June 4, 2003

Throwing strikes


"Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don't move."


--- Satchel Paige

I was immersed in ESPN.com's sortable stats page the other day, as I often am, when I noticed the unusual amount of major league pitchers posting phenomenal strikeout/walk ratios. Don't get me wrong, there are guys every year that strike tons of batters out and don't walk very many guys.

Last year, for example:

Pitcher               K     BB     K/BB

Curt Schilling 316 39 9.58
Jon Lieber 87 12 7.25
Eric Gagne 114 16 7.13
Arthur Rhodes 81 13 6.23
Pedro Martinez 239 40 5.98

That's the full list of pitchers with more than 20 innings pitched and at least 5 strikeouts for every walk allowed in 2002.

Now, take a look at the same list for this season:

Pitcher               K     BB     K/BB

David Wells 42 3 14.00
Eddie Guardado 23 2 11.50
Mike Timlin 21 2 10.50
John Smoltz 39 4 9.75
Eric Gagne 52 6 8.67
Luis Ayala 16 2 8.00
Latroy Hawkins 29 4 7.25
Randy Johnson 31 5 6.20
Chris Hammond 18 3 6.00
Mike Mussina 81 14 5.79
Billy Wagner 40 7 5.71
Keith Foulke 31 6 5.17
Javier Vazquez 86 17 5.06
Joe Borowski 30 6 5.00

What David Wells is doing right now is fascinating to me. He has always had very good control, but this season is something completely different.

Here are the walks he has issued this year:

April 21st (at Minnesota): Torii Hunter leads off the bottom of the 7th inning, with the Twins trailing the Yankees 12-0. David Wells, who had not walked a single batter in 28 innings pitched at this point, walks Torii Hunter - a hitter who walked a grand total of 35 times in 604 plate appearances in 2002. And he does it on four straight pitches.

May 2nd (vs Oakland): With the Yankees leading 3-2 in the top of the 7th, Ramon Hernandez doubles to lead off the inning and then Wells gets two quick ground outs. Eric Byrnes comes up with 2 outs and a man on second base and Wells walks him - on four straight pitches.

May 19th (at Boston): With 2 outs in the bottom of the 5th inning and a man on third base, Todd Walker comes to the plate with the Yankees up 5-1. Wells' first pitch is a called strike and he then proceeds to throw 4 straight balls, allowing Todd Walker, fittingly enough, to walk.

And that's it, those are all the walks David Wells has given up this year.

Wells has pitched 78 innings and faced 320 batters this year, and he has walked a grand total of 3 of them. One to Torii Hunter in a game he was leading 12-0, one to Eric Byrnes with first base open and two outs and one to Todd Walker. And all of them on four straight balls. Wells is currently on pace to pitch 222 innings this year, strikeout 120 hitters and walk 9 of them.

Here are the all-time single-season leaders in K/BB ratio for pitchers with 200+ innings in a season (since 1900):

#    Pitcher                  Year     K/BB   

1 Curt Schilling 2002 9.58
2 Pedro Martinez 2000 8.88
3 Greg Maddux 1997 8.85
4 Pedro Martinez 1999 8.46
5 Greg Maddux 1995 7.87
6 Curt Schilling 2001 7.51
7 Ferguson Jenkins 1971 7.11
8 Cy Young 1905 7.00
9 Cy Young 1904 6.90
10 Greg Maddux 2001 6.41

First of all, that is a hell of a list.

Secondly, I knew Curt Schilling's K/BB ratio last year was incredible, but I guess I didn't realize it was the best in the history of baseball.

Thirdly, David Wells is blowing those guys away!

The problem with Wells though, is that he simply doesn't strike enough guys out to stay ahead of Schilling's "pace." Schilling's control last year was impressive, but it wasn't impressive simply because of the control, but because it came along with a massive amount of strikeouts. Schilling walked 33 guys last year, while striking out 316. If you replace his 316 strikeouts with Wells' 120, Schilling's K/BB ratio drops from 9.57 all the way down to 3.63. Now, 3.63 strikeouts per walk is still very nice, but it wouldn't get him anywhere near the 2002 leaderboard, let alone the all-time list. In fact, a 3.63 K/BB ratio ranks just 159th all-time among pitchers with 200+ innings since 1900.

