Who are the most effective pitchers who can't strike out batters?
Yesterday's Lineup Card featured nine fictitious awards that we'd like to see given to players for their efforts in areas not formally recognized. One such award was the Jeff Ballard Award, which honors “the most effective pitcher who can't strike out batters.”
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 The 300-K starter has been replaced by the 100-K reliever.
Watching Yu Darvish is wonderful. Hitting against him is hell.
Beside pitch speed, pitch location, pitch spin, pitch movement, pitch type, count, batter, park, umpire, release point, etc., PITCHf/x also logs something called pitch-type confidence. Since the system is using algorithms to deduce what the pitch is based on speed, movement, and release point, it has to make some assumptions. If a pitcher throws only one type of fastball, and it is 10 mph faster than any other pitch he throws, and it is the only pitch that breaks to the pitcher’s glove side, the system can be pretty confident when it labels a 98-mph pitch a fastball.
But then there’s Yu Darvish. Of all the pitches Yu Darvish has thrown this year, 43 were give a confidence level of 50 percent or lower, and 506 were 80 or lower. Compare this to, say, Wandy Rodriguez, my go-to control group. He has thrown just one pitch with a confidence rating lower of 50 percent or lower, and 121 at 80 or lower. Or compare to (random pitcher) Stephen Strasburg: five below 50, 120 below 80. Strasburg has thrown 81 pitches that PITCHf/x was 100 percent confident about. Yu Darvish has thrown none.
How often has a pitcher issued 10 or more walks and 10 or more strikeouts in the same game? Not often at all.
When we examined Sandy Koufax's workload a while back, reader LynchMob asked whether anyone had thrown more than 193 pitches in a game since Koufax did it on May 28, 1960. I found two documented cases, both by members of the following year's Dodgers:
Blue Jays blue-chip prospect Anthony Gose has been bad in the big leagues, but has he been so bad that we should start to doubt his skills?
Last month, I wrote an article about 2012 Red Sox draftee Shaq Green-Thompson, who had begun his professional career by going 0-for-16 with 16 strikeouts. I wasn’t sure whether to write it. Baseball players go through slumps, and baseball writers write about them. That’s the way this works. But Thompson was just a couple months out of college, and his struggles were so acute that to draw any extra attention to them seemed cruel. The Red Sox source I quoted was concerned that I was out to “crush the kid.” I wasn’t, but I was worried about what would happen when other sites picked up the story. Ultimately, I decided to write about Thompson, but I tried to do it in a way that dwelt on his strengths, explained his struggles, and focused on what his streak said about baseball. It was still the first and only time I’ve felt bad about writing about a baseball player.
Eleven days later, Deadspin picked up on the story (via some other site, which made me feel a bit better). By then, Thompson’s stat line looked even worse. A flurry of Thompson tweets and articles followed. Not all of them were nice. Thompson went on to finish the short season 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts. He’ll be better at football, which he’ll play this fall. Maybe he’ll return to baseball next summer. Or maybe he’ll decide not to come back and risk causing any more crises of conscience.
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A 2012 draftee has struck out in his first 16 at-bats as a professional. What does that say about him? And more importantly, what does it say about baseball?
One month ago today, the Red Sox selected Shaquille Green-Thompson in the 18th round of the amateur draft. Nine days later, they signed him to a contract. This was important for an obvious reason: if Green-Thompson signed and went on to play professional baseball, there would be a professional baseball player named Shaq. But as it turns out, the selection was even more important for another reason: Shaq Green-Thompson was about to remind us how hard it is to play baseball.
Green-Thompson is a 6-foot-2, 225-pound, right-handed-hitting-and-throwing outfielder. But that’s sort of a secondary definition—you can’t bring up his baseball abilities without burying the lead. That's because Green-Thompson is also one of the best 18-year-old football prospects in the country.
Two starting pitchers are putting up elite strikeout rates this year, without adding new pitches or heaps of velocity. This is how.
Strikeouts are up this season. That, in itself is nothing new: strikeouts have been up in many seasons—most seasons, even—since the dead ball disappeared. The explanations have multiplied almost as quickly as the Ks. The mound is higher. The strike zone is bigger. Hitters are swinging for the fences. Pitchers are increasingly specialized, and they throw pitches they didn’t use to throw, and they throw the ones that they used to throw harder than they used to throw them. Also, Jose Molina keeps tricking umpires into seeing strikes that aren’t there.
Those are all valid theories, and more than one of them, if not all of them, probably contain some truth. But to that long list of culprits behind baseball’s increasing lack of contact, I’d like to add two more: Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer.