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Washburn's Command

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I know it already seems like Pick on Geoff Baker Day between LL and USSM, but it's my turn to chip in.

We went over this a couple of weeks back when U.S.S. Mariner took a swipe at Jarrod Washburn -- called him an idiot, I believe -- for saying he had better command. Mentioned his strike ratios and walk ratios. But that basic premise shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of command in the major leagues, which isn't exclusively about the ability to throw strikes and not walk guys. Well, part of it is, that's true. But right here is an example of a guy who throws tons of strikes -- but who also has no command.
Sometimes, the ball is an inch or two too close to a hitter's sweet spot. They live on the edge. With Washburn, lately, he's gotten on the better side of that edge because of a mechanical adjustment (or so he says). He'll still give up some extra base hits, as he did the other night. But so far, he isn't getting crushed like he was in May. So, if that makes him an idiot, OK.

These quotes come from here.

Here is how this reads to me, and if Geoff wants to correct my assumptions, I'm all ears.

  1. Geoff Baker is talking about command in the sense of the pitcher staying away from the middle of the zone.
  2. Washburn has been better of late because he has improved said command.

I buy the first point. There's a rather intuitive way to break down a pitcher's skills.

  • Stuff - What he throws, how well he throws it, how well he hides it, etc. Good stuff leads to missed bats leads to strikeouts.
  • Control - Ability to throw pitches for strikes. Good control leads to fewer balls leads to fewer walks.
  • Command - (a.k.a. "Control within the zone") Ability to avoid throwing in the middle of plate. Good command leads to a better batted ball profile leads to fewer home runs.

Command and control are somewhat related, but can be thought of as distinct skills. Pitchers can have good control with bad command by just aiming for the heart of the zone and pitchers can have good command but bad control.

The problem comes from the second point.

Sometimes, the ball is an inch or two too close to a hitter's sweet spot. They live on the edge. With Washburn, lately, he's gotten on the better side of that edge.

I'm going to make another assumption here and go back to Washburn's June 9th start as the beginning of this good period since that's when he had the first traditionally good result of this recent run.

Washburn strike%, pre-6/9: 62%
Washburn strike%, post-6/9: 61%
(hattip: Jeff for these)

Okay, you might argue, but that just tells us his control isn't any better, it doesn't say anything about his command. Well, Washburn's post-6/9 LD% is higher than it was in either of his first two seasons as a Mariner (again, thanks Jeff). Furthermore,

These are Washburn's heat maps with all pitches (excluding his relief appearance) from the start of the year through June 2nd on the left and all pitches from June 9th onward on the right. Does the picture on the right look like a mapping of a pitcher staying away from hitter's sweet spots? It doesn't to me. It looks like the exact opposite. It looks like a pitcher chucking the ball in the center of the zone. One possible reason for that might be because said pitcher was facing, on average, pretty mediocre hitters.

I'm not going to speculate on what Geoff Baker's motivation was in particular, but I will use this to point out again what is a typical trademark of results-based analysis: the results are known going in. You know that Jarrod Washburn has pitched better^ over his last x-odd starts so you go hunting for a reason. Seeing what you might believe to be an effect and then going back and trying to connect it to a cause is bad science and it's going to be incorrect a vast majority of the time.

^by your definition, which may not be shared by others.