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Innings: bad for young arms, good for value
 revised 11/'12

Unless you are a professional in baseball - for mere Scoresheet purposes these days understanding how effective a pitcher is with all the luck and team support sifted out essentially comes down to three basic statistics: K/BB, K%, and GB%. There is one stat now that boils those down into one number: xFIP. However, I prefer to see those numbers separately. It allows you to know a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses a little better. It is important to know that K% tells more about potential and less about current ability than the others.

Effectiveness is only part of a pitcher’s value. The rest is his workload. That includes not just how many innings he pitches each week, but whether he will be pitching them in the Minors or Majors, and his proneness towards injury.

Going back, at least, to the revolution ignited by Bill James' Abstracts in the early 1980s, the consensus among baseball sabermaticians has been that the strikeout-to-walk ratio of a pitcher is a better indicator of future ERA than even his ERA. In other words, if pitcher A has a 4.50 ERA and a 1.8 K/W ratio, and pitcher B has a 4.80 ERA and a 2.0 K/W, and everything else about those pitchers is the same, then pitcher B will more likely pitch with a lower ERA in the future than pitcher A.

The average K/BB these days is up to 2.25 these days – inching up every year it seems. In fact, it has been higher than that the last two years: 2.48 in 2012 and 2.30 in 2011. The Major League K/BB was 2.17 in 2010, then was steadily within one point of 2.01 for the five seasons before that. From 1974 to 1981 it dipped down to about 1.50. It had been around the 2.00 mark in the years of the high strike and high mounds of 1963-1968  in a jump from the 1.50-ish level. The last year it was below 1.00 was 1950, although from 1901 to 1921, it was above 1.00. The K/BB fluctuated wildly in the 19th century through many rule changes.

It is a nifty stat, because it does not rely on all the many influences which determine an ERA beyond a pitcher’s control - such as his team's fielding ability to turn balls-in-play into outs. We won't even discuss W-L record, which is even more luck based than ERA. If the pitcher has many strikeouts, his pitches must be difficult to hit. If his strikeouts are high in relation to his walks, then he is fooling the batter and has command of the plate.

Some ERA estimators (FIP, xERA) use HR/9 instead of GB%. However, groundballs have a much high frequency of occurrence than home runs. The greater the N, the better the data. Home runs per non ground balls run fairly constant. Hence, GB% is much more reliable than HR/9. Strikeouts and walks are regularly occurring incidents as well. The number of runs per game might be slightly more than the number of walks per game, but they occur less regularly – in bunches often requiring a sequence of hits. A decent groundball pitcher has a GB% above 45%.

Now, hits are not something you want to pay much attention to either. Generally about 30% of all balls batted off any pitcher in fair territory is going to be a hit. Any BABiP less than that indicates either a good fielding team or a pitcher who has just been lucky. A higher BABiP indicates one of the opposites. DER (BFP-H-K-BB-HBP-Errors)/(BFP-HR-K-BB-HBP) is the similar to BABiP (H/(AB – K – HR) only measuring the opposite: outs turned by the defense. It is sometimes measured simply as (1 – BABiP) So, above 71% is good or lucky, less is not.

Another indicator of luck when looking at a pitcher’s ERA is LOB% - the percentage of base-runners they leave stranded. 71% is the normal Left On Base percent (H + BB + HBP - R) / (H + BB + HBP - (1.4 * HR)). If the pitcher has left more than that on base, he is probably either lucky or has a great bullpen helping him out. Relievers who come in the middle of an inning will often have higher LOB%, since it takes fewer outs to strand them. As a rule of thumb, set-up men and middle relievers should have an LOB of 76%.

BABiP, Hit Rates, and Strand Rates are defined slightly differently by different experts/web sites. These definitions are from The Hardball Times. Remember, LOB% and DER are just nuances to adjust a player’s ERA. If you just look at the basics: K/BB, K%, and GB%, you would be fine not looking at anything else.

As far as performance should be measured, K/BB is the most important stat. GB% tells the rest of the story, although a high K% is preferable to a low one. The strikeout rate is more important towards indicating a pitcher's upside and staying power - even more so than his age. Strikeout pitchers are considered better long term investments than finesse pitchers. They have greater potential to improve and they generally last longer – especially if they throw hard. It is apparently more stressful to throw a breaking pitch than a fastball. Furthermore, if a fastball pitcher loses his fastball, it is still possible that he becomes a good finesse pitcher. Finesse pitchers cannot adjust by being fastball pitchers.

In recent years the average K% or K/PA is around 18%, while BB% come in around 8%. K% can be found on a pitcher’s data page in FanGraphs under the heading “Advanced” in a middle column in-between the K/9 and HR/9 data on the left and the BABIP, LOB%, and FIP data on the right. I point this out, because for some reason when I was looking for it, my eyes kept passing right over it and missing it. Apparently Baseball Prospectus has this stat, too, but I still haven’t found it there.

For staying power, it also helps to be tall and have a smooth leg powered delivery. It also seems lanky pitchers do not last as long as hefty pitchers, but I can’t explain why. Of course, knuckleball pitchers are a whole other story. They develop the latest and last the longest (given equal peak value).

