There is more than one way to skin a cat. There is no single formula for success as a starting pitcher in the big leagues. Some pitchers are great strikeouts pitchers, some pitchers possess pinpoint control, some just have a knack for keeping runs off the board.
The last zillion years of baseball research shows that walks are bad and home runs are bad, too. Strikeouts are good because they minimize damage. For a while, we considered strikeout to walk ratio to be the mark of a good pitcher. Upon further reflection, maybe a greater strikeout differential is better than a ratio. A guy who strikes out nine and walks three batters per nine innings gets my attention more quickly than somebody who strikes three out and walks one.
So strikeouts are good and walks are bad. Home runs are bad, too. Ground balls are good, right? Not so fast. My personal opinion on this matter has changed ever so slightly. I prefer players who keep the ball in the park. How they go about preventing dingers is their own business, frankly.
Rather than overvaluing ground balls (here’s a good look at fly balls and which ones turn into outs and which ones turn into extra base hits) let’s simply use home runs per ball in play. It leaves this “study” prone to ballpark effects but our world is prone to ballpark effects. The horses for course mantra still rings true.
The chart below is limited to pitchers with 290 innings pitched over the last two years for reasons of clarity. If you want to check a larger list and chart featuring all pitchers with more than 170 IP aka “the Jose Fernandez line”, click this link for the full Google doc.
League average for strikeout differential for starting pitchers across this time frame is a shade over 12%. League average for home run per ball in play among starters is 3.77%. Here we go.
Because even this chart is a little unwieldy, let’s zoom in on some areas of interest. These are the really good pitchers.
Really good pitchers! The best pitchers, frankly. This would be Jose Fernandez ranks, for the record. Right on top of Felix Hernandez, if we’re being specific. Loads of strikeouts relative to their walk totals, minimal home runs. Interesting to see Jeff Samardzija sneaking into the picture, though at the higher end of the HR scale. Just missing from this screen cap: Zack Greinke and A.J. Burnett sit side by side and just to the left of this part of the graph.
Yu Darvish is really good at baseball. Cliff Lee remains Cliff Lee (and we’re all better for it.) Matt Harvey pretty much breaks this scale, sitting as the extreme lower right-hand side. He tragically misses the innings cutoff like Mets fans desperately miss his musk.
These are the really bad pitchers.
Very bad. The innings cuts a few interesting names from the low end of the HR scale. Joe Kelly doesn’t exactly look like a bad pitcher but his name belongs in the bad part of town. Many members of the somewhat ballyhooed Marlins pitching prospects (Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi) as well as guy who threw a no-hitter Henderson Alvarez keep the ball in the yard because, well, the yard is huge.
Most of these pitchers are looking for work and for good reason. What about the other kind of bad pitchers?
This is where we remember how bad Ervin Santana was in 2012 (he was terrible.) Easy to gloss over both the quality of 2013 and terribleness of 2012. His track record suggests he is slightly better than the difference between the two. On the other hand we have Phil Hughes. He’s bad but maybe a move to a more friendly ballpark will help him. A little. Ever so slightly.
Dan Haren was very bad over parts of the last two seasons. Then he was better. Dodgers fans hope he’s fixed and the badness ceases. With homer runs, you can never be too sure.
Not every good pitcher is an ace. There is plenty of room for number two starter types. Every team would be delighted to have one of these pitchers in their mix.
Your mileage may vary with some of the names at the upper end of this image but it seems like this is a clear cut group of #2 starters. The league-average home run rate cuts this image nearly in two, and below the line/above the line designation could well serve as a number 2/number 3 designation line, though I tend to like some of the names I see in that group.
Perhaps one year – good or bad influences the numbers too far. The longview is important but so is getting the sexy names out front where we can all see them.
We haven’t said much about the huge clump of pitchers in the middle. There is a lot of difference in the quality and results of the pitchers caught in that mess. Pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda is the kind of pitcher that tends to confound these more “predictive” measures. He gets outs and keeps runs off the board. Though there is some reason to doubt him and/or worry about his future given the way the he finished the last two seasons. The same sort of thinking applies to guys like Bartolo Colon and even C.J. Wilson. They keep pitching innings long after you’ve long given up on them.
Anyway, this long winter still has many weeks remaining. Keep warm and dream of your favorite pitcher learning to prevent home runs and/or striking people out. Totally going to happen this season. This is your year. Seriously.
Update: for reasons unknown, Clayton Kershaw’s name was cut from the original chart. Here is the bottom corner, the elite of the elite, if we drop the innings limit to 170 over the last two years.