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June 9, 2010

Changing Speeds

No Contact Allowed Redux

by Ken Funck

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As you may have noticed, Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut last night. While the MLB Network crew virtually doused themselves in superlatives and set themselves on fire before, during and after the broadcast, Strasburg managed to live up to the hype, earning his first win and striking out 14 batters in seven innings without allowing a walk. The interwebs are rife with tales of Strasburg’s poise, his triple-digit fastball, and the command he displayed with his four-pitch arsenal.

With so much attention deservedly focused on Big Train Junior’s coming-out party, another surprising occurrence was pretty much overlooked: Carlos Marmol, one of the most contact-averse pitchers in baseball, faced five batters last night without fanning a single one, with three of them putting the ball in play.

Over the last month, a number of media outlets have drawn attention to Marmol’s heretofore record-setting strikeout pace. The Cubs’ closer has spent the early part of the season making most of the National League look like Freddy Sanchez trying to hit a Wiffle Ball, flailing away helplessly at his improved fastball and hard-breaking slider. Through Monday night, the Cubs’ closer had punched out 51 batters in 26 1/3 innings, or 17.43 K/9. This rate would handily top the major-league record of 14.98 posted by former Dodgers closer Eric Gagne in 2003, but, of course, we’re not yet halfway through June. Here are the top 10 K/9 seasons of the Retrosheet Era, a list not surprisingly dominated by closers of recent vintage:

Player

Season

K/9

Carlos Marmol

2010

17.45

Eric Gagne

2003

14.98

Billy Wagner

1999

14.95

Brad Lidge

2004

14.93

Armando Benitez

1999

14.77

Billy Wagner

1998

14.55

Billy Wagner

1997

14.38

Byung-Hyun Kim

2000

14.14

Rob Dibble

1992

14.08

Rob Dibble

1991

13.55

Dan Plesac

2001

13.50

Marmol is currently on a record-setting pace, but what would he have to do the rest of the way to remain at the top of this list? If the Cubs’ closer matches last season’s workload by tossing 74 innings, he’ll need to strike out 124 batters to top Gagne. That would mean 73 more strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings the rest of the way, or a rate of 13.77 K/9. Last year Marmol posted a K/9 rate of 11.31, slightly above his career rate, which means he’ll have to continue to punch batters out at a rate he’s never before achieved in order to break the record. With nearly two-thirds of the season yet to be played, that’s a tall order.

When you compare their K/9 rates, it would appear that Marmol this year is considerably more proficient at racking up strikeouts than Gagne was in 2003. But appearances can be misleading. The problem with pitching metrics that use innings pitched in the denominator is that they only describe the frequency of an event with regard to the number of outs recorded, not the number of batters faced. Pitchers that allow lots of hits and walks can post misleadingly high K/9 rates without fanning a particularly high percentage of batters that they face. A better comparison is strikeout percentage, i.e., the percentage of plate appearances that end in a strikeout. Here are the top 10 seasons in strikeout percentage, calculated as (K/(PAIBB)):

Player

Season

K%

Carlos Marmol

2010

47.22%

Eric Gagne

2003

45.07%

Billy Wagner

1999

43.51%

Brad Lidge

2004

43.13%

Armando Benitez

1999

41.56%

Billy Wagner

1998

39.43%

Rob Dibble

1992

38.73%

Billy Wagner

1997

38.41%

Jonathan Broxton

2009

38.13%

Pedro Martinez

1999

37.53%

Randy Johnson

2001

37.50%

When viewed this way, Marmol is still ahead of Gagne’s pace, but not quite so significantly. Also note the presence of Pedro and The Big Eunuch (as my wife mistakenly heard him dubbed) on this list—as if we needed any more reminders of their transcendence, managing those strikeout rates over a full season of starts, especially during the turn of the century offensive explosion, is truly remarkable.

Marmol has punched out 51 of the 108 batters he’s faced this year. If we again assume Marmol pitches as much in 2010 as he did last year, he’ll face 332 batters, and to break Gagne’s mark, he’ll need to strike out 149 of them. This means the rest of the way he’ll need to whiff 98 of 224 batters, or 43.75 percent. Last year his strikeout rate was 28.01 percent, slightly below his career rate. Considering even a slight regression towards his normal levels will drop him below Gagne, Marmol isn’t likely to break this record either. Billy Wagner, Jonathan Broxton, and Matt Thornton are also currently striking out hitters at a rate that would place them in the top 10, and with higher career strikeout rates than Marmol, they seem more likely to stay there—while Strasburg has fanned 58 percent of the batters he’s faced so far in his big-league career.

With all the attention paid to Marmol’s strikeout rate, few have mentioned the one area where he has a good chance to post a truly historic season: contact percentage. Last summer, I wrote this piece about how Marmol’s 2009 season was one of the most contact-averse in history. I used the following calculation to determine the percentage of plate appearances that resulted in a ball being put in play:

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

By this metric, which I called Contact Percentage, Marmol’s 2009 season wound up placing eighth—but so far this year, he’s lapping the field:

Player

Season

Contact %

PAIBB

K

UIBB

HBP

Carlos Marmol

2010

36.11%

108

51

15

3

Armando Benitez

1999

46.43%

308

128

37

0

Ryne Duren

1960

46.49%

228

67

48

7

Eric Gagne

2003

48.03%

304

137

18

3

Brad Lidge

2004

48.35%

364

157

25

6

Billy Wagner

1999

48.42%

285

124

22

1

Byung-Hyun Kim

2000

48.89%

315

111

41

9

Jeff Nelson

2001

49.63%

272

88

43

6

Carlos Marmol

2009

49.70%

332

93

62

12

Billy Wagner

1997

50.00%

276

106

29

3

John Rocker

2000

50.20%

247

77

44

2

Last year’s article didn’t list Ryne Duren’s 1960 season at No. 2 since I used a 50-inning cutoff, and Duren only worked 49 innings that year. However, since a dash of Wild Thing adds spice to any dish, I’ve changed the cutoff to 40 innings for the list above. As you can see, Marmol’s work so far this year has him way out in front. To break the record, Marmol will need to walk, whiff or plunk 109 of 224 batters he faces the rest of the way. That would be a 51.36 percent contact rate for the rest of the year, a little higher than last year’s 49.70 percent, a little lower than his career rate of 54.47 percent.

Marmol seems far more likely to manage this feat since either walks or strikeouts count as non-contact. Despite his effectiveness so far, when you watch him pitch it’s difficult to shake the feeling that he doesn’t really know where his pitches are going any more than the hitter does. Marmol isn’t throwing significantly more strikes this year than last, and batters aren’t swinging at any more of his pitches than in the past (an NL-low 37.5 percent). However, he is throwing more first-pitch strikes, which forces hitters to take the bat off their shoulders earlier in the count and swing at his unhittable slider. If those first-pitch strikes randomly start missing the zone, batters will be able to lay off his slider and wait him out, causing his walk rate to climb, and his strikeout rate to drop. Such an occurrence would make Marmol less effective—but wouldn’t change his standing as one of the most contact-averse pitchers in baseball history.

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

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