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June 21, 2013
The End of a Fun Fact Machine
My current favorite fun fact, a fun fact that I’ve repeated in chats, on Twitter, on Ben Lindbergh’s award-winning podcast, and now in an article, is this: In 2012, Craig Kimbrel struck out more batters on three pitches than Justin Verlander did. It’s got everything I like in a fun fact: It favorably compares a player to a more famous player; it compares his accomplishment in one context (in this case, an opportunities-based context) to an accomplishment in a much more favorable context; it uses a statistic that isn’t really a statistic so much as a description and thus has more descriptive impact than a traditional statistic; it’s not an easily dismissed small sample size; its cheats aren’t obvious, if they exist at all; and it captures not just a player but an era, the era of the ridiculous strikeout reliever. It got to the heart of the thing, which was that Craig Kimbrel was so good that you wondered whether he actually posed an existential threat to baseball itself.
Kimbrel has been awesome this year. You could take his pitching line and a time machine back to 1976 and it would look so scary to that generation that the Russians might bomb Huntsville, AL to prevent the Kimbrel from ever being developed. It’s a spectacular line! But it doesn’t take much for a Fun Fact Machine to become just a great player.
Last year, Kimbrel had eight outings of an inning or longer in which he struck out every batter he faced—twice as many such outings as any other pitcher, more than any other team’s entire bullpen. This year, he’s done it once—same as Jamey Wright and Zach Putnam. Last year, when the batter was ahead in the count, Kimbrel still held them to a .156/.426/.250 line. This year, .375/.545/.708. Last year, he struck out more than half the batters he faced. This year, he has punched out batters at the same rate—if you spot him strike one. The King of the Fun Fact is Dead. The best reliever we ever saw is, sadly, gone, after just one season. Now he’s just the best reliever of right now.
The margin that separates good players from Fun Facts is small. If you see just one pitch, Kimbrel looks like the same pitcher he was last year—fastball is just as fast, no real changes in movement on the heater or the curve. But the margin starts to get visible if we look at a few more pitches. Say, 100.
If 2012 Kimbrel and 2013 Kimbrel each throw 100 pitches, around 91 or 92 turn out exactly the same. The differences:
Last year, Kimbrel got strikes on 71 percent of his pitches, which was the second-highest rate in baseball. This year, he has gotten strikes on 64 percent of his pitches, which, depending on where you want to set the minimums, is around 175th best, same as Scott Kazmir.
And that’s basically it: About 30 fewer strikes this year than he would have thrown if he’d kept his 2012 rates; a decreased whiff rate on two-strike counts; and just like that, 15 strikeouts are missing.
Meanwhile, throwing fewer strikes means more at-bats ending with the hitter in a favorable count. This season, a third of his at-bats have ended with Kimbrel behind in the count. In 2012, a fifth did. Which, unsurprisingly, affects balls in play:
So all the way down it goes: Kimbrel throws fewer pitches in the strike zone; he gets fewer chases out of the strike zone; he gets fewer swings and misses in and out of the strike zone; he puts batters away less often when he’s ahead in the count; he strikes out fewer batters; he falls behind in the count more; he gets hit harder when he falls behind in the count; he gets hit a bit harder when the ball is in play. And he might still be the best reliever in baseball, if we’re picking teams.
On Sept. 5th last year, Kimbrel came into the eighth inning of a 1-0 game against the Rockies. He struck out four of the five batters he faced, and in doing so threw 11 fastballs in the strike zone (and 14 fastballs, total). Of the 11, two were popped foul down the right-field line by right-handers. The other nine were swung on and missed. Nine out of 11 fastballs in the strike zone whiffed on. He also got a swinging strike on a curve; to put 10 swinging strikes in 1 1/3 innings in perspective, Kimbrel’s teammate, Tim Hudson, had more than 10 swinging strikes in just three starts all season, and Hudson was good.
Look, if I were a player and I read an article complaining that I, an All-Star, a super talent performing at a spectacular level, wasn’t Fun Facty enough, I’d have a hard time ever loving anybody ever again. So don’t show this to Kimbrel. It’s not his job to make Fun Facts, and thus this isn’t an article about him so much as it’s an article about me, about us.
I was thinking about this when I read Jay Caspian King writing at Grantland about Yasiel Puig and Small Sample Size scolds, of which I am one. He wrote,
When a phrase like "small sample size" becomes ubiquitous, the logic drops out. It's no longer rational to temper anyone's enthusiasm about Yasiel Puig's ridiculous first 10 days with the shocking revelation that 10 days is just 10 days. The excitement over Puig comes directly out of what he's done in his short stay in the majors, not from his long-term projection — pointing out his inevitable regression to the mean is largely beside the point. More importantly, it's boring and needlessly depressing.
Kimbrel's season and Puig's two weeks aren't the same thing, of course. But watching Kimbrel last year—watching him on Sept. 5th—we had to know he couldn’t be that good forever. Even if he remained basically the same pitcher, the dominant and thrilling ace reliever, he couldn’t possibly keep doing things unprecedented. He would go back to doing great things that are quite precedented. Sure enough, he hasn’t had a 10-whiff game this year, or even matched the multiple seven- and six-whiff games he had last year. He’s done five whiffs in a game, twice. That’s the thing about watching the unthinkably extraordinary: Pointing out the ephemerality of it is no doggone fun, but ignoring the ephemerality of it won’t make it last any longer. We just get what we get.