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Walks, Homers, and Zach Greinke

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I read a prediction somewhere before the season started (I don't remember where, unfortunately) prophesizing that Zach Greinke would allow fewer walks than homers. (He's given up 13 BBs and 5 HRs thus far.)

I was curious, the other day, to see how often that happens and who has done it.

It's quite rare.

I took every pitcher season since 1955 (the last 50 years) in which the pitcher threw 100 or more innings (there are 6,477 of them in the Lehman database from baseball1.com).

There have been 19 pitcher seasons. This is substantially rare (that's 0.29%).

That .29% figure is deceptive. It has been far, far less rare over the last 7 years than it was before that. From 1955-1997, it happened 7 times. Just 7. Since 1997 (98-04), it happened 12 times, for a frequency of 1.19%. Still rare, but not unheard of anymore. This is, in all probability, due to the fact that from 1998-2004, we had a major home run era. Tom Verducci believes it's over, as he eloquently argues in a recent Sports Illustrated article. I'm not convinced, yet.

My real question was: what can this teach us about projection?

For one, the obvious thing is this: the lower the SUM of BB+HR is, the better you probably are. Out of the 19 pitchers, however, only one had an ERA above 5 (that would be 1987's Ken Dixon tenure with the Baltimore Orioles, in which he posted a 6.43 ERA), and none had ERAs under 3. Disregarding Dixon, quickly, the spread is very tight. The lesson seems to be that no pitcher has had superb success while allowing fewer home runs than walks, but it's fairly certain that they can be adequate. I would assume that, because no pitcher has given up more than 50 homers in a season, the fact is that all of these pitchers are exhibiting, at worst, 4 BB/9 control, and are typically much better than that.

There are some good names on this list:

  • Robin Roberts (1956)
  • Greg Maddux (2004)
  • Brad Radke (2003)
  • Rick Reed (1998, 2002)
  • David Wells (2003, 2004)
  • Jon Leiber (2002)
but... Maddux in 2004 was not the Greg Maddux of his prime. Roberts of 1956 just wasn't all that good. Rick Reed, David Wells, and Jon Leiber are nice, but none is a top flight starter.

I don't think that there's nearly enough data to make a fair generalization here, so I'll make a specific observation: if Greinke could in some year give up fewer walks than homers and fulfill his potential at the same time, he'd be making history. Best of luck to him.