Failure to Whiff: Lester’s Place In History

It’s too early to worry. It’s only one outing, right? Right?

But when three of baseball’s premier strikeout pitchers combine for just one punchout in games on Friday, well, it’s interesting. And exceptionally rare–especially for these guys.

Entering 2011, Jon Lester had made 123 starts in his career, with his only K-less appearance coming on April 9, 2008. In that game he lasted 5 1/3 frames, allowing four hits and four runs to go along with four walks. Brett Myers had made 216 career starts and never left a game sans strikeout while lasting at least five frames. Ubaldo Jimenez had started 116 games, whiffing one or fewer batters in at least five innings on just two occasions: September 20, 2007 (6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 BB, 1 K), and May 21, 2008 (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 1 K).

On Friday, neither Lester nor Myers recorded a strikeout, and Jimenez fanned only one batter. In fact, Myers recorded only one missed swing. In a total of 18 1/3 innings, this trio managed fewer strikeouts than Ryan Madson did in his one inning of work.

What makes this situation so interesting is that these three pitchers are all above average at striking hitters out. Last season, Lester whiffed 26.1 percent of the batters he faced; Jimenez struck out the opposition 23.9 percent of the time; and Myers checked in with a 19.2 percent clip. With the league average around 17 percent, these three were clearly not strangers to strikeouts. Yet on Friday, they fell way below expectations in this department. The season is much too young to begin investigating why strikeouts eluded these three, but we can certainly look into the rarity of the situation from an historical perspective.

I initially wondered how frequently starting pitchers with strikeout rates in the 20-25 percent range left a game while striking out nary a hitter. To that end, I pooled together all starting pitchers from 1954-onward who logged at least 120 innings in a season, and counted their K-less games in the following season. The only games being counted, however, were those in which the pitcher lasted five innings. In theory, a data query along these lines should not produce many results as it stands to reason that pitchers with a high propensity to strike batters out would, well, strike batters out.

Setting the strikeout rate at 20 percent in the first season, there were 41 pitchers with one K-less game in the following season and three pitchers who couldn’t produce a punchout on two occasions in the following campaign: Carlos Zambrano in 2007 (June 1 and August 14), Randy Wolf in 2002 (July 26 and August 11), and Roger Clemens in 1987 (July 1 and July 21). Particularly noteworthy about those games is that both of Clemens’ games were complete games, and the latter outing actually resulted in a five hit shutout.

But what happens when the minimum strikeout rate is increased from 20 percent to 26 percent, given that there is a difference between both Myers’ and Lester’s abilities to miss bats? If the ante is upped in this fashion, there are actually only three instances in the Retrosheet era where a pitcher with a high strikeout rate in a season failed to record a strikeout in a game the next year: Randy Johnson on May 15, 2005 against the Athletics, Kerry Wood on August 8, 2004 against the Giants, and Luis Tiant on May 2, 1969 against the Senators. Lester’s outing this past Friday represents just the fourth such instance in history.

Lester, Jimenez, and Myers are going to strike batters out this season. Plenty of information gathered over the last several seasons confirms this fact, but one of the best parts of this game is how players can still put together surprising and, in this case, historically rare performances. Nobody should panic because Lester allowed three homers while failing to whiff an opposing hitter, just like nerves should be relaxed with regards to Jimenez and Myers. It’s too early to worry right now, but if one of these hurlers goes K-less in his next scheduled start, further investigation will be merited in order to determine what might be going wrong.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

20 Responses to “Failure to Whiff: Lester’s Place In History”

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  1. Fascinating. And yes, worth watching further. Also concerning was that Phil Hughes only had two swinging strikes in his outing Sunday night.

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    • Eric Cioe says:

      I’ve seen Hughes pitch a fair bit, and I watched his game the other day. His stuff looked very loose. His 88 mph cutter was more like 83 or 84 all day, his fastball looked pretty lifeless at 90 mph, his curve was looser than usual, and he threw a couple of chest high changeups. He did not look good at all. Velocity always is suppressed in April (Scherzer was also down a bit), but that’s an awful lot, and his stuff wasn’t crisp at all.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Hughes, and add Masterson to the list. I should’ve waited a few hours to write this!

