Oakland Athletics v Detroit Tigers

Some of the most-used baseball truisms are a variant of “pitching to the corners.” Scouts even differentiate between command and control when they say that some pitchers can put the ball in the strike zone and some can put the ball exactly where they want.

But much of baseball analysis is on/off when it comes to the strike zone. Was it as strike or wasn’t it? Was it walk or wasn’t it? It stands to reason that there might be pitchers falling between the cracks of our pitching metrics that are still adding to their value by showing great command. And, further, it stands to reason that those pitchers might show better numbers in the future — if they keep ‘pounding the zone’ in the right places, it’s sure to show up in his ERA and WHIP eventually, right?

Thanks to Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti at FanGraphs, we have the beginnings of an inkling about these pitchers now. The two developed a metric called ‘Edge%’ which tracks how well a pitcher can throw to the edges of the strike zone. It’s a simple concept, and executed well: who hits a defined sliver of the strike zone best? And what does that mean?

The elite edge-hitters have lower BABIPs, better walk rates, better FIPs, and maybe most importantly for fantasy players, better WHIPs. It can help explain some difference between results and FIP, as it might in the case of elite edge-hitter Mark Buehrle. And you can also use it to look at pitchers’ careers, as Zimmerman did with Tim Lincecum — maybe there’s hope on the edges for the former ace in San Francisco. And there are even leaderboards going back three years on BaseballHeatMaps.com.

But let’s make it simple. Let’s cull all pitchers that threw fewer than 1500 pitches in 2012 — 3000+ pitches makes a season, generally. Here are your top 25 ‘qualified’ starters by Edge% (the last three tied):

Name Edge % Heart% Outside % Pitches
Blake Beavan 19.80% 36.90% 44.40% 2296
Bartolo Colon 19.20% 41.80% 39.50% 2053
David Phelps 19.00% 27.90% 53.20% 1675
David Price 18.90% 32.90% 49.00% 3322
Kyle Lohse 18.90% 32.30% 49.10% 3125
Mark Buehrle 18.80% 29.60% 51.80% 3059
Kevin Millwood 18.60% 33.20% 48.70% 2586
Mike Leake 18.20% 30.60% 51.70% 2713
Brandon McCarthy 18.10% 36.60% 45.90% 1570
Aaron Laffey 18.10% 32.50% 49.80% 1556
Justin Verlander 18.00% 32.60% 50.00% 3767
Jason Vargas 18.00% 31.80% 50.50% 3269
Cliff Lee 17.80% 39.90% 42.90% 3087
Erik Bedard 17.80% 33.80% 48.60% 2127
Tommy Milone 17.70% 30.80% 51.80% 3033
Bronson Arroyo 17.70% 34.00% 48.50% 2953
Henderson Alvarez 17.70% 37.60% 45.00% 2857
Jordan Lyles 17.70% 30.20% 52.50% 2362
Nick Blackburn 17.60% 32.70% 50.10% 1616
Hiroki Kuroda 17.50% 28.70% 53.90% 3327
Jordan Zimmermann 17.50% 37.10% 45.60% 3088
Travis Wood 17.50% 34.40% 48.90% 2497
Matt Garza 17.50% 30.50% 52.20% 1697
Colby Lewis 17.50% 35.20% 47.70% 1627
Clay Buchholz 17.40% 31.20% 51.70% 2896
Dan Haren 17.40% 29.20% 53.80% 2848
Vance Worley 17.40% 31.80% 50.90% 2173

Maybe this is a skill that helps those with marginal stuff play it up. You see a lot of guys on here like Mike Leake, Kyle Lohse, Nick Blackburn, Travis Wood and Vance Worley that aren’t aces in terms of whiffs, but can place the ball where they want it. You might want to give them a little nudge forward in your estimation, though none of them are really that ownable. But let’s call Tommy Milone the patron saint of this type, and make him a little more attractive in fantasy next year. Sub-two-per-nine walk rates are rarely sustainable, but maybe with this skill, Milone can manage it again. He certainly did so in the minor leagues.

How about a few young guys that might be more interesting than they first appear? David Phelps only has a 91 mph fastball, and his four-pitch mix got below-average whiffs and grounders in his first attempt at the league. His control was just about league-average (or worse), so it’s nice to see that his control might improve, and his BABIP might be slightly better than league average going forward. All those minuscule minor league walk rates might be real, too. Blake Beavan leads them all in Edge%, but he’s jealous of Phelps’ below-average whiff rate, and if you can’t even strike out five guys per nine, or show an average ground-ball rate, you probably can’t hang your hat on this one skill. Just outside of this list are three interesting young pitchers — Mike Minor (17.1%), Max Scherzer (17.0%), and Derek Holland (17.0%) — which deserve a little boost in your estimation.

Now the 25 worst by Edge%:

Name Edge % Heart% Outside % Pitches
Johan Santana 12.60% 33.60% 54.40% 1939
Tim Lincecum 12.70% 32.70% 55.20% 3286
Mike Fiers 12.90% 36.90% 50.90% 2150
Edinson Volquez 13.00% 33.00% 54.50% 3202
James McDonald 13.30% 36.50% 50.60% 2797
Trevor Cahill 13.50% 30.10% 56.70% 3169
Yu Darvish 13.50% 32.90% 53.90% 3164
Edwin Jackson 13.50% 30.30% 56.50% 2966
Ubaldo Jimenez 13.80% 34.10% 52.50% 3106
Luis Mendoza 13.80% 29.60% 56.90% 2531
Derek Lowe 13.80% 29.50% 57.20% 2337
Francisco Liriano 13.90% 28.80% 57.50% 2715
James Shields 14.10% 29.70% 56.40% 3616
Ricky Romero 14.10% 32.40% 53.90% 3060
Alex White 14.20% 28.40% 57.60% 1791
Ervin Santana 14.30% 34.20% 52.00% 2856
Jose Quintana 14.30% 36.10% 49.80% 2165
Travis Blackley 14.30% 31.80% 54.40% 1661
C.J. Wilson 14.40% 36.10% 49.80% 3429
R.A. Dickey 14.40% 39.10% 46.90% 3355
Wade Miley 14.40% 34.20% 51.80% 2999
Stephen Strasburg 14.40% 31.30% 54.60% 2598
Chad Billingsley 14.50% 35.30% 50.50% 2378
Jaime Garcia 14.50% 33.90% 52.00% 1757
Matt Moore 14.60% 35.40% 50.50% 3023

Mostly the list is full of guys with poor control — it’s no surprise that Ubaldo Jimenez and Edinson Volquez can’t hit the edge of the strike zone, for example. Ricky Romero and Ervin Santana had all sorts of problems!

Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum and James Shields might surprise you. But only Johan of the three has shown an above-average Edge% in the past three years, and they’ve had some success with that approach. Lincecum had a whole post written on him.

So let’s focus on the youngsters again! Wade Miley just jumps out at you. The young D-Back showed a better walk rate last season than he’d ever shown, and by far. Maybe that’s not sustainable. James McDonald made some strides with his control last year and still showed a bad Edge%. Matt Moore lost his control suddenly in the big leagues, and here’s something his detractors can point to.

Obviously, Edge% does not explain all that there is to explain about these pitchers. The correlations between this peripheral stat and other peripheral stats don’t rise above .22 even. But there are things that FIP doesn’t quite capture, and the benefits of “painting the black” feels like one of them.