After making his start today against the Rays, Justin Verlander has now taken the hill 24 times this year, throwing 2,674 pitches on the season. Roy Halladay has also taken the hill 24 times, and has thrown 2,623 pitches, 51 fewer than the Tigers ace, and yet he’s thrown 28 more innings than Verlander – 185 to 157.
Now, this isn’t meant to be a knock on Verlander – few pitchers can rack up the innings like Halladay. It does, however, illustrate one of the big advantages that that groundball strike-throwers have over dominating power pitchers who get a lot of outs in the air. Because Halladay keeps the ball on the ground, he’s gotten opposing hitters to ground into 19 double plays, while Verlander has induced just seven twin killings.
In addition, since Halladay throws so many strikes, each batter is dispatched more quickly. He has more three pitch strikeouts than Verlander, even though his overall strikeout rate is lower, and he rarely works into hitters counts. And, of course, since he walks fewer batters, he faces a lower number of batters per inning, allowing him to work deeper into games.
I bring this up because, when talking about the quality of a young pitcher (especially one in the minors), the first thing that is usually referenced is strikeout rate. As Bill James noted back in the 80s, a young pitcher’s K/9 tells us more of what we want to know about how well he’ll do in the majors than any other single statistic, mainly because it is the best proxy for quality of stuff.
However, while strikeouts are certainly a positive event for a pitcher, the Verlander approach to pitching is not the ideal, because it leads to extremely high pitch counts and shorter outings overall. Halladay’s economic approach to getting outs has given him the equivalent of four extra starts compared to Verlander, a huge difference in value for their respective teams.
The strike-everyone-out approach comes with an inability to work deep into ballgames. Even though Verlander is once again among the league leaders in pitches thrown, he’s only tossed one complete game and gotten through eight innings on three other occasions. For comparison, Halladay has eight complete games and has gotten through eight innings in five other starts.
It might not be as sexy, but getting groundball outs and limiting walks is a far more efficient way of pitching than trying to blow every hitter away. Strikeout rate is nice, but don’t let it be the only tool you use to evaluate a young pitcher – not only are Ks not the only way to succeed, they aren’t even the best way.
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