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  2. CJ says:

    In terms of results, Myers actually pitched quite well. 7 IP, 3 H, 1ER. I’m not sure what to make of the K-less stint by Myers, other than to think it is just one of those flukes. It seemed like the Phillies’ hitters were swinging early in the counts at pitches which were moving pretty good, thereby reducing the potential for strike out to occur. Myers only required 85 pitches to get through 7 innings, and had ridiculously low pitch counts earlier in the game. I wonder if hitters sometimes get overanxious on opening day, and that makes these low K games more likely?

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    • don says:

      The Phillies had one swinging strike and no foul balls through 6 innings, which is pretty odd in its own right.

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  3. Temo says:

    “Plenty of information gathered over the last several seasons confirms this fact, but one of the best parts of this game is how players can still put together surprising and, in this case, historically rare performances.”

    The lesson I took was that this was, while rare, still more common than you’d think. I mean, the number of pitchers in MLB history with 26% strikeout rates in a season can’t be very high… and yet three of them recorded strikeout-less games.

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    • BigNachos says:

      The probability of a pitcher who on average strikes out 26% of the batters he faces not striking out 25 consecutive batters is about 0.05%. That’s pretty rare, but these guys play a lot of games, so it does happen…

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  4. Lewie Pollis says:

    Don’t forget Justin Masterson—one ER in seven IP yesterday, without a single K. He’s no Lester, but his career K/9 rate (7.3) is right behind Myers’.

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  5. Jay says:

    Fun read

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  6. hamandcheese says:

    Awesome job making me nervous about Lester because of his first start of the season. I didn’t think that was possible. Interesting read. Thank you.

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  7. LionoftheSenate says:

    Umpiring could be a factor……umps might be slow starters too and might be failing to call close pitches or missing hard, late breaking pitches…

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    • Paul says:

      That’s a good take, but not what I saw at all in Lester’s start. Actually, with Boston pitchers it looks to me like they are really not comfortable throwing to Salty. Lester’s body language was especially bad, and both he and Bucholz at times really lacked conviction in throwing the offspeed stuff. Against Texas you’d better be able to throw the offspeed in any count with conviction or they will hammer you, don’t care who you are. I’m not saying it’s Salty’s fault, just that if those pitchers are going to be successful this year they are going to have to accept that their catcher and pitching coach is different. Those are two really big changes.

      It looks to me like a lot of established starters are way behind with their stuff. Curt Young said the gun in Texas was off, but that is not true. Lester’s stuff was soft. I also thought the tempo for both he and Bucholz was way too slow. That whole team looks old and lifeless.

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      • Mick in Ithaca says:

        Agree about Salty. That coupled with losing Farrell as pitching coach, and the fact that Beckett, Lackey and Matsuzaka are question marks at best, makes me really suspicious about the near unanimous prediction of post-season play for the Sox. If one of Lester or Buchholz falters at all, the Sox are very beatable.

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      • Kyle says:

        You couldn’t be more spot-on about both Lester’s body language and Buccholz’s… but I thought Clay really showed that he didn’t want to throw anything that was off-speed. Lester’s velocity and body language could be saying he’s not 100 percent right, but Buccholz seemed extremely against throwing anything that wasn’t out of the strike zone or a fastball. They’d better hope Beckett is the guy he’s been in the past, and not last year’s headcase(after all those years of being known as clutch.) His velocity is the same as it always was, but his failure to locate his fastball letting it all-too often get a big chunk of the strikezone with no movement makes 95 to 96 mph suddenly look very hittable. Maybe they just got bashed by a very good offensive team, and facing the Indians will breathe some life with some easy wins under their belt in time for the Yankees series.

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  8. Anthony says:

    Hughe’s velocity and overall inadequate outing terrifies me. If he fails to produce this year, then the Yanks have a problem.

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  9. Deacon Drake says:

    If it seems to be wider spread, changes to the ball? Flatter seams will take the pop off both the fastball and breaking stuff.

    They all seem to be in the zone; they just aren’t getting the swings and misses off the late movement.

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    • Paul says:

      I think it’s a simple explanation for these guys, actually. They just “saved themselves” for the season. Look at a lot of the younger guys who were competing for spots. Jaime Garcia was just filthy yesterday, not that he was competing for a spot, but he wasn’t just biding time in Florida. Beachy’s stuff is great today and he is locked in. I think a lot of guys just thought they could have an extended spring and throw meatballs up there in the first couple starts and not get hit. Wrong.

      After a down year for offense last year, looks like hitters took ST seriously. These starters better catch up quick, because I’m seeing power hitters who are locked in like it’s mid-season.

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