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Pitching by the Numbers: Lucky K

Kicking off this year's first Pitching by the Numbers is analysis inspired by Tampa Bay Rays righty Jeremy Hellickson, he of the declining strikeout rate and – largely due to that – a reportedly "very lucky" 2011 ERA (2.95 actual and 4.72 expected, says Fangraphs).

I find this K- and FIP (Fielding Independent)-ERA-driven analysis of Hellickson a little lazy. Wasn't this guy the bedeviling Hellboy just a year ago? Isn't his strikeout resume aside from 2011 top-shelf at all professional levels? There is no denying the K-rate dipped last year. When trying to work all this out with Yahoo! colleague Scott Pianowski in a backstage phone call, we both wondered why someone can't figure out a way to estimate K-rate like they do ERA. Could Hellickson's K-rate last year have been unlucky?

It struck me that percentage of swings that miss would be a good proxy. And it turned out that Fangraphs's Bradley Woodrum had a similar idea earlier. But my methodology is different and is focused precisely on estimating strikeouts per nine-innings earned in a world where everyone's missed-swing rate correlated perfectly with K/9. I'm also unconcerned about many pitchers, focusing only on low-K starters for mixed league purposes (those who had a K/9 below 7.0) with the highest missed swing rate. I rank the pitchers with 150-plus innings by the later and then recalculate K-rate based on exactly how many K/9 a pitcher would have if he ranked at exactly the same place in K/9 as he did in missed swing rate.

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Chart key is RK=rank; everything else is pretty obvious.

Rank Player Team Pitch# Swing Miss %SwgMiss %SwingMiss RK K/9 K/9 Rank Est. K/9
1 Jeremy Hellickson TB 2954 1357 302 22.3 28 5.57 84 8.03
2 Dillon Gee NYM 2603 1212 266 21.9 32 6.39 66 7.71
3 Daniel Hudson Ari 3436 1664 379 22.8 25 6.85 54 8.13
4 Tim Hudson Atl 3204 1473 326 22.1 30 6.61 58 7.89
5 Philip Humber CWS 2497 1157 247 21.3 41 6.4 64 7.25
6 Derek Lowe Atl 3226 1336 291 21.8 36 6.59 59 7.39
7 Trevor Cahill Oak 3385 1353 279 20.6 49 6.31 67 7.01
8 Alexi Ogando Tex 2728 1297 276 21.3 42 6.71 55 7.24
9 Edwin Jackson CWS-StL 3244 1545 320 20.7 45 6.67 56 7.13
10 Jhoulys Chacin Col 3139 1310 285 21.8 38 6.96 55 7.36

You see how quickly we get to a relatively insignificant variance of about 10 Ks per 200 innings. But look at Hellickson, who in 200 innings would have about 49 more Ks. Many leagues have been won (and lost) by less.

Of course, we can do the same things with pitchers who have a lower K/9 than their missed swing rate suggests they earned with "stuff"? The criteria here was best K-rates (minimum 7.5 or better) with the lowest missed swing rate, 150 innings minimum with K/9 estimated the same way as above (missed swing ranking becomes K/9 ranking).

Rank Player 1H Run Pitch# Swing Miss %SwgMiss %SwingMiss RK K/9 K/9 Rank Est. K/9
1 Cliff Lee Phi 3403 1638 355 21.7 39 9.21 5 7.36
2 David Price TB 3696 1637 344 21 45 8.75 12 7.17
3 Ubaldo Jimenez Col-Cle 3259 1403 292 20.8 48 8.6 14 7.09
4 J.A. Happ Hou 2972 1302 248 19 65 7.71 32 6.4
5 Jonathon Niese NYM 2493 1156 229 19.8 57 7.89 30 6.67
6 Ian Kennedy Ari 3424 1655 330 19.9 55 8.03 29 6.85
7 C.J. Wilson Tex 3592 1512 323 21.4 40 8.3 22 7.28
8 Colby Lewis Tex 3207 1456 292 20.1 53 7.59 33 6.96
9 Wandy Rodriguez Hou 3145 1371 291 21.2 44 7.82 31 7.21
10 Javier Vazquez Fla 3005 1451 302 20.8 47 7.57 34 7.12

I'm ticking off Lee owners now, I know. But his K/9 last year was a career high and even if we factor in the NL tailwind with K's I'd have a hard time projecting him for more than 8 K/9 this year. Remember that in addition to sharing your views below, feel free to ask me any questions and fire me complaints via Twitter @MichaelSalfino.

But look at Price and we have the extremes here on one team in two young phenom-type pitchers. Tell me how confident are you, Price owners and Hellickson bashers, that Price has better stuff when you see that it was Hellickson who missed more bats?

This "lucky K" list to me is an excellent sample of players who I would expect to have a declining K-rate for a variety of reasons. I also like the way Hellickson flies in the face of conventional wisdom. "Always a good sign," says my friend and colleague Gene McCaffrey (whose Wise Guys Baseball fantasy tome is required reading).

There are some problems with this analysis. A look back at past years yields mixed results in similarly projecting pitchers Ks based on missed swing rate because the swing rate proves more variable than I would like. Maybe guys with lesser stuff entice hitters to swing from their heels and miss more and that changes when there are two strikes. But why, then, the generally strong correlation? Bottom line: I like it enough to make sure that a guy I like for Ks has a healthy rate of missed swings. And I'm sure a Hellickson buyer, so using missed swings as a bargain hunting tool is whole-heartedly advised. Remember, the risks with bargains is always low because the price is low.

At a minimum, it's a reason to dig deeper. And one of the places that led me to with Hellickson is fly ball-extreme pitchers generally and IF/FB guys especially. Hellickson is extreme in the former and very extreme in the later (IF/FB equals harmless pop-ups that are outs 99 percent of the time). All balls in play aren't the same and should not be treated the same way for hit probability purposes. That will be the subject of next week's column.

Michael Salfino (Twitter @MichaelSalfino) is a quantative sports analyst whose writing regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal. His New York sports musings can also be found at SNYWhyGuys.

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