Walking underneath the tightrope

Is it possible for a pitcher to function without striking out more men than he walks? So far in 2007, six pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings are trying to find out. Chances are that only a couple of them will be allowed to stick around to pitch enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. Here are the candidates:

  • Vicente Padilla (1 to 1): With his outing against the Twins last night, Padilla evened his rate at 27:27. If the Rangers keep scoring 14 runs for him, he can pretty much do what he wants. With a career ratio of almost 1:2, one has to assume it’s just a bad patch. Either that, or there’s something wrong with him physically.
  • Mike Maroth (1 to 1): A couple of weeks ago I read an article talking about how far Maroth had come since losing 20 games in 2003. In many ways, though, he’s not much better off than he was then. His Stuff number was -7 then, and is -13 this year. His NRA is much improved, though.
  • Tomo Ohka (.84 to 1): Ohka had a similar stretch with the Nationals two years ago, only the results were much better that time because fewer of his offerings were falling in for hits. He does what it takes to be a league-average hurler.
  • Jeremy Sowers (.8 to 1): It’s not so much that he’s walking a lot of guys, it’s just that he isn’t striking out that many. What is really killing him of late are home runs with men on base, including four with two on in his last three starts. It’s the kind of thing that makes management forget about the second half of last year, to the point that they start volunteering to drive you back to Buffalo.
  • Livan Hernandez (.79 to 1): Haven’t you always gotten the impression that Livan’s career existed a little bit outside of reality? His success in the 1997 postseason? An otherworldly strike zone certainly helped. His hitting? Not that of a normal pitcher (he’s at .236/.246/.319 for his career). His ability to throw 25 more pitches per game than most other mortals? That’s not normal, either. And now this: an 8.4 VORP through nine starts in spite of a reversed strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s somehow succeeding even while posting his first negative Stuff number since 1998. Let’s not be surprised. It’s Livan, after all.
  • Steve Trachsel (.68 to 1): His 9.4 VORP settles in next to that of teammate Erik Bedard, the man with the highest K/9 ratio in the business. How do these things happen? Try a 78-point difference in BABIP in Trachsel’s favor. Bored by his slow deliveries, batters are clearly swinging at the first thing close enough to reach with their bats.

Of that group, I’d bet on Hernandez, Trachsel, and Padilla as the favorites to get the innings, whereas Hernandez and Padilla are likely to get the imbalance worked out. If three of them qualify, it will be the first time in at least 10 seasons that this happened. Only five pitchers since 2000 have gotten the qualifying complement of innings while striking out fewer batters than they walked. They are:

  • Kirk Rueter, 2004: Never a strikeout artist to begin with, when his K rate continued to drop as he got deeper into his 30s, he didn’t have far to go before he was out of baseball. Baseball Prospectus 2004 compared his low K rates to those of Mike Flanagan, and noted that once Flanagan’s began to fall, it marked the beginning of the end for him. Sure enough, Rueter followed suit, and this was his penultimate season in the majors.
  • Damian Moss, 2003: Moss managed a 12-6 record in 2002 in spite of walking more people than a rehab therapist. The Giants ignored the indicators that his record was just one of those things, and gave the Braves Russ Ortiz for Moss and Merkin Valdez (1 2/3 innings, 27.00 ERA). Ortiz was himself not unfamiliar with ball four, but the ’03 Braves were a scoring machine, and he won 36 games over the next two seasons before the Diamondbacks recreated Burning Man with a big stack of money on his front lawn. In San Francisco, the Giants got rid of the fading Moss as soon as they could, unloading him on Baltimore in a deal for Sidney Ponson. While being overweight is not a guarantee a pitcher won’t throw strikes (see: Wells, David; Lolich, Mickey; Foster, Terry…), it didn’t do Moss any favors. He threw eight more big league innings.
  • Nate Cornejo, 2003: Say what you will about the Tigers pitchers of 2003, but one thing you can say about them is this: they never denied their fielders a shot getting the glory of making putouts. That team struck out only 764 batters, and leading the way was Cornejo, with the lowest K-rate versus league average in history. A labrum tear was discovered the next season; he was 4-12 at Double-A in 2005, and had a few innings in the minors last year.
  • Mike Hampton, 2002: Hampton managed to get back to a semblance of his previous self after this, his worst K:BB season. Hampton’s pre-Colorado career was always a bit of an illusion anyway, in that he was always someone a batter could count on for free passes. Coors Field undid all of the illusions, although some of them briefly returned when he moved to Atlanta.
  • Jimmy Haynes, 2000: If he had been in the mob, his nickname would have been Jimmy the Big Whip. He actually got better after ’00, though, improving his Stuff number from -8 to 0 to 4 over the next two seasons. He still wasn’t great, but the Reds thought he was, rewarding him with $5 million for two seasons. Now, you young folk might not remember this, but back in aught-three, that was some serious money for a mid-rotation pitcher. His back went to hell in the first year of his contract, and we’ve barely seen him since.

