Lonely Sinking Feeling 

Yesterday's Baseball Prospectus featured an interesting dissection of a recent Yankees-Indians game, with Randy Johnson squaring off against Jake Westbrook. Power pitcher vs. sinkerballer. Author Jonah Keri had a notable little riff on the influence of luck on a major league sinkerball pitcher, which made me think of the Giants' lonely bright spot this year, Scott Munter, who relies on a nasty sinker and not much else.

The key stat in Keri's note, pasted below, is "batting average on balls put in play," or mainstay BABIP. (Also a perennial Korean BBQ favorite.)

The idea here is that balls in play are subject to factors beyond the pitcher's control -- wind, sun, defensive skills, bad hops, the luck of well-placed bloops or right-at-em liners. The more balls put in play, the harder a pitcher's performance is to predict. Keri's piece is premium material, so I won't excerpt too much, and I'll encourage you to pay the $35 and subscribe:

Westbrook at the All-Star break: 19 starts, 115.2 IP, 108 H, 11 HR, 34 BB, 69 K, .267 BABIP, 6-11 W-L, 4.51 ERA. Compare that to last year, when Westbrook put up nearly identical peripherals plus a higher BABIP of .277, but went 14-9 with a 3.38 ERA. Aside from showing the unreliability of both won-lost record and even ERA as a predictor of future performance, Westbrook's results also underscore how tough it is to thrive consistently as a sinkerballer in the bigs. Brandon Webb went from being one of the best pitchers in baseball in his rookie year to leading the league in walks because people stopped swinging at the sinker. Derek Lowe's ERA jumped nearly two runs from 2002 to 2003; though his home-run and walk rates swelled somewhat from one year to the next, the 50 more hits allowed in 16 fewer innings did him in, following Lowe's rabbit-foot .238 BABIP showing in '02. Performances rise and fall based on the smallest events, like a hitter barely laying off at the last second, or a few more balls scoot through the infield for hits.

When healthy, Kevin Brown has shown an extended run of dominance with the pitch. But he's the exception, not the rule. Webb, Lowe and Westbrook, perennially the top three GB/FB pitchers in the majors, go into every season hoping karma intervenes and keeps those four-hoppers in the infield. Bottom line: It’s hard to throw a hard, sinking fastball with control and succeed with it every year. Really hard.

This is mostly but not completely about sinkerballers. The larger message here is the more strikeouts the better: Randy Johnson (pre-2005) good, Kirk Rueter bad, and anything else is chalked up to luck. That's stathead gospel, and it generally makes sense. But not so fast...

What about the fact that high K totals also usually mean high pitch counts? And high pitch counts mean more stress on pitchers' arms, not to mention more appearances by often mediocre middle relievers. The happy medium is a starting pitcher who gets his fair share of strikeouts but also gets a lot of outs on the first or second pitch of an at-bat.

Hmm, sounds like Greg Maddux, who in his prime often threw 90-pitch complete games and never had spectacular K-rates. His career high for a season was 7.7 Ks per 9 innings in 1995, the year batters had a .480 OPS against him. (.480? Did I just write that? Sure it was strike-shortened, but that number means when facing Maddux in '95, the National League hit like...like...let's just say Neifi Perez's career OPS through '04 was .681.)

Just for comparison: Pedro Martinez's lowest OPS against was .472 in '00; Randy Johnson's lowest OPS against was .555 in '04.

More comparison, just for fun:

Pedro has been above 9 Ks per 9 innings since 1996.

Johnson never had fewer than 11.5 Ks/9 from '95-'02.

This isn't to say I'd prefer a prime Greg Maddux over a prime Pedro or Big Unit. I'll take all three, thanks very much.

These three freaks of nature aside, the question that intrigues me is what's more more indicative of a good pitcher and future success: a high-K rate or an economy of pitches thrown per inning? Which raw kid in the minors would you prefer to develop: one with high K and walk rates, or one who regularly zips through innings in 10, 12, 14 pitches?

I wouldn't be surprised if someone's already done this research. Point me to it if you know of it.


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