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Pitching by the Numbers: Swing-and-a-miss

With batters striking out today more than ever before, we need more from our pitchers to compete in this category.

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Now's a good time to give Jarrod Parker a test drive. (USAT)

And the wonderful thing about strikeouts is that they are also excellent predictors, generally, of ERA and WHIP, too.

But while they seem to be so firmly in the control of the pitcher, they are influenced to at least some degree by random factors. Logically, generating swings that miss are the foundation upon which a solid K rate is built. While some pitchers seem to exhibit a superhuman ability to outguess hitters and leave them muttering to themselves while the bat remains on their shoulder, I’ll take bat-missing skill any day when it comes to projecting strikeout rates.

Here we’re assuming where pitchers rank in swinging strike rates is the best predictor of future K rate performance. Generally, there’s a very small and, you could argue, completely insignificant difference between the two. But there are some pitchers who exhibit wide variance. Our assumption is that the pitchers with a much better swinging strike rate than K rate will see more strikeouts. Vice versa for the pitchers who have a much better K rate than swinging strike rate, meaning they should see their K rate decline. The reason we place greater predictive power in swinging strike rate than K rate is that the former is always based on more data. Our big assumption is that swinging strike rate will remain unchanged. That’s far from a guarantee. But as always in this game, we can’t wait for things to be bankable because they never will be. We are looking for edges that are bettable, a point made clear to me many years ago by the great Gene McCaffrey of WiseGuyBaseball.com.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com. They use the percentage of pitches that are swinging strikes. Sometimes here I use the percentage of swings that are swinging strikes. But it’s the rank that matters, either way. The ranks are among the 103 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title through Thursday.

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Mixed leaguers want a pitcher who is at least top 50 in strikeouts (out of the 103 current qualifiers). Obviously, the higher up the better.

Sanabia has a groin strain. But put him on your watch list. My Pitching by the Numbers stats are as conflicted about Parker as I am and as maybe you are, too. He’s combustible, the last thing we want from a mixed-league starter. But he’s hot now and maybe is going to become the pitcher finally that people have expected since he was in high school. He’s 42 percent owned now. Pick him up if he’s available and give him a month with fingers crossed.

Kuroda has more upside in K rate than many owners think and he’s been golden with the averages. So I like him as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter in all formats.

Garcia is hurt. Blanton can’t be trusted and is not top 50 in swinging strike rate anyway. Sabathia is very interesting, for all the talk about his declining stuff. If that’s so, why is he missing so many bats? Sabathia’s career ERA in April and May is also 3.74. If he’s cheap, buy him; he’s probably just been unlucky in when he’s getting swinging strikes (but hitters are more careful with two strikes, too).

The pitchers who may be bargains are Kennedy and Dickey. Even I have had it with Dickey right now. Every fiber of my being wants to at least reserve him in the dynasty league where I own him. But we have to stay coldly rational about this. He is the defending Cy Young Award winner who was solid in ERA and WHIP the prior two years, too. His swinging strike rate gives us a reason to give him more rope, perhaps with which we will hang our teams.

Hellickson has been much better in swinging strike rate than K rate before and the expected gains have not materialized to the predicted degree (though he has gotten better there). I can’t sign off on rostering him now in standard mixers though. Hellickson is a sabermetric outlier in so many ways, it seems.

Now for the pitchers who have seemingly been lucky in K rate by ranking much higher there than where they rank in swinging strike rate.

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Miller’s swinging strike rate is definitely a sell-high sign. Note this does not mean cut or give away. It means trade for the value he’s generally perceived to have right now. Miller is clearly talented and has good velocity and may just be the rare pitcher like David Price who always has a much lower swinging strike rate. But probably not.

I feel the same way about Moore, also dead last in strike percentage (meaning just throwing strikes, not necessarily having them be swinging). Moore and Miller while very impressive prospects are a step or more behind Matt Harvey when it comes to projectability in 2013. With Harvey (sixth in swinging strike rate and sixth in K rate), everything is elite.

I like Ryu but that K rate seems a little lucky and it’s not great to begin with, though he could be adjusting to his new surroundings, too. That’s a trickier call. But Kuroda and Ryu, for example, are at least in the same tier. Ryu also doesn’t seem to have much upside from current levels.

Buchholz and Masterson swinging strike rates are reason to doubt their current K rates are sustainable.

Lester peaked at 11.1% swinging strikes in 2009, showing the current rate represents a steep decline. Gonzalez though was just 9.3% last year, so just mild concern with him.
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