Pitching by the Numbers: Swing and a miss

Michael Salfino
Yahoo! Sports

The best skill that a pitcher can exhibit is getting batters to swing and miss.

The elite ones generally excel at run prevention – the top 22 pitchers in swinging strike percentage have a collective ERA of 3.25 this year over 1,374 innings. The bottom 10 in the category, all with rates at least half of our leaders, have a combined ERA one run higher. Our cutoff here is not arbitrary or made in a way that generates the most pleasing results. It just happens to be where the essential tie in rate ended among the top 20.

Here they are:

(Note: statistics through Wednesday, May 25)

Rank Name Team '11 SwStr% Career SS% IP ERA Y! Owned %
1 Michael Pineda(notes) Sea 13.1% 13.1% 58.1 2.16 86%
2 Shaun Marcum(notes) Mil 13.1% 10.5% 64.2 2.37 95%
3 Cole Hamels(notes) Phi 11.9% 12.2% 67.2 3.06 98%
4 Jonathan Sanchez(notes) SF 11.5% 10.5% 57 3.47 71%
5 Bud Norris(notes) Hou 11.5% 11.1% 62 3.77 48%
6 Jorge de la Rosa(notes) Col 11.4% 10.0% 59 3.51 52%
7 Chris Narveson(notes) Mil 11.4% 8.8% 55.2 4.2 18%
8 Jaime Garcia(notes) StL 11.3% 10.0% 65.1 1.93 92%
9 James Shields(notes) TB 11.3% 10.0% 76.2 2 91%
10 Ricky Romero(notes) Tor 11.2% 9.5% 65 2.91 89%
11 Matt Garza(notes) ChC 11.1% 8.2% 55.2 3.72 80%
12 Chris Capuano(notes) NYM 11.1% 10.5% 48.2 5.36 2%
13 Hiroki Kuroda(notes) LAD 11.1% 10.0% 66.2 3.1 81%
14 Francisco Liriano(notes) Min 11.0% 12.9% 48.2 5.73 83%
15 Roy Halladay(notes) Phi 11.0% 9.2% 84.1 2.35 99%
16 Jeremy Hellickson(notes) TB 10.9% 11.7% 57.1 3.14 77%
17 Daniel Hudson(notes) Ari 10.9% 11.2% 66 3.82 79%
18 Tim Lincecum(notes) SF 10.9% 11.0% 70 2.06 99%
19 Ricky Nolasco(notes) Fla 10.7% 9.6% 68 3.04 81%
20 Anibal Sanchez(notes) Fla 10.6% 9.1% 56.2 3.02 71%
21 Edinson Volquez(notes) Cin 10.6% 10.5% 51 6.35 36%
22 Clayton Kershaw(notes) LAD 10.6% 9.8% 70 2.96 99%

Usually, we sort this list by Yahoo! owned percentage, but right away we see that most of these guys are owned because they are very, very good. This is exactly what we like – a very small group of outliers. If you have too many outliers, the stat that you are pulling from isn't likely a good predictor of future positive performance.

The other thing that makes swinging strike percentage such a good stat is that it seems more skill based than random. How can we tell? Look at the career rates of these pitchers and how, generally, they align pretty nicely with 2011 performance despite the fact that we're not even a third of the way into the season.

Now, some recommendations, beginning at the bottom with Capuano. He's had two Tommy John surgeries. But there are some elite skills here obviously, also noting that career rate. I whole-heartedly recommend Capuano in NL-only formats. His HR/FB should normalize. So expect about a 4.00 ERA/1.30 WHIP with a K/9 of about 7.5 going forward. Roughly a five percent chance that he could be better and an equal chance he could be worse. But there's probably only a 25 percent chance that he pitches an additional 100-plus innings.

Next most available is his former Brewers teammate Narveson, who was blasted on Tuesday by the Nationals of all teams. But that happens to everyone. I think he's a low-end mixed-league starter who should have an ownership rate closer to five percent. He's probably available on waivers in your league. If so, pick him up for the Ks and the probability that he'll be close to mixed-league average in ERA and WHIP going forward in 2011. Perhaps his SS% this year is a bit of a fluke given that career number. But he could be that typical, late-blooming lefty. And that career sample with him is thin.

There's a decent case to be made for Volquez when he returns from his minor league exile (sent down on Monday). By this measure, at least, his skills are elite. But his control needs intensive work and probably his confidence, too. So don't expect to see him back before August. Remember, though, those last couple months are when leagues are won or lost. It's not what you have then, but what you're going to get – and Volquez could post championship-caliber pitching numbers when he returns.

Norris is viewed by the market as fungible mixed-league starters, but I think he is better than that. He provides very strong K/9 due to that elite bat-missing ability. Plus he was on our list last week in a negative way for having an ineffective fastball thus far in 2011. Iâm not discounting that at all. But note that Norris has been on at least three positive lists for that one time he graded negatively. So, roughly, thereâs a 3-out-of-4 chance that heâs mixed-league worthy. It's too bad about de la Rosa (Tommy John surgery). Every pitcher is one pitch away from major injury, but he's now suffered major injuries in two straight seasons. Some guys aren't built for the abuse that comes with throwing baseballs for a living.

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.