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May 23, 2012

Overthinking It

Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer are Striking Out Everyone

by Ben Lindbergh

Strikeouts are up this season. That, in itself is nothing new: strikeouts have been up in many seasons—most seasons, even—since the dead ball disappeared. The explanations have multiplied almost as quickly as the Ks. The mound is higher. The strike zone is bigger. Hitters are swinging for the fences. Pitchers are increasingly specialized, and they throw pitches they didn’t use to throw, and they throw the ones that they used to throw harder than they used to throw them. Also, Jose Molina keeps tricking umpires into seeing strikes that aren’t there.

Those are all valid theories, and more than one of them, if not all of them, probably contain some truth. But to that long list of culprits behind baseball’s increasing lack of contact, I’d like to add two more: Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer.

Strikeouts are up this season, but they’re especially up when Scherzer and Gonzalez pitch. On Sunday afternoon, Max Scherzer struck out 15 batters in seven innings. On Monday night, Gio Gonzalez struck out nine batters in six innings. Scherzer (11.7) and Gonzalez (11.4) are the only two starters who’ve struck out over 11 batters per nine innings in 2012. Only five pitchers have ever qualified for an ERA title with a K/9 at least as high as 11.4: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Kerry Wood, Nolan Ryan, and Dwight Gooden. Neither Gonzalez nor Scherzer is likely to become the sixth, but through the first three weeks of May, they’ve been among baseball’s best at missing bats.

It isn’t much easier to explain why these particular two pitchers are striking out more batters than it is to explain the lack of contact across the league. Both Gonzalez and Scherzer are known for having fairly filthy stuff, but neither struck out even a batter per inning in either of the last two seasons. Neither has suddenly started throwing a lot harder, or picked up a new pitch, or abandoned an old one. One has an ERA under 2.00, and the other has an ERA of almost 6.00. Not much of the information in the preceding three sentences seems to make sense. The rest of this article is my attempt to find some sense in it anyway.

Gio Gonzalez
So far, Gonzalez going from the AL to the NL has worked something like Superman going from Krypton to Earth. Last winter, knowing that the A’s odds of survival were slim and the Coliseum’s days were numbered, Billy Beane sent Gonzalez away in search of a new existence in the DC Universe.  Outwardly, Gonzalez is still the same mild-mannered pitcher he was in Oakland’s atmosphere. But as soon as he escaped his doomed former ballpark, he began to display previously unsuspected powers. If phone booths still existed, he’d be using one to change into his uniform.

Most pitchers enjoy a statistical boost when they switch from the AL to the NL, since the competition is slightly weaker and they don’t have to face the DH. The typical pitcher strikes out batters about 5 percent more often when he makes the switch. Gio has struck out batters almost 40 percent more often, and the gain is still sizeable even if you exclude his plate appearances against pitchers and account for the fact that he's faced the eighth-weakest opposing batters of any NL starter with at least 40 innings. His average velocity isn’t up much, and his overall pitch distribution isn’t dramatically different. So what is?

The key to Gio’s increased K rate could be his pitch selection with two strikes, especially against right-handed hitters. Here’s how his two-strike pitches to righties have broken down from 2011 to 2012, courtesy of Harry Pavlidis:

Year

Type

#

%

Up and Over

%

2011

Change

22

3%

2

9.1%

2011

Curve

361

43%

21

5.8%

2011

Fastball

373

45%

188

50.4%

2011

Sinker

81

10%

18

22.2%

2011

ALL

837

100%

229

27.4%

2012

Change

28

12%

0

0.0%

2012

Curve

74

31%

8

10.8%

2012

Fastball

119

51%

73

61.3%

2012

Sinker

14

6%

4

28.6%

2012

ALL

235

100%

85

36.2%

Gonzalez has already thrown more changeups to righties with two strikes this season than he did in all of 2011, and he’s kept them all out of the top part of the zone. But the smoking guns here are the two bold numbers all the way to the right. Gio is elevating slightly more often overall against righties, but the change has been especially pronounced with two strikes, when he’s thrown 36 percent of his pitches in the upper third of the zone or above, compared to 27 percent last season. Most of that increase can be traced to his four-seam fastball, which he’s elevated 61 percent of the time, up from 50 percent last season. Why does that matter? As Dave Allen discovered when he researched the relationship between four-seam fastball height and strikeouts, “the overwhelming trend within the strike zone is for whiff rate to increase with vertical location.” Gio is throwing his four-seamer higher when hitters are at their most vulnerable, and as a result, more Ks are coming.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in practice, from Gio’s most recent start. Carlos Ruiz is at the plate with a 3-2 count, and even though he probably knows it’s coming, he can’t catch up to an elevated 94 mph four-seamer.

