The Pittsburgh Pirates pitching corps is blazing a new path through the upper third of the strike zone, and they are littering this path with strikes

Right before the 2017 season started, we ran a piece that went in-depth on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ potential increase in usage of the upper third of the strike zone.

It was long and it was detailed. The long and short long of it was that the Pirates would seem to deviate from their tried-and-true mantra of pitching low in the zone to induce weak contact that stayed on the carpet.

It was never going to be a radical change. Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage himself intimated to the Trib’s Rob Biertempfel that the increased focus on pitching in the upper third would be situational at-best.

If we check in on how this tweak has worked for the Pirates over the 2017 season’s first month, we find that the team’s use of the high stuff has lent itself very well to generating strikes.

Climbing The Ranks

In our original piece, we noted that that the Pittsburgh Pirates were second from last in 2016 among major league clubs in percentage of pitchers pitched in the upper third (U3) of the strike zone – defined as zones 1,2,3 by Statcast. In years previous to 2016, the Pirates traditionally found themselves in the bottom third of usage in these zones.

Through the 2017 season, the team ranks sixth in overall U3 usage at 9.72 percent. The five teams above them all have usage of 10 percent or more, led by the Boston Red Sox at 12.43 percent.

Along with that increase in usage comparative to other clubs, the Pirates have seen increased effectiveness to go along with more usage.

Here we’ve highlighted the Pirates as well as the five teams ahead of them in upper third usage. We’ve set this chart to also show swing and miss percentage (whiff %) and we also highlight the exit velocity on pitches that are put in play. Though the Pirates do not generate the most whiffs on these higher pitches, they see their fair share while keeping those balls that are put into play in the “soft contact” bucket.

That is a very sweet spot to find yourself at a club level.

A quick look at where in the upper third these pitches are landing tells us that there is potential for even more whiffs with a small tweak.

It is obviously curious that the largest percentage of pitches thrown by Pittsburgh Pirates hurlers in the upper third seem to land in the top center o the strike zone. This is a no man’s land of pitches. Anything center cut, regardless of height, is easier to get a good swing on, but it has not hurt the team that much in terms of exit velocity. In fact, any of these pitches have not really hurt the Pirates all that much as their pitch breakdown shows:

The team will certainly live with those figures. Putting just 13.5 percent of these balls in plat with only 2.5 percent falling for hits are metrics that any team would take projected out throughout the season.

Of particular note here is that the team has been fairly adept at getting called strikes in the upper third. This shows that the Pirates hurlers are adept at deception as well as just flat-out overpowering hitters.

Speaking of overpowering, that is clearly the Pirates’ goal in utilizing the upper third, as this line graph of pitch types show us.

The four-seam fastball far and away leads the pack, with fantastic velocity spikes (more on that in a moment). The four-seamer is about as purposeful a pitch as there is in baseball. With Pirates pitchers using this pitch in the upper third as opposed to a cutter or two-seam, for example, we can see that the club’s pitchers are relying on command and velocity rather than movement.

This serves as a counter punch to the team’s own historical use of moving pitches to generate ground balls.

Individual Pittsburgh Pirates Pitcher Highlights

Who’s ready for another graph? Here we will pick out individual Pirates pitchers on the same X-Y scatter chart we had above for team-level findings. We wanted to look at whiff percentage in particular with both of these charts, as inducing a batter to swing and miss is somewhat small sample size-proof, in that it is such a definitive result.

Some observations on individual Pirates pitchers’ upper third results:

  • For the most part, none of these pitchers have given up hard contact, though Tyler Glasnow in particular shows a feast-or-famine quality on his elevated offerings.
  • It is surprising to see Felipe Rivero end up with a such a middling amount of swings and misses based purely on his velocity alone, though it does not matter much. Rivero has not allowed a hit off of an upper third offering, and if we throw in called strikes to his snapshot, he lands a combined 33.3 percent strikes in this zone.
  • Ivan Nova clearly is not on board with the program, but with the way he is currently pitching, the Pittsburgh Pirates would do well to keep things status quo.
  • Trevor Williams might have an out pitch on his hands.
  • Jameson Taillon represents the great undiscovered territory here, with the lowest usage on staff but solid whiff rate on what he has offered so far. It would be interesting to see what might happen if he goes to these zones more often.
  • Juan Nicasio is probably in the sweet spot here in terms of sample size vs results. He throws enough to draw a solid conclusion while maintaining a very solid whiff rate.

Again, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not going to re-invent the wheel. But as we said in our original post, a new wrinkle can lead to surprising results.

Through the early returns, the Pirates may have seen enough positives to maintain its new, slightly modified course.

All data and images courtesy of Statcast

Featured photo credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)