Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Wild Side

People like to think that all organizations think the same about the type of baseball its teams should play. And indeed, the inclusion in front offices of statistical analysis on most teams now would seem to trend these teams in the same direction. Perhaps batting philosophies have become more similar, but not pitching. Some nice studies have lately shown that Dave Righetti, pitching coach in San Francisco, has really focused with great success on the ability to limit fly balls from leaving the park. Other teams stress ground balls and others strikeouts. And some, like the Twins and Cardinals hate giving up free passes. There were fourteen pitchers in 2010 that pitched 100 or more innings and gave up more than four walks per nine innings. These fourteen guys wouldn't last a week in Minnesota.

And yet, six of the fourteen had winning records. Five of them had ERAs under 4.00. Two of them pitched more than 200 innings. Two of them pitched for World Series teams. So obviously, the teams they play for live with the walks or they wouldn't run those pitchers out there for that many innings. As you can imagine, all but two of those fourteen have pretty high strikeout rates. And so the old image of the power pitcher without command is one of the constants of baseball down through the years. Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan both led their leagues in walks many times.

Frankly, it drives the Fan crazy when pitchers walk batters. The Fan believes in making a player earn his way on base. If you walk a batter, that batter has a 100 percent chance of getting on base. If you let the batter hit the ball, the batter only has a 30 percent chance of getting on base. The Fan would always take his chances on the latter. But hey, that's why the Fan sits and thinks about baseball in the basement and not in the dugout.

So who are these fourteen? Maybe you would guess the guy on the top of the list. Maybe you wouldn't. But here is the list:

  1. Carlos Zambrano - 4.79
  2. Scott Kazmir - 4.73
  3. Manny Parra - 4.65
  4. Bud Norris - 4.51
  5. Tom Gorzelanny - 4.49
  6. Jonathan Sanchez - 4.47
  7. Daisuke Matsuzaka - 4.33
  8. Jake Arrieta - 4.21
  9. Gio Gonzalez - 4.13
  10. C. J. Wilson - 4.10
  11. Jorge De La Rosa - 4.07
  12. Brandon Morrow - 4.06
  13. Tony Pena - 4.02
  14. Jhoulys Chacin - 4.00

Of those listed above, Zambrano, Wilson, Gonzalez, Chacin and Sanchez all finished with an ERA+ of over 120. Gorzelanny and De La Rosa both finished over 100. So at least half of the above pitchers were more of a benefit to their teams than detractions. Arrieta and Tony Pena are the two exceptions to the high strikeout members of this club. Both finished under 100 (under league average) in ERA+ though Pena had a winning record and Arrieta finished 6-6 despite pitching for the Orioles.

Zambrano was a surprise for this writer. But perhaps he shouldn't be. He's led the league in walks twice over his career and he's only had three years where his walks per nine were south of 4.0. His career average is 4.1 walks per nine. As mentioned here in another post, the Cubs have a ten or more year history under Larry Rothschild (now with the Yankees after years with the Cubs) with high strikeouts and high walk rates. Gorzelanny and Zambrano are just two in a long line of Cubs pitchers that strikeout a lot of guys and walk a lot too. Their closer, Carlos Marmol is another famous example.

Scott Kazmir is another pitcher who has always walked people at a high rate. He got away with it through 2008 when he was striking out ten guys per nine innings. But his strikeout rate has fallen in recent years and with it, his effectiveness has gone out the window. He may just be the least effective starting pitcher in baseball the last two years and his Spring Training this year has not shown any improvement. Don't be surprised if the Angels start the season without him.

Walks are a pet peeve of this writer. And yet many as shown here on this list, have success despite the high walk rates. But how much better could these pitchers be if they attacked the strike zone more vigorously? A young guy like Jonathan Sanchez always finds himself at 100 pitches by the fifth inning. That is a strain on his arm and his team's bullpen. And Sanchez's velocity took a dip toward the end of 2010, so maybe it's catching up with him. Carlos Marmol's monster season in 2010 was due largely to his decrease in his walk rate. All these pitchers walk a fine line between success and failure. And sometimes, as in Kazmir's case, that fine line has a cliff on the other side.

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