And why aren't pop-ups considered something else? Pop-ups are almost as good as strikeouts as an indication of effective pitching, while line drives and fly balls are the opposite. I think it is because pop-ups are closely related to strikeouts – just more difficult to keep track of, so we don’t bother.

Remember, these men are major leaguers. They are not subject to choking as we imagine them to be. If something occurs randomly, it is luck. If something is repeatable, than it is probably a skill or ability. Clutch skill should be as repeatable as a player’s tendency to hit many home runs. However, no measure of clutch performance has been mathematically demonstrated to be anything but random number variation.

Scouting reports carry even more weight with my pitcher evaluations than they do with hitters. When Jose Mesa was developing his craft in the early 90s, his K/W was dreadful, but he had good “stuff” - meaning he had an arsenal of pitches that were hard to hit, but he just hadn’t learned to pitch them effectively.

Besides reading about debilitating injuries, one of the most important keys to seeing if a pitcher is in decline is a significant drop in his strikeouts per inning ratio. As long as that strikeout rate remains high, the biggest worry for an aging pitcher is an increase in injuries. Nolan Ryan exemplified this. He pitched as well as ever into his 40s, but his injuries kept coming more and more often. That is what finally ended his great career.

FanGraphs gives a pitcher’s pitch velocity. This stat is challenging strikeout rates as both an indicator of potential and in particular a forbearer of potential decline.

You have to evaluate young pitchers differently from older veterans. A 30 year old who puts in 230 innings a year is a heck of a lot more valuable than a similar aged pitcher who has to be coddled for 190 innings. However, if you are comparing 23 year olds, I’d actually rather have the one with the lighter workload. Unlike a hitter who, if he becomes a star at 20 or 21, is considered a Hall of Fame candidate, a pitcher who becomes a star at such a tender age is likely headed for the operating table and a very short career. Although, ever advancing medical practices are reviving pitching careers at record rates.

We are still trying to figure out how to break in young pitchers without ruining their arms. Books have been written about abusive pitch counts. Many experts say keeping the total number of innings low until a pitcher is 25 is the key - or more particularly keep the increase in workload under 30 innings at such a young age - especially if that increase is at the major league level. Others have asked where is the evidence that keeping a pitcher’s workload down helps at all? The rule of thumb now, is that if a young pitcher has handled three years of heavy workload, then he is past the injury nexus. It is still controversial – and, of course, much of it depends on the individual pitcher's size and mechanics. Scouting reports are important to know if a pitcher has a smooth efficient motion. Here is a study workloads I made that did not support the “Verducci rule” of keeping workload increases under 30 inning increases.

Regarding a pitcher's workload, in Scoresheet, when you run out of innings available for your pitcher, you can get clobbered with AAA Pitcher substitutions. See my line-up strategies for avoiding that. In the meantime make sure you have enough active innings eaters to cover your needs every week. A 3.50 reliever who pitches 90 innings a year is generally more valuable than a 3.20 reliever who pitches only 50 innings per year – especially if he qualifies as a starting pitcher.

In my experience, psychological stability is a concern even more for pitchers as hitters. Head cases tend to get injured more often, go on sulks, get hooked on drugs, get traded out of the league, and are more quickly given up on. Who needs the headaches? Regardless of their wackiness, though, it is most important to look for the players with the steeliest dedication.

So, for the long run look for:

▪ good scouting reports

▪ high strikeouts per inning

▪ high velocity

▪ a high ratio of strikeouts to walks

▪ high ground ball percentage

▪ no significant injury history

▪ big and tall pitchers

▪ a smooth leg powered delivery

▪ good attitude & dedication

knuckleball pitchers

Another tip – for the short run:  A pitching coach /manager /organization's record might be as important as a pitcher’s own track record - that is if you can make sense of it. For the American League of 2012, depending on the talent, I would bet on the A's and Rays anytime. The White Sox can be fairly well counted on and the Rangers have become excellent at developing their pitchers after a decade or so of being the worse. The Angels have been fairly steady in making the best of their pitching talent. The Orioles under Showalter have suddenly improved their success with young pitchers after replacing the Rangers as the worse in recent years. The Twins seem to do well with what they have. The Red Sox used to be very good, but are now suspect. Detroit has had some great successes and their share of failures. Toronto does well on the development side, but can’t keep them healthy. Kansas City and New York do respectably with relievers but struggle to turn their pitching potential into outstanding starters. It seems Seattle and Cleveland have been the overall weakest at developing pitchers lately.

Finally, always keep in mind a pitcher's context - especially if it changes. When he switches teams, is it in an easier league? . . . easier division? Is it a friendlier ballpark - for his type of pitching? Will his new team have better defense? Even if the pitcher stays put, check if his team has made major changes to their defense or their stadium.

You could forget all of this and just go with some published projections, but that won’t help you as much mid-season when the projections were made in the off season. Either way, don’t forget to consider how a pitcher fits with your team. and its goals. Any further consideration is probably not worth the effort. Leave yourself a little time enjoy life.

John Carter