Monday, September 05, 2011

Does 2,500 Strikeouts Mean Anything?

Javier Vazquez could be a lightening rod case for the wins versus the analyst crowd. The well-traveled pitcher has--after fourteen seasons--a perfect .500 record at 160-160. His ERA+ for his career stands at 104, just barely over average. He's only cracked the Cy Young Award voting once in his career. He's only made one All Star team. And yet Fangraphs rates his career with an impressive 53.6 WAR. Even the stat sites can't agree on his value as his WAR for sits at a substantially lower 37.6. Now Vazquez has become only the thirtieth pitcher in major league history to fan 2,500 batters. What does it all mean? Or does it mean anything?

Vazquez now has more career strikeouts than Don Drysdale, Jack Morris, Jim Kaat, Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown and Sandy Koufax. There are some pretty good pitchers in that list. But don't we have to put Vazquez in some kind of historical perspective? When Javier Vazquez began his major league career, the average strikeouts per nine innings was 6.41. The strikeout per nine rate has grown to over seven strikeouts per nine innings in the last two years. That may not be that much of a jump since Vazquez started, but it is significant. Not only that, but just five years earlier than when Vazquez started his career, the league's strikeouts per nine had never been over six strikeouts per nine innings. In other words, we are witnessing an unprecedented era of strikeouts in major league baseball. That leads to the overall question of whether strikeouts are over valued in today's analysis? Has this number become akin to 500 homers in a career?

Please know that his writer isn't making a judgement here. The Fan prefers to ask questions and let others answer them. Those people that stick to the old-fashioned notion that a starting pitcher should be valued by his wins could point to the fact that Javier Vazquez has had only seven "winning" seasons out of his fourteen. Mike Mussina (a pretty darn good pitcher in his time) said that a starting pitcher should win half of the games he starts. Mussina did that. Vazquez has won 160 games in 438 starts.

Analysts will argue that a pitcher can't be held accountable for things out of his control and wins are not in the pitcher's control. It's a compelling argument. And the pendulum seems to be swinging in that direction judging by Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke's Cy Young Awards in recent years. Vazquez did pitch for some pretty bad teams in some of those Expos years and certainly this year with the Marlins.

Javier Vazquez's career is much more than his strikeouts or his wins and losses. His strikeout to walk ratio has been terrific in his career. He's shown excellent control over the years. But he's also given up 372 homers or an average of 29 per full season. His 1.2 home runs per nine innings is a very high number. But so are his infield pop ups with a career average of 11.4 percent. 

This writer will let the "wins" versus "value" people duke out what kind of career Javier Vazquez has had.  According to, his career "comps" are Brad Radke, Andy Benes and Livan Hernandez. Those seem about right. If you had to put this writer in a corner and forced him to make a value judgment, the answer would probably be that Vazquez has been a serviceable big league pitcher for a rather long time. He's shown durability and resilience and there isn't too much more you can ask of a pitcher in the long haul. He's only had a couple of sub-par seasons. His strikeouts may be overvalued given the historical data that we have. And his value as a pitcher is probably somewhere in the middle of Fangraphs' lofty WAR total and B-R's somewhat lower number. 

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