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August 4, 2010
Let's Go for a Free Pass
I've been thinking an awful lot about walks lately—not the kind I try to take each night before bed, but rather the kind that Cliff Lee now avoids with startling regularity. My last two Seidnotes columns focused on his fantastic season in an attempt to deduce whether or not anyone ever matched his potentially historic pace. Additionally, I used his numbers to illustrate the differences between the more common strikeout-to-walk ratio and the strikeout-minus-walk differential. Today, I frame his walk-averse campaign in a slightly different light. Entering his most recent complete-game loss, Lee issued seven walks while surrendering nine home runs.
Yes, the man had walked fewer batters than he had allowed home runs! An out-of-character, two-walk performance on Sunday tied the numbers, but I began to wonder how rare it is for dingers to exceed walks. With that in mind, my goals today are to explore this very phenomenon, and to discuss walks and walk rates on a very basic level, as the numbers are used very frequently, yet leaders in the respective categories are not exactly common knowledge.
First, how often has a pitcher with 150 or more innings in a season allowed fewer free passes than McGwire Specials? Dating back to 1974—and excluding the 2010 season for now—a measly 14 pitcher-seasons met the criteria. As we might expect, some of the names are repeated, making the feat all the more rare. In order of fewest walks allowed, here are Lee’s potential contemporaries:
OK, so not everyone here is really Lee’s contemporary, as those tabled above reached their mark in different fashions. Carlos Silva didn’t walk anyone in 2005, but he wasn’t exactly a stranger to the long ball. Rick Reed went from replacement player to control freak in a nice major-league career, but his home run totals are also in excess of what is expected from Lee over the remainder of the season. In fact, aside from Lieber’s 2004, and Wells’ 2003 and 2004 seasons, the rest meet the criteria in the query, but that’s it, unless you expect Lee to serve up 16-18 home runs over his next 10 outings to match the raw totals of Silva’s strange 2005.
What has made Lee’s year so outstanding is that, in addition to virtually never walking anyone, he isn’t even being hit hard. Well, what’s the least amount of home runs a pitcher has surrendered in a season with the same innings stipulation? An initial run of the query explained that almost all of the leaders in this area did so in past eras. Further restricting the sample to seasons in the wild-card era, a four-way tie for first place emerges between Chris Carpenter’s 2009, Clayton Kershaw’s 2009, Pedro Martinez’s 2003, and Andy Pettitte’s 1997. All four of those pitchers allowed a mere seven home runs over the course of the season; however, none of them are anywhere near Lee’s walk rate. Nobody in the wild-card era who has pitched as much as Lee will and gone on to finish the year with fewer than 20 walks and fewer than 20 home runs.
Then again, these are raw totals, which can be rather wonky when trying to compare players or solve problems like this due to playing time. A pitcher with 50 walks in 250 innings has more raw walks than one with 30 walks in 130 innings, but the rate of the former is likely to be superior.
With that in mind, let’s rephrase the question: Has anyone ever finished a season with a walk rate (BB/PA) and home-run rate (HR/PA) in the same vicinity of Lee’s? To answer, we must first determine Lee’s rates. Since he has allowed both nine home runs and walks, and faced 572 batters, his rates are each .016. Here are the lowest walk rates and home-run rates since 1974:
Suffice to say, nobody shows up in prominent spots on both leaderboards during the same season. Greg Maddux shows up on both, but with different seasons; his 1997 had the fifth-best walk rate, while his 1994 produced the sixth-best home-run rate. We don’t know where Lee will finish the season, but this could potentially be yet another feather in his cap. Then again, there is one other instance of a pitcher producing walk and home-run rates south of 2 percent in the same season: Bret Saberhagen in 1994. Lee could become the second pitcher in the last four decades to achieve this feat, which is less romantic than being the only one, but remarkable nevertheless.
Moving on, I want to touch a little on the differences between rates and raw statistics, and between rates themselves, as I am asked questions along these lines quite frequently. Rates and raw tallies are the two basic building blocks of baseball statistics. When asked Lee's penchant for giving up home runs, we can answer with nine, which is the literal amount of balls that have left the yard, or .016, which is the rate at which batters he faces hit home runs. Both have their place and neither is technically wrong. What matters is the level of accuracy. For instance, if I’m comparing a group of pitchers with between 200-210 innings pitched, raw numbers are likely fine as there won’t be much in the way of playing time issues.
If, however, I’m comparing someone with 322
But there are numerous types of rates as well, which muddies the waters a bit. The more commonly used rates are shown on a per-nine basis. K/9 or BB/9 are the most frequently quoted “offenders” and the numbers essentially attempt to tell us the raw total that would occur if the pitcher were to have thrown a complete game. See the problem there? First, we’re using a rate to give us a raw number, and it doesn’t actually tell us anything characteristic of the pitcher. Knowing a pitcher has a 7.7 K/9 is somewhat helpful, but I have no idea how that translates to batters faced, which is a more effective baseline.
Don’t believe me? There are multiple ways to skin a cat, just like per-nine rates can be arrived at in different fashions. Consider these two innings:
Both innings featured three strikeouts, meaning that, on a per-nine basis, each achieved a 27.00 K/9 for the frame. However, the first inning is obviously far worse than the second, as three runs scored and a walk was issued. The per-nine basis doesn’t care. Using percentages, the first inning has an SO/PA of .429, while the second checks in at .750. Choosing between raw tallies and rates can be a bit confusing, but choosing between the types of rates can be maddening. However, when trying to show how Cliff Lee is in the midst of a season for the books, or any other similar exercise, it’s important to use the right numbers to make the point, or else you risk not making the right point at all.