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December 1, 1997

The Legend of Jim Barr

and how he relates to Brian Anderson

by Steven Rubio

The Giants recently traded for Robb Nen, putting to rest the rumors that Julian Tavarez would have to be the team's closer in 1998. Nen struck out 81 batters in 74 innings last season, and has struck out more than a batter per inning throughout his major-league career.

The alternative, Julian Tavarez, is three years younger than Nen, and struck out 38 batters last year in 88.1 innings. Bluntly, that's not a very good ratio of K to IP.

Why should this matter, and what does it tell us about Arizona's #1 draft pick, Brian Anderson? Strikeouts per se aren't important; they're only minutely better than other outs, at the most. But what they indicate about a pitcher is always important. A pitcher who can strike out a high rate of batters is capable of dominating those hitters. Now, if he also walks a zillion guys, or he gives up a million homers, or he just stinks period, then it doesn't matter how many he strikes out. But it indicates the potential for domination because he can consistently fool a good number of major league batters.

It's very hard for a pitcher to be successful without striking out a decent number of batters. Pitchers who go 14-5 one season but don't strike out many batters are often the ones who have "disappointing" seasons the next year. Maybe the strikeouts measure "potential for dominance" or something. To be honest, I don't really know, but we do know that they correlate nicely with future success.

This might not seem obvious at first, because great pitchers who don't strike out tons of guys still strike out more hitters than we think. Greg Maddux doesn't strike out lots of guys compared to studs like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson, for instance, and we know what a brilliant finesse pitcher he can be, so we tend to think of him as something other than a "power pitcher." But Maddux, now in his 30s, still struck out 6.8 batters per 9 innings last year. When you think of Greg Maddux, you should think of a pitcher who gets people out, not merely a guy who throws puffballs with perfect placement, living off of his defense. Obviously, Greg Maddux is not an example of a low-strikeout pitcher who is nonetheless successful.

Eventually a pitcher begins to age and their K/IP ratios start to drop. And here's why a young pitcher with a low K/IP is unlikely to have a long career. Because if you start out striking out a batter an inning, when you get old you'll still strike out 7 per 9 innings, and you can still dominate at that level. But if you start out at 5-per-9, when you fade, you'll be down to 3-per-9 innings, and there just aren't any guys out there who can be consistently successful while striking out 3 guys per 9 innings. So the pitchers who will have the longest careers, all else being equal, are the power pitchers (which we identify partly by their number of strikeouts). The other guys are already walking a tightrope, one that power pitchers won't walk until later in their career. When the power pitcher is 30, he'll have to learn how to pitch differently, but when the other guys are 30, they'll be out of the league. They don't have the margin for error that the power pitchers have.

That is, Julian Tavarez is unlikely to have a long career unless there's some reason we haven't thought of for why he throws so hard (power pitcher) but strikes out so few (not a power pitcher).

Giants fans are often reminded of the career of Jim Barr, who is supposed to be a counter-example to the above argument. Barr didn't strike anyone out but he had a nice long career. How do you explain that?

Well, Barr makes my point: he was a fine, even masterful, pitcher with great control whose career lasted *only* 12 seasons because once the fade started, he had nothing to fall back on. Through 1976, Barr had gone 62-63 with fine ERAs (three times under 3.00) for some bad teams. Entering the 1977 season he was 29 years old, coming off a 15-12 2.89 season. His control was so good he'd led the NL in BB/IP once. He had that record ... what was it, consecutive batters retired? This was a guy who you'd think was a fine pitcher.

His K/9 in 1976: 2.7. His record in 1977: 12-16 4.77.

He stuck around five more seasons without much success. If we'd thought about baseball in 1977 the way we think about baseball in 1997, we would have looked at that K/9 and said "this guy has gotten pretty much everything he can out of his abilities, he's a prime candidate for a fall." We didn't think that way then, but we do now.

What does this have to do with the Arizona Diamondbacks? Young lefty Brian Anderson struck out 22 batters in 48 innings last year. He has made 58 major-league appearances so far, 53 as a starter, and his K/IP ratios have been very consistent:
    1993: 3.2 (11.1 innings)
    1994: 4.2 (101.2 innings)
    1995: 4.1 (99.2 innings)
    1996: 3.7 (51.1 innings)
    1997: 4.1 (48 innings)
Very consistent, and not very good. If Jim Barr is any indication, by the time the Diamondbacks are good enough to contend (let's be optimistic and say three years), Brian Anderson will be doing mop-up chores out of the bullpen. Which is why you can count me as one person who thinks Tony Saunders (8.2 K/9 last year) makes a better #1 pick than Brian Anderson.
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MORE BY STEVEN RUBIO
1998-02-25 - Abstract Progress: Rebuttal and Reply
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1997-12-01 - The Legend of Jim Barr
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