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Defining effectively wild

An attempt to define the turn of phrase used to describe pitchers with fleeting command of the strike zone and see who fit the bill in 2013.

J. Meric

A breed of pitcher that can inspire heartburn and spikes in blood pressure as often as cheers and accolades, the effectively wild hurler is one who will test the patience and confidence of managers and fans alike. Typically known for their occasional deviation from the typical routine of throwing strikes consistently, they nonetheless provide some modicum of productivity, in spite of their high-wire act filled with full counts and trips to the mound from the catcher and pitching coach. While some players slapped with the moniker wear it with pride, others might not be as deserving of the title.

Let's discuss the 'wild' and how we can capture it statistically, allowing us to apply it to pitchers in a more appropriate (and deserving) fashion. With wildness comes high walk rates (BB%), which arise from difficulties throwing strikes. We will capture strike throwing with percent of pitches seen/thrown in the strike zone (Zone%) and first pitch strike rates (F-Strike%). Using league average rates for each of these stats across starters (SP) and relievers (RP) with 50 or more innings pitched, we will consider pitchers who have walk rates one standard deviation higher than league average for 2013 and F-Strike and Zone rates one standard deviation lower than league average as 'wild'. League average rates are shown below:

Pitcher BB% / SD
Zone% / SD
F-Strike% / SD
SP 7.40% / 2.0
44.70% / 4.0
60.60% / 2.8
RP 8.90% / 2.3
44.90% / 4.6
59.80% / 3.3

Now that 'wild' is accounted for, let's return to effectiveness. There are numerous ways to capture effectiveness, but for this exercise, I will keep it simple and provide both RE24 and wins above replacement (here, I use the fWAR variety) to determine effectiveness, with the reader choosing their metric of preference. Keeping this criteria loose, let's consider top-50 performances as measured by both of these stats as being effective. For both starters and relievers, that is roughly a RE24 of 10. The numbers between the two pitcher types differ slightly when considering wins above replacement, with a 1.0 fWAR for relievers and a 3.3 fWAR for starters roughly equivalent to a top-50 performance in 2013.

With this in mind, let's look at who are the most effectively wild starters and relievers of 2013, first as measured with RE24:

Name BB% Zone% F-Strike% RE24
Jarred Cosart 14.20% 37.80% 52.40% 12.43

Filtering by one standard deviation and only including players with greater than 10 RE24, we get one wild stallion—Astros hurler Jarred Cosart. If we remove the standard deviation criteria and include all pitchers that performed worse than league average for the three 'wild' values while still only considering 10+ RE24 performances, we get the following:

Starters Name BB% Zone% F-Strike% RE24
Yu Darvish 9.50% 42.70% 57.60% 33.05
Clay Buchholz 8.70% 42.50% 59.90% 31.37
Madison Bumgarner 7.70% 44.00% 60.20% 24.23
Ivan Nova 7.80% 40.70% 52.70% 16.52
Francisco Liriano 9.50% 38.20% 58.40% 15.69
Alex Cobb 7.80% 44.30% 59.30% 14.62
Jorge de la Rosa 8.70% 44.30% 60.40% 13.89
Joe Kelly 12.30% 43.30% 53.10% 12.82
Jarred Cosart 14.20% 37.80% 52.40% 12.43
Matt Moore 11.80% 44.30% 50.90% 10.9
Ubaldo Jimenez 10.30% 44.10% 58.40% 10.58
C.J. Wilson 9.30% 43.60% 59.80% 10.00
J.P. Howell 9.40% 40.10% 57.30% 18.63
Rex Brothers 12.80% 43.00% 58.40% 13.04
Jim Henderson 9.70% 43.20% 48.60% 10.74
Paco Rodriguez 9.10% 39.40% 55.80% 10.26

...and for those more WAR-inclined, those results; no pitchers met the strict one standard deviation criteria, so I present all pitchers who performed worse than league average for the 'wild' criteria, but accrued at least 3.3 fWAR if a starter and 1.0 fWAR if a reliever:

Starters Name BB% Zone% F-Strike% WAR
Yu Darvish 9.50% 42.70% 57.60% 5.0
Madison Bumgarner 7.70% 44.00% 60.20% 3.7
C.J. Wilson 9.30% 43.60% 59.80% 3.3
Danny Farquhar 9.70% 44.80% 54.80% 1.9
Fernando Rodney 12.40% 43.30% 55.90% 1.3
Rex Brothers 12.80% 43.00% 58.40% 1.1

Not surprisingly, we see some familiar faces here in comparison with the RE24 results, with Clay Buchholz and Ubaldo Jimenez barely missing the cut with a 3.2 fWAR. RE24 isn't a high on either Danny Farquhar's (1.27) or Fernando Rodney's (0.15) seasons, anecdotally. While his San Francisco rotation mates didn't survive the effectiveness portion of our cuts, Madison Bumgarner was joined by Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsing, and Barry Zito in sharing the same propensity to lose the strike zone on occasion.

Thinking further about effectiveness, how did these pitchers remain productive in spite of their habit of fighting themselves and the strike zone? Let's briefly look at a handful of outcome-related stats of our RE24-favored effectively wild pitchers in comparison to league averages again:

K% GB/FB SwStr%
SP League Avg 18.90% 1.310 8.70%
SP, Effectively Wild 23.15% 1.564 9.64%
RP, League Avg 21.70% 1.270 10.40%
RP, Effectively Wild 27.45% 1.385 11.25%

Nothing shocking again with this quick perusal of data—when they throw strikes, the wild ones generate their effectiveness through swing and miss stuff, as their higher-than-league-average K and swinging strike rates attest, and getting hitters to keep the ball in the park and on the ground, with above average ground ball to fly ball ratios (GB/FB).

While oftentimes a backhanded compliment, crowning a pitcher as effectively wild does not automatically preclude a hurler from attaining great success with their often-wayward pitches. While not occurring as frequently for the effectively wild as for other pitchers, when these pitches can throw strikes, they