How Good are Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant? Just Look How They’re Being Pitched

Just the other day I asked whether the dynamic duo of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant could potentially be the best in baseball, using their discipline and on-base percentages, not to mention latent power potential, as keystones for my query. Turns out MLB pitchers might wondering the same thing.

At least, that’s what The Triangle’s Ben Lindbergh posits in his incredibly thorough article, Fear Factor: How Pitch Location Helps Reveal Batter Breakouts. I’ve got to be honest here though, I happened upon this piece totally by accident, not unlike the the time I found a Bears Super Bowl XX t-shirt at a thrift shop for only 69 cents (take that, Macklemore).

By that I mean that I really don’t go to all that often, unless it’s in search of some stats or to manage the fantasy baseball leagues I got suckered into joining. I find their new format a bit tiresome, but oh well. In any case, I was checking it out from my phone when I happened upon Lindbergh’s work.

If you haven’t already clicked on the link above, believe me when I say that it’s not necessarily built for either speed or comfort when it comes to mobile viewing. It is, however, quite intriguing and worth your time if you love in-depth statistical analysis and if your boss isn’t watching you too closely.

I’m not a saberist by any stretch of the imagination, but I have the utmost respect for guys who have developed stats to explain the various phenomena of baseball. These guys are essentially turning alchemy into legit science, and I’m led to believe much of it is gold.

The basic premise of the piece is pretty simple at a surface level: pitchers don’t throw as many strikes to good hitters. But the author goes much deeper, concluding that pitchers’ unwillingness to throw strikes to a given hitter may actually be predictive of said hitter’s future success.

Baseball Prospectus assigns a “called strike probability” to every pitch thrown, based on location, count, year, pitch type, and batter/pitcher handedness. The higher the called strike probability, the less likely a pitch is to be a ball if the batter decides to take. The three pitches in Bryant’s first plate appearance (all of which were swinging strikes) had called strike probabilities of 71 percent, 7 percent, and zero percent, respectively.

The average MLB pitch last season had a called strike probability of 47.5 percent. The called strike probability of the pitches Bryant saw on the day of his debut was less than half that: 22.4 percent. (Herrera’s average was 51.5 percent.) The numbers alone tell the same story anyone watching would’ve seen: Padres pitchers challenged Herrera and stayed away from the heart of the plate against Bryant. That pattern was a sign of respect that labeled Bryant as a hitter who won’t have many more 0-for-4s ahead of him.

Pitchers don’t pound the zone against a player unless some combination of past performance, advance scouting, and pitcher’s intuition tells them they can get away with it, so a hitter’s average called strike probability alone tells us something about how big a threat he is.

Last year, Rob Arthur — then of Baseball Prospectus, now of FiveThirtyEight — made one of those analytical breakthroughs that’s so sensible it seems deceptively obvious in retrospect. Arthur realized that the way a pitcher approaches a hitter isn’t only a byproduct of past performance; it’s also a potential indicator of future performance. Arthur created a stat called “zone distance” — the average distance of the pitches a hitter sees, relative to the center of his strike zone — to measure the hitter’s capacity to make pitchers stay away. By searching for players whose zone distances decreased or increased sharply over the course of a season, he found that he could identify hitters who were good candidates to surpass or fall short of their projections in the following season. The pitchers, in some cases, were ahead of the projection systems: They could seemingly tell very quickly when a hitter’s ability had changed, whether because of a mechanical alteration, an injury (or recovery from one), or some other adjustment.

