Cubs Win at Strikeouts

Originally, this post was going to be about the San Francisco Giants starting rotation – with Tim Lincecum, Randy Johnson, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Barry Zito, the Giants are going to rack up a ton of strikeouts. I wondered how they would compare to other recent pitching staffs in K/9, and started to look at the leading teams in strikeout rate over the years. I quickly noticed a trend.

Year, #1 Team In K/9, K/9 Rate

2001 – Chicago Cubs, 8.42 K/9
2002 – Chicago Cubs, 8.32 K/9
2003 – Chicago Cubs, 8.68 K/9
2004 – Chicago Cubs, 8.27 K/9
2005 – Chicago Cubs, 7.85 K/9
2006 – Chicago Cubs, 7.82 K/9
2007 – Chicago Cubs, 7.53 K/9
2008 – Chicago Cubs, 7.84 K/9

The last time the Cubs didn’t lead the majors in strikeout rate was 2000 – they finished 5th.

Granted, strikeout rate is one of the pitching statistics that correlates best from year to year, but it’s not like the Cubs haven’t had significant roster turnover on their staff during this decade. In 2001, it was Kerry Wood, Jason Bere, and Kyle Farnsworth racking up the strikeouts. 2002 saw Matt Clement, Carlos Zambrano, and Mark Prior join the squad. 2003 was similar to ’02, but added Joe Borowski and Mike Remlinger as high strikeout relievers. As Wood and Clement faded away, Ryan Dempster and Mike Wuertz joined the scene. Then came Prior’s demise, but the rise of Rich Hill, Scott Eyre, Will Ohman, and Bob Howry. 2007 brought Ted Lilly and Carlos Marmol. 2008 was all about Rich Harden.

That’s eight years of league leading strikeout rate, with nearly wholesale turnover of the pitching staff during that time. That’s pretty remarkable. It is clear that the Cubs value pitchers who can generate swinging strikes and eschew a pitch to contact philosophy, but valuing something and maintaining a stranglehold on the league lead are two different things.

Eventually, the Cubs will fall from their perch. They’re not going to lead the majors in strikeout rate forever. However, with a projected rotation of Zambrano, Harden, Dempster, Lilly, and Marshall/Heilman, they are geared up for another run at it. Can they hold off the Giants addition of the The Big Unit? It will be fun to find out.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

17 Responses to “Cubs Win at Strikeouts”

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  1. Scott says:

    The Cubs are going to win it all this year. Maybe.

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  2. Mike R says:

    I’ve been meaning to ask this, but why does FG use K/9 rather than K% (K’s divided by PA’s)?

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    • Thomas says:

      I find the scale more intuitive and easier to mentally convert into FIP terms. I hear .22 K/PA and I know it’s good but I have to stop and think “how good?” I hear 9 K/9 and I immediately know his K output was worth about half a run per nine innings more than the average NL starter last year—not that I know the given rates of the given roles in the given years but I happened to look this one up. Generally I estimate.

      This might be different for you because I happened to be weaned on per-9 and still find per-PA a bit daunting. Ideally, we’d list both…

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      • Mike R says:

        Ahh, gotcha, Thomas. Thanks for the reply. I wasn’t weaned on per-9 status and I view everything on a per-PA rate.

        ~18% is average, 22+ is great, below 18 … not so much. BB’s are around ~8% league average. Relievers are more in the K department (I believe it’s around 21% but I haven’t looked at league-wide numbers in a bit).

        In your explanation, though, I can see the reasoning. But, yeah, ideally I’d like to see both listed especially since it’s probably not that difficult to list them.

        I do like to look, though, at a pitcher like a Brandon Webb and see that he K’d 19.3% of batters and induced GB’s at a 64.2% clip which means that 83.5% of all batters he faced put the ball on the ground, or struckout.