If Wells strikes out 120 guys, like he's currently on pace to do, he would need to walk 13 or fewer batters the whole season in order to be the new all-time leader. He already has 3 in 78 innings, so (again keeping his projected pace) he would need to limit his walks to 10 or fewer over his next 144 innings.

So, while Wells' K/BB ratio is very impressive, he has very little shot at keeping it up, at least not unless he starts striking out at a few more hitters. I think the record he has a slightly better shot at is the all-time best ratio of walks per 9 innings.

Here are the all-time leaders in BB/9 IP (with 200+ innings since 1900):

#    Player                   Year    BB/9 IP   

1 Babe Adams 1920 0.62
2 Christy Mathewson 1913 0.62
3 Christy Mathewson 1914 0.66
4 Cy Young 1904 0.69
5 Red Lucas 1933 0.74
6 Bob Tewksbury 1992 0.77
7 Greg Maddux 1997 0.77
8 Cy Young 1906 0.78
9 Babe Adams 1919 0.79
10 Slim Sallee 1919 0.79

Wells currently has 3 walks in 78 innings pitched. Assuming he ends up with his projected total of 222 innings, he would need to walk 12 or fewer batters over the next 144 innings.

Basically, the walks/9 IP record is just slightly more attainable for Wells than the strikeout/walk record. For one (BB/9 IP) he needs to walk 12 or fewer over 144 innings and for the other (K/BB) he needs to walk 10 or fewer over 144 innings. At first that seems like an insignificant difference, but the 2 walks get a little more significant when you remember he has only walked 3 batters the entire season so far!

While Boomer Wells is currently leading major league pitchers in K/BB ratio and is chasing a couple of all-time records, Eric Gagne is 5th in K/BB this season and chasing one of his own.

So far this year, Eric Gagne has pitched 29 innings for the Dodgers and has 52 strikeouts. Here is what he is currently projected to do for the full season:

IP     SO    BB     H    HR     AVG     OBP     SLG

82 148 17 37 3 .133 .187 .184

Those numbers are almost unfathomable to me. 148 strikeouts in 82 innings?! 17 walks?! 37 hits?! It is crazy.

If Gagne does end up with 148 strikeouts this year, he may find himself in the top 20 National League leaders in strikeouts, despite pitching only 82 innings. 148 Ks would have ranked 20th last year and 22nd in 2001. That said, Eric Gagne has bigger fish to fry than finishing in the top 20 in the NL for this season. He is currently on pace to strikeout more batters per 9 innings than any pitcher in baseball history. Gagne is currently striking out 16.13 batters per 9 innings.

Here are the all-time leaders for pitchers with 50+ innings in a season:

#    Player                   Year   SO/9 IP   

1 Billy Wagner 1999 15.01
2 Armando Benitez 1999 14.77
3 Billy Wagner 1998 14.55
4 Billy Wagner 1997 14.38
5 Byung-Hyun Kim 2000 14.14
6 Rob Dibble 1992 14.08
7 Matt Mantei 1999 13.71
8 Rob Dibble 1991 13.55
9 Randy Johnson 2001 13.41
10 Pedro Martinez 1999 13.23

Now, that is a fun list.

You have two starting pitchers at the bottom, despite the qualification only being 50+ innings. There is also two appearances by ESPN's own Rob Dibble, who was obviously 50 times the pitcher that he is the TV "personality." And, at the top of the list, you have 3 of the best 4 seasons belonging to Billy Wagner, a left-handed reliever that stands "5 foot 11" and weighs "195 pounds." If Wagner is 5'11" than I'm Peter Gammons and if he's 195 pounds I want to know how many bricks he has in his pockets.

Anyway, with 52 strikeouts in his first 29 innings, Gagne is about 1.2 strikeouts per 9 innings ahead of Wagner's 15.01/9 IP in 1999.