Against Gonzalez, with two strikes, right-handed batters this season are striking out more 56 percent of the time and hitting .056/.143/.090. Not only is that .233 OPS lower than any other lefty starter’s with two strikes against righties, it’s lower than any righty starter’s with two strikes against righties. Most righties facing Gonzalez haven’t thrown their bats into the stands and walked slowly back to the dugout, but they might as well have. If they’d all done that before the pitch, they wouldn’t have hit much worse.

If there were no downside to throwing higher in the zone, everyone would do it. Of course, there is: those additional Ks usually come at the cost of more flies and fewer grounders. So far, Gio has gotten more pop-ups (which are almost as good as strikeouts), but he hasn’t given up more outfield flies, and he’s allowed only one home run in 54 2/3 innings. Eventually, he’s going to give up some homers, and his BABIP won’t be .250, and his ERA won’t be under 2.00. But his strikeout boost looks at least somewhat sustainable, and his formerly flagrant walk rate is edging into respectable territory after falling for a fourth straight season. Gonzalez is signed through 2016 with a team option for 2017, which gives the Nats several seasons to come up with a better nickname than “the Motown Kid” while enjoying his success.

Max Scherzer
In baseball, the rarest accomplishments aren’t always the most impressive, or the most predictive of future success. Since 1900, 14 batters have hit four home runs in a single game. Most of the players who’ve done it, like Josh Hamilton, were very good at hitting home runs. But not all of them. Sept. 7, 1993 aside, Mark Whiten wasn’t really all that hard-hittin’. Pat Seerey hit four homers in one game and only 82 in all of his others.

Only 19 perfect games have been pitched since 1900. Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, and Sandy Koufax have pitched perfect games. So have Phil Humber, Dallas Braden, and Tom Browning. What Max Scherzer did on Sunday wasn’t quite as rare as a perfect game or a four-homer game—there have been many more starts of at least 15 strikeouts and no more than one walk than there have been perfect games and four-homer games combined. A perfect game sounds like something that can’t be improved upon—it says so right there in the name—but I’d argue that Scherzer’s outing was more impressive than most perfectos. 

A game of at least 15 strikeouts and no more than one walk could, and probably should, be called a “Randy Johnson.” Randy Johnson pitched 11 Randy Johnsons, which is the most Randy Johnsons anyone has pitched. There have been only 68 Randy Johnsons pitched by pitchers other than Randy Johnson. Very, very few of those 68 were pitched by someone like Tom Browning, because it’s tough to fluke into 15 strikeouts. Credit for a perfect game is often due almost as much to a team’s defense as it is to its pitcher, but a Randy Johnson is a largely defense-independent achievement.

The way Scherzer collected his Ks on Sunday made his outing even more unusual. All of Scherzer’s strikeouts were swinging. Swinging strikeouts aren't necessarily the only impressive ones—when Johnson struck out 19 A's in a game in 1997, no one thought, "Yeah, but six of them were ​called​." They aren’t necessarily more indicative of skill than the called kind, either. However, they are less dependent on favorable frames and generous calls, so they're the last word in defense independence. Only Johnson, Johan Santana, and David Cone have struck out 15 batters swinging in a start with no more than one walk.

Granted, Scherzer’s historic start came against the Pirates, a team that’s been asking opposing pitchers to do something historic all season. Justin Verlander nearly no-hit Pittsburgh in the same series, and R.A. Dickey struck out 11 Pirates on Tuesday night. But Scherzer was striking out well over 10 batters per nine before that start, so he’s not a one-start wonder. Like Gonzalez, his velocity isn’t up by much since last season, and his overall pitch distribution has barely budged. Let’s go back to the two-strike breakdown.

Scherzer has relied on his fastball with two strikes much less often in his last two seasons than he did during his first two.

Year

2 Str. FB%

2009

72.7

2010

60.7

2011

55.4

2012

55.7

Increased trust in his secondary stuff and a greater willingness to use it to put hitters away has turned some two-strike fouls into whiffs…

Year

Foul %

Whiff %

2009

45.3

19.7

2010

42.8

22.1

2011

38.2

21.7

2012

37.4

29.7

…and much of that big whiff boost this season can be traced to his changeup.

Year

CH Whiff %

2009

23.2

2010

28.1

2011

25.1

2012

34.2

That only answers part of the question, though. Scherzer is getting more Ks because he’s using pitches that tend to miss more bats when he’s a strike away from a strikeout, and those pitchers are less hittable than they used to be. But why are they less hittable? In Scherzer’s case, the explanation could be partly mechanical.

