate appearances ended on a wasted pitch. More than 90 percent of wasted pitches were taken for balls. A wasted pitch was the action pitch only 314 times. Of those cases, 99 ended up with the batter reaching base for a .315 OBP. All but one of those instances involved the batter being plunked. The one instance of a batter getting a hit on a wasted pitch was by Jose Reyes—it was a single.

Of the 215 outs made on wasted pitches, 99 percent were strikeouts, all of the swinging variety. Because there were so few swings, the pitcher garnered a strikeout on only 5 percent of the wasted pitches.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But we wouldn’t necessarily expect a lot of strikeouts on the 0-2 count if pitchers were wasting pitches to set the batter up for the next pitch. Let’s now look at the results of the pitch following the 0-2 count to see if the strategy pays off.

The next pitch

Pitchers had similar approaches for the next pitch whether they wasted the 0-2 pitch or played it straight. In general, they threw fewer breaking balls than when wasting the pitch, but also fewer fastballs than if they didn’t waste the previous pitch.

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The similarity in pitch breakdowns implies that pitchers are not trying to set up a specific type of pitch when they’re wasting a pitch—perhaps instead focusing on location.

There’s really no pattern to where the “next pitches” are thrown. They tend to be clustered around the strike zone, with very few being ones we’d consider waste pitches. Of the pitches following a wasted pitch, 39 percent were in the strike zone, which is pretty much equivalent to the 38 percent that follow non-wasted pitches.

Where we start to see some differences are in the swing rates and chase rates. Batters swung at 57 percent of the pitches after non-wasted pitches (regardless of their location), a 3 percent jump from the previous pitch. For pitches following wasted pitches, however, batters swung 61 percent of the time.

The discrepancy is even more pronounced when we look at swings outside the strike zone. For the pitch following non-wasted pitches, batters swung at a ball out of the strike zone 39 percent of the time, or roughly the same percentage as the previous pitch. After a wasted pitch, batters chased a pitch out of the strike zone 45 percent of the time.

It appears there may be something to the idea that waste pitches can set up batters for the next pitch. What sort of results do we see on the “next pitch”?

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No matter whether the previous pitch was wasted, the at-bat ended on the “next pitch” roughly 15 percent of the time. After a wasted pitch, batters managed a .151 OBP, and a .248 BA, giving up 13 points of on-base percentage and 11 points of batting average to non-wasted pitches (.164 and .259 respectively).

Strikeouts accounted for roughly 58 percent of total outs in both cases, but made up a slightly higher percentage of chances (17 percent versus 15 percent) for pitches following wasted pitches.

The results

We started this examination looking at two possible outcomes that would indicate it’s helpful to waste a pitch. How do the results stack up to the claims?

1. Overall performance, measured by wOBA, is worse in a plate appearance where a pitch was wasted.

We haven’t actually talked about this one much yet, but it’s very easy to measure. In plate appearances where the 0-2 pitch was not wasted, the aggregate wOBA was .226. In plate appearances where the 0-2 pitch was wasted, the aggregate wOBA was .245—substantially higher. Just to be clear, these numbers include all plate appearances that pass through 0-2, not just those that ended at 0-2 or the next pitch.

It doesn’t seem that wasting the 0-2 is a good idea in general. It also appears that pitchers have largely figured that out, since they waste the pitch only about 11 percent of the time.

2. A higher percentage of strikeouts occurs when a pitch is wasted.

But what if a wasted pitch were more likely to lead to a strikeout? Then there might be circumstances where it makes sense to waste a pitch even though the likely outcome might be worse. We did see in Part 1 that pitches were wasted more often with multiple runners on base than with a runner on first.

Here the results are a mixed. If we make the assumption that wasted pitch is used to set up the next pitch (and has little to no effect on later pitches), then we can compare strikeout rates combined over the 0-2 pitch and the next pitch.

Hitters struck out on the 0-2 pitch or the next pitch 25 percent of the time when the 0-2 pitch was not wasted. They struck out over the two pitches only 20 percent of the time if the 0-2 pitch was wasted. That seems to put a nail in the coffin of the benefit of wasting a pitch.

But that may not tell the whole story. Because so many fewer balls are put into play when a pitch is wasted (11 percent versus 22 percent), 65 percent of all outs in the wasted pitch scenario come by strikeout, as opposed to only 60 percent of outs for non-wasted pitches.

Unfortunately for the concept of wasting pitches, that’s not very meaningful because the plate appearance is much more likely to continue past our realm of observation once the pitch is wasted.

It seems pretty definitive that wasting an 0-2 pitch doesn’t pay off at the major league level. Hitters hase the wasted pitch only 5 percent of the time, hit for a higher wOBA in plate appearance where a pitch is wasted, and are less likely to strike out despite being more willing to swing at a following pitch outside of the strike zone.

So why do we see any wasting at all? There’s the possibility that pitchers aren’t intending to miss the strike zone by so much—although if that were the case, we wouldn’t see so many wasted pitches on the 0-2 count compared to other counts. It’s likely one of those circumstances where game theory comes into play and pitchers will waste some amount of their pitches to keep the batter guessing. Regardless of the fact that wasting pitches appears to be worse than playing it straight at the 0-2 count, in either case the pitcher still has a major advantage over the batter, so it’s probably worth it to mix things up occasionally.


One of the hypotheses in Part 1 was that pitchers wasted pitches less frequently in a double play situation so as to be more likely to gain two outs. Pitchers do waste slightly fewer pitches in double play situations, 9.6 percent compared to 11 percent across all situations. And they do convert the double play more often in plate appearances where there is no wasted pitch—a rate of 6 percent to 4 percent. It’s unclear whether this success is solely attributable to the higher ball in play totals when a pitch is not wasted or if there’s something else increasing the likelihood of double plays.

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