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Three-Pitch Strikeout Rate Leaders & Trailers

Following up on my posts last week about 4-pitch (unintentional) walk rate, I thought I'd do something similar this week and look at the pitchers and hitters who have the highest (and lowest) rates of 3-pitch strikeouts.

I used for my sample the 304 pitchers and 331 hitters who had at least 50 strikeouts since the start of the 2011 season (through the games of Friday, May 11th). Then I simply divided the number of 3-pitch strikeouts by the number of total strikeouts to find 3-Pitch Strikeout Rate (3PK%). Here are the top 10 and bottom 10 hitters and pitchers in this stat:

Top 10 Hitters

  1. Orlando Cabrera, 37%
  2. Matt Garza*, 34%
  3. Tyler Greene, 32%
  4. J.J. Hardy, 30%
  5. Jose Molina, 29%
  6. Marlon Byrd, 29%
  7. Mike Carp, 28%
  8. Brett Lawrie, 28%
  9. Chris Getz, 28%
  10. Humberto Quintero, 27%

Top 10 Pitchers

  1. Matt Guerrier, 33%
  2. Phil Coke, 31%
  3. Jonathan Papelbon, 31%
  4. Clayton Richard, 31%
  5. Brian Sanches, 30%
  6. Boone Logan, 30%
  7. Mike Adams, 30%
  8. Ross Detwiler, 29%
  9. Jonny Venters, 28%
  10. Sergio Romo, 28%

Bottom 10 Hitters

  1. Rafael Furcal, 4%
  2. Justin Smoak, 5%
  3. Bryan LaHair, 6%
  4. Daric Barton, 6%
  5. Juan Uribe, 7%
  6. Mike Cameron, 7%
  7. Vladimir Guerrero, 7%
  8. Carlos Lee, 7%
  9. Kevin Youkilis, 8%
  10. Jim Thome, 8%

Bottom 10 Pitchers

  1. Kevin Gregg, 5%
  2. Burke Badenhop, 5%
  3. Javy Guerra, 7%
  4. Anthony Swarzak, 9%
  5. Frank Francisco, 9%
  6. Daniel Hudson, 9%
  7. Fernando Salas, 9%
  8. Juan Cruz, 9%
  9. Craig Breslow, 9%
  10. Rex Brothers, 10%

For hitters, it seems like two factors mostly determine whether they rank at the top or the bottom of the list. First, a player who likes to work the count will tend to rank near the bottom; Thome, Youkilis, and Barton are prime examples of this. On the opposite end, free-swingers who don't take a lot of pitches, like Hardy, Cabrera, and Molina, will of course have a higher 3PK%.

The other main factor that I can see is the ability to make contact. Vladimir Guerrero is of course the king of this. Players who are able to avoid whiffs, even when swinging at bad pitches, are more likely to extend at-bats with fouls. Having higher whiff rates would then lead to slightly more 3-pitch Ks.

For the pitchers, sheer dominance seems to be a factor, as some of the best relievers in the game make the top 10 (Venters, Romo, Adams, and Papelbon). But that's clearly not all, as several of the bottom 10 are pretty darn good themselves.

I thought good control might be a part of it, but Venters, Sanches and #11 Dontrelle Willis all have walk rates well above 10%, which would seem to make it harder to have 3-pitch strikeouts, but apparently doesn't. I'm guessing that these guys are examples of pitchers who can be "effectively wild" at times. The counter to this would be guys with high walk rates who rank near the bottom, like Kevin Gregg and Juan Cruz. Perhaps when these guys are wild, it's easier for the hitters to recognize and lay off of their pitches.

As for the few starting pitchers who make the lists, I'm not sure what to make of them. Clayton Richard has poor walk and K rates but still gets a high percentage of 3-pitch strikeouts. Daniel Hudson strikes out more, walks fewer, and has better stuff... yet he has a very low percentage of 3-pitch Ks.

Here are some other starters who rank highly: Jeff Karstens (15th), Ivan Nova (17th), Jair Jurrjens (20th), Ricky Nolasco (22nd), and Jaime Garcia (25th). And here are some who rank near the bottom in 3PK%: Kyle Drabek (11th-worst), Javier Vazquez (16th), J.A. Happ (19th), Trevor Cahill (23rd), and, weirdly, Tim Lincecum (24th).

Anyway, I'm not sure this is all that useful, but it's fun to think about.

* Yes, that's Garza as a hitter. He was the only pitcher with enough hitting Ks to qualify; he has 53 Ks in only 86 PAs since 2011, which is 11 more than the 2nd-leading pitcher (Roy Halladay, in a lot more PAs). If Garza's K rate seems extreme, that's because it is. In fact, his career K% of 61.4% (62 Ks in 101 PAs) is the highest of all time among players with at least 100 PAs.