Scherzer has struggled to repeat his mechanics before, most notably in 2010, when he spent some time in Toledo. Earlier this season, he fell back into bad habits. After Scherzer’s seven-walk start on April 29 of this season, Jim Leyland made him watch tape to see what he was doing differently:

Leyland wanted Scherzer to see the “flagrant difference” the manager could see with the naked eye: A minor flaw that had the right-hander separating his hands at a far different spot in his delivery.

Scherzer picked up on what Leyland was seeing, and he corrected it quickly. Here’s a video of Scherzer explaining the change to a group of confused reporters after his successful start on Sunday.

By “break,” Scherzer means the moment when his hands separate during the delivery—as Kevin Goldstein put it to me, the point at which the “pitching arm goes back, and the glove arm goes forward.” Jason Parks clarified further: “It’s about rhythm and comfort. Breaking your hands in rhythm will keep you in the flow of the delivery and not rushing to catch up. If a pitcher breaks too late, they often rush to get the arm over and they don’t stay over the ball.”

Scherzer says he’s been concentrating on “...where do my hands travel, when they break out how low do they go? Where do they end up, where do they travel?” So, can we see a change?

We can. It’s a subtle one, as most mechanical changes are, but it’s there. Continuing my tour of people who know more about mechanics than I do, I turned to Doug Thorburn, and the two of us studied some video of Scherzer’s most recent start, his start from April 29, and a start from last September. Here’s Scherzer’s hand break from the late April start that set off Leyland’s alarms:

In this shot, Scherzer’s hands are separating just below the belt buckle. Compare that to this still from Sunday:

Now the hands are just above the belt—they’re breaking earlier. Doug estimated the difference at around three inches in height.

The earlier break has a ripple effect that puts Scherzer in a better position later in the delivery. The triptych below captures Scherzer at the initiation of trunk rotation on three different days: the still from Sunday is in the center, with the September 2011 game on the left and the April 2012 game on the right. Since Scherzer’s hands broke earlier in the May shot, he wasn’t “behind” in his delivery. (Click to enlarge.)

In Doug’s words, “look at the height/position of the throwing hand, specifically the angle of the forearm—the hand is in a higher position as he initiates trunk rotation in the center pic than either of the others.”

Doug deserves the final words on Scherzer’s mechanical changes:

Location of hand-break is really just a "feel" thing and doesn't necessarily impact any of the critical elements in the kinetic chain. Timing of hand-break can have an effect, though, as a pitcher who breaks early will sometimes show a premature trigger further down the chain, especially with early trunk rotation. Late hand-break can have the opposite effect (late trunk rotation). So, even though hand-break location is not a direct determinant of timing, they are linked, and if a pitcher needs to tell himself something like “higher hands at break” to see a ripple effect down the kinetic chain, then I'm all for it.

I remember Matt Williams used to tug at his front shoulder with his chin as a reminder to keep his hands back and up without opening up too early. I would consider this to be Scherzer's version of Williams' chin-dance, and most of Scherzer's past mechanical issues had been timing related, so there is potential link there. Scherzer has always been a late-breaker with the hands, waiting until just before foot strike to separate ball from glove—he basically goes straight from hand-break to trunk rotation—so again there is a smoking gun, in the sense that his trunk rotation timing is more dependent on hand-break timing than other pitchers.

Now, let’s look at the changes in action.

Here’s a five-pitch sequence from Derek Jeter’s first-inning plate appearance against Scherzer on April 29. Scherzer misses his target on four of the five:

And here’s a four-pitch sequence from Andrew McCutchen’s first-inning plate appearance against Scherzer on May 20. Scherzer goes 4-for-4 in hitting Alex Avila's glove:

Sometimes, explanations that attribute a significant change in performance to a minor change in approach are too easy, and sometimes they look a lot less compelling after a single bad start. Obviously, Scherzer didn’t miss all his spots in April, he hasn’t hit all his spots in May, and he won’t hit all his spots over the rest of the season. But if he’s hitting them more often now, he’s a better bet to miss bats: his K/9 in his four starts since the mechanical tweak is 13.3, compared to 10.0 in five starts before. Command and control don't always go hand in hand, but in Scherzer's case, they have. His walk rate in those last four starts is over half of what it was to start the season.

We called Scherzer “a great bet for a breakout this year” in BP2012, which doesn’t look particularly prescient on the surface, in light of his 5.73 ERA. But Scherzer’s ERA-FIP of 1.95 is the largest of any AL pitcher with at least 45 innings (.400 BABIPs will do that), so whether or not we look stupid now, we might look pretty smart soon. The ERA is a work in progress, but the bat-missing breakout looks like it’s already here.
 

Bradley Ankrom, Max Marchi, Rob McQuown, Harry Pavlidis, and Doug Thorburn provided research assistance for this story.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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