Strikeout math has fundamentally changed and we have to recalibrate for league-wide context if we want to maximize category efficiency.
My Wall Street Journal colleague Tim Marchman pointed this out recently in an article that cautioned Mets fans into thinking that Matt Harvey was comparable in strikeout dominance to Dr. K of a generation ago, Dwight Gooden.
In his first full season as a rookie in 1984, Gooden struck out 276 batters in 218 innings, 11.4 per nine innings. The league-wide average in 1984 was 5.37, not even a rounding difference better than the 30-year low of 1985. So, in 1984, Gooden was 111% better than the league average. This year in MLB, the average pitcher strikes out 7.72 batters per nine innings. For someone to be 111% better than the league average like the 1984 Gooden requires a K rate of 16.3 per nine innings. Not even Yu Darvish is coming close to that. And Harvey’s K rate of 10.3 per nine is just 33.4 percent better than the major league average.
I question whether there is a ceiling for how many batters you can strike out per nine innings regardless of era. This is more of an issue if you believe that the increased modern-day strikeout rate is the product of better pitching as opposed to worse contact hitting. But those are fine points, how many angels can dance on a head of a pin points. Most important is knowing the thresholds now for helping in the category and how to best quantify it. That old 7.5 K/9 rate that we looked at as an asset is now actually hurting us.
So let’s look at all ERA qualifying starting pitchers with a K-rate of 7.7 or better and calculate how they will help us relative to average on the assumption that they will pitch 200 innings. I understand that’s a big assumption. But we also know that getting 200 innings out of a pitching slot in a mixed league is very easy to do with simple churn.
Here are ERA qualifiers through May 2 based on the surplus Ks they are on pace to generate per 200 innings pitched versus the current MLB average of 7.72.
Feel free to talk about it in the comments or to ask me any questions via Twitter (@michaelsalfino). For Tony Cingrani (not enough innings to qualify) owners, floating on clouds of happiness, his rate of 14 Ks per nine innings works out to 311 per 200 IP, 140 Ks above average. Caveats with him is that he’s doing it with 80 percent fastballs and with a swinging strike rate 29.5 percent (of swings) - the MLB average now is 22.4 percent. Cingrani's rate is good (it would rank top 10 in baseball), but not in Yu Darvish territory (40.7 percent) and significantly trails Harvey (31.5). I must note that Dempster’s 34 percent rate makes his Ks seem more real.
To close, let’s eyeball the swinging strike rate for just the pitchers near the top of our chart and see which don't seem to jibe with the current K rate. Peavy is actually below average at 21.9 percent, suggesting his current K rate is highly inflated, only slight less so than Buchholz's (22.8). On the plus side, Buchholz’s rate is tied with Verlander (not a plus, perhaps, if you are a Verlander owner). Moore’s rate of 25 percent is tied with R.A. Dickey, behind Sale (25.2). Gonzalez is just 22.5 percent, slightly better than Miller (22) and trailing Lynn (23.9). On a depressing note for Strasburg owners, his swinging strike rate is just 21.5 percent -- far below the 29.2 he averaged from 2010 to 2012.
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