|Wednesday, February 6
Why pitchers desperately need K's
By Rob Neyer
For the third (and last) time, I present you with an imaginary e-mail (my favorite kind): "Rob, I understand that strikeouts for hitters aren't really so bad. But if they're not bad for hitters, then why are they so good for pitchers?"
Before I try to explain why they're so good for pitchers, let me first try to convince you that they are good for pitchers. And the simplest explanation is simply that pitchers with low strikeout rates are rarely successful for long. Or for short.
One of the few pitchers able to achieve great success with a low strikeout rate was Mark Fidrych. In 1976, when he went 19-9 with a league-best 2.34 ERA, Fidrych struck out only 97 hitters in 250 innings, or 3.5 per nine innings.
That's an almost absurdly low figure. I entered career stats for every Hall of Fame pitcher whose careers began in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s. There are 15 of them, and they can be broken into four (somewhat arbitrary) groups. At the bottom of the list, with 5.04 strikeouts per nine innings, is Jim Palmer. This seems a little weird, as Palmer was considered a power pitcher, but his strikeout rate dropped quite a bit over the last seven seasons of his career.
Anyway, six of the pitchers struck out between five and six hitters per nine innings: Palmer, plus Catfish Hunter, Whitey Ford, Phil Niekro, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Five of the pitchers struck out between six and seven hitters per nine innings: Don Sutton, Fergie Jenkins, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning and Tom Seaver. Two of the pitchers struck out (slightly) more than seven hitters per nine innings: Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson. And two pitchers struck out more than nine hitters per nine innings: Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, of course.
All of that is probably more information than you need; here's everything boiled down to the important stuff ... the pitcher with the lowest strikeout rate in the group of Hall of Famers was Palmer, with five strikeouts per nine innings. Fidrych’s strikeout rate in his great season was 30 percent lower than Palmer's career rate.
Another way to look at this ... Instead of focusing on pitchers with Hall of Fame careers, what about pitchers with great seasons? I entered the single-season stats for every American League pitcher who finished No. 1 or No. 2 in ERA in the 1970s (AL only, because the DH presumably has an effect on strikeout rates).
That results in 20 pitcher seasons and 13 pitchers (Vida Blue, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, Bert Blyleven and Ron Guidry appear twice, Palmer three times). As a group, the pitchers struck out 5.87 batters per nine innings. And at 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings, Fidrych is still the low man on the totem pole. But at least he's got some company this time, in the person of Tommy John, who finished with the second-lowest ERA in 1979 despite striking out only 3.6 hitters per nine innings. By that point in his career, T.J. was 36 years old and his left elbow was stuck together with cold cuts and chewing gum; earlier in his career, before the injury, his strikeout rates were generally right around the league average.
And here, finally, is why strikeouts are important ... If you don't strike out at least a moderate number of hitters, you have to do everything else almost perfectly. Here are the pitching lines for Fidrych and John in the aforementioned seasons:
IP HR BB SO The Bird, 1976 250 12 53 97 Tommy J., 1979 276 9 65 111 Totals 527 21 118 198
Great control, and an amazing ability (or something) to limit the number of home runs. But there are very few pitchers who can maintain those successes. In fact, Bill James argues, in his latest book, that the odds were very long against Fidrych enjoying a distinguished career, even absent injury, because no post-1950 pitcher who began his career with that sort of strikeout rate amounted to much of anything.
(As it turns out, in addition to giving up very few home runs and walks, Fidrych also allowed just a .250 batting average on batted balls in play, which is pretty phenomenal, and not a rate he'd have been likely to maintain over a number of years.)
So why does a pitcher need strikeouts? Why can't he simply throw the ball over the plate and let the enemy hit weak grounders and pop-ups all day long? Because baseball doesn't work that way. The great majority of pitchers -- yes, even Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson -- don't actually have much effect on batted balls in play. As we've seen in past columns, even the greatest pitchers will generally allow a .300 batting average on balls in play that aren't home runs.
Randy Johnson, though, doesn't have to worry about anybody hitting .300 against him. Hitters batted .330 against him last year when they managed to put the ball in play, but they had a devil of a time putting the ball in play, and actually batted .203 against Johnson.
Of course, there's only one Big Unit. But for every pitcher on the planet, every strikeout is one less chance for the hitters to get a hit.
Getting back to the original question, what's different about hitters and pitchers? Essentially, it's this: Many hitters are able to compensate for high strikeout rates with other positive things, like home runs and walks. But very few pitchers are able to compensate for low strikeout rates. The math just doesn't work for them.
Before I let you go, just wanted to touch on a few things quickly:
Or as reader John Wells writes,
Aren't these the same owners who voted twice in the 1990s to expand? Aren't two of those expansion franchises two of the least profitable in all of baseball? And aren't two of them prime candidates for contraction, legal issues notwithstanding? I can think of nothing more hypocritical, fraudulent and unethical than to expand the league for the benefit of expansion fees, then turn around just a few years later and call for contraction as the "inevitable" result of having too many teams. I'd love to see the greedy owners sued for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and corporate mismanagement. What a mess.
Couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't try.
Or maybe the teams should simply demand documentation that doesn't look like it was concocted by a bunch of little boys in a tree house.
I'm not naive. I know that this particular instance won't stop, won't even delay for a single second, the next team from selling out. But it's good to see the beast bite back, if just this once.
Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and to order his books, including the just-published Feeding the Green Monster, click here.