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May 16, 2003

Prospectus Today

Friday Fun

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm heading to Phoenix today for an impromptu gathering of BP staffers at Bank One Ballpark. It'll be my first ballgame there--I did eat dinner at the TGI Friday's in the park last year--and I'll be taking it in with Rany Jazayerli, Jonah Keri and Jonah's lovely wife, Angele. The BOB becomes my first new ballpark since I hit Fenway last June, and I'm fairly excited. I'll be more excited if Byung-Hyun Kim comes off the DL and throws well, as my roto team needs him to get healthy fast. (ed note: sorry Joe, looks like Miguel Batista or Andrew Good will more likely get the start tonight)

There are cabs to be caught and sheer terror to be had--I'm not a good flier--but before that happens, I wanted to throw out one question:

What the hell is up with Nate Cornejo?

Cornejo, who will start Saturday for the Tigers against the Mariners, has been their best starter with a 2.66 ERA. However, he's done so with a freakishly low seven strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings, one of the lowest strikeout rates in modern baseball history. Hundreds of pitchers have had seasons of at least 40 innings pitched and 2.0 or fewer K/9 since 1900, but just 60 have done so since World War II, and none since Hilly Hathaway in 1993 (11 whiffs in 57 1/3 innings).

Noting that Cornejo isn't done with his season yet, there are kinds of freak-show lists his performance inspires. In modern baseball, it's almost unheard of for a pitcher to throw 40 innings without striking out ten men. Just 14 pitchers have managed it since WWII, the last Glenn Abbott in 1984 (eight whiffs in 44 innings). Of that group, Cornejo's 2.66 ERA is bested by just one pitcher, Ken Sanders, who has a 2.30 ERA in 1975 (43 IP, eight strikeouts).

The combination of effectiveness and low strikeout rate is what makes Cornejo fun. Since World War II, only 76 pitchers have had both an ERA and a strikeout rate under 3.00, and it's even more rare than that these days. Since 1980:


Pitcher                  YEAR     ERA   SO/9 IP       IP
--------------------------------------------------------
Dan Quisenberry          1981     1.73     2.89     62.1
Rick Camp                1980     1.91     2.74    108.1
Terry Leach              1992     1.95     2.69     73.2
John Kiely               1992     2.13     2.95     55.0
Doug Sisk                1983     2.24     2.85    104.1
Mike Proly               1982     2.30     2.63     82.0
Bill Swift               1990     2.39     2.95    128.0
Dennis Rasmussen         1992     2.53     2.53     42.2
Steve Comer              1981     2.56     2.56     77.1
Dave Gumpert             1983     2.64     2.84     44.1
Dan Quisenberry          1984     2.64     2.85    129.1
Dave Von Ohlen           1985     2.91     2.49     43.1
Mark Thurmond            1984     2.97     2.87    178.2

(All statistics courtesy Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.)

Cornejo has been keeping runs off the board despite not getting strikeouts because he's avoiding the walk (12 in 40 2/3 innings) and the home run (just four dingers allowed). He has been unusually successful with runners on base and in scoring position:


                 AB     AVG   OBP   SLG
None on          82    .329  .396  .524
Runners on       72    .208  .234  .292
RISP             37    .162  .179  .189

The gain is largely in slugging: Cornejo has allowed 10 of the 13 extra-base hits he's given up with no one on base. He hadn't shown a particular skill in this area before, and since his effectiveness from the stretch flies in the face of what we know about pitching, it's fair to be skeptical about whether this is a newfound skill, or a small-sample fluke.

The funny thing is, this is the second time in three years we've had this type of discussion about a Tigers pitcher. Back in 2001, Danny Patterson opened the season with three strikeouts in 16 2/3 innings, inspiring a great Doctoring the Numbers column by Rany Jazayerli. Patterson would bump his K rate up to 3.78 per nine before the year was over.

Right now, Cornejo is just a fun Friday topic. If he can continue to keep runs off the board, it'll be time to take a closer look at what he's doing.

One last thing: A number of people asked why I left Carlton Fisk out of yesterday's catchers piece. There was no malice involved; I didn't want to go too far below Mike Piazza's 1,316 games caught lest I skew the discussion towards catchers who didn't carry his workload. Stopping at 1,250 left a round number of 30 catchers, all of whom were within 70 innings of Piazza. Going further down, there were a lot of catchers in the 1,200-1,250 range, another reason for cutting it off at 1,250.

Fisk, of course, had a very successful career after the age of 34, and was arguably the best catcher in the AL in the 1980s. He only began to fade at 43; his .285/.378/.451 in 1990 at age 42 is one of the great old-player seasons in the game's history.

If you consider Fisk a comp for Piazza--which isn't unreasonable--he joins Gabby Hartnett as the best-case scenario for Piazza if the Met stays behind the plate.

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

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