Strikeouts are up this season, and this quartet of untouchable closers is driving the trend.
The evolution of pitching in the 21st century has trended toward increased specialization, to the point of eight-man bullpens and strict pitch counts for starters. The complete game has all but vanished from the baseball lexicon, and most pitching staffs are now structured with the goal of getting through six innings with a lead before handing the ball to the bullpen. Frequent pitching changes have been unkind to the hardcore fan base, slowing the pace of the game when the drama is at its peak, but the stats reflect the advantages that are gained through the tireless recycling of arms.
Major League Baseball has witnessed a historic trend toward increasing strikeouts, with 2012's league-wide K rate of 19.7 percent (through Wednesday) representing the highest figure of all time. The 1.1-point jump in strikeout percentage from 2011 is the largest season-to-season gain in 25 years. Interestingly, we are not in the middle of some historic home run binge, and the 300-K starter has gone the way of the dodo in the span of about 10 years. Mere memories remain of the exploits of Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez, while 2011 strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw hit the ceiling at 250 strikeouts, a level that no pitcher is likely to crack this season. The 300-K starter has been replaced by the 100-K reliever.
Answering that question is not quite so simple as you'd think.
The last time I was at a Spring Training game, I tossed down a couple bucks for charity, threw dignity to the winds, and stepped into the radar gun tent. I used the first two pitches to ramp it up before letting fly for reals on the third: 72 mph. I carried my beer left-handed for the rest of the day.
I bring that up because you should understand who is writing this, but mostly because speed is sexy. We all love to watch a 100 mph pitch because it’s amazing but also because it’s rare. Most major league pitchers, let alone internet writers, can’t throw that fast no matter how many times we embarrass ourselves in front of small children throws we make. When at a game, we count the number of pitches that break 100. For example, take a look at this Aroldis Chapman fastball:
If a couple saves could tilt the category, you should look under every rock this month.
As the season has progressed, I’ve discussed what I believe tobeproperstrategy when it comes to active roster construction, whether it be via trade, free agency, or your bench. At this point in the season—that is to say, with a mere 19 days left—it shouldn’t be going out on too much of a limb to say that categorical stratification trumps all. If you haven’t yet, take raw “value” and Old Yeller it (or White Fang it, depending on your preferred fictional canine reference). Whether you chase it away or pull out all the stops and take it out back and shoot it, just get rid of the notion of “value in a vacuum” so you’re not tempted to play with it and catch rabies (or whatever threat White Fang posed—I never claimed to be an expert).
At this juncture, it doesn’t matter that Michael Bourn is one of the top-ranked players in the PFM if you have no room to move up or down in steals. There’s precious little time left, and guys that are still left on the waiver wire aren’t likely to be especially valuable overall. But if you can uncover a couple of one-category gems, that could be all you need to propel your team a few points in the standings. It doesn’t matter if Anthony Gose strikes out nearly as much as Adam Dunn; if you need steals, he might as well be Albert Pujols to your team. Because of this dynamic, I’ll be spending today and Monday discussing some players who surely have flaws but who can provide a serious jolt if you need what they provide.
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What makes Aroldis Chapman factoids powerful is that each one is two factoids at once. They are about Chapman's superiority over the rest of his peers. And they are about the changing sport of baseball. Many factoids accomplish one of these things, but Chapman's factoids come from both directions and erupt all over you. Not so much like a garbage bag full of Nickelodeon slime, but more like, if you follow the analogy, two garbage bags full of Nickelodeon slime.
The first episode of BP's new daily podcast is ready for your ears, if your ears are ready for it.
After months of deliberation and well-intentioned procrastination, we've gotten the Effectively Wild podcast off the ground. Between Up and In and Tower of Power, BP is already well stocked with weekly podcasts, so we're trying to do something different: a much shorter podcast that appears much more often. Each time out, we'll pick an interesting topic or two from the previous night's news and action to discuss in depth, and with any luck, we'll wrap up the episode in around 10 minutes. The goal is to deliver new episodes daily (well, Monday through Friday) in time for your morning commute. We're figuring this out as we go, so suggestions and feedback are welcome. And yes, Ben knows that he called Zach BrittonChris Britton. He can't help it—he's been calling him Chris for years. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Sam said "douchebag" at some point, so we suppose this is explicit.
Aroldis Chapman allowed an earned run, but it didn't happen the way we expected it would.
Last night, Aroldis Chapman allowed an earned run, after 29 innings of allowing no earned runs and striking out almost every other batter he faced. This was a stimulus that caused at least three responses. First, and maybe most obviously, it made the Reds lose to a team only two games behind them.*
As it turns out, Aroldis Chapman is capable of giving up runs, even to the mortalest of mortals.
The Thursday Takeaway
Somehow, some way, somewhere, someday, someone was going to plate an earned run against Aroldis Chapman. But if I had told you that it would be the Pirates—and not just any Pirates, but the two Pirates with the lowest batting averages in that day’s Pirates starting lineup—you might have questioned my sanity.
The Reds’ relief ace came into last night’s game with a flawless 0.00 ERA in 29 innings. He had allowed only one extra-base hit—a triple by Jose Reyes—all season, and the only blemish on his line was an unearned run scored by the Mets on May 17. Manager Dusty Baker called on his undefeated, 24-year-old flame-thrower in the top of the 10th inning, after Pittsburgh closer Joel Hanrahan served up a game-tying solo shot by Ryan Ludwick in the bottom of the ninth.
Drops in fastball velocity usually lead to spikes in ERA, but a handful of pitchers have made slower fastballs work for them this year.
There’s more to being a major-league pitcher than throwing hard. Plenty of pitchers have had successful careers without making the mitt pop. On the whole, though, throwing hard helps. All else being equal, the harder a pitcher can throw, the more effective his offerings are, and the easier it is for him to get away with mistakes. It’s no coincidence that the team with the hardest-throwing staff this season, the Nationals, also boasts the big leagues’ best ERA.
In a 2010 study, PITCHf/x analyst Mike Fast found that starting pitchers from 2002-2009 allowed, on average, 0.28 fewer runs per nine innings for every mile per hour of velocity gained. Relievers, who tend to rely more heavily on their heaters, shaved 0.45 runs for every extra tick.
Bryce Harper, at 19, has faced four of the best strikeout pitchers in history. Here's how he has done.
I was lying on the floor Saturday, throwing a pen up in the air and catching it, and wondering when Bryce Harper would face Clayton Kershaw so I could watch it. Typical Saturday stuff. And it occurred to me: Kershaw? Who cares about Kershaw? He’s the best pitcher in the National League, sure, but Kershaw over seven innings isn’t nearly as dominant as the most dominant relievers are in just one inning. Even without facing Kershaw, Bryce Harper has faced almost-impossible pitching in the majors. The five pitchers Harper has faced with the highest strikeout rates this year:
Dusty Baker feels that Aroldis Chapman's best use right now is as Cincinnati's closer, and a conversation with Jesus Montero.
When Sparky Lyle strode from the bullpen the mound at Yankee Stadium during his days as a premier relief pitches in the mid- to late 1970s, organist Eddie Layton would play "Pomp and Circumstance." That probably wouldn't work as a ballpark song these days, but to hear Dusty Baker tell it, perhaps the traditional graduation accompaniment should be played on the sound system at Great American Ball Park when Reds reliever Aroldis Chapman takes the hill.