Groundballs, Flyballs, and Freeps: Low-K Starters

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…

What do you think? Click here to enter your 2011 projections for the pitchers mentioned in this post.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

13 Responses to “Groundballs, Flyballs, and Freeps: Low-K Starters”

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  1. Mike says:

    Is K/PA different than K% or is K% based on at-bats and not PA?

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  2. JCA says:

    Jesus Flores is the Zombie on the Nats roster because he was thought to be dead but is back to catch. Maybe that’s more his first name than his zombiness. Livo is more Methusaleh.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      one thing the Nats suddenly have is way to many decent catchers. Flores, Norris, Ramos, IROD, etc.

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  3. ToddM says:

    How about Brian Duensing, who now has a season’s worth of innings as a starter, spread out over two actual seasons splitting time in the pen?

    214.2 IP, 131 K, 3.02 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 50.0% GB (trending up)

    Mirage? Looks like the Twins are letting him start from the get-go this time.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      I like this term, but I’d go for the whole Twins staff. Last three games, were typical games for Ks and freeps, (relatively) low runs. 6 BB, 8 Ks, total, and 6 runs.

      In contrast, on Saturday, TB had a more typical dominance situation, with 13 Ks (in that one game), but gave up 6 BB and 6 runs. Ks are great, you just have to be sure to mix them with few enough hits and freeps.

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  4. MikeS says:

    Is there really going to be a big difference between walk rates and freep rate? BB outnumber HBP so much that I think the numbers will be very similar.

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  5. pft says:

    The only way to know which pitchers can survive with a low K rate is to measure the SOB (speed off the bat) for all BIP and compare to league average. Those who induce weak contact can repeat their success, those who have league average or above SOB, will have their BABIP regress to mean.

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  6. MarkW says:

    Speed off the bat? Is that stat readily available?

    Ideally, you’d want to compare the speed coming in and the speed going out….

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  7. jeffrey gross says:

    Why not just use wOBA against? It’s not a speed measurement, but it indirectly measures strength of contact in the sense of runs produced and is readily available

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