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August 3, 2012

Out of Left Field

The Four Strikeouts of Aaron Cook

by Matthew Kory

If you go to the stats page on MLB.com and look up individual pitcher stats, you will find 101 different pitchers. If you sort by K/9 the last pitcher on the list is Derek Lowe. Lowe struck out just over three hitters per nine innings pitched. Possibly not coincidentally, Cleveland cut Lowe two days ago.

There are few absolutes in baseball, but one we know for certain is this: strikeouts are very good for pitchers. Fooling hitters, missing bats, whatever you want to call it, that’s one of the foundations of a successful pitcher. Conversely, a pitcher who doesn’t generate strikeouts is at the mercy of the baseball gods and, less nebulously, his fielders. The upshot of this is things can get ugly without strikeouts.

This brings us to Aaron Cook. You won’t see Cook’s name on the above list because he doesn’t have enough innings to qualify. Which is good. If he did have enough innings, you would see his name, and you’d probably do something like this.

OK, take a good sip of that iced tea, because here it comes. Aaron Cook’s strikeout rate is 0.81. Yes, Aaron Cook strikes out less than one batter per nine innings. If he threw three complete games he would strike out about two hitters combined. That means in one of those hypothetical complete games he would not strike out any hitters. If you threw a complete game you would also not strike out any hitters. You and Aaron Cook are twins!

When Cook starts a game he doesn’t usually throw nine innings. He usually throws much fewer than nine innings for reasons that are probably obvious. Aaron Cook has started eight games for the Red Sox and he has failed to strike out a hitter in five of them. “Ah ha!” you say. “How is that mathematically possible?!” Because he struck out two in one game. Sheesh. Relax already.

Cook’s first start this season came on May 5 against the Orioles. He was spiked in the first inning covering home plate and pitched the rest of his 2 2/3 innings with his shin looking like Beaker’s mouth from the Muppets.

Needless to say, but as you can see not needless enough to avoid writing, the start didn’t go well. In Cook’s next start he threw five strikeoutless innings against Atlanta. He did reach two strikes on nine of the 21 batters he faced though, which, for a major league pitcher is… well, nothing. Nothing at all.

Cook’s first strikeout of the season didn’t come until the third inning of his third start, exactly 10 innings into his season. This was the start that, even had it not come against the Seattle Mariners, would have been known as The Seattle Mariners Start. Cook’s line was nine innings pitched, two hits, two strikeouts. That’s it. No runs, no walks, no hit-by-pitch, no nothing. Cook faced 28 batters and 26 put the ball in play against him. 24 of those were outs. He threw 81 pitches and the Mariners swung and missed at none of them. This would be the pinnacle of Aaron Cook’s 2012 season.

The First Strikeout

The Victim: Chone Figgins

The Inning: Third

Pitcher’s Inner Monologue: “Oooo yeeeeeeah… Look’n smoove.”

Batter’s Inner Monologue: “Should I be here? Did I leave the stove on? Where are my keys??”

Also Worth Seeing: Lady directly over Figgins’ head. She is wearing a bright green shirt and bright green pants. She is the Green Lantern.

I know I’m supposed to be a professional writer but it’s hard to build up suspense in a Chone Figgins v. Aaron Cook match-up, and even more difficult if you already know the outcome. I’ll try though… OK, here goes: Figgins took a sinker for a ball, one for a strike, then fouled two pitches off, the second being a curve. Cook throws his curveball almost never. He’s mixed 55 of them into the 600-plus pitches he’s thrown this season. It’s a, “I can’t believe it’s not another sinker” pitch. Like Vicente Padilla’s eephus pitch but classier and less sweaty. Because he’s Chone Figgins, Figgins fouled it off. Then came one of the four best pitches Aaron Cook has thrown this year.

Bam! You can see the downward movement on the pitch. Figgins flinches as if it’s some sort of forkball with left-to-right movement. The pitch did have some horizontal movement, but not much different than any of the other pitches Figgins saw outside of the curve. So, to sum up, if batters can manage to swing at it, they’re almost assured of at least making contact. Chone Figgins solved that problem by not swinging. Chone Figgins: Problem Solver, Strikeout Victim #1.

The Second Strikeout

The Victim: Jesus Montero

The Inning: Fifth

Pitcher’s Inner Monologue: “Oooo yeeeeeeah… Look’n smoove.”

