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Pitching by the Numbers: Baffling the best

It's an axiom that most of baseball (75 percent) is pitching and thus we are all conditioned to believe that ultimately pitchers control outcomes when it comes to the matchups versus hitters.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong. There's little debate among statheads that it's hitters who generally have the most influence over what happens in an at bat. The trick is to isolate the exceptions to the rule – the pitchers who through their talent take most control over their pitching destiny.

A simple way to identify these pitchers, I think, is to look at how they perform against No. 3 hitters – since most teams place their best hitter in that spot. Last year, No. 3 hitters MLB-wide sported an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .805 vs. the MLB average of .720 (No. 4 hitters compiled a .791 OPS). Of course, there are sample size caveats and some pitchers, due to unbalanced schedules, faced weak-hitting teams that also have relatively weak-hitting No. 3 hitters. Still, I'd much rather bet on pitchers who dominated No. 3 hitters versus those who were dominated by them.

Following are the pitchers who had the most success versus opposing No. 3 hitters in 2011. The qualifications are 0.31 No. 3 batters faced per team game.

Player Team AB AVG OBP SLG OPS BABIP
Matt Harrison Tex 80 .163 .253 .175 .428 .213
Alfredo Aceves Bos 42 .119 .269 .214 .484 .132
Gio Gonzalez Oak 94 .191 .248 .245 .492 .233
Matt Garza ChC 87 .161 .240 .276 .515 .194
Clayton Kershaw LAD 100 .210 .262 .260 .522 .286
Jered Weaver LAA 101 .178 .224 .347 .571 .197
Tim Hudson Atl 96 .188 .243 .344 .586 .177
Shaun Marcum Mil 85 .176 .247 .341 .589 .162
Ricky Romero Tor 98 .184 .266 .327 .593 .208
Tommy Hanson Atl 57 .175 .266 .333 .599 .211
Mike Leake Cin 79 .203 .238 .367 .605 .217
Alexi Ogando Tex 77 .208 .256 .351 .607 .237
Michael Pineda Sea 81 .259 .286 .321 .607 .345
Zack Greinke Mil 76 .224 .280 .329 .609 .278
Cole Hamels Phi 93 .204 .267 .344 .611 .236
Vance Worley Phi 56 .232 .308 .304 .611 .295
Dillon Gee NYM 74 .189 .302 .311 .613 .203
Trevor Cahill Oak 90 .189 .295 .322 .617 .211
Jaime Garcia StL 92 .217 .263 .359 .621 .257
Johnny Cueto Cin 65 .231 .333 .292 .626 .275

Wow, Harrison. His K-rate is too low for most shallower, Yahoo! formats. But if you are not innings capped, this is certainly another reason to buy – along with the better than 2:1 K/BB ratio and scintillating 92.8 average fastball velocity from the left side.

Aceves is another good, cheap option in deeper, non-innings-capped formats given this stat and the fact that he's back in the rotation given the apparent demotion of Daniel Bard. But I caution you that his sample size in this category is on the smaller side. Leake similarly struggles with Ks and doesn't throw hard so it's harder to envision a bump there than it is even for Aceves, who is at least a tick above average for a righty.

People are down on Pineda, who has had a rough spring and looks to be carrying some extra weight. But if you need another reason to look into buying the only rookie in the history of baseball to average more than 9.0 Ks per nine innings and less than three walks, here you go.

Gee is just an NL-only play, but a good, cheap one if only for this reason (and there are others). And I'm a Cueto fan because he held top-shelf velocity last year. This dominance of the best hitters further suggests that his decline in Ks may have been by his design, which of course doesn't help us but at least provides hope that his rate can bounce back to more rosterable levels.

Note that Cliff Lee ranked 27th but had 32 Ks and just two walks in 109 plate appearances versus No. 3 hitters, which is sick.

Conversely, the pitchers who were dominated by No. 3 hitters seem reasonably to be less skilled and thus more likely to be controlled by the hitter. There are not many surprises here, which is good as it lends credence to the metric and makes outliers more meaningful.

Player Team AB AVG OBP SLG OPS BABIP
Rodrigo Lopez ChC 46 .413 .481 .870 1.350 .378
Tyler Chatwood LAA 62 .403 .494 .758 1.252 .396
J.A. Happ Hou 70 .386 .482 .714 1.196 .426
Cory Luebke SD 62 .371 .418 .726 1.144 .391
Edinson Volquez Cin 49 .327 .431 .694 1.125 .375
Joel Pineiro LAA 62 .355 .411 .694 1.105 .347
Kyle Kendrick Phi 51 .353 .364 .706 1.070 .326
John Lackey Bos 75 .373 .467 .6 1.067 .400
Aaron Harang SD 78 .372 .417 .641 1.058 .391
Bartolo Colon NYY 66 .318 .432 .621 1.053 .320
Tim Stauffer SD 84 .345 .402 .643 1.045 .365
Kevin Correia Pit 71 .338 .390 .648 1.037 .317
Max Scherzer Det 90 .311 .361 .667 1.027 .308
Javier Vazquez Fla 85 .388 .448 .576 1.024 .420
Paul Maholm Pit 67 .343 .427 .582 1.009 .357
Jake Peavy CWS 51 .412 .434 .569 1.003 .463
Jeff Francis KC 87 .368 .415 .586 1.001 .411
Joe Saunders Ari 95 .347 .386 .611 .997 .342
Chris Capuano NYM 90 .311 .347 .644 .992 .328
Dustin Moseley SD 53 .302 .350 .642 .992 .244

This is another reason to dislike Scherzer, who still has some buzz about him as someone who can be a part of a shallow-league championship puzzle. I don't see that at all. Ditto Vazquez and Peavy (who I need only the slightest reason to steer clear of). I must note that Jeremy Hellickson, who has been positively highlighted in my two prior pieces ranks 24th worst on this list.

To broaden the sample size, how about we look at the results for the past three years:

Player AB AVG OBP SLG OPS BABIP
Adam Wainwright 203 .197 .257 .271 .528 .253
David Hernandez 110 .191 .308 .273 .58 .235
Carlos Zambrano 198 .207 .300 .293 .592 .264
Clayton Kershaw 269 .216 .286 .312 .598 .291
C.J. Wilson 206 .223 .321 .286 .607 .304
Zack Greinke 276 .221 .279 .333 .612 .276
Andy Pettitte 146 .233 .278 .336 .613 .274
Tim Hudson 210 .205 .280 .343 .623 .213
Tommy Hunter 149 .228 .280 .349 .629 .256
Josh Johnson 200 .255 .320 .310 .630 .336

The takeaway here is to grab Hernandez now as a closer-in-waiting for when (not if) J.J. Putz goes down (again).

Michael Salfino (Twitter @MichaelSalfino) is a quantative sports analyst whose writing regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal.

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