Pitching by the Numbers: K vs. contact

Is Andrew Cashner leaving some Ks on the table? (USAT)
Is Andrew Cashner leaving some Ks on the table? (USAT)

Padres pitcher Andrew Cashner recently told Eno Sarris that he is pitching to contact to keep his pitch counts lower so he can pitch deeper into games.

Cashner’s subsequent injury is inconsequential. A number of other pitchers have said similar things in this era of the strikeout. And it’s bound to become more prevalent given Dr. James Andrews advising pitchers to stop maxing out velocity on every pitch.

All this got me wondering whether the truer measure of a pitcher’s strikeout ability is how he performs when the strikeout is actually a way to conserve pitches — on 0-2 counts — and when the strikeout is most important — when there is a runner on third with less than two outs. If the rate of strikeouts is higher in these situations compared to overall, then a reasonable case can be made that the pitcher is holding back on Ks and pitching to contact generally. This doesn’t help us get more strikeouts for our fantasy teams, but it at least allows us to identify the pitchers who are probably embracing the idea of letting batters put the ball in play by dialing down arm-taxing velocity/movement on most pitches. These are the pitchers who tease us with their highlights but disappoint us with their overall strikeout performance.

Of course, when batters are highly motivated not to strikeout, they K a lot less often. Note that the K-rate on 0-2 counts plus situations where there is a runner on third and less than two outs is just 15.5 percent vs. 19.9 percent overall. Much of this, of course, can be explained by the batter who is down 0-2 ultimately striking out later on, say, a 1-2 or 2-2 pitch. But certainly the pitcher has every incentive to quickly dispatch of the hitter down 0-2 without risking a ball in play. And the benefits of a K with a runner on third and less than two outs need no explanation.

Remember, we expect a K rate 4.4 percentage points lower in the situations outlined above. So anyone who is striking out a higher rate of batters in these situations than overall is doing very well and is probably not focused on strikeouts nearly as much, generally.

Here are the leaders in greatest differential between situational Ks and overall Ks:

Haren clearly should not be viewed as a contact pitcher despite his modest overall K rate because when he needs a strikeout, few are better. In fact, only Yu Darvish and Marco Estrada have higher rates among all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched through Sunday.

Ross clearly has a lot more strikeout upside. Yes, it’s a smaller sample. But if he were to be as focused on Ks overall as he seems to be when they are most important, his overall K rate would be about 30% — Darvish and Stephen Strasburg territory. The same goes for Estrada and Roenis Elias. But of course the argument can be made that they are just incapable of showing that much stuff in all situations and have no choice but to remain economical with it.

Kyle Kendrick, Chris Tillman, Tim Hudson and Mike Leake all seem to have some untapped strikeout reserve, too, stamina/age/health permitting.

Now let’s look at the pitchers whose strikeout rates decline the most in these situations. Again, a decline of 4.4 percentage points is normal so we’re cutting off our list much higher:

A case can be made that the pitchers above are maxing out this year and just going for the strikeouts in all situations and especially versus weaker/more strikeout prone batters (rather than letting them put the ball in play quickly to conserve pitches). Perhaps this makes them greater injury risks, though I would not read too much into Jose Fernandez’s presence on this list. It’s a theory though, at a time where everyone is coming up with theories for the rash of pitching injuries.

Since Zack Greinke and Masahiro Tanaka each have situational rates higher than the league average of 15.5 percent, I wouldn’t worry about them too much. But if Ian Kennedy and Johnny Cueto are such strikeout masters suddenly, why can’t they strikeout hitters when it matters most? Note these situations are not infrequent — about 1.2 per inning pitched on average.

Tim Lincecum and Chris Archer also seem very strikeout obsessed overall, a good thing for us as long as they can last. But their strikeout ability seems to be greatly overstated by their overall numbers given their much poorer performance when the K matters most. Jordan Zimmermann is showing here that he can’t get the K when he really needs/wants it. Maybe this explains his disappointing season as much as his BABIP.

Oh, and what about Cashner? Is he really just pitching to contact but able to dial it up when he smells blood or really needs a K? You be the judge:

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