Yesterday’s snarky hit piece on John Rocker got me thinking. More accurately, a comment left by noted commenter J. Paquin got me looking more closely at John Rocker’s numbers when he pointed out that Rocker was, in fact, not bad. Rocker posted a pretty great season in 1999, a Carlos Marmol-type year with humongous strikeout rates (nearly 13 K/9) to go with scary but manageable walk rates (just under 5 BB/9.)

This represents Rocker’s career year. It also makes the season he posted in 2000 that much crazier. He upped the strikeout per nine rate over 13 but his walks went up, too. Oh how they went up. Rocker walked more than 8 batters per nine innings in the year 2000. Rocker? More like WALKER, amirite?

How could that even be allowed? Weirder still, Rocker’s season is not out of place from the decade ruled by the save.

John Rocker’s 1999/2000 seasons serve as an excellent reminder of how valuable straight-up K rate (strikeouts per total batters faced) is compared to K/9. Though he increased his K/9 from 12.94 to 13.08 from 99 to 2000, he actually decreased his K% from 34.6% to 30.7%. It is almost as though walking one out of every five batters he faced in 2000 gave him many more opportunities for strikeouts.

Rocker’s exploits are not alone. Remember Mitch Williams? As a Getting Blanked reader, odds are he holds a very warm place in your heart. Mitch was the Phillies closer during their Cinderella run to the World Series in 1993. He saved 43 games that year! What a beast. I don’t know how to break it to you but…guess what: he was terrible.

Mitch Williams was terrible long before he served up that famous cookie to Joe Carter. He was terrible for a while after, too. It is easy to chalk his post-World Series performances up to PTSD but, nope, he was bad all along. In his career, Mitch Williams faced more than 3100 batters. He walked 522 of them. That is a tidy 17% walk rate, friends. Or more than 7 BB/9. For his career. Which spanned eleven seasons!

During his wild ride to infamy in 1993, he struck out sixty batters in sixty-two innings. He walked 44 over the span. That 1.36 K/BB ratio was one tick below his career best mark of 1.37. Only four relievers in all of baseball last season posted K/BB rates that bad or worse in 2011; Mitch Williams did it for a decade.

Bloggers and tuned-in fans might decry the baseball establishment for overvaluing saves and fetishizing the Proven Closer but baseball underwent a very apparent shift in the last decade. If you walk the ballpark, you tend to lose your job in the modern game. It wasn’t always the case.

Between 1990 and 2000, thirty-two pitchers registered at least 10 saves while walking more than 13% of the batters they faced (around 5 BB/9.) In the last decade, that numbers shrinks to nineteen pitchers. Of the 32 wild children of the 90s, fourteen failed to strikeout at least 20% of their hitters (just south of 8 K/9.) When we look at the 2001-2011 seasons, the number of high walk/low strikeout shrinks to six: and what a motley crew indeed.

LaTroy Hawkins in 2001, Mike “Don’t You Dare Call Me Mitch” Williams in 2003, Shawn Chacon in 2004, Troy Percival (2008), Mike McDougall (2009) and Kevin Effing Gregg in 2011. OriLOLes.

Baseball got the message – relievers who walk the ballpark cannot be trusted unless they take matters into their own hands with huge strikeout rates. Even then, it is with great trepidation that any team trots out a fireballer with little idea where the ball is going. Doubly so in high-leverage situations or when saves are on the line.

The 80s are an entirely different ballgame. The reliever roles hadn’t yet developed into their highly specialized jobs of the past twenty years. Yet ineffective pitchers still received chances to close out games. Only thirteen pitchers hit the 13% walk rate/10 save plateau in that decade (hi, Mitch Williams twice!) but the strikeout numbers are more eye-opening.

Behold Doug Sisk – Mets reliever who managed two successive seasons with strikeout rates below 10% with walk rates above 13%. How does 32 strikeouts with 54 walks and 15 saves grab ya? By the balls, no doubt. So weird that a player with this profile went from posting two consecutive ERAs under 2.5 to an ERA over 5 overnight, isn’t it? So strange.

We live in the golden age of relief pitching. Overpowering superarms burst from the bullpens of the Major Leagues the world over. Missed bats and max effort, a great combination for entertainment. This wasn’t always the case, we should all be very thankful that we (non-Orioles fans) aren’t subjected the abuses of top-steppers from years gone by.

Single-season data courtesy of Fangraphs, I shouldn’t need to remind you.

Comments (12)

  1. Awesome article. So well researched. I’d be interested in a follow up: Who actually were the best relievers at that time (if evaluated by today’s standards)? I would love to see if guys like Henke, Eckersley, etc. would actually translate to this era.

    • I looked up Henke, and… yeah. He would’ve been pretty freaking great in any era. 1991, for instance: 0.874 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9, 9.0 K/9.

      That was his best year, but it’s not like he was ever too far off that. It continues to mystify me why he quit the game when he was still pitching very effectively – if the Jays had a time machine and snapped up 37-year-old, 1.104 WHIP Henke from St. Louis, he could probably close for another four years.

      Gods, I miss the days of being comfortably able to fall asleep with the Jays leading in the 7th knowing that Ward and Henke meant the game was effectively over at that point. Sure, they might have been overpriced, but you can’t beat that type of peace of mind.

  2. Still love Mitch Williams for both serving up the grooved fastball to Joe Carter and consistently telling Harold Reynolds and Jon Heyman on MLBTonight just how full of shit they are.

  3. The minute I saw the pic of Wild Thing I was filled with the warm and fuzzies. Brings back the best sporting memories of my life.

    Thanks for the shoutout, on my b-day of all days! Nice!

  4. Gotta wonder if the trend will stabilize… I don’t personally have the datasets to verify this (apologies) but one might assume that the linear weight values of walks and strikeouts in wOBA and FIP would be higher when there are lots of HRs. In other words: the more the ball leaves the park, the costlier the free passes. Or is it that more HRs leads to more walks (old school baseball) because the relative cost of a wealk depends on what the hitter might have done otherwise? The trend in the linear weights might show that and provide an estimate of the overall impact of the trend you identify with cases in this piece. I am amazed that I have never read this stuff quantifying the decrease in high-walk rate pitchers before… you are onto something useful.

    • Great questions. Our friend Matt Klaassen does the Lord’s work with linear weights here for Beyond the Box Score. You are right (though these numbers are for hitters) that the value of a walk fluctuates with the offensive environment. The offensively-depressed 1968 features the lowest weighted value for walks and the highest value for home runs as the latter was in such high demand.

      • Thanks muchly for the link Drew. It exactly answers my question: there does not seem to be much to my hypothesis. In fact, it is kind of amazing how utterly constant the linear weights are across periods which fans often perceive as dominated by contrasting styles of play (post dead-ball, of course).

        I hate to have to wax poetic (french folks do that…) but the linear weights in TangoTiger`s wOBA model are a proxy for the “DNA” of the game of baseball and this underlying identity, it seems, is impervious to tampering by managers, players or anybody else…

        Data bringing out the beauty of the game… why can`t I ever recall these examples when I really want one?

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