What is the one “thing” we associate with pitchers? For me, and I imagine for many others, it is strikeouts. Preventing runs or getting outs are more accurate general descriptions of the pitcher’s primary task. But when I think of good pitchers, the first thing I think of is strikeouts. As we know, however, there are many pitchers who succeed without getting many strikeouts. Let’s take a look at some of 2010′s relatively successful starting pitchers with low strikeout rates, and see how they might fare in 2011.
(For this post, I will use strikeouts per plate appearance [total batters faced] rather than the more familiar K/9 because K per batter faced is a bit better, although it wouldn’t change the leaderboards much. The league average K/PA was .189 in 2010.)
Of course, many low-K starters who are successful do so by keeping the ball on the ground, and I mentioned some of them in an earlier post (feel free to click through and project them if you haven’t already). One that I didn’t mention in that post for some reason was Carl Pavano (51.2% GB rate last season), who managed a 4.02 FIP and 3.75 ERA despite striking out about .129 batters per plate appearance in 2010.
Some pitchers manage to succeed with low strikeout rates despite low groundball rates (understood here as under 40%). One obvious example is the Undead Livan Hernandez (.127 K/PA) , who managed a 3.0 WAR last season. Seattle’s Jason Vargas (.143 K/PA) is another, although in his case I suspect his homer-killing home park had something to do with it (3.95 FIP versus 4.82 xFIP).
Mostly, though, when low-K pitchers of whatever batted-ball profile succeed it is because of their control. As Matthew Carruth and I discussed long ago when I was still allowed on the FanGraphs podcast (I’m like Kathy Lee, only more annoying), we need as word that includes all the “free” ways a hitter gets on base other than hits. Something that incorporates not just walks, but also hit batters, for example. I suggested calling them “freeps” (for “free passes”). Let’s define the “freep” as (BB+HBP-IBB)/PA (intentional walks excluded since they don’t reflect a pitcher’s control). The 2010 league average Freep was .097. Mark Buehrle is the classic good-Freep (.055 in 2010) pitcher who doesn’t have exceptional ground-ball rates, but you probably already knew that. Doug Fister (.050 Freep, .129 K/PA) is another Seattle pitcher who did decently last season likely (in part) due to his home park (3.65 FIP, 4.27 xFIP). The Mets’ Mike Pelfrey didn’t show quite the same control, but is otherwise along the same lines as Fister (.079 Freep, .129 K/PA, 3.82 FIP, 4.27 xFIP in 2010).
The question is, of course, which of these pitchers have the skill to continue their low-K success, and which don’t…