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Danny Hultzen wants to pitch to contact

In this story, Danny Hultzen, the second overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Seattle Mariners and Keith Law's No. 30 prospect, tells the Tacoma News Tribune:

    I pitch to contact. From the first pitch on, I’m thinking 'hit it,' because the quicker you get outs, the fewer pitches it takes, the longer you stay in games. That’s the kind of pitcher I am. I don’t have knee-buckling stuff, I don’t throw pitches that make people go 'whoa!' but I can make hitters hit my pitch. In high school, I got by with my fastball. My freshman year in college, I learned real quick that wasn’t going to work.

On the positive side, it's good that Hultzen understands his stuff and knows he can't simply rely on blowing his fastball past hitters (he's generally at 91-92 mph, topping out at 94). But I worry whenever I see a quote like this. I worry because I always think of Dwight Gooden and Mel Stottlemyre in the spring of 1986, the spring after Gooden had won 24 games with a 1.53 ERA and 276 strikeouts. Stottlemyre, the Mets' pitching coach, wanted Gooden to strike out fewer hitters. ''I have downplayed the strikeouts with him for the simple reason he doesn't need to strike out 10 batters to have a strong game. The important thing is put zeros on the scoreboard," Stottlemyre said that season. Gooden, of course, was never the same pitcher again (admittedly, for a variety of reasons).

Now, a pitcher's goal isn't merely to strike out hitters; as Stottlemyre said, it's to prevent runs. Now it takes a lot of factors to prevent runs: don't walk hitters, don't give up home runs, get ahead in the count .. and, yes, strike batters out. The best pitchers tend to strike out more batters than inferior pitchers.

I'm guessing most of you know that. But just in case you don't, here's a little study. I looked at the 100 pitchers with the most innings pitched in 2011, which gives us a list from Justin Verlander (251 innings) to Johnny Cueto (156 innings). Actually, J.A. Happ had 156.1 innings, but I missed him in my initial tabulation. I then divided the pitchers into four groups, based on ERA: the top 25, the next 25 and so on.

Here are the cumulative results for each group of 25:

Certainly, the first group is better at everything -- a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, fewer hits allowed, a higher percentage of pitches thrown for strikes and fewer home runs allowed.

But strikeouts are vital. If you rack up more strikeouts, you allow fewer balls in play, and thus you usually allow fewer hits and perhaps fewer home runs (although that can be affected by whether you're a ground ball or flyball pitcher).

Here's another way of looking at it -- the number of pitchers in each group who had fewer than 7.0 strikeouts per nine innings:

Group 1: 7

Group 2: 12

Group 3: 13

Group 4: 18

(The pitchers in Group 1, incidentally: Cueto, Ryan Vogelsong, Doug Fister, Jeremy Hellickson, Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Masterson and Tim Hudson.)

Back to Hultzen. Certainly, conserving pitches and going deep into games is important for a starter. He walked just 23 batters in 18 starts for Virginia, so he does have great control. And while he says he pitches to contact, he did strike out 165 in 118 innings, or 12.6 batters per nine innings, a rate better than No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole although lower than No. 3 pick Trevor Bauer (both from UCLA).

By all accounts, Hultzen knows how to pitch. He has confidence in all of his pitches (fastball, changeup, slider). And while he says he's not aiming for strikeouts, he was pretty good at sending hitters back to the bench in college. I suspect he'll learn soon enough that once he gets ahead of hitters -- which he should be good at doing -- that he'll want to put them away. Maybe his arsenal isn't ultimately dominant enough to become a No. 1 starter with the Mariners, but even No. 2 and No. 3 starters need to know there are times when you have to go for the strikeout.