Kirk Rueter and Pitchers Whiffing Pitchers

Roy Halladay didn’t have his best stuff against the Padres on Saturday, even walking three consecutive batters for the first time in his career. He still managed to allow just two runs over seven innings and recorded five strikeouts in the process, which is a pretty good result for lacking his best stuff.

His strikeout total was respectable, but I couldn’t help but think that it was inflated. Two of those strikeouts came against Cory Luebke, his pitching counterpart. Outs against opposing pitchers have to be recorded somehow, but his overall line would have been less impressive with those punchouts removed. It doesn’t matter in the context of that specific game, but in evaluating true talent strikeout ability, it makes some sense to remove opposing pitchers from the equation.

It’s known and established that the major difference between both leagues is the designated hitter. Pitchers switching from the American League to the National League typically see their strikeout and walk rates improve. They get to replace David Ortiz with, well, Cory Luebke. The inverse is also true of National League pitchers making the switch to the American League.

Isn’t it possible that certain pitchers who notoriously struggled upon switching from the NL to AL did so because their strikeout rates were heavily reliant on taking advantage of fellow pitchers? This isn’t to say that striking out opposing pitchers is meaningless, but rather that it falls into a different evaluative bucket as something we may need to normalize in order to get a more accurate gauge of a true talent level.

Along those lines, a few questions came to mind while watching that Phillies-Padres game. First, and foremost, which seasonal strikeout percentage has been “inflated” the most by pitcher strikeouts? Which pitchers, and in what seasons, had the highest strikeout percentages against their colleagues? And whose strikeout totals consisted of the highest percentages of pitcher whiffs?

To start, pitchers with at least 200 batters faced and 30 pitchers faced in a season were pooled. Next, strikeout rates specifically against opposing pitchers was calculated. Finally, that strikeout rate was compared to strikeout rate against batters only, with the computed difference defining the effect of pitcher whiffs on the overall rate.

Here are the five biggest SO/PA changes when pitcher strikeouts are removed:

Name Year SO/PA SO/PA vs Bat Delta
Daryl Patterson 1970 0.157 0.103 0.054
Jack Lamabe 1967 0.164 0.115 0.049
Danny Cox 1988 0.130 0.087 0.042
Tom Walker 1974 0.177 0.136 0.041
Jeff Lahti 1984 0.127 0.087 0.040

Because pitchers only tend to face opposing pitchers between 30-60 times in a season, the magnitude of the effect is reduced. However, as the table above shows, striking out pitchers at very high rates can certainly influence the overall strikeout rate. Tom Walker’s strikeout rate looked pretty good in 1974, and actually ranked in the Top 20 among all pitchers with 90+ innings thrown that season. However, he struck out 21 of the 35 pitchers he faced, a 60 percent clip, and suffice to say his strikeout rate wasn’t so impressive against actual big league batters.

The average strikeout rate delta among all the pitchers pooled was .012, indicating there is a non-zero effect, but that pitcher strikeouts don’t tend to have that strong of an influence over the overall strikeout rate. But in this case, we’re interested in the extremes.

Getting back to Tom Walker, his 60 percent strikeout rate against opposing pitchers isn’t even among the best of all time. Here are the top five strikeout rates against pitchers:

Name Year PA v P SO v P SO/PA v P
Sandy Koufax 1959 50 35 0.700
Jack Lamabe 1967 30 20 0.667
Mark Prior 2002 35 23 0.657
Steve Carlton 1969 70 46 0.657
Woodie Fryman 1970 39 25 0.641

In the cases of Lamabe and Fryman, pitcher whiffs turned their rates from below average to above average. However, in the cases of Koufax, Prior and Carlton, all high strikeout guys to begin with, the effect was obviously reduced. Prior struck out 147 batters in 2002, 23 of which were pitchers. His gaudy 30.2 percent overall rate was still an extremely impressive 27.5 percent without pitcher whiffs factored in. His pitcher whiffs only accounted for 16 percent of his overall total. Framed that way, which pitchers in what seasons had pitcher whiffs account for the greatest percentages of their overall strikeout rates?

Name Year SO v P SO Total Rate
Milo Candini 1948 11 21 0.524
Daryl Patterson 1970 23 55 0.418
Adrian Devine 1979 9 22 0.409
Danny Cox 1967 13 32 0.406
George Susce 1957 16 40 0.400

In the case of Candini, that answers another question in that yes, someone actually has struck out more pitchers than opposing batters in a season. It’s obviously very rare, and requires the pitcher to have very little strikeout skills, but it has happened.

Lastly, I was curious about how pitcher whiffs affected pitchers over more recent years. Sticking with the Wild Card era, here are the five player-seasons with the highest rate of pitcher whiffs to total whiffs:

Name Year SO v P SO Total Rate
Russ Ortiz 2005 15 46 0.326
Kirk Rueter 2004 17 56 0.304
Kirk Rueter 2003 12 41 0.293
Jason Marquis 2006 27 96 0.281
Matt Albers 2007 19 71 0.268

Kirk Rueter sticks out like a sore thumb here, and he shows up several more times throughout the “leaderboard” as someone who didn’t record a great deal of strikeouts, but whose overall tally was greatly influenced by opposing pitchers. In his case, it would have made sense if he greatly struggled in a hypothetical league switch because not only was his strikeout rate low, but a good number of his actual strikeouts came against opposing pitchers he wouldn’t face in the American League.

