Strikeouts for pitchers aren’t overrated, and here’s why: there is no more fundamental indicator that a pitcher is or isn’t hard to hit. To get strikeouts, you have to throw strikes or pitches that look like strikes, and the batter has to not put those pitches in play. All that’s important for a pitcher to do goes into the generation of strikeouts. There are, of course, relatively ineffective pitchers who get strikeouts. There are relatively effective pitchers who do not get so many strikeouts. Strikeouts aren’t everything, because the name of the game isn’t “Get The Most Strikeouts”, but they are the closest to everything of any of the basic stats. Make people miss and you’re probably good.
So if you want to find pitchers people are buzzing about, follow the strikeouts. If you want to find young potential aces, follow the strikeouts. Yovani Gallardo seemed like a young potential ace. He’s still not old, and he’s still plenty talented. But people have been waiting for him for years. He has yet to post a full-season ERA- under 90. His runs have never quite matched his peripherals. And this past season was something of a worrisome mess. In 2009, Gallardo had baseball’s seventh-highest strikeout rate, essentially equal with Clayton Kershaw. He kept on striking out about a quarter of batters through 2012. This last year, his strikeouts matched Jordan Zimmermann and Edinson Volquez. His rate was still fine, but considerably worse, and it’s enough to make one wonder: what happens when a young starter loses strikeouts?
It would be easier to explain with older starters. They could be hurt, or they could just be reaching the end of the line. Every career dies somewhere, and strikeouts are usually one of the first things to go. We don’t generally expect people to start declining in their 20s, so when you have something like a strikeout decline for a younger starter, is it a blip, or is it an indicator? That is, do pitchers bounce back, or do they just find their new levels?
Gallardo, as it happens, isn’t the only young starter to be coming off a strikeout decline, where “young” is defined as “under 30”. Between 2012-2013, Gallardo’s strikeout rate lost 5.1 percentage points. Stephen Strasburg, David Price, and Dillon Gee each lost 4.1 percentage points. But Strasburg had a big second half, and might’ve been cutting his strikeouts deliberately to get quicker grounders. Price claims to have been working for efficiency, and he countered the strikeout decline by throwing strikes almost exclusively. Gee actually got fewer strikeouts in the second half, so he’s a guy to keep in mind here, too. But Gee already had his shoulder operated on in 2012, and he fought a known elbow issue as well. Gallardo’s never missed time with an arm issue, yet last year his velocity was down across the board. With Gallardo, there was the same workload, but less stuff and fewer whiffs. There’s no apparent easy explanation. In this way Gallardo stands alone.
Let’s go over some history. The first thing we’ll do in the leaderboards is select for starting pitchers. Then we’ll set an innings minimum of 100, and we’ll make sure to only look at guys on the bright side of 30. I took the leaderboards back to 2000, and then I looked for pretty big year-to-year strikeout declines. I somewhat arbitrarily set my dividing line at -4 percentage points. I was left with a pool of 63 pitchers. To repeat all that: there were 63 pitchers
- as starters
- since 2000
- who threw at least 100 innings in consecutive years
- while younger than 30
- and had their strikeout rates decline at least four percentage points
Then it was simply a matter of seeing how those pitchers did the next year, the year after losing so many strikeouts. Here’s a table of names and some of the information:
|Pitcher Year||GS||FIP-||K%||Year X+1||GS||FIP-||K%||Year X+2||GS||FIP-||K%|
|2001Chan Ho Park||35||93||22%||25||108||18%||7||153||11%|
In Year X+2, four pitchers didn’t start a single game in the majors. Six more wound up throwing fewer than 50 innings as starters. Of the remaining 53, 19 had further strikeout-rate declines, while 34 bounced back. Nine exceeded their strikeout rates in Year X.
Let’s play around with those 53, understanding that by doing so we’re already eliminating ten guys from the sample who didn’t do so hot. Some average performance numbers:
- 29 starts
- 180 innings
- 86 ERA-
- 86 FIP-
- 22% strikeouts
- 8% walks
- 29 starts
- 181 innings
- 102 ERA-
- 101 FIP-
- 17% strikeouts
- 8% walks
- 27 starts
- 169 innings
- 100 ERA-
- 98 FIP-
- 18% strikeouts
- 8% walks
As a group, plenty of these pitchers continued to pitch often, but they didn’t bounce back very much to old levels. After losing about five percentage points of strikeout rate, they gained back just one. So they wound up with sustained losses in both ERA- and FIP-. They went from being good starters to average starters, overall, and there are as many nightmares as success stories.
Credit to Ubaldo Jimenez for bouncing back in 2013. Jason Hammel rebounded in 2012, although he was also newly out of Colorado. Zack Greinke’s strikeout rate shot up between 2010 and 2011. But then, Greinke also lost a ton of ground between 2011 and 2012, and he lost only more ground between 2012 and 2013. Scott Kazmir’s strikeouts plummeted before he disappeared. Daniel Cabrera turned into a catastrophe. Tommy Hanson’s slippage hinted at doom. Brandon Morrow is a total mystery. It’s not the most encouraging group of pitchers, if you’re looking for Gallardo to get back to what he was.
What’s positive is that Gallardo has a long, established track record of getting strikeouts. He’s still not old, he made just about every start a season ago, his stuff still looks more or less like his stuff, and he didn’t have any unusual problems with control. But, he did lose velocity. He did lose strikeouts, with the corresponding increase in contact allowed. Recent history shows that, when a young starting pitcher loses a bunch of strikeouts, more often than not they don’t really come back. Gallardo might have a physical problem, or he might just be declining. But it seems like the probability is that he is what he most recently was. If it’s any consolation, that means Gallardo might no longer be a frustrating ought-to-be ace. That he might just be differently frustrating is whatever the opposite of consolation is.
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