Warning: Knuckleballs on the edge of the strike zone are closer than they appear

The New York Yankees have seen a 5.5-game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays collapse to 0.5 games from one Tuesday to the next by dropping five of six.  This rough patch of six games, in which the offense has managed a total of 8 runs (they surpassed that with 9 in the 7th inning alone the night before the stretch began), has left the Yankee ship sinking, but it all started with floating.

Last Wednesday, August 5th, the Yankees faced the tough task of hitting the deceiving knuckleball, the floater, of Red Sox rookie Steven Wright. Wright has been making noise recently, thanks to his dancing knuckleball; the “knucklepuck” dazzled a potent Yankees lineup – at the time, New York had scored six or more runs in 9 of its last 12 games, including 21 unanswered in Arlington and twelve or more runs in 3 of its previous 4.  He held the Bronx Bombers to 1 run on 4 hits through eighth innings, while sitting down nine Yankees by way of the K and justifying his Twitter handle @Knucklepuck23.  Just two days later, New York was shut down, mustering 1 run on 6 hits, again off a knuckleballer, but this time it was veteran R.A. Dickey.  That loss initiated a clean road sweep for the Blue Jays, their first in Yankee Stadium (Old or New) since May 2003, and after the Yankees crushing defeat in 16 innings last night, their losing streak sits at four, while the Jays’ winning streak rose to nine.

Clearly the Yankees are having some sort of nightmarish knuckleball aftershock, rendering their bats useless as they recover from the two games of head-scratching swinging-and-missing.  That makes one wonder why more pitchers don’t throw more knuckleballs, especially given the dominance, as of late, displayed by rookie Wright and old-timer Dickey alike.  Those 9 strikeouts in NY were a career high for the thirty-year-old Wright, breaking his record of 8, which he achieved just the week before in seven innings of work against the White Sox on July 30.  Clearly, the knuckleball is working more effectively as of late, with his strikeout numbers piling up.  Moreover, though he struggled in the 5th inning, Wright limited the Marlins to 2 earned runs last night in Miami, extending his streak of two or fewer ER allowed to four games – a span in which he has lowered his ERA from 4.84 to 4.09.  Meanwhile, Dickey, the Blue Jay running through the six,  has one-upped the rookie with a six-game streak of no more than two earned runs, during which his ERA has plummeted from 5.02 to 3.93.  Despite the recent success, Wright and Dickey could be better.

Actually, I would argue that they are even better than their performances suggest, and the reason has to do with the guys behind the plate, rather than at the plate.  While watching a Red Sox game with the knuckleballer on the mound, it is hard not to notice the greater effort that catcher Blake Swihart has to exert just to catch the spin-less pitches, resulting in many futile attempts.  And since they are a terror to catch, knuckleballs are naturally difficult to frame, which means that in addition to the greater pressure on the Sox backstop, there is an added workload for the home plate umpire.  In an endeavor to follow the floating knuckleball, umpires often appear to rely more on catchers’ pitch-framing behind the plate, which can be detrimental to a pitcher like Wright, particularly when your fellow rookie catcher doesn’t squeeze ’em all.  For example, Brooks Baseball shows a fifth inning knuckler in New York right over the heart of the plate incorrectly called a ball:

Wright vs. Yankees

Unfortunately for Wright, this is not quite a once in a blue moon occurrence.  To understand how Wright and Dickey would be superior hurlers if not for the boys in blue, a comparison to better pitchers, perhaps ones known for getting a few more calls – especially those in the lower portion of the zone where Wright’s pitch above “missed” – will be useful.  Since R.A. was the 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner, who better to compare to than the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, one who has been in five of the last six All-Star Games and led the MLB in strikes out in 2014.  I am, of course, referring to the recently-traded David Price.  An even greater contrast is the case of Houston Astros’ SP Dallas Keuchel, who has received the most additional strikes from umpires this year.

FanGraphs’ Heatmaps are a great tool for examining how and where Wright and Dickey are missing out on called strikes that could easily lower their slightly ballooning walk totals while magnifying their strikeout rates.  This year is a particularly good one for exploring which pitchers are getting calls where, as umpires have called a notably expanded lower strike zone.  Although Wright had very few starts in 2013-14, the data for 2013-15 will be shown alongside this year’s for supplementary detail.

To get an introductory sense for the disparity in low-pitch called-strike percentage, we need look no further than the FanGraphs Heatmaps of 2015 Steven Wright vs. 2015 Dallas Keuchel:

dallas v wright

However, we can get more precise in detailing the woes of knuckleballers.  First let us define the following:
1) Zone – the strike zone, the box outlined in the thicker black line in the GIF above
2) Edges of Zone – the 20 small boxes that make up the outer edge of the Zone [the bottom 6 small boxes are the Bottom of the Zone]
3) Corners of Zone – 4 small boxes, 1 in each corner of the Zone
4) Expanded Lower Zone – the red-outlined 12 small boxes inside and outside the lower Edge of the Zone [the "Bottom of the Zone” + the 6 small boxes just below]

price

Below are various called-strike percentages for 2015 as well as 2013-15 for Wright and fellow floater Dickey compared to those of aces Price and Keuchel.

zone

What should immediately jump out are the bright green numbers of Keuchel.  Umpires this year have called 87% of his pitches in the strike zones correctly, a considerably higher rate than they do for our two knuckleballers and Price, who all get called strikes similarly within the Zone.  Keuchel, with his catchers’ help, has been convincing umpires on four-fifths of his pitches on the Edges of the Zone, where he holds an even greater advantage over the other three (whose numbers on the edges in 2015 are also very similar).  The Corners and outside of the Zone tell the same story (in fact, Price gets even fewer calls on the corners and outside the strike box), but the bottom portion of the strike zone is where things get truly fascinating.  Dallas has an astounding 83.1% called-strike rate in the Bottom of the Zone, better than the other pitchers’ percentages in the Zone as a whole.  Keuchel’s numbers in the Bottom of the Zone and Expanded Lower Zone are almost double those of Steven Wright and almost triple those of R.A. Dickey, let alone the fact that they are leaps and bounds above the rates of David Price, a perennial All-Star.

All of the percentages discussed just above are current for 2015, and the 2013-15 numbers are even more unfriendly to our knuckleball-hurlers, considering that Keuchel and Price (whose 2013-15 called-strike percentages are closer to ace-level than in 2015 alone) were getting low-pitch strike calls even before umpires began to noticeably expand that portion of the zone this year.  Given that pitchers are living more in the Expanded Lower Zone, where hitters are missing more, it is crucial that pitchers understand where umpires will be hollering “Steeerrrriiike” and where they will remain silent.  Wright’s and Dickey’s floaters may have sunk the Evil Empire’s ship for the time being, but if these guys want longevity on the mound like Tim Wakefield, umpires are going to have to start recognizing the warning that knuckleballs near the edge of the Zone (especially in the Lower Expanded Zone) are closer than they appear.

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