Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Two Most Interesting Pitchers in Baseball, Part 2

It was a thing of beauty.

Chien Ming Wang shut down one of the best lineups in baseball on Friday night, needing just 93 pitches to beat the Red Sox at Fenway 4-1. The two-hitter was marred only by the solo home run off the bat of JD Drew and a harmless single from Coco Crisp. There are better pitchers in baseball - the Mets just signed one of them to a $137 million extension two months ago - but Chien Ming Wang is the most important starting pitcher in MLB.

In an era where pitch counts are the dominant measure employed when evaluating starting pitcher usage, I believe that the future lies in the starter who does his job "efficiently." The starting pitcher who can get through the lineup quickly – by avoiding both walks AND strikeouts – will be allowed to pitch deeper into games and therefore will be more valuable to his team in the long run.

Think about the possibilities: a starter out of what I’ll call the “Wang mold” will get outs more quickly – hopefully in just two or three pitches by pitching to contact, instead of four or five it generally takes to record a strikeout. The pitcher who gives up two walks a game instead of three throws approximately five fewer pitches an outing. All of a sudden, with another 15 or 20 pitches to play with, a starter can go an extra inning or two before he’s considered “tired.” This allows a manager to bypass his middle relievers or – under the best of circumstances – give the entire bullpen the night off.

Today, a good start generally looks like this:

6 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 3 BB, 8 K

Using Tangotiger’s Pitch Count Estimator, the line above will generally be earned by throwing approximately 98 to 108 pitches. (Each double play turned takes off approximately 3.3 pitches from the overall total – which places a slightly higher premium on both groundball pitchers and good infield defense.) We know what that means – a pat on the back and an early trip to the showers, with the game left in the hands of the bullpen.

Now, let’s take a look at another hypothetical line:

6 IP, 3 ER, 8 H, 1 BB, 2 K

At first glance, the line looks a lot worse. One extra run has been allowed, for starters. This hurler has actually given up more hits than innings pitched and has only struck out two batters, which indicates that he hasn’t been particularly dominant. It would certainly seem that he’s a prime candidate for being taken out and replaced by a middle reliever. But now, when you use the pitch count estimator, you will find that this pitcher probably threw somewhere between 84 and 94 pitches to reach this point.

If you worship at the altar of pitch counts, then you believe that the starter who posted the second line is good to go for one more inning, perhaps even two if he remains effective. You can now bypass one of your mediocre middle relievers and hand the ball to your top set-up man or your closer when you finally decide to remove the starter. In other words, more innings are given to your best pitchers – which should be the goal of any manager.

The key, then, is to fill your starting staff with “efficient” starters who will take you deeper into the game. Pitchers like Wang will get you more innings from your starters, fewer outings from your relievers and – for the truly daring manager – the ability to carry one more bench player at the expense of the generally useless seventh reliever. In the never-ending search for quality pitching, a twist on Earl Weaver's Seventh Law is appropriate - it's certainly easier to find 11 good pitchers than 12.

This requires quite a change in thinking, of course. The strikeout is generally considered a measure of dominance and rightfully so. A strikeout leaves no margin for error and requires no assistance from any field player. The ability to throw three pitches that a batter is unable to put into play suggests an ability to overmatch the hitter – an obvious indicator of success.

But here's the thing – so-called “dominant” pitchers are inefficient. Strikeouts are fun to watch and exciting to tally, but they inevitably lead to higher pitch counts. Those higher pitch counts lead to fewer innings and more dependence on relievers, who by definition are going to be inferior to your high-strikeout dominant starters. To borrow a phrase from Moneyball – efficiency should be the new market inefficiency.

Wang is the new model for a starting pitcher, in that he neither walks nor strikes out a large number of batters but has still found success at the highest level. He is particularly special because he has the ability to strike out more batters than he does – Wang features a plus fastball and a devastating sinker. But he pitches in a way that allows him to go deeper into games at the expense of the sexiest pitcher statistic of all – the strikeout.

The ability to trade strikeouts for innings pitched requires a certain mindset – one almost completely absent in the American-born hurler. Earlier in his career I wondered if Wang’s ability to do so may actually be cultural; perhaps his Taiwanese upbringing did not indoctrinate him into the importance of the strikeout as a measure of individual success. This is pure speculation, of course, but the truth is that a pitcher with Wang’s talent and statistical profile is incredibly rare – so rare that one has to look for alternative explanations to explain it.

Enter Brian Bannister. As we said in the first part, Bannister lacks the stuff Wang possesses. What Bannister has is an understanding of his limitations and the natural intelligence to seek alternative methods of success. Brian Bannister simply isn’t going to be a successful pitcher if he tries to conform to the mold – he’s not going to get a lot of strikeouts and trying to do so will only lead to more walks and more hits. To his credit, Bannister has recognized this and is experimenting with a unique method to continue his success.

The truth is, Bannister isn’t even the first Royals pitcher in recent history to do this. Dan Quisenberry is one of my favorite pitchers in baseball history – at least in part because of his guest spot on The Baseball Bunch many years ago. Quisenberry’s message that day – after Andy gave up a home run to The Incredible Bulk – was for the young closer to trust his stuff and to not be afraid to pitch to contact.

I still remember how Quisenberry described his best pitch – the “at ‘em” ball. When pressed for clarification, he simply explained that his goal was to try to get the batter to hit his pitches “at ‘em” – to the fielders behind him. For 10 years, the plan worked – Quisenberry was perennially one of the most effective relievers in baseball.

Bruce Sutter is remembered today as a pioneer for his success with the split-fingered fastball and parlayed a brilliant career into a deserved spot in the Hall of Fame. I think that Quisenberry is equally deserving of a Cooperstown plaque – not only for his success as a pitcher but also for providing an early blueprint for pitcher success that is not dependent on the strikeout.

Of course, Quisenberry didn’t have the benefit of pitch count analysis and BABIP numbers – he simply had a gut feeling and went with it, to the benefit of his career and to the teams he pitched for. Bannister has those numbers at his disposal and thinks he may have found a pattern for success. Ten years from now, we may look back at Bannister’s discovery as a turning point in the mindset of the major league pitcher.

Bannister would get the credit, but Wang would deserve an equal share – after all, he has found success in a very similar method without the same amount of sabermetric fanfare. Every single successful start that Chien Ming Wang or Brian Bannister makes has the potential to take us one step closer to realizing a new era in starting pitcher evaluation. I’ll be watching them closely.

One final note. I didn’t expect to add a third part to this series, but in doing so I came up with another idea about pitcher evaluation and the best way to deploy a strikeout pitcher. Here’s a hint – strikeout pitchers would be much more useful in situations that require shorter outings. More on that later this week.

UPDATE: Bannister pitched a complete game three-hitter on Sunday, running his record to 3-0 with an 0.86 ERA. It took a whopping 111 pitches to do it, so fair play to Trey Hillman for letting Bannister finish what he started. Of course, Bannister will likely tear his labrum and blow out his elbow in his next start, ruining his career and completely justifying the Chicken Little-approach to starting pitcher usage employed by today's managers.


Christine said...

I agree with you on pitch counts. It's amazing to me that managers feel that they must stop their pitcher at or around 100 pitches.

tim said...

I'm just surprised you didn't mention that fate of your "Baseball Bunch" video tape.

Judge Roughneck said...

I HAD FORGOTTEN ALL ABOUT THAT!! Dammit Walsh, one more thing you've done to piss me off!

tim said...

We destroyed that VCR afterward. My whole family was disgraced by the incident.