Cliff Lee and Avoiding Free Passes

Cliff Lee is having a season for the ages. His prodigious strikeout to walk ratio this year has been well documented, but it practically deserves a note after every one of his starts. I am going to bring it up again, but in my own way. I don’t particularly fancy walks as the ideal denominator in this ratio.

For one, it includes intentional walks and I don’t like that. Though it is less of an issue for starting pitchers than it is for relievers it is still a relevant distinction to make for National League pitchers who might see more intentional walks given to the hitter in front of the pitcher. Secondly, it leaves out hit batsmen, which I think should be included. After all the result is the same, a free base to the hitter. I have mentioned previously that I favor a number that I deemed “free passes” and someone else offered “net walks” which is unintentional walks and hit batsmen. Not coincidentally, that is the number used in the FIP formula and others.

After Cliff Lee’s recent 11 strikeout, no walk performance against the Yankees, I decided to see where he was currently stacking up against the history books. Now I already knew that his traditional strikeout to walk rate was among the best baseball has ever seen, a remarkable feat in and of itself. Pundits owe it to the public to discuss frequently anytime anyone in baseball manages to best an all time record. With so many years of history behind it, breaking any baseball record is a difficult task. Cliff Lee’s 15.2 strikeout to walk ratio is on that pace with the current best mark (minimum 160 innings pitched) being Bret Saberhagen’s strike-shortened 1994 season where he struck out 143 and walked 13 for an 11.0 ratio.

15.2 is a whole lot better than 11.0 but it gets even more impressive. Cliff Lee has two intentional walks and just one hit batter. By contrast, Saberhagen had no intentional walks in 1994 and plunked four batters. Utilizing net walks, Cliff Lee’s ratio increases to an overwhelming 17.1 strikeouts per free pass issued while Saberhagen drops all the way to 8.4.

Saberhagen is not the only one to experience a sharp change in ratio with this tweak in the walk number. Pedro Martinez hit 14 batters in 2000 (and 15 in 2002) and including those drops his rate from 8.9 to 6.2. That is still impressive, but is no longer one of history’s best. On the other side, Greg Maddux had 11 intentional walks (witness that pesky NL factor) and just three hit batters so his ratio jumped from 6.1 to 8.6, turning an otherwise ordinary Maddux season into the fourth best mark in baseball history.

Just in case you were wondering, the projected top spot on this revised list doesn’t change. Cliff Lee is still dominating the records, but now he is doing so by a bigger margin, a seemingly impossible accomplishment. While before there was Saberhagen at 11 and a couple other pitchers above the 9.0 threshold, take a look at the top ten when using net walks:

Pitcher Season K/Net Walk
Cliff Lee 2010 17.1
Curt Schilling 2002 9.0
Greg Maddux 1997 8.9
Greg Maddux 1996 8.6
Bret Saberhagen 1994 8.4
Ben Sheets 2004 7.5
Greg Maddux 1995 7.5
Curt Schilling 2001 7.3
Fergie Jenkins 1971 7.3
Greg Maddux 2001 7.2

Two things jump out to me. Fergie Jenkies was really ahead of his time and Cliff Lee is nearly doubling the greatest mark ever. That’s dominance on an incredible scale.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.