There is still area to left explore here, and in the next installment of Pitcher Whiffing Pitchers we’ll take a look at some notoriously good and bad league switches and see if above average pitcher whiff rates are identifiable as the main culprits.




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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.

26 Responses to “Kirk Rueter and Pitchers Whiffing Pitchers”

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  1. CaptWBligh says:

    Good stuff!

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  2. BDF says:

    Really good stuff. True sabrmetric insight as to question.

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  3. Uli440 says:

    percent of strikeouts coming from pitchers is interesting but I’m not so sure about that sample. It’s a matter of size… I’d rather look at the HORSES who pile up the strikeouts. Maybe limit it to a minimum of ~440 PA or something.

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  4. Cito Gaston says:

    Pitchers throwing to pitchers? That is not baseball. Pitchers should be throwing to hitters. Screw this whole National League version of baseball. Give me some hitters and then we’ll be cool.

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    • MrKnowNothing says:

      Pitcher is the position with the most obvious and consistent lack of hitting prowess historically, but there are other positions that are historically “defense first” positions: catcher and SS spring to mind.

      Should we sub in hitters for them as well?

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    • Ken says:

      I like pitchers throwing to baseball players. In my humble opinion, if your job doesn’t require you to show up to the park with a glove, you aren’t a baseball player.

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  5. lexomatic says:

    Why only mention single seasons and not career rates?

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  6. NatsFan73 says:

    What about the reverse case? Are there any notable pitcher seasons where the player in question actually fares worse against opposition pitchers?

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  7. Slartibartfast says:

    This is… ok, but it didn’t examine the pool of pitchers that seemed most obvious.

    Why not look at all of the national league starters over the past few years and see who is benefiting the most from K-ing pitchers? Then normalize all those pitchers’ K rates according to how many pitchers they faced.

    No one cares that Milo Candini struck out 11 pitchers in 1948.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      This is an introductory type article and there will be several more to come on the topic, including what you mentioned, as well as how it affects league changes.

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    • chuckb says:

      I love it how someone here works hard to do all this research to find out something that’s really very interesting and then someone else feels the need to chime in with some snarky remark about how they didn’t research the thing that THEY most wanted to find out about.

      If you want to find out the answer to your question, research it.

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  8. Gabriel says:

    I agree with almost all of the comments here.
    A) This is worth exploring.
    B) It probably makes sense to look at career patterns. Is there a “skill” to striking out pitchers? Or is it just that in a single season a guy manages to randomly happen to strike out a few more pitchers than you’d expect?

    I suspect that long-term patterns would probably show that it was essentially luck or randomness that caused pitchers to have seasons where they struck out disproportionally too many opposing pitchers. However, I’m open to the idea suggested here that certain pitchers may in fact be better at getting out opposing pitchers with strikeouts if you present the evidence.

    The difference for me is that I’d consider that a positive skill rather than a negative reflection of ability. Striking out any opposing batter in my mind is good. Is it as good as striking out an Adam Dunn? No (well maybe that’s a bad example), but it is still good.

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Some pitchers can hit, some were even position players at one time, I wouldn’t lump all pitchers into the no-hit catagory.

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  10. Cuban X Senators says:

    Interesting.

    I imagine effects are minimal, but thoughts run to 2 issues with PHing.

    Do Kirk Rueters face a greater % of pitchers because pitchers seem to a manager to be perfectly capable of hitting his junk balling ways?

    Are you including PH appearances by Those who usually pitch in pitcher ABs?

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Good thought on Rueter being perceived as more hittable so the managers leave him in, but according to my database that doesn’t really seem to be the case. From 1995-2011, the pitchers pooled together faced opposing pitchers 7.2% of the time.. for Rueter it was 7.4%.

      As for the pitchers pinch-hitting, yes, all pitcher PAs are included.

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  11. Joe says:

    Can we also depreciate the value of strikeouts against mark reynolds and adam dunn?

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  12. chipjosh says:

    I’d like to see javier vasquez on here…

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  13. Eric R says:

    Koufax struck out 52.7% of the pitchers he faced and faced the pitcher about 7% of the time.

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  14. Eric R says:

    Maddux struck out the pitcher 28.9% of the time and struck out non-pitchers 15.6% of the time. The latter for Koufax was 23.2%

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  15. Eric R says:

    Koufax 52.7% vs 23.2%
    Ryan 45.4% vs 24.6%
    Carlton 45.0% vs 17.2%
    Gooden 39.7% vs 18.4%
    Seaver 37.8% vs 17.6%
    Sutton 36.8% vs 15.3%
    Rueter 31.1% vs 8.6%
    Maddux 28.9% vs 15.6%
    PNiekro 24.1% vs 14.1%

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  16. eliasll says:

    The last two charts are very obvious. They are all pitchers with low k ratios, so they struckout around two batters per outing, very likely one of those strikeouts against the opposing pitcher. Pitchers with a high k ratio that can strikeout 10 in a game will likely face the opposing pitcher only twice and therefore it is impossible for them to have a high rate.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      Sure, and maybe I’m wrong, but those 10 K guys aren’t of interest here. At least for me, I’m more interested in the guys who strikeout 4-5 over 7 innings when 2 of the Ks are pitchers. Because suddenly their 6 K/9 drops to 3.5. The high strikeout guys are high strikeout guys… but guys who have average to above average rates more heavily reliant on pitcher whiffs are worthy of investigation.

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  17. wagon says:

    In your hypothesis you use David Ortiz as an example. Well, in 2010 he struck out once a game. Or DH’s such as Dave Kingman? How much more do P’s strike out than DH’s?

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