Timmy misses bats, breaks hearts
Despite my constant complaining about Spring Training and its general uselessness, I’m not completely against it. Strikeouts are always in fashion, so I always keep half an eye on spring K numbers. Even raw strikeout numbers don’t tell the whole story – in spring I’m more concerned with whiffs. Missing bats is both telling and key to racking up the strikeouts.

Swinging strikes are more than key: they are essential to strikeouts. Man cannot live on called strikes alone and pitching to contact is a mope’s game. Meaning getting batters to swing and miss is the most crucial thing to a pitcher can do to increase his strikeouts. Seems obvious, right?

Strikeouts are, of course, one of the three pillars of effective pitching – with limiting walks and home runs the other two. Looking at a list of top strikeout pitchers is often a list of the very best pitchers in baseball, these things go hand in hand. How closely? Join me after the jump where we’ll examine how much swinging strikes impact strikeouts.

The graph compares the strikeouts per 9 numbers against the swinging strike rate for all pitchers who threw 240 innings or more between 2008 – 2010. The relationship between swinging strikes and strikeouts is very, very strong, as you can see.

It is, as I can find, the strongest relationship. Virtually no relationship exists between “pounding the zone” and amassing strikeouts, despite what we hear quite often. This doesn’t mean pounding the zone is a bad idea but it doesn’t correlate strongly to either strikeouts our strikeout/walk ratio.

The concept of pitching to contact enters into this conversation, quite obviously. “Pitching to contact” is baseballspeak for minimizing the damage of poor pitchers, in my opinion. Nibblers and low-walk, low-K pitchers are that way for a reason: they don’t have the stuff to miss bats.

In an attempt to make this post useful beyond simple curiosity, I wonder if this information could be used for fantasy purposes. Looking for cheap strikeouts or worried a pitcher might regress from his lofty K numbers in 2010? I charted the 2010 numbers with an added wrinkle for the trendline.

You may notice the trendline on the 2010 chart is exponential, as I don’t believe the relationship to be completely linear and the numbers back me up, ever so slightly.

Looking at pitchers who are well above or below the trendline, we might see Craig Stammen pick up a few extra Ks this year. He’s notorious for his wildness, throwing an incredible number of pitches outside the zone. Interesting to see Giants lefty Jonathan Sanchez well above the line. Always a guy with strong stuff, his questionable command made it difficult to support high strikeout numbers.

Whenever we read about good pitchers, we here about their “swing and miss stuff.” Not just because it looks good, they make it really easy for pitchers to do their job. If you want to know what kind of pitcher a guy is, watch for how many bats he misses.