Batter’s Inner Monologue: “Gonna homer, gonna homer, gonna homawwww…”

Also Worth Seeing: Cook’s head turn immediately after the call. He’s been there before, ladies. Been. There. Before.

This is, perhaps, the worst at-bat in modern baseball history. There is nothing wrong with taking pitches. Pitch taking is encouraged, but Montero is facing a pitcher who, in the fifth inning, has thrown eight balls. He should be looking for pitches in the zone*. He wasn’t. Yes, after taking the first sinker for a strike, he did foul off a second sinker, but that was, as you can see below, well inside.

* I almost edited out that last sentence, but I left it in there just in case Jesus Montero ever reads this.

Then, and this is really what sets this at-bat apart, he took a third sinker over the plate for strike three.

See? So far with 50 percent of our data collected, we can conclude that, for an Aaron Cook strikeout to take place you must have the following two factors:

1. A bad hitter

2. No plan whatsoever

And now two strikeouts in, we must jump ahead in time because, after all, this is an article about Aaron Cook and strikeouts, which is like an article about important wins by the Houston Astros. You have to jump around a little bit. In this case we have to go forward three weeks, which in Aaron Cook time is three starts and 19 innings later.

The Third Strikeout

The Victim: Anthony Gose

The Inning: Third

Pitcher’s Inner Monologue: “Oooo yeeeeeeah… Look’n smoove.”

Batter’s Inner Monologue: “I bet I can hit this guy with my eyes closed… Aww, shucks!”

Also (Not) Worth Seeing: Irritating on-the-cell phone guy, upper left of the screen. Somehow he knows where the camera’s frame is and he sneaks into it. Then he does something with his hand. What is he doing with his hand?

Gose was called up to replace the injured Jose Bautista. Gose is not Jose Bautista. Gose is fast, really fast, but even Anthony Gose can’t steal first base. Looking at his stolen base percentage it seems he can’t steal second either. But I digress.

In this at-bat, Gose wasn’t prepared for the ferociousness, the sheer violence of an Aaron Cook sinker. He took the first for a strike, at which point he became prepared. He fouled the second off, and then, knowing he had the weak and defenseless Cook exactly where he wanted him, this happened:

See? That’s the thing about facing Aaron Cook. You think, “OK, I’ve seen two pitches and they’ve both been sinkers. No way he throws another sinker here.” But he does. It’s like playing rock-paper-scissors with someone who only chooses rock. You keep thinking, one of these times he’s going to switch to paper and when he does I’m CUT’N HIS BUTT! But he never does. Gose went scissors. Gose got stomped.

In his very next start, Cook faced the Yankees. Cook was on a one game strikeout streak and wasn’t about to let Andruw Jones stand in the way of what everyone at this point was calling The Streak*.

* That’s not taken, right?

The Fourth Strikeout

The Victim: Andruw Jones

The Inning: Third

Pitcher’s Inner Monologue: “Oooo yeeeeeeah… Look’n smoove.”

Batter’s Inner Monologue: “I’m gonna crush this one into the upper oh well rainbow sprinkle brownie time.”

Also Worth Seeing (1): Man in yellow, front row, third from the far right. He looks straight into the camera during the whole play. As soon as it’s finished he looks where the play was.

Also Worth Seeing (2): Lady in first row, far left. Spends entire GIF fixing her hair. If you just watch her, as I’ve been doing now for about 15 minutes, it looks like she’s been fixing her hair for about 15 minutes.

Andruw Jones came to bat with his Yankees up 4-2 and runners on first and second. Jones followed what we’ll call The Anthony Gose Plan. He took strike one (a sinker), fouled off strike two (a sinker) and then swung through strike three (guess).

The Red Sox got creamed in this one, 10-3, but that doesn’t downplay Cook’s Cook-on-Jones savagery in the third inning. In fact, three of his four strikeouts have come in the third inning. That’s [bad abacus joke] 75 percent of all his strikeouts! Savagery!

Aaron Cook has thrown 622 pitches this season. Batters have swung and missed at 17 of them. It’s tough to survive in the modern game when you can’t strike anyone out, let alone when hitters swing and miss at less than 3 percent of your pitches. Derek Lowe’s strikeout numbers were more than three times Aaron Cook’s and now Lowe is out of a job. Don’t be surprised if Cook is next. 

This article has been updated. An earlier version referred to incomplete swinging strike numbers for Cook this season.

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

Related Content:  Derek Lowe,  Aaron Cook,  Strikeout Rate

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