Pitching by the Numbers: Outside the zone

Michael Salfino
Yahoo! SportsApril 22, 2011

You can find more from Michael Salfino at SNYWhyGuys.com

One of the benchmarks of good pitching is getting hitters to go fishing by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. This week in Pitching by the Numbers, let's look at the leaders in that department since 2010, and also at the 2011 leaders who did not make that broader and much more statistically significant list.

The major league median for swinging at bad balls is about 29 percent. But it's not enough to just get guys to fish, you need them to come away empty handed, too. Median contact rate on swinging at pitches out of the strike zone is about 66.7 percent. So pitchers on our list had to beat that. And we want these players to be available, so the cutoff there was 81 percent Yahoo! ownership. At that level, you aren't very likely to be able to just add a guy but there's a good chance he can be acquired in a trade for a reasonable price.

Rank is where the pitchers ranked sorting just by how frequently they were able to get hitters to swing at non-strikes. But actually, that contact rate is probably more important. Stats courtesy of Fangraphs. O = "out of the zone."

Since 2010:

Rank Player Team O-Swing% O-Contact% Y! Owned%
1 Hiroki Kuroda(notes) Dodgers 35.4 62.0 81.0
3 Ricky Nolasco(notes) Marlins 34.4 63.9 77.0
9 Joe Blanton(notes) Phillies 32.0 64.6 4.0
11 Ryan Dempster(notes) Cubs 31.8 55.9 85.0
12 James Shields(notes) Rays 31.8 60.9 65.0
13 Randy Wells(notes) Cubs 31.6 64.2 4.0
15 Wandy Rodriguez(notes) Astros 31.3 65.1 79.0
18 Johnny Cueto(notes) Reds 30.6 66.7 44.0

Nolasco is really a stat darling. He is pitching well this year. He makes sense as a No. 1 caliber guy even in shallow formats. My ultimate test is whether I worry that a player can beat me. I do worry about that with Nolasco, though I must note his K-rate is down significantly in the early going

I like Kuroda significantly less in leagues with more severe innings caps given the likelihood that he pitches less innings with lower K/9 rate. Kuroda has a higher floor than Nolasco though, I know. Nolasco can hurt you as he has hurt many before you.

Cueto and Wells are hurt. Wells isn't going to be owned by many even if healthy, but he keeps making these By the Numbers lists so I would roster him quickly if that forearm issue resolves itself. No need to rush with him. Wait until he gets a couple of starts on normal rest to prove he's healthy.

Blanton has been terrible but mostly terribly unlucky. His peripherals are good, but I caution against reading too much into that elevated K/9 just because he's allowing so many baserunners. Sometimes, K/9 is an efficiency stat (or, in Blanton's case, a lack of efficiency stat).

Here are the pitchers just from 2011 who did not make the 2010 list. Same rules. I strongly caution against betting heavily on them given the sample sizes. But that does not mean you shouldn't bet at all. If we sit on our hands until the data is optimally bettable, we will find the betting window is closed and the season is over.

Rank Player Team O-Swing% O-Contact% Y! Owned%
2 Michael Pineda(notes) Mariners 39.1 61.5 59.0
5 Matt Garza(notes) Cubs 34.9 58.0 81.0
6 Jeff Niemann(notes) Rays 34.8 63.8 5.0
7 Carlos Carrasco(notes) Indians 34.0 66.2 3.0
8 Armando Galarraga(notes) Diamondbacks 34.0 52.7 1.0
14 Bud Norris(notes) Astros 32.2 55.2 12.0
15 Daniel Hudson(notes) Diamondbacks 32.1 63.5 79.0
16 A.J. Burnett(notes) Yankees 32.0 59.7 60.0
18 Brandon Beachy(notes) Braves 31.3 53.2 18.0
19 Chris Narveson(notes) Brewers 31.1 46.4 44.0
22 Ian Kennedy(notes) Diamondbacks 30.8 60.0 52.0

Kennedy is barely better than average. Maybe it's a reason to keep him if you have him. I'm down with Narveson and Beachy, who are available for free in most leagues. I understand they're not much better than Kennedy at inducing swings at bad balls, but look at their contact rates. How can Pineda not be owned in every league? Forgetting about Garza and Hudson given their high ownership rates, I would roster, in order, Pineda, Beachy, Narveson, Norris, Carrasco, Niemann, Burnett, Galarraga. Norris's walks are way down. If that's for real, I don't care about anything else in his current stat line (beyond the K/9, which we knew would be there).

Michael Salfino writes and edits the SNYWhyGuys blog that projects player and team performance for New Yorkers. He's also a quantative sports analyst whose writing regularly appears in the Wall Street Journal. .