Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Way Off His Rocker

Eight years have passed since John Rocker last threw a pitch in the major leagues. Rocker had a meteoric rise to  fame as the closer for the Atlanta Braves in his first full season in 1999. He saved 38 games that season with over twelve strikeouts per nine innings and a sparkling ERA of 2.49. His season helped the Braves make it all the way to the World Series where the Braves lost to the Yankees. His next season (2000) was a season for the record books because John Rocker did something that had never been done before in the majors and hasn't been done since.

John Rocker, with his season in the year 2000, became the only pitcher ever to pitch more than fifty innings with a walk rate over 7 walks per nine innings and yet still finish with an ERA under 3.00. It's amazing when you think about it. Rocker pitched 53 innings that season and ended up facing 251 batters in those 53 innings. That's an astounding 4.73 batters per innings pitched. His hit rate was 7.1 hits per nine innings giving him a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.698. And yet his final ERA was 2.89. How is that possible?

Let's look at it another way. If John Rocker faced 4.73 batters per inning and 1.698 of them got on base, he allowed 35.9 percent of them to get on base. And yet, he only gave up 0.32 runs per inning. Part of the reason he escaped so many times was that he struck out a lot of batters. He struck out 13 batters per nine innings that season. That leaves us with another fun way of looking at his season.

He faced 251 batters and 77 of them struck out. That leaves 174 batters that didn't strike out. Of those 174 batters that didn't strike out, 92 of them reached base. So, of all the batters that he didn't strike out, 52.8 percent of them got on base. If you didn't strike out that season against John Rocker, you had a better than one in two chances to get on base.

There have been a few seasons that are in Rocker's ballpark. Way back in 1916, a pitcher named Grover Loudermilk pitched 51.2 innings and walked 8.38 batters per nine innings. That's even higher than Rockers incredible 8.19 walks per nine innings. Loudermilk faced 4.68 batters per inning, just under Rocker's 4.73. Loudermilk finished with a 3.14 ERA. The thing that really stands out about Loudermilk's season was that he gave up 33 runs, but only 18 were earned runs. That's pretty sloppy defense behind him.

After expanding the search to less than or equal to an ERA of 3.50 instead of 3.00, five pitchers fit the category. So far, Loudermilk and Rocker are two of them. Who were the others?

One just happened two years ago. Carlos Marmol of the Cubs walked 7.91 batters per nine innings pitched and yet had an ERA of 3.41. Marmol gave up a lot less hits per nine innings pitched than Rocker though and he faced 4.24 batters per inning. Marmol had the highest ERA of these five pitchers, but had the lowest percentage of unearned runs for his season.

Another of our contenders performed the feat the same year as Rocker (2000). Robert Ramsay only pitched two seasons in the majors, both with the Seattle Mariners. His last season was memorable. He walked 7.15 batters per nine innings, but only struck out 5.2 batters per nine innings. He averaged facing 4.56 batters per inning and yet finished with an ERA of 3.40.

They didn't call Mitch Williams the "Wild Thing" for nothing. Williams walked 544 batters in his 691.1 career innings. That's a 7.1 walks per nine innings rate for his entire career! Williams joins as the last member of our group for his 1987 season. He has the highest innings pitched for our survey with 108.2 innings pitched that season. Not too many batters got hits off of Mitch Williams. And as such, his batters per innings came to 4.33 that season and still managed to finish with a 3.23 ERA.

But none of these guys finished with an ERA under 3.00 like Rocker did in 2000. As pretty much everyone remembers, Rocker quickly devolved after his brilliant start to his career. Injuries and disgrace due to his conduct limited his career and he faded from history. Which is kind of too bad. He could have been a great one. He made 20 post-series appearances covering 20.2 innings pitched and never gave up a single run. But he will be remembered more for what he said and how he acted than any of the good things he did early in his career.

And now, thanks to player searches, we will now remember him for his one-of-a-kind seasons when he walked 8.19 batters per nine innings pitched, had a WHIP of 1.698 and still finished the season with a 2.89 ERA (and 24 saves). No one else in baseball history has that kind of accomplishment on his resume.

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