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Should hitters still try to raise the opponent’s pitch count?

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One of the oldest sabermetric principles might not have a place in today’s game.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the central tenets of Moneyball was the concept of making the opposing starting pitcher work. The idea was that if teams could get a pitcher’s pitch count up, they could take their chances with a long or middle reliever who was barely holding on to a Major League roster spot. But that was before today, when even middle relievers can hit the upper 90s on the radar gun. In 2016, relief pitchers had an average fastball velocity of 93.4 mph, compared to 92.1 mph for starters.

In 2007, the first year of Pitch F/X data availability, relievers had an average fastball velocity of 91.7 mph. With the definition of premium velocity changing, it might make sense for teams to swing away against starting pitchers, instead of getting their pitch counts up. Some might remember in 2014, when the Milwaukee Brewers got off to a scorching start. In an article by Tyler Kepner at the New York Times, then Brewers first baseman Lyle Overbay said the following:

“When I came up in the league, ‘Moneyball’ was big, and I understood that, because the fifth-, sixth-inning guys were not that good,” Overbay said. “Now, the bottom of our bullpen — any bullpen — they all throw 95. I’d rather face the starter four times. So it’s changed. I don’t think it’s the same game.”

For the record, the Brewers finished with a team OPS of .708, which was fifth in the NL that year. That gave them a wRC+ (which is park-adjusted) of 94, which dropped them down to eighth in the senior circuit. Their lineup had the likes of Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun, and Carlos Gomez, in addition to the chronically underrated Aramis Ramirez. But they also had the likes of Mark Reynolds and a much less experienced Jean Segura earning significant playing time. It is tough to say whether such a lineup could have done more damage if they were more patient at the plate.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely solely on anecdotal evidence. Throughout the league, relievers who pitched in the sixth or seventh innings had a 4.06 ERA. On the other hand, starters had a 4.63 ERA in the sixth or seventh innings. Facing a lineup for the second or third time is especially taxing for starters, as they had a cumulative 5.53 ERA the third time through the order.

In many cases, facing a starter for the third time is more enticing than facing a rested reliever for the first time, even if it is not the closer or set-up man. However, aces can be a different story. For example, Mets’ ace Noah Syndergaard had a 1.79 ERA when facing hitters for the third time in a game. Syndergaard throws a fastball and sinker at 100 mph, in addition to a 90 mph changeup and a low 90’s slider. As if his first four pitches aren’t enough, he throws a curveball which has been dubbed as “Thor’s Hammer.”

Most pitchers don’t have four dangerous pitches and one that is so good that it has a nickname. In those cases, the old “elevate the pitch count” strategy might not be as effective as it once was. Also, in the playoffs, getting opposing teams to use their bullpen can have benefits throughout the series, as shown by Aroldis Chapman’s usage in the World Series. But for the most part, hitters should be ready to swing away against starters in 2017.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs.