Pitching by the Numbers: The untouchables

Francisco Liriano: Walk 'em or whiff 'em (Getty)
Francisco Liriano: Walk 'em or whiff 'em (Getty)

Generating swings and misses is a very important skill for pitchers, but clearly not the only important part of pitching. Some finesse guys consistently get away with having deficit when it comes to “stuff” and some dominators like Francisco Liriano struggle even when, like this year, they are actually the most unhittable pitcher in the majors by this measure.

When you combine raw stuff with elite control, you are Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez or Masahiro Tanaka — one of the game’s true aces.

What we’re trying to do here is identify upside, meaning finding the pitchers who have dominating stuff — arguably the most important attribute. The ones who are generating empty swings without a commensurate ERA or WHIP are the pitchers who are capable of making sudden dramatic surges in value when they even temporarily (like Liriano in 2013) fix their other flaws (e.g., control).

Here are the top 40 so far in percentage of missed swings versus total swings. Note this is far different from the more commonly referred to swinging strike rate, which is based on a percentage of all pitches (and thus favors the players with better control). We want to throw some bad control pitchers in here because then we know which ones only have that standing in their way on the path to greatness or, at least, goodness. (Stats are through Sunday.)

Ross is no surprise. But he can be even better than he’s been. Ross’ K rate is disappointing in light of this missed swing percentage. If he can boost that to over 9.0/9 while cutting his walks a shade to under 3.0/9, he’s easily a top 10 starter. Note that Ross is second among starters in ground-ball rate.

Shoemaker? He doesn’t have a big fastball but does feature a splitter that’s very effective. He also has a 4/1 K:BB ratio and a K/9 of exactly 9. His problem is the long ball and you can see that being chronic given his lack of velocity on his heater when the hitters guess right. Three of his last four starts have been good to excellent but the fourth one was horrid. I picked up this late-bloomer (he’s 27) in a dynasty league and plan on keeping him even when we cut our 20-team, 45-man rosters down to 28. But that can change. A spot in the rotation may have opened up again with Jered Weaver’s injury on Monday.

Warren has no path to saves on the Yankees. Torres could be a serviceable Only-league starter if given the opportunity and is pretty useful for the Mets in the ‘pen. Petit is in the same boat. While Warren’s fastball in relief has spiked this year, none of these guys have the velocity you’d like in a more prominent role. Their missed swing rate is more a product of throwing a lot of breaking balls, except Torres who is throwing mostly fastballs (though a lot of cutters). Maybe we need to cross-check these against fastball percentage; the higher the rate of fastballs, the less likely these pitchers are cheating by just throwing a high rate of tougher-to-hit sliders and curves (which tax the arm). And I think I’d rather be splitter dominant than, say, slider dominant but have nothing to back that up because the splitter has been a dead pitch for decades.

I still think Ramirez could be good and he’s a guy I’d look to acquire if I was a real-life team. He’s probably cheap.

People keep waiting for the bottom to fall out on Keuchel and Hammel but here is support for holding them both. Keuchel is first in ground-ball rate among qualifying starters. And deGrom is interesting, too, in really deep/NL-only formats. McGowan is always hurt; forget about him. Elias has big-time homer problems but there’s some bad luck at least there and he’s young. He’s a guy I’d target at a low cost in keeper formats as I expect him to be mixed-league worthy next year with a nice fastball for a lefty and one of the game’s best curves. Elias also has a plus-change, at least this year when it comes to run prevention.

Here is where some other notables charted out of 159 pitchers:

Yordano Ventura (45th, 23%), Jake Arrieta (54, 22.4%), Gerrit Cole (62, 21.8%), Johnny Cueto (63, 21.7%)….

Okay, sidebar on Cueto. Remember when I made him the poster boy for my isolated slugging allowed stat (that’s slugging average minus batting average)? I got a lot of pushback from inside the industry saying this simple stat was meaningless because it take too long to stabilize. While the stat tends to correlate to ground-ball rate, Cueto is 23rd among starters in this stat, good but not great. Cueto’s ISO allowed this year: .095. Average is .148. Prior years, it was .127, .114, .0.84. Now maybe the statisticians say this is hugely variable but it’s always well above average. So the direction, clearly, seems projectable. In other words, it’s a safe bet every year that Cueto is going to be good in ISO allowed, but just not HOW good. Is that an argument to junk the stat?

Continuing and, again, through Sunday: Jon Lester (64th of 159, 21.7%), Matt Cain (75, 21.2%), Alfredo Simon (91, 20.3%), Jesse Chavez (101, 19.7%), Hisashi Iwakuma (111, 19.1%), Andrew Cashner (143, 16.3%), Mark Buehrle (154, 14.4%), Doug Fister (159, 11.9%).

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