Thursday, June 17, 2010

You, Guard the Base

A couple years ago or so, someone posted a moderately entertaining Transformers spoof on Youtube. The gist is that the Optimus Prime, head of the Good Guy Robots (the heroic Autobots), comes back to life and discovers that the remaining Autobots pretty much suck. To an extent, I think this was a plot point from the 1980s cartoon movie, which, by the way, was a treasure to the extent that Michael Bay was not involved with it. Anyway, the joke is that the Optimus Prime, despairing over what remains of his side, is foul-mouthed and angry. For instance, planning one last offensive against the Bad Guy Robots (the vile Decepticons), he curtly directs the least capable of his charges to stay back and “guard the base” – code for “I don’t trust you with anything important because you pretty much suck.”

I think of this video from time to time – mainly because of its effective use of swears (which I won’t repeat here because Chris insists that this place remain a family-friendly blog) – and, yes, I think it has some degree of applicability here because the Nationals’ starting rotation simply features too many guys who are better suited to guarding the base. They have their moments here and there, but in the long run you can’t really win with these guys; you can only not-lose, in the event the other team doesn’t put forth a real attack.

A commonality among the Nats’ base-guarders is an extreme averse to the strikeout. Strasburg aside, the starters have strikeout rates so low as to suggest that any strikeouts are pretty much accidental: Livan, for all of his early-season swagger, has struck out 3.7 batters per nine innings; Atilano, also 3.7, after Thursday afternoon’s stinker; Stammen, 4.2, before he got sent out; and Lannan has downshifted all the way to less than three. Absurd! Olsen’s strikeout rate has been pretty close to ordinary when he’s been healthy, but his replacement, Martin, isn’t exactly a Doctor K or even a Big Nasty.

Strikeouts are not everything, of course. What do Seth McClung, Ryan Rupe, and B.J. Kim have in common? They’re all pitchers of recent memory who had seasons in which they threw 100+ IP with a K/9IP rate of at least 7.5, yet posted an ERA of 6.00 or more. Let’s call it the Ten Cent Head list. Estaban Yan had a season where he almost made the; so close! For those nostalgic for the previous, briefer era of Orioles incompetence, I’ll briefly touch on Ken Dixon’s 1987 season, which did qualify as a Ten Cent Head season. He struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings, and had a K/BB ratio of 3.37, but he nevertheless posted a 6.43 ERA. Surrendering 31 homers (more homers than walks!) in 105 innings will do that to you.

But the Nats are tending toward the other end of the spectrum. To have three rotation spots occupied by pitchers who strike out fewer than four batters per nine innings has to be rare. It must be rare – by definition, guys with strikeout rates that low are the fringe, skirting with the edge of success.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to succeed in a given year with a low strikeout rate; that would be a massive overstatement. Since 1980, there are 109 pitcher seasons in which a pitcher has qualified for the ERA title, posted a K/9IP rate of lower than 4.0, and finished with an ERA+ of 100 or higher. Let’s call these guys the Kings of Savvy. Some pretty good pitchers are on this list. Tommy John, who could reasonably be called a near-Hall of Famer, posted a 136 ERA+ in 1981 with a 3.21 K/9IP. Scott McGregor, despite a ridiculously low K/9IP of 2.98, went 18-7 with a 3.18 ERA for the 1983 Orioles, the World Series champions. In 1985, Jimmy Key struck out next to nobody in this first year as a starter for the Blue Jays, but posted a 142 ERA+ and made the all-star team. Mike Dunne, who won 13 games as a rookie for the 1987 Pirates despite not debuting until June, also made the list.

You probably noticed the one thing these seasons have in common – they all occurred in the 1980s. This isn’t to suggest that all of those 109 successful low-strikeout seasons occurred in the 1980s. Among the top 25 (sorted by ERA+), a handful occurred in the 1990s and a handful more since 2000. Clearly, though, most of the Kings of Savvy seasons on the list occurred in the 1980s, which makes all the sense in the world. Around 1993 or 1994, strikeout rates jumped in both leagues, and they haven’t looked back. In the National League, for instance, things hit an all-time high in 2008 when the K/9IP rate hit 7.0, and that mark lasted exactly one year – and now, with a rate of 7.2 K/9IP, NL pitchers are threatening to set a new high-water again. So we aren’t living in the 1980s anymore.

But the Nats are using (and collecting) 1980s-style pitchers, at least as far as strikeout rates go. And maybe, perhaps, they’ve assembled some good ones. If present circumstances hold to the end of the season (which they won’t, but play along), Livan’s 141 ERA+ would rank 8th among the Kings of Savvy. Chien-Ming Wang’s 2006 season ranks 22nd by ERA+, so at least there’s a good bit of form to which perhaps he’ll return.

However, we’re not living in a 1980s world anymore, so either Luis Atilano learns how to strike out some batters (which he didn’t do with great regularity in the minors, either), or he won’t last as a big league starter. It’s not quite that simple, but that’s sort of the way things are these days. Some Kings of Savvy kept it going for a few years in the 1980s, but very few present-day Kings of Savvy are able to sustain success.

Which brings us to John Lannan. The following pitchers pitched enough innings to qualify for the NL ERA title last year while striking out fewer than four batters per nine innings: 1) John Lannan. That’s it; that’s the list.

And Lannan is really outdoing himself this year, averaging 2.9 punchies per nine innings. Since 1990, five pitchers have qualified for the ERA title while averaging fewer than three strikeouts per nine innings: 1) Nate Cornejo (2003; lowest qualifying rate since 1961!); 2) Bill Gullickson (1992), Kirk Rueter (2004), Ricky Bones (1993), and Mark Knudson (1990).

Cornejo pitched for the 2003 Tigers, which sums him up; Gullickson was pretty much done by the following year; Reuter was even more done the following year; Knudson was really, really done the following year; and Bones made a bizarro all-star appearance the following year before unraveling.

So at this rate we’re rooting for John Lannan will take the Ricky Bones career path? If so, there’s a base for him to guard.


  • I'll bet you will be hard pressed to find another team whose pitchers have so few strikeouts while its hitters have so many.

    By Anonymous phil dunn, at 6/18/2010 9:39 AM  

  • Other things they have in common:

    Key 1985 2.12 bb/9 .244 BABIP 3.00ERA 3.96 FIP

    McGregor 1983 1.56 bb/9 .276 BABIP 3.18 EAR 3.82 FIP

    John 1981 2.5 bb/9 .266 BABIP 2.63 ERA 3.71 FIP

    Low K rates but low walk rates combined with low BABIP and you too can have a great season. Note the FIP for all three is close to a run higher than actual.

    Lannan 2010 4.44 bb/9 and .327 BABIP. Too many walks and too many ground balls with eyes=bad season.

    By Blogger traderkirk, at 6/18/2010 2:34 PM  

  • Wow! A Ken Dixon reference and a phil dunn comment in the same post. I don't know what to do with myself.

    Pretty sure Ken Dixon wouldn't make traderkirk's list, as my only lasting memory was watching him throw his glove straight up in the air, disgusted that he had just walked in the winning run (in Seattle?).

    My plan:
    1) Clone Strasburg
    2) Sell clones to highest bidders
    3) Profit!

    By Blogger Bote Man, at 6/18/2010 11:56 PM  

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