July 22, 2010
Ringing Them Up at Wrigley
It might seem like something out of a Hollywood script or the latest iteration of your baseball video game of choice, but there's a pitcher out there who's recorded nearly two thirds of his outs via the strikeout this season. What's more, he's not Sidd Finch's younger brother, nor has he been toying with immature batters in the low minors. He's as real as you or I, and has accomplished his heroics at the highest level (well, OK, so maybe just the National League). I'm talking, of course, about Cubs closer Carlos Marmol, who boasts an incredible 16.9 K/9 through his first 45 1/3 innings of work in 2010. The breeze off of Lake Michigan may be responsible for Chicago's "Windy City" moniker, but opposing batters have been generating gale-force winds of their own with Marmol on the mound.
Marmol has faced 197 batters, and struck out an almost unfathomable 85 (43.1%). To put that into perspective, the man has walked nearly seven batters per nine, a rate that would ticket almost any other pitcher for a bus back to the bush leagues, and still sports a respectable 2.6 K/BB ratio, better than those of CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Johan Santana, to name just a few Cy Young hopefuls. No fewer than 54 pitchers have thrown at least (and in most cases, significantly more than) twice as many innings as Marmol without equaling his strikeout total; Carl Pavano has more than tripled Marmol's innings pitched total, and still fallen short of his strikeout tally.
Marmol has long been a strikeout artist, but he's never before painted a picture of quite this little contact. When the Dominican righty first appeared on the scene for a basement-bound Cubs team in 2006, his stuff marked him as a different pitcher from the one he's subsequently become. According to the BIS pitch-type data available at FanGraphs, Marmol's fastball averaged under 92 mph that season, and his average slider came in at just under 79. Perhaps indicative of a lack of confidence in his developing secondary offerings, he relied very heavily on the hard stuff, throwing it nearly 62% of the time.
In the several seasons since, Marmol abandoned his changeup, and his remaining offerings have steadily gained velocity. In addition, his slider gradually earned a more prominent place in his repertoire. Marmol added another .8 mph to his heater in 2010, and his average fastball now heads for the plate at just a hair under 95, which qualifies him for a spot among the league's fastest 15. His slider has enjoyed a gain of 1.1 mph, correlating with an increase in usage, as Marmol's pitch-type distribution now shows a 60-40 percentage split in favor of the slide piece.
Let's take a look at what a vintage 2010-era Marmol outing (in this case, a ninth-inning appearing on July 5) looks like, as portrayed by MLB Gameday:
If you're actually old-fashioned enough to want to watch the action unfold (how quaint!), feel free to do so here. Marmol sets up each batter with at least one fastball, garnering a called strike in each instance, before finishing off his adversaries with sliders. Perhaps striking out Justin Upton shouldn't be much to brag about, but notice those weak hacks on the final slider of each at-bat; in industry parlance, those pitches could only be described as "nasty". As the clip above infers, much of the difference in Marmol's usage of the slider this season has come with two strikes (again, with numbers via FanGraphs):
In 2010, Marmol's whiff rate with his slider has increased 8% (from 11.2% in 2009 to 19.2% this season), which likely stems from both the improvement in his stuff, and his newfound tendency to go to the pitch more frequently in counts that find the batter at a disadvantage. Asking whether Marmol's improved slider or increased slider usage came first may smack of a chicken-and-egg scenario, but regardless of its origin, the end result is an extremely valuable weapon.
How unusual is a run of strikeout dominance like Marmol's? When Marmol's tally rested at 82 strikeouts after 191 batters faced, I asked Colin Wyers to search for similarly contact-deprived streaks. Colin queried all stretches of 191 batters faced from 1974-2009, and identified those with the highest strikeout totals; since he informs me that this search took over 10 hours to complete, it's safe to say that many megajoules died to bring us this information:
The run of Marmol mastery that caught my eye cracks the top 10. As we might have guessed, given the ever-rising frequency of strikeouts in the modern game, most of these stretches occurred in recent years. Fittingly, only Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson cracked the list among the starter set, and another Cy Young Award winner topped the bill (in his award-winning season). Marmol's stretch may appear especially impressive because it dates from the beginning of the season; as a result, his stellar stretch hasn't yet been camouflaged by any period of lesser performance.
We certainly shouldn't assume that we're seeing Marmol's true talent level in the whiff department, but his strikeout rate has resisted major regression thus far, as shown by data in the Bloomberg Sports Pro Tool:
Marmol's 2.19 SIERA is significantly lower than his 2.84 ERA; the flamethrower has been victimized by a .364 BABIP, but considering the paucity of balls put into play against him, the high BABIP hasn't had as much potential to hurt him as it would, say, Nick Blackburn, whose extremely low strikeout rate may be counteracting Marmol's just enough to keep the universe in balance. As Marmol's BABIP regresses to the mean, his miniscule HR/FB% may do the same, so his ERA may not have much lower to go. Even so, the Cubs have themselves a valuable asset at the back of their bullpen. Since assuming the closer role, Marmol has gained greater national recognition via Jerome Holtzman's statistic of choice, but it's his ability to make batters miss that most deserves to be celebrated.