Here is what Gagne has done thus far:

IP     SO      SO/9

29 52 16.13

Assuming he ends up pitching 82 innings like he is on pace to do, here is what he would need to do for the rest of the season to beat Wagner for the top spot all-time:

IP     SO      SO/9

52 85 14.71

Can Eric Gagne strike out 14.71 batters per 9 innings over the course of the next 52 innings? I doubt it. I mean, only two times in the history of the sport has someone been able to strikeout that many guys in that many innings, so it's certainly not "likely" that someone else will do it at any given time.

That said, Gagne averaged 12.46 strikeouts per game last year and 16.13 so far this year, so 14.71 is pretty close to just splitting those two numbers right down the middle. And Gagne isn't slowing down either, he's actually upping his K rate as he goes.

Month      SO/9

April 15.07
May 17.05
June 18.00

Of course, "June" is only 2 innings and 4 strikeouts, but it's a fun chart to look at anyway.

If the innings qualification is adjusted from 50+ to 80+ (the amount Gagne is on pace to throw), then I think he has a very good chance of being the all-time leader:

#    Player                   Year    SO/9 IP   

1 Rob Dibble 1991 13.55
2 Randy Johnson 2001 13.41
3 Pedro Martinez 1999 13.23
4 Rob Dibble 1989 12.82
5 Kerry Wood 1998 12.58
6 Pedro Martinez 2001 12.57
7 Randy Johnson 2000 12.56
8 Rob Dibble 1990 12.49
9 Eric Gagne 2002 12.46
10 Octavio Dotel 2001 12.43

Gagne already owns the #9 spot on that list and, to rank #1, he would need to strikeout 72 batters over his next 53 innings, which works out to 12.22 per 9 innings, or slightly less than his rate from last year (12.46).

Speaking of pitchers who throw strikes and pitchers who strike tons of guys out...

Twins starting pitcher Rick Reed is once again dinged up and is headed to the disabled list, which means he won't be able to take his scheduled turn in the rotation tomorrow against the Padres. Instead, the Twins have called upon Johan "The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog" Santana to take his place.

As you all know, I am very happy anytime Johan Santana can get himself a start and I am usually equally happy when Rick Reed can avoid getting himself one. That said, I am not as confident about Johan this time around as I was back on May 9th, when he made his other spot start this year. He ended up pitching 5 innings of shutout ball against the Red Sox that day and beat Pedro Martinez.

This time around, Johan will be facing San Diego, a much lesser offensive team than the Red Sox. However, while Johan was almost unhittable in the days leading up to his last start (he had a 1.59 ERA at the time), he has been very hittable of late.

In fact, ever since he made that start against Boston on May 9th, he has been very shaky.

Time Period         IP     ERA     SO     BB     H

Pre-Start 23 1.59 29 12 15
Post-Start 10 6.30 8 5 12

So, that's the bad news.

The good news is that the Padres are one of the worst teams in baseball at hitting against left-handed pitching. For the year they are hitting just .236/.326/.335 against southpaws, which is 28th in batting average, 20th in on-base percentage and 28th in slugging percentage.

To take Reed's spot on the roster, the Twins called up Michael Nakamura from Triple-A. Nakamura is a relief pitcher and was having a great year at Rochester. In 40 innings he had a 2.01 ERA and 55 strikeouts, along with only 8 walks.

Nakamura has been very good in past seasons too. In 2002 he had a 4.74 ERA, which isn't good, but also posted a 80/22 K/BB ratio in 87 innings, which is excellent. And in 2001 he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 86 innings, striking out 109 while walking only 24.

I am very interested to get my first good look at Nakamura, because I have been intrigued by his minor league numbers for a while now. If he is for real, he will just add to an already excellent bullpen, which is always a good thing, particularly if Santana is needed in the starting rotation for any substantial length of time.

Finally...

Make sure to check back here tomorrow, because there will be a special surprise entry that will be especially interesting for Twins fans!

Today's picks:

Colorado (Jennings) -130 over Cleveland (Sabathia)

Seattle (Pineiro) -110 over Philadelphia (Duckworth)

Montreal (Vazquez) -120 over Anaheim (Lackey)

Boston (Burkett) -115 over Pittsburgh (Suppan)

Arizona (Dessens) -110 over Chicago (Wright)

Total to date: + $840

W/L record: 112-113 (1-2 yesterday for -100 as my free-fall continues...)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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