Turvey: What do pitchers do when they know the defense has their back?

From Jim Turvey at Beyond the Box Score on August 18, 2017:

There are likely many reasons Chris Sale is having a near-MVP season in 2017. He has always been an electric pitcher, and he seems to have abandoned his quasi-random attempt in 2016 to lower his velocity in order to go deeper into games. He has lowered his home run rate even further, despite league-wide trends in the exact opposite direction. And, despite a few instances in the other direction, he has the support of a much better lineup behind him than he did last season in Chicago. The result is a 14-4 record with a 2.51 ERA, numbers that actually undersell what he has been worth if we use WAR (7.4) and FIP (1.92).

One factor that hasn’t been mentioned as often is that he is pitching in front of the best defense in baseball. (It may not be mentioned that often because he’s striking out nearly every hitter who comes up to the plate, which is a good reason.) Last season, Sale pitched in front of a slightly below-average White Sox defense, one who ranked 16th in MLB in FanGraphs’ Def statistic.

This season, Sale is pitching in front of the top-rated team in the same metric, with an especially strong outfield behind him. With that in mind, it may not be too surprising to see that Sale is allowing a career-high fly ball rate (43.4 percent) and is getting a near-career-high first-pitch strike rate (66.4 percent).

It seems intuitive that a pitcher who has a defense he trusts behind him would feel more confident with the first pitch of each at bat, resulting in a higher percentage of first pitch strikes. It has been the case in our N=1 example of Chris Sale, so does the theory still play on a league-wide basis?

Read the full article here: https://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2017/8/17/16158542/pitching-defense-relationship-first-strike-zone-rate

Originally published: August 18, 2017. Last Updated: August 18, 2017.