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September 3, 2009

Changing Speeds

No Contact Allowed

by Ken Funck

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Unless you're a Cubs fan looking for a on-two-three ninth inning, it's hard to beat Carlos Marmol for sheer baseball entertainment. Chicago's current closer is nothing short of a spectacle, as he delivers to the plate, arms and legs flailing like he's some sort of marionette. Marmol's wicked fastball/slider combination is frequently unhittable and often uncontrollable, with significant late movement that often fools hitters, catchers, and umpires alike. When he has command of his fastball and throws his slider for strikes, he can be completely dominant... and even when he can't, he's still difficult to hit. But this season Marmol's act has too frequently devolved into an uncanny Nuke LaLoosh impression.

Through Wednesday's action, Marmol has unintentionally walked 19 percent of the batters he's faced, the highest percentage for any pitcher with 60-plus innings in a season since Bobby Witt in 1987 (all percentages here exclude any batters who were intentionally walked). He's also hit four percent of opposing batters with his frequently errant pitches-easily beating out Bob Wells of the 2001 Twins for the highest plunkage rate of the last half-century. Thus approximately 23 percent of batters that have faced Marmol this year have reached base without a hit-also the highest rate since intentional walks were first recorded in 1955.

On the other side of the ledger, Marmol's strikeout rate is almost 27 percent, while allowing hits to only 12 percent of batters he's faced-a mark bettered in this century only by noted Frisbee-tosser Jeff Nelson in 2001, and also by Marmol himself last year. Add it all up, and between the strikeouts and free passes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent of batters facing Marmol never hit a ball into fair territory.

All of which got me to wondering how Marmol ranks in recent history in terms of avoiding contact, and which recent pitchers allow the most contact. To check this, I looked at each season of the Retrosheet-era (1954 and later) and calculated each pitcher's "Contact Percentage" using this formula:

                   (Unintentional Walks + Strikeouts + Hit By Pitch)
               1 -  -----------------------------------------------
                      (Plate Appearances - Intentional Walks)

This is essentially the percentage of times that a batter makes fair contact (including home runs) when facing a given pitcher. While Marmol's 2009 numbers are definitely notable, they only rank seventh on the Retrosheet-era list:


Low Contact Leaders, 1955-2009
                                        Contact  Non-IBB
Rk  Year  Team          Pitcher            %       PA    UIBB    SO  HBP
 1  1999  Mets          Armando Benitez  46.4     308     37    128   0
 2  2003  Dodgers       Eric Gagné       48.0     304     18    137   3
 3  2004  Astros        Brad Lidge       48.4     364     25    157   6
 4  1999  Astros        Billy Wagner     48.4     285     22    124   1
 5  2000  Diamondbacks  Byung-Hyun Kim   48.9     315     41    111   9
 6  2001  Mariners      Jeff Nelson      49.6     272     43     88   6
 7  2009  Cubs          Carlos Marmol    50.0     282     54     76  11
...
12  2009  Royals        Robinson Tejeda  52.5     181     28     55   3

Off the top of my head I would have guessed that Gagné's breathtaking 2003 numbers would have topped the list; his strikeout percentage that year is in fact the clubhouse leader. But the higher walk rate of Armando Benitez makes him the surprise winner, ahead of Gagné and the two former Astros closers. I'm happy to see Byung-Hyun Kim on this list, since his submarine slider was one of the most entertaining (and, at least for a while, most effective) deliveries of the last decade. The 2009 leader over in the American League (minimum 40 IP) is Robinson Tejeda, who in true Royals fashion has managed an ERA over 4.00 while allowing opponents a mere .236 slugging percentage. Tejeda's walk rate is high (though not Marmol-esque), which combines with his excellent strikeout rate to surprisingly project as the 12th-most contact-shy season in the last half-century.