Getting to the ball

Playing with the sort function on the BP stats page, we find one of the contributing factors to the Mets‘ success in 2007: a whale of a Defensive Efficiency outlier. There, amongst the hitters park teams of The Golden Age of the All-Mighty Hurlermen, are the latest installment of the Metropolitans at .741.

This is good for the 23rd-best team mark since 1959–the earliest year included in the BP play-by-play database. (All further references refer to “since 1959” unless otherwise noted.) The most recent team above them are the 1981 Tigers, and the only team in the top 100 that is anywhere near them in vintage are the 2001 Mariners (59th at .735).

Are the Mets really this good? Yes and no. There are a couple of things at play here. For one, scoring is depressed, so a number of current teams are insinuating themselves into a Defensive Efficiency level that few post-strike teams have managed before. Looking at just the seasons since 1994, seven of the top 20 “Def-Effs” belong to 2007 clubs. The big league average so far is .705. Compare this with 1999, when the average was 10 points lower.

This isn’t to say that all of the 2007 teams are following the same program. Seven of them rank in the bottom 100 in Def Eff among the 1,238 team seasons since 1959. (You can probably name at least four of them without looking.) What this means is that prior to this year only 13 post-strike teams had managed to crack the top 400 Def-Eff figures among 1959 or later teams.

That doesn’t explain everything, though. In the years between 1975 and 1993, the National League run environment was rarely higher than it has been so far in 2007, and New York has managed to best all of them.

Perhaps the ’07 team is really just that good. An outfield with both Endy Chavez and Carlos Beltran in it–two center fielders–is going to run down a lot of balls. The ’07 Mets are actually much higher above the league average than were the ’68 Indians and Orioles, the two teams with the best Def-Eff figures. In 1968, the 20 big league teams combined for a .730 mark. Cleveland was at .754 and Baltimore at .753, so the Mets are at about five percent over the league average, while the two leaders are at about three percent. (In 1968, only the Phillies at .704 were as low as the 2007 average.)

In 1999, the Mets infield of John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Rey Ordonez and Robin Ventura was placed on the cover of a Sports Illustrated issue that discussed the possibility that they might be the best defensive infield ever. If they were, it certainly wasn’t illustrated by the team’s Def-Eff. At .707, the Mets were a decent distance from the big league average of .695, but weren’t anywhere near the best in the league. That honor belonged to the Cincinnati Reds at .731, a pretty incredible number in its own right given the context in which it was achieved. That Reds team was actually better versus league average than the ’07 Mets–albeit with a lower hurdle to climb.

So far, anyway. These Mets have got the same Def-Eff as the World Champion 1969 team–a club known for its pitching and defense, and one that played in a league where the average was 12 points higher. Anytime a modern team can find itself on a list dominated by teams from the run-depressed days of the late ’60s, that’s pretty historic. Now all they have to do is maintain it for the remaining three-quarters of the season.

The football equivalent of the unassisted triple play

Last time out, I asked what individual play in other sports matches the unassisted triple play for rarity and devastation to the other team. Among the responses I got, there were two that I thought were worth discussing. Reader B.D. wrote the following:

Football: 99-yard-plus running plays. Not a pass, but when a team starting next to their own goal line (calls) a running play, and the back goes all the way for a touchdown. I have no idea how rare that is, but a) it is about as devastating offensively as the UTP is defensively, and b) it is spectacular, requiring an alignment of circumstance and singular effort from the running back that is similar in nature to what the shortstop (usually) has to do.

I don’t think there have been very many of those in the NFL. If you include Division I, the number certainly goes up. If you lower the threshold to 95 yards, the point is still made.

Reader Paul Rugani also had a football suggestion:

Regarding the unassisted triple play, in terms of combination rarity and devastation–I think returning an opponent’s field goal attempt for a touchdown in football has to be close (recent memory is Nathan Vasher doing it for the Bears against the 49ers a couple seasons ago). It’s certainly rare (almost never happens except on ultra-long FGs), and directly results in a 10-point swing. Not only is there the point swing, but unlike an interception or fumble recovery in the end zone that’s returned for a touchdown, a guy returning a field goal miss absolutely must pass all 11 opponents on the field in order to score. Now, it doesn’t have quite the beauty of an unassisted triple play, but it’s close.

Off the top of my head I know of two others: one in a Packers-Saints game in 1972 and Devin Hester–Vasher’s teammate–had one against the Giants last season. I’d like to see a comprehensive list, even if those are the only three ever. Paul is right: this is a cool play, but because of baseball’s vast number of games, it can’t possibly be as rare as the unassisted triple play.