July 19, 2012
In A Pickle
This is Your Fife
On Tuesday, Stephen Fife (whose nickname is clearly "Dawg" and I will brook no argument on this point) made his major-league debut and did one of those things you're not really supposed to do in baseball, which was throw six innings and allow just one run while striking out exactly one batter. (The one batter was Jimmy Rollins, who will make $22 million over the next two years and has a vesting option for 2015.) Fife, clearly a believer in equality and fairness, created the same number of strikeouts at the plate as he did whilst on the mound.
There are a variety of ways we can slice this to show the context of what Fife did. He threw the 52nd quality start (using three runs, not earned runs, as the cutoff) this season with at most one strikeout. Derek Lowe's done it *six* times. Restrict things to one run allowed or fewer, as Fife managed, and you're down to 17 occurrences this year, which is not a ton but is still a handful every month.
That's, honestly, more than I thought there would be before I started doing research. But what about the fact that this was Fife's first big-league game? How often has someone's debut been an almost all-contact quality start? Answer: Eighty-five times since 1918, which is a little bit less than one per year. This isn't a relic of a bygone era, either. The last five pitchers to accomplish this prior to Fife are Lucas Harrell (2010), Luis Atilano (same), Vin Mazzaro (2009), Matt Harrison (2008), and Jesse Litsch (2007). Harrison has become a good pitcher, keeping his walks and homers low in trade for not striking very many batters out, but the rest of that list is not inspiring.
Then again, Mike Mussina debuted with 7 2/3 innings of one-strikeout, one-run ball back in 1991 (throwing 129 pitches in the process—baseball!), and Mussina wound up just shy of 60 WARP, a mark that places him between Curt Schilling and Tom Glavine on the all-time WARP leaderboard for pitchers. (It's a total that's closer to Bob Gibson's than you might have guessed, by the way. Do note, though, that our WARP goes back only to 1950.) Of course, Mussina was Baseball America's number-19 prospect in all of baseball prior to 1991 while Fife did not rate a mention in either this year's version of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook or Kevin Goldstein's Top 20 for the Dodgers. Indeed, the man has been written about in these pages only in connection with his inclusion in last year's weird three-way Erik Bedard deal in which Trayvon Robinson somehow ended up in Seattle. The words written about Fife were neither inspiring nor depressing. Here's Goldstein:
A third-round pick in 2008, Fife has moved slowly through the system, and has lowered his ERA by more than a run this year (it's at 3.66) while repeating Double-A. He throws an average-velocity fastball with a bit of sink, and displays a solid curveball/change combination while commanding everything well. There aren't any dings against him, but there is nothing to be excited about, either. He projects as a middle reliever.
Do you need other reasons why Fife is not Mussina? The National League's strikeouts-per-nine this year is 7.7. The 1991 American League sat at 5.7. It was a lot more reasonable for a starting pitcher to strike out one batter in 1991 than it is now.
Granted, before you go looking stuff up, because that's what you do (you're Baseball Prospectus readers, after all), that gap in league rates doesn't tell the whole story. Because of Mussina's additional inning and two-thirds pitched, he wound up at about 21 percent of league average while Fife stands at 19 percent. Or, on a per-plate-appearance basis: Mussina struck out one of 30 (3 percent) compared to a 15 percent league rate, while Fife whiffed one of 24 (4 percent) compared to a 20 percent league rate.