Unless you’re a Cubs fan looking for a on-two-three ninth inning, it’s hard to beat Carlos Marmol for sheer baseball entertainment. Chicago’s current closer is nothing short of a spectacle, as he delivers to the plate, arms and legs flailing like he’s some sort of marionette. Marmol’s wicked fastball/slider combination is frequently unhittable and often uncontrollable, with significant late movement that often fools hitters, catchers, and umpires alike. When he has command of his fastball and throws his slider for strikes, he can be completely dominant… and even when he can’t, he’s still difficult to hit. But this season Marmol’s act has too frequently devolved into an uncanny Nuke LaLoosh impression.
Through Wednesday’s action, Marmol has unintentionally walked 19 percent of the batters he’s faced, the highest percentage for any pitcher with 60-plus innings in a season since Bobby Witt in 1987 (all percentages here exclude any batters who were intentionally walked). He’s also hit four percent of opposing batters with his frequently errant pitches-easily beating out Bob Wells of the 2001 Twins for the highest plunkage rate of the last half-century. Thus approximately 23 percent of batters that have faced Marmol this year have reached base without a hit-also the highest rate since intentional walks were first recorded in 1955.
On the other side of the ledger, Marmol’s strikeout rate is almost 27 percent, while allowing hits to only 12 percent of batters he’s faced-a mark bettered in this century only by noted Frisbee-tosser Jeff Nelson in 2001, and also by Marmol himself last year. Add it all up, and between the strikeouts and free passes, somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent of batters facing Marmol never hit a ball into fair territory.
All of which got me to wondering how Marmol ranks in recent history in terms of avoiding contact, and which recent pitchers allow the most contact. To check this, I looked at each season of the Retrosheet-era (1954 and later) and calculated each pitcher’s “Contact Percentage” using this formula:
(Unintentional Walks + Strikeouts + Hit By Pitch) 1 - ----------------------------------------------- (Plate Appearances - Intentional Walks)
This is essentially the percentage of times that a batter makes fair contact (including home runs) when facing a given pitcher. While Marmol’s 2009 numbers are definitely notable, they only rank seventh on the Retrosheet-era list:
Low Contact Leaders, 1955-2009 Contact Non-IBB Rk Year Team Pitcher % PA UIBB SO HBP 1 1999 Mets Armando Benitez 46.4 308 37 128 0 2 2003 Dodgers Eric Gagné 48.0 304 18 137 3 3 2004 Astros Brad Lidge 48.4 364 25 157 6 4 1999 Astros Billy Wagner 48.4 285 22 124 1 5 2000 Diamondbacks Byung-Hyun Kim 48.9 315 41 111 9 6 2001 Mariners Jeff Nelson 49.6 272 43 88 6 7 2009 Cubs Carlos Marmol 50.0 282 54 76 11 ... 12 2009 Royals Robinson Tejeda 52.5 181 28 55 3
Off the top of my head I would have guessed that Gagné’s breathtaking 2003 numbers would have topped the list; his strikeout percentage that year is in fact the clubhouse leader. But the higher walk rate of Armando Benitez makes him the surprise winner, ahead of Gagné and the two former Astros closers. I’m happy to see Byung-Hyun Kim on this list, since his submarine slider was one of the most entertaining (and, at least for a while, most effective) deliveries of the last decade. The 2009 leader over in the American League (minimum 40 IP) is Robinson Tejeda, who in true Royals fashion has managed an ERA over 4.00 while allowing opponents a mere .236 slugging percentage. Tejeda’s walk rate is high (though not Marmol-esque), which combines with his excellent strikeout rate to surprisingly project as the 12th-most contact-shy season in the last half-century.
Bullpen specialization and the reduced stigma attached to striking out means that nearly all the top fifty seasons in contact percentage are in the early ’80s or later. The only exceptions are Nolan Ryan, clocking in at 46th for his 1977 season, and two seasons of Ryne Duren, the original “Wild Thing,” at 26th and 37th. Duren’s 1958 rookie campaign in the Yankees‘ bullpen featured 43 walks and seven hit batsmen along with 87 strikeouts in 75
On the other end of the contact spectrum, no one in 2009 is setting any records for allowing contact, although a number of starters are managing good numbers with low strikeout totals. Here are the four pitchers who have allowed the highest contact percentage this season:
High Contact Leaders - 60+ IP Contact Non-IBB Rank Team Player Pct. PA UIBB SO HBP 1 Cardinals Joel Pineiro 84.6 708 19 84 6 2 Twins Nick Blackburn 84.4 730 37 75 2 3 Twins Glen Perkins 83.7 423 23 45 1 4 Nationals Craig Stammen 83.4 447 23 48 3
Nick Blackburn’s sophomore year is a perfect match for his rookie season-minimal numbers of walks and strikeouts, plenty of innings, and an invitation to join the International Brotherhood of League-Average Inning-Munchers. But Joel Pineiro’s season is rather remarkable, especially in light of his recent career:
Joel Pineiro UIBB K HR Year Team IP Rate Rate Rate GB/PA Contact % 2009 Cardinals 177.2 2.6% 11.9% 0.9% 0.54 84.1 2008 Cardinals 148.2 5.4% 12.6% 3.4% 0.40 81.7 2007 Cardinals 63.2 4.6% 15.3% 4.2% 0.38 79.8 2006 Seattle 165.2 6.8% 11.2% 3.1% 0.38 80.0 2005 Seattle 189.0 6.3% 13.0% 2.8% 0.37 79.8 2004 Seattle 140.2 7.1% 18.6% 3.5% -- 73.6 2003 Seattle 211.2 8.2% 17.0% 2.1% -- 74.1 2002 Seattle 176.1 6.5% 16.8% 3.0% -- 75.8 2001 Seattle 61.0 7.3% 19.4% 0.7% -- 72.3
Pineiro’s extremely low contact percentage this year is due to the halving of his unintentional walk rate from last year, which was already low compared to his AL years, to a MLB-low 2.6 percent. But his increased success this year is due even more to a huge drop in home-run rate (to 0.9 percent, the lowest in baseball and the third lowest since 2000 for a pitcher with 100 or more innings) and a major increase in his GB/PA rate. So far this season, 54 percent of all batters facing Joel Pineiro wind up hitting a ground ball, the highest rate in baseball, and the fourth-highest mark since 2005-keeping company with worm-killers like Chien-Ming Wang, Derek Lowe, and Brandon Webb. It’s not easy to score runs when you don’t get walks and you don’t hit home runs; just ask anyone who had to face Dan Quisenberry.
Every season is filled with stories of hurlers that learn a new pitch and find sudden success; most appear in spring training, and few live to see the dog days of summer. But Pineiro credits his success to the use of a new one-seam sinker, and the numbers seem to back that up. Dave Duncan has made his reputation on reclamation projects like Pineiro, and likely deserves some props in this instance, but if the Cardinals’ pitching holds up into October at least some credit should go to Joel Pineiro’s dad.
While Joel Pineiro and Carlos Marmol have the same job description-prevent runs-their approaches couldn’t be more different. The enduring charm of baseball is that either approach, if correctly applied, can be equally successful-and equally entertaining.