clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Using Breaking Balls For Called Strikes

Generating whiffs is a skill but so too is generating called strikes.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Getting whiffs is awesome. I love watching guys with explosive stuff who can miss a lot of bats. It’s entertaining. Plain and simple. But you won’t see a whole lot of those guys on the St. Louis Cardinals.

In fact the team ranked second to last in strike out rate in 2023 at just 19.4%. That’s rough. We all know that. But what if I told you that there’s another area of pitching where the Cardinals excel? If you’re think I’m going to say ground balls, you’re wrong. Well, technically, you’re right. The Cardinals did get a lot of ground balls in 2023. They got them at the second highest rate of any team in the league, in fact.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today, I want to talk about called strikes because that’s an area of pitching where the Cardinals excel.

As a staff, the Cardinals had 4th highest rate of called strikes in the majors last year. You may not have realized it because called strike rate isn’t as flashy a stat as whiff rate but it still matters.

So what I want to look into today is one way that happened. I’ll return to this subject on Tuesday, too, with another look at how the Cardinals are able to generate so many called strikes.

I don’t just want to focus on the Cardinals, though. We’re talking about pitching as a whole and that means there should be league wide trends (and there are). So what I want to do today is identify one of those trends before turning my attention back to the Cardinals and seeing who is the best at taking advantage of those trends.

Let’s get started.

The Trend - High Breaking Balls

I’ll admit that this is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time because, and I’m going to give away the punchline with this but I’ll say it anyways, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been taken aback by watching a pitcher loop a breaking ball into the top of the zone for a called strike.

You know what I’m taking about, right? You’ve noticed it before too. It’s pitches like this one from Miles Mikolas:

Or this one from Adam Wainwright:

Every time I see this happen I feel like the hitter should be able to tee off on the pitch but they just don’t. In fact the hitter doesn’t even swing. And who can blame him? Pitches like that are unexpected.

High breaking balls are just such a weird pitch. And yet every time I watch them they seem to have success.

So every year I catch myself wondering about how that could be and if that success I’m seeing is purely anecdotal of if it actually holds across the league.

As it turns out, it does hold.

Pitchers actually fare better with high breaking balls than they do with low breaking balls. That might surprise you. Pitchers are generally taught to bury their breaking balls at or below the knees to get whiffs and chases. We see it play out in games and, as fans, we know what the typical bat missing playbook looks like - a steady does of high heaters and low breakers.

Yet high breakers have proven to be more successful. Why is that?

Well it gets back to what I started this article with - called strikes.

Let’s re-wind the tape for a minute and get back to the basics. I’ve made a lot of claims so far but I haven’t provided any supporting evidence. Now feels like a good time to do that.

We can break up the strike zone into 9 separate regions. Regions 1, 2, and 3 are the top third of the zone, regions 4,5, and 6 are the middle third of the zone, while regions 7, 8, and 9, and the bottom third of the zone.

You get the picture.

So how do hitters fare against upper third breaking balls (regions 1, 2, and 3) vs. lower third breaking balls (regions 7, 8, and 9)? See for yourself:

High Breaking Balls vs Low Breaking Balls

Pitch Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 Swing Rate Whiff Rate
Pitch Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 Swing Rate Whiff Rate
High 0.283 2.8 48.8% 20.1%
Low 0.300 1.7 70.1% 23.2%

So what stands out? Hitters love to swing at breaking balls at the bottom of the zone but they tend to keep the bat on their shoulders when the pitch is thrown up. So while high breaking balls might not be as nasty and might not miss as many bats, they get a disproportionately high number of called strikes.

You can see how that can be advantageous for a pitcher. Looking for a low risk strike? Just loop a breaking ball into the top of the zone. Odds are it’ll freeze the hitter. That’s a great pitch to have in the repertoire.

That brings us to a caveat. All pitchers throw high breaking balls accidentally. It just happens sometimes. But if a pitcher truly wants to exploit this to their advantage, then they’ll need to be able to locate the pitch at the top of the zone on demand. That takes some command.

I want to underscore that point. It’s imperative for a pitcher to not miss his spot when he attempts to climb the ladder with his breaking ball because the results get a lot worse when a pitcher misses the top of the zone and ends up out of it.

