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May 16, 2001
Doctoring The Numbers
Ballardesque Strikeout Ratios
When trying to come up with inspiration for the first Doctoring the Numbers segment of the new season, there is no better place to be than at the ballpark.
I discovered this when I took in a matinee at Comerica Park last Thursday on a muggy Detroit afternoon. The Tigers had just deflated their crowd by surrendering an eighth-inning game-tying home run to Rafael Palmeiro, when Phil Garner called on Danny Patterson to relieve C.J. Nitkowski.
The scoreboard flashed Patterson's numbers for the season, and I knew I had found my first topic. Because you don't see the following set of numbers together very often:
ERA: 1.08 IP: 16.2 K: 3
Three strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings? That's a positively Ballardesque ratio. Actually, Jeff Ballard's career-worst ratio was 2.41 whiffs per nine innings. Patterson's ratio at the time was just 1.62.
Yet despite Patterson's horrible strikeout rate, he has been one of the finest set-up men in the game this year. Indeed, on this day he retired both batters he faced and got the win when Tony Clark hit a bomb into the right-field rafters in the bottom of the inning. Another 2 2/3 scoreless innings Friday night gave him a sterling 0.90 ERA in 20 innings--with just four strikeouts.
Is Patterson's strikeout rate among the worst of all time? Not even close. The high-offense era between the wars was predicated on contact hitting, and strikeouts were considered such a sin that not a single batter struck out even 100 times in any season between 1915 and 1932. In 1924, the American League as a whole struck out just 2.67 men per nine innings. In 1927, a Red Sox pitcher named Ted Wingfield struck out one batter in 74 2/3 innings. One. In 1919, Slim Sallee of the Cincinnati Reds struck out 24 batters in 227 2/3 innings (less than one per nine innings), and went 21-7 with a 2.06 ERA. Sallee, who walked 20 batters that year, is one of a handful of pitchers to record more wins than walks in a season.
But in the modern era, where batters let it fly and are sensibly willing to endure the occasional whiff in exchange for the occasional homer, Patterson' s low strikeout total is very unusual. The lowest strikeout rates of the expansion era, i.e., since 1961 (minimum: 50 innings):
Name Year IP K K/9 ERA
Even if we lower the innings requirement to just 20, only 19 pitchers have had a strikeout rate as low as Patterson's 1.80 mark.
What makes Patterson's performance so impressive is that despite his low strikeout rate, his ERA is invisible to the naked eye. Of those 19 pitchers, none of them had an ERA under 2.00, and only two of them had an ERA under 3.00.
The last pitcher to post an ERA under 2.00 with a strikeout rate of less than 2.00 per nine innings was Ox Miller in 1945, who fashioned a 1.59 ERA for the St. Louis Browns despite whiffing just four batters in 28 1/3 innings. Since 1900, only five pitchers have thrown so much as 50 innings and joined the under 2.00/under 2.00 club:
Name Year IP K K/9 ERA
Most of the pitchers who manage a low ERA despite low strikeout totals do so because of impeccable control that makes up for the high number of hits they give up. The classic example is Dan Quisenberry, who saved 244 career games and had a 2.76 lifetime ERA despite striking out just 3.27 men per nine innings over the course of his career. Quisenberry actually gave up more than a hit an inning during his career, but walked just 162 men in 1043 innings, a rate of 1.40 per nine. Babe Adams is the only pitcher since 1900 with a lower career walk rate and even 100 career innings.
It gets better: 70 of Quiz's walks were intentional; his unintentional walk rate was just 0.79 per 9 innings! (For the record, from the time Dennis Eckersley joined the A's in 1987 until he retired, he walked just 114 men in 789 2/3 innings, or 1.30 per nine. Twenty-six of them were intentional, for a UIBB rate of exactly 1.00.)
Getting back to Patterson... while he's possessed excellent control so far--just four walks allowed--has also been stingy with the base hit, allowing just 13 in 20 innings. That, along with an amazing six double-play balls in just 20 innings, is the reason why he has been one of the best relievers in baseball this season, according to Michael Wolverton's RRE report. Patterson's combined total of just 17 strikeouts + hits in 20 innings, a ratio of 7.65, is on pace to be the lowest of all time. Since 1900, only eight pitchers (min: 50 IP) have had a combined total of less than one strikeout or hit per inning:
Name Year IP H K H+K/G ERA Next ERA
As a group, these pitchers were exceedingly effective, which isn't surprising given that none of them allowed more than seven hits per nine innings. Also not surprisingly, their effectiveness was as fleeting as Lou Bega's career. Only one of these pitchers didn't see his ERA rise at least 50 points the following season, and Hank Thormahlen's ERA the year after that was 4.14. Despite the fact that several of these pitchers were rookies, not one of them was still pitching in the majors five years later. (One of them was able to find work elsewhere on the field, however.)
Patterson, in all honesty, is unlikely to maintain his low strikeout rate all season. Patterson struck out 69 batters in 71 innings as a rookie in 1997, and while his strikeouts have steadily dropped since, he had never struck out fewer than one batter every two innings before this year.
The Tigers better hope his strikeout rate recovers soon. If history is any guide, either his strikeouts will start rising or his ERA will--with a vengeance.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.