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      • Kevin says:

        I also was weaned on K/9, but what you lose in that statistic is that is essentially converts to K/outs, and ignores the PA where the pitcher didn’t get an out. K% is perhaps more informative in and of itself, while K/9 is more easily interpreted, but needs more supporting statistics (not that any statistic can be viewed in a vacuum, of course).

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      • Kevin: I think you best put into words why we have not switched to K% (K/PA). K% is better on its own but K% isn’t a stat that should be used on its own either, and I think when used in conjunction with other stats (BB/9, HR/9, GB%), K/9 is more useful because it does a better job of isolating strikeout ability.

        Overall, they’re really the same. I think it’s something like a .95 correlation between the two.

        GB% is calculated as a % of balls in play, so you can’t add GB% and K%. Though… that would be an interesting way to present things. Each component as a % of TBF. Maybe something to look into doing.

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      • Kevin says:

        Oh, see, intuitively I’d think that K% does a better job of isolating strikeout ability, because it doesn’t ignore plate appearances. You say the correlation is about .95 though, so yeah, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference. Again, I’m more comfortable using K/9, just thought that K% would be more informative. This is why we don’t rely on intuition to draw conclusions, though.

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  3. dan says:

    It would be nice to separate the NL from the AL as the pitcher K’s alot more then the dh. Look for the Yankees to lead the AL in K/9 in 09. There pen had a K/9 rate of 8.66 and it should stay there as all members of this year’s pen should have K/9 rates of 8 or better.

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  4. Thomas says:

    Not just leads but robust leads. They rarely even made it all that close, and that’s even after adjusting for league.

    “Valuing something and maintaining a stranglehold on the league lead are two different things.”

    The Giants’ stranglehold on intentional walks notwithstanding, I assume.

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  5. Bearskin Rugburn says:

    Like Dan says, the top five K/9 clubs from 2004-2008 have a total of 6 Al teams in there, and that includes some true pitching powerhouses (three of those six were Angels teams). I didn’t look farther back but the trend is pretty clear.

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  6. Trev says:

    Mike R:

    The GB% listed in fangraphs only applies to balls hit in play. K/PA is for all plate appearances.

    According to fangraphs, Brandon Webb got a groundball or strikeout from 64.8% of all batters he faced.

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  7. Nick says:

    While I agree that strikeouts are usually the best result for a pitcher I wonder if it is the best result for the team. Note how often (or not) the Cubs finished first in the division over this span. I wonder if all those strikeout pitchers and correspondingly short outings over-taxed their bullpen and caused late losses. I also wonder if the hitting background in Wrigley might have something to do with all the k’s.

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    • Nick P. says:

      Cubs starters have averaged 6.00 innings per start since 2001 against an NL average of 5.85.

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      • Nick P. says:

        Oh, I interpreted that as short outings on behalf of the starting pitcher. I’m not sure if you meant starters, relievers, or both, but the difference is generally negligible either way.

        I was looking for but couldn’t find an article at Baseball Prospectus about the average length of plate appearance for the general outcomes of baseball: the strikeout, the walk, the ball in play, and maybe the hit by pitch. The strikeout was maybe 4.5 or so pitches, the walk maybe 5.5 and the ball in play somewhere around 3, so even in the more extreme cases, assuming they clung to the mean, the difference would clock in at about a maybe an extra pitch and a half or two pitches or so per inning relative to average. That could mean two or three fewer batters per game for a starter, but for a reliever it’s almost meaningless.

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  8. John Galt says:

    Interesting how the leading K/9 rate is significantly lower since testing was introduced. If that trend holds true across baseball, it’d seem to be evidence that steroids helped pitchers, but not hitters.

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    • someguy132 says:

      id be wary of thinking that…… if we were discussing league k/9 rate instead of leading k/rate, then maybe id be more convinced.

      off the cuff, though, my first thoughts were that those 01-04 staffs were simply better? you had the good kerry wood, the good mark prior, clement was striking out people, and zambrano came up in 02

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