Missing Bats: The Top Swinging Strikes Pitching Performances of 2011
There are many ways to measure effective pitching, from crude and context-dependent statistics like pitcher wins and quality starts to more meaningful measures like strikeout-to-walk ratio and fielding independent pitching. As sabermetric thought has evolved, pitching analysis has zeroed in on the factors a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, and to some extent, home runs. While many strikeouts end in a called strike, it’s the swing and miss that we most associate with dominant stuff, and indeed swinging strike percentage (SwStr%) is found to correlate highly with strikeout percentage (K%) and strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). While it is relatively easy to find a list of the top pitchers each season ranked by SwStr%, it’s also worth looking at the season’s top individual game performances ranked by number of swinging strikes.
To generate such a list, I began by identifying the group of starting pitchers to research. This group included all pitchers who had a start among baseball’s top 40 in Game Score (which ended up being a GS of 86 or better), those with 150+ strikeouts on the season, and starting pitchers with either a K% of 18%+ or a SwStr% of 8.5%+. Naturally there was a lot of overlap, but by combining these four lists we get a group of 74 starting pitchers who were most likely to have had outings with a high number of swinging strikes. While this method may omit some rookies, we will look at one first-year phenom, Matt Moore of the Rays, who didn’t strictly make the cut outlined above, but still recorded an impressive 15 swinging strikes (SwStr) and 11 strikeouts in just five innings of work against the Yankees on September 22.
For each of these 74 pitchers, I sorted their 2011 game log on Baseball Reference by SwStr (denoted StS on the site) to highlight the top performances. Out of well over 1,000 games examined, just 31 times did a pitcher record 20 SwStr or more, and on only six occasions did they record 22 or better. The season-high was turned in by Justin Verlander, the only pitcher to record 24 in a game, on June 14th against Cleveland. Here are the 31 starts from these pitchers in 2011 that had at least 20 SwStr (sorted first by SwStr, then by Game Score):
Verlander shows up on the list again for his previous start, June 9th against Seattle, where he recorded 23 SwStr, yet his no-hitter against Toronto failed to make the list. That game, in which Verlander recorded just 11 SwStr, points to the fact that a pitcher won’t always post impressive SwStr totals in his best outings. Another example would be Cliff Lee, a pitcher known for his pin-point command more than his raw stuff, who threw just 10 SwStr (but 35 called strikes) in a complete game 12-strikeout effort against the Marlins on September 15.
Of course it’s also possible for a pitcher to generate many swings and misses on a day when he still gets hit hard. Such was the case for A.J. Burnett on September 7 vs Baltimore, when he recorded 23 SwStr in just six innings, while yielding seven hits, four earned runs, four walks and a below average Game Score of 45. Josh Beckett turned in an even worse performance against those same Orioles on September 26 when he allowed six earned runs and a Game Score of just 35 despite posting a personal season-high of 20 SwStr. So while high swinging strike totals and effective pitching often go hand in hand, unusual outcomes like Burnett’s and Beckett’s are not uncommon.
Over the course of this study, we’ll take a closer look at eight starts by eight different pitchers. The first six come from atop the SwStr leaderboard and were tossed by the aces you’d expect to find here: Justin Verlander, James Shields, Dan Haren, and Jered Weaver, as well as two surprises from New York: the Mets’ Chris Capuano, whose 13-strikeout gem against the Braves was this season’s best by Game Score (96), and the Yankees’ A.J. Burnett, whose odd start against Baltimore we just mentioned.
Finally, there will be two bonus starts thrown in. We’ll look at Matt Moore’s first major league start, in which he struck out 11 Yankees in just five innings, tossing 15 SwStr, and we’ll examine an impressive performance from Japanese standout Yu Darvish, who threw 27 SwStr for the Nippon Ham Fighters en route to striking out 12 SoftBank Hawks on September 17. While we should be cautious about drawing direct comparisons between Darvish’s start and those of MLB pitchers, it’s nonetheless interesting to delve into his seven-pitch arsenal to see which of those offerings was most effective that day.
Clicking a link below will take you to the blog post examining that pitcher’s start.
Mike Cook © 2011