High Breaking Balls vs Low Breaking Balls - Out of the Zone

Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 Swing Rate Whiff Rate
Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 Swing Rate Whiff Rate
High (Out of the zone) 0.375 -3.2 17.0% 27.2%
Low (Out of the zone) 0.203 -0.6 34.1% 59.7%

This table is why pitchers target the lower reaches of the zone with their breaking balls. Hitters chase more often and whiff more often when pitchers go beneath the zone and that means that pitchers tend to have a lot more success down there.

When pitchers go above the zone with their breaking balls, their numbers get significantly worse. That’s mostly due to those pitches landing for a ball at around an 80% rate but those pitches are easier to hit too.

So this leads me back to my earlier point which is that it’s great for pitchers to go high with their breaking balls but they must be able to command the pitch in the zone when doing so because missing high is a lot worse than missing low.

So in all likelihood it’s the pitchers with good command who are going to benefit the most from using this unorthodox strategy of throwing high breaking balls. The power arms may get whiffs but this is where the command and control guys can level the playing field a bit.

So that brings us to another question - why does this work? Why do breaking balls get called strikes at the top of the zone?

My theory is simply that it works simply because high breaking balls are unexpected. I mean, I’m surprised when I see the pitch thrown and there are times when hitters are noticeably surprised too. Sometimes they even give up on the pitch before the ball even crosses the plate because they’re fooled so badly.

This makes sense, though. If we look at the number of breaking balls thrown at the top of the zone or above, it pales in comparison to the number of breaking balls thrown at the bottom of the zone or below.

Across the league in 2023, pitchers threw 143,015 breaking balls in the bottom part of the zone or below. That number shrinks to just 40,700 instances of high breaking balls. That’s over 3.5x more breaking balls thrown low rather than high.

The high breaking ball is simply an unexpected pitch. And if it thrives because it’s unexpected then it would be a mistake to throw it enough for it to be expected. To put it simply, this is a pitch that pitchers can’t overuse, or, I suspect, hitters will start catching on and the pitch will lose some of it’s value.

There’s something else I should mention too. When hitters have 2 strikes, they don’t just shrug their shoulders and take the pitch. The league-wide swing rate against upper third breaking balls rose to a whopping 82.3% when hitters had 2 strikes. Pitchers stop getting called strikes in those scenarios and hitters tend not to miss those pitches, whiffing just 18% of the time against them while in 2 strike scenarios.

So what does this tell us? If you’re a pitcher with good command of your curveball (or slider), break out the high curve early in the count or behind in the count to get a (relatively) “easy” called strike. Once a hitter gets to 2 strikes, though, take that thing back downstairs where it belongs.

The Cardinals

So which Cardinals are the best at this? You should already know the answer. Miles Mikolas.

Mikolas is the physical embodiment of the command/control archetype so it shouldn’t surprise us that he goes upstairs with his breaking balls more than any other pitcher on the team. In fact, only two pitchers in the entire league did so more often than him - Rich Hill and Reid Detmers, both of whom are left-handed.

153 of Mikolas’ pitches, a whopping 4.8% of all the pitches he threw, landed in the top third of the strike zone. That might not seem like a large number until you realize that we’re not only dealing with an unorthodox strategy but we’re also dealing with only a subset of Mikolas’ entire arsenal, namely curveballs and sliders.

The next closest Cardinal to Mikolas was, unsurprisingly, Adam Wainwright, who only threw 47 breaking balls in the upper third of the zone. So Mikolas didn’t only do this a lot, he simply blew everyone else out of the water.

The flip side of the coin here is that Mikolas also missed the top of the zone the most. He missed upstairs with his breaking balls 161 times.

That gives us a total of 314 high breaking balls, whether in or out of the zone. That’s nearly 10% of all the pitches that Mikolas threw. Now that is a more significant number.

So, you might be wondering...was it worth it? Taken as a whole, did Mikolas’ breaking balls perform well in the upper regions when compared to his breaking balls in the lower regions.