Bullpen specialization and the reduced stigma attached to striking out means that nearly all the top fifty seasons in contact percentage are in the early '80s or later. The only exceptions are Nolan Ryan, clocking in at 46th for his 1977 season, and two seasons of Ryne Duren, the original "Wild Thing," at 26th and 37th. Duren's 1958 rookie campaign in the Yankees' bullpen featured 43 walks and seven hit batsmen along with 87 strikeouts in 75 2/3 innings, earning the bespectacled one a trip to the All-Star Game and a second-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. As famous for his tinted coke-bottle glasses as his triple-digit fastball, Duren's schtick included vaulting over the bullpen fence when called into the game and deliberately throwing warm-up fastballs nowhere near the catcher to perpetuate the myth that he couldn't see the plate.

On the other end of the contact spectrum, no one in 2009 is setting any records for allowing contact, although a number of starters are managing good numbers with low strikeout totals. Here are the four pitchers who have allowed the highest contact percentage this season:


High Contact Leaders - 60+ IP      
                                Contact  Non-IBB
Rank Team       Player             Pct.     PA    UIBB   SO   HBP
  1  Cardinals  Joel Pineiro      84.6     708     19    84    6
  2  Twins      Nick Blackburn    84.4     730     37    75    2
  3  Twins      Glen Perkins      83.7     423     23    45    1
  4  Nationals  Craig Stammen     83.4     447     23    48    3

Nick Blackburn's sophomore year is a perfect match for his rookie season-minimal numbers of walks and strikeouts, plenty of innings, and an invitation to join the International Brotherhood of League-Average Inning-Munchers. But Joel Pineiro's season is rather remarkable, especially in light of his recent career:


Joel Pineiro
                            UIBB     K      HR
Year  Team         IP       Rate    Rate   Rate  GB/PA  Contact %
2009  Cardinals   177.2     2.6%    11.9%  0.9%   0.54   84.1
2008  Cardinals   148.2     5.4%    12.6%  3.4%   0.40   81.7
2007  Cardinals    63.2     4.6%    15.3%  4.2%   0.38   79.8
2006  Seattle     165.2     6.8%    11.2%  3.1%   0.38   80.0
2005  Seattle     189.0     6.3%    13.0%  2.8%   0.37   79.8
2004  Seattle     140.2     7.1%    18.6%  3.5%    --    73.6
2003  Seattle     211.2     8.2%    17.0%  2.1%    --    74.1
2002  Seattle     176.1     6.5%    16.8%  3.0%    --    75.8
2001  Seattle      61.0     7.3%    19.4%  0.7%    --    72.3

Pineiro's extremely low contact percentage this year is due to the halving of his unintentional walk rate from last year, which was already low compared to his AL years, to a MLB-low 2.6 percent. But his increased success this year is due even more to a huge drop in home-run rate (to 0.9 percent, the lowest in baseball and the third lowest since 2000 for a pitcher with 100 or more innings) and a major increase in his GB/PA rate. So far this season, 54 percent of all batters facing Joel Pineiro wind up hitting a ground ball, the highest rate in baseball, and the fourth-highest mark since 2005-keeping company with worm-killers like Chien-Ming Wang, Derek Lowe, and Brandon Webb. It's not easy to score runs when you don't get walks and you don't hit home runs; just ask anyone who had to face Dan Quisenberry.

Every season is filled with stories of hurlers that learn a new pitch and find sudden success; most appear in spring training, and few live to see the dog days of summer. But Pineiro credits his success to the use of a new one-seam sinker, and the numbers seem to back that up. Dave Duncan has made his reputation on reclamation projects like Pineiro, and likely deserves some props in this instance, but if the Cardinals' pitching holds up into October at least some credit should go to Joel Pineiro's dad.

While Joel Pineiro and Carlos Marmol have the same job description-prevent runs-their approaches couldn't be more different. The enduring charm of baseball is that either approach, if correctly applied, can be equally successful-and equally entertaining.

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

Related Content:  Carlos Marmol,  Joel Pineiro

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