2015 Called Strike Probability Fallers 2015 Called Strike Probability Risers
Player Pitches CSP +/- Player Pitches CSP +/-
Mike Trout 375 -8.6 % Ryan Howard 239 +7.1 %
Albert Pujols 327 -7.9 % Andrelton Simmons 252 +6.7 %
Zack Cozart 306 -6.5 % Derek Norris 282 +6.0 %
Kole Calhoun 272 -6.5 % Carlos Ruiz 213 +5.3 %
Dustin Ackley 218 -6.4 % Danny Santana 244 +5.1 %
Anthony Rizzo 351 -6.1 % Michael Morse 313 +4.9 %
Ian Kinsler 367 -5.5 % Leonys Martin 306 +4.5 %
Matt Kemp 367 -5.0 % Hanley Ramirez 316 +4.3 %
Kolten Wong 295 -5.0 % Martin Prado 307 +4.1 %
Torii Hunter 274 -5.0 % Juan Lagares 330 +3.8 %

It’s said that dogs and other animals can smell fear; perhaps pitchers can smell whatever scent the diminution of hitting prowess throws off. While not always accurate, in the case of guys like David Wright, Dan Uggla, and Ryan Howard (all of whom saw big increases in called strike probability last season or this season), I imagine that aroma to be of beef and cheese with a slight sulfuric tang.

Kris Bryant, on the other hand, smells like rainbows and other super awesome things, with a nearly imperceptible whiff of unicorn musk. The only trouble is, predictions in his case are difficult since comparable data doesn’t exist from which to draw accurate conclusions. Or does it?

Since he wasn’t in the majors last season, we don’t have the data to compare him to his 2014 self, but we can compare his start to previous big-league debuts. The first 200 pitches to Bryant averaged a 40.8 percent called strike probability. Out of 617 players who’ve made their major league debuts and seen at least 200 pitches since 2008 (pitchers included), that’s the 32nd-lowest CSP over the first 200 pitches of a career — right next to Sandoval’s 40.7 percent.

Even compared to veterans, Bryant’s pitches seen tell a story of pitcher intimidation: Through Tuesday, his 41.5 CSP ranked 16th-lowest among all major leaguers with at least 200 pitches seen this season.

Sounds pretty sexy to me. I mean, 32nd out of 617 is really great. But I wonder who’s number 1 on that list; I bet that guy’s a stud. Mike Trout comes to mind, but despite being at the top of 2015’s CSP fallers, it’s not him. No, the name sitting atop the list of lowest CSP percentage in his first 200 ABs is none other than Anthony Rizzo.

You may have noticed that the Cubs first baseman is seeing a decrease in strikes being thrown his way this year too, which signals a potential improvement over last year’s breakout season. And unlike guys like Alfonso Soriano, Vlad Guerrero, and Kung Fu Panda (who have all combined for the 9 lowest called strike percentage seasons in history), Rizzo isn’t swinging at balls. Neither is Bryant.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau they are not, but the Cubs’ duo is money, baby, and it’s quite obvious that opposing pitchers know it. That’s because, despite seeing fewer strikes than most of their peers (terms used loosely since, you know, they’re mythical creatures and whatnot), they’re not getting impatient and turning into swingers.

While the overall MLB O-Swing% (for you laypeople out there, that’s swings at pitches outside the zone) is 29.8, Bryant’s is only 27.8 and Rizzo’s is an absolutely obscene 19.8. Then again, it’s easy to not swing when you’re getting hit every other game.

What this tells me is that these two hitters are more than willing to let their opponents make the mistakes, and the Cubs are doing so many things right now to induce little shifts and tweaks from rival pitchers that those miscues are sure to pile up. When they do, you can be sure that a few cement mixer sliders are going to find their way to the heart of the plate and then onto Waveland and Sheffield.


And when that inevitable starts to happen with greater frequency, many will stare in awe at the majestic exploits and wonder how it can happen at all. But you and I, we’ll just smile knowingly and think back to what we read about called strike probability and what it says about performance.

But rather than poo-pooing the magic and wonder of baseball, I seek merely to enhance it with a little bit of foresight. As I child, I loved coming down to the living room on Christmas morning to see what Santa had left me. But now as a parent, I take so much more joy from seeing my own children go through that same experience.

That’s because understanding the truth about magic doesn’t make it cease to exist. Rather, it adds depth and structure to that which once seemed amorphous and indefinable. But no matter how much I learn about baseball, there are still those moments when I find myself drooling and speechless over something I could never hope to explain.

Here’s to hoping Rizzo, Bryant, and Co. deliver a few such moments this summer.


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