What I want to look at here are pitches both in and out of the zone. We already know that it’s useful to target the upper third of the strike zone with breaking balls but missing up in the zone comes with territory. If all of Mikolas’ high breaking balls are significantly worse than his low breaking balls then it stands to reason that the risk of going high doesn’t outweigh the benefit.

So is that true? Well...it depends. And it depends on what metric you want to use. If you want to look solely at wOBA, the answer is a resounding no. But if you look at run value the answer is yes.

High vs. Low Breaking Ball Results - Mikolas

Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 In Zone Rate Swing Rate Chase Rate Whiff Rate
Location wOBA Pitcher Run Value/100 In Zone Rate Swing Rate Chase Rate Whiff Rate
High 0.389 0.1 48.7% 34.7% 21.7% 21.1%
Low 0.256 -0.7 33.0% 41.8% 27.0% 28.2%

How can there be such a stark difference in run value and wOBA? It all gets back to in-zone rate. When Mikolas goes down in the zone, just under one third of his breaking balls are thrown for strikes. We can add in the chase rate and say that around 60% of his low breaking balls are strikes in the sense that they are either thrown in the strike zone or they generate a swing,

When Mikolas goes up in the zone, his breaking balls land in the strike zone at nearly a 50% rate. Tack on the more modest chase rate in that region and we arrive at greater than a 70% “strike” rate.

Run value as a statistic is factoring in the value of individual balls and called strikes so even though hitters may get better wOBA results up in the zone, they are also taking a lot of strikes up in the zone and balls low in the zone and that swings run value in favor of the high breaking balls.

So really the conclusion I get from this is that a high-breaking ball strategy is viable for someone like Mikolas when used in the right counts.

My issue with Mikolas is that over 19% of his high breaking balls were thrown in 2-strike counts. His run value/100 on those pitches? -4.5. That’s really weighing down the success of the strategy. So that’s the tweak I would propose for Mikolas. He should keep taking his breaking balls upstairs but not when he has 2 strikes on the hitter. That’s when the low breaking ball is the way to go.

Final Thoughts

This article started with a discussion of pitching strategy and then gradually became more and more focused on Miles Mikolas. That wasn’t my original intent but since he is the main user of the high breaking balls strategy, it felt fitting to narrow in on him as an example of the larger strategy as a whole.

I don’t want to leave you hanging, though. I should mention other Cardinals too.

As a team, the Cardinals threw the 9th most high breaking balls in the league. I’ve broken things down by individual player in the following table to help you get an understanding of who likes to take their breaking balls upstairs and who doesn’t. (*Note that Mikolas is not in first place here. That’s because this table is looking at breaking balls in zones 1, 2, 3, 11, and 12 whereas above, when I claimed Mikolas used the high breaking ball the most, I was only looking at zones 1, 2, and 3, which is really where a pitcher wants the pitch to be.)

Yes I’m absolutely tacking this on at the end of this piece without mentioning any of the interesting little nuggets of information that are contained within so feel free to peruse this as deeply as you want or completely skip over it.

Rate of High Breaking Balls by Cardinals Pitchers

Name # of High Breaking Balls Thrown % of All Pitches Thrown
Name # of High Breaking Balls Thrown % of All Pitches Thrown
Liberatore, Matthew LHP 111 10.5
Thompson, Zack LHP 120 10.3
Mikolas, Miles RHP 314 9.8
Woodford, Jake RHP 85 9.4
Rom, Drew LHP 48 7.2
Helsley, Ryan RHP 43 7.1
Gallegos, Giovanny RHP 60 6.8
VerHagen, Drew RHP 67 6.4
Wainwright, Adam RHP 112 6.3
Pallante, Andre RHP 63 5.5
Matz, Steven LHP 101 5.4
Hudson, Dakota RHP 68 5.2
Hicks, Jordan RHP 44 3.9
Stratton, Chris RHP 48 3.5
Romero, JoJo LHP 18 3.3
Flaherty, Jack RHP 63 2.4
Montgomery, Jordan LHP 57 2

I hope you enjoyed the piece; it’s one I’ve wanted to write for a long time now. High breaking balls are something that I’ve always found interesting and I’ll now be watching for pitchers who can intentionally and effectively use the strategy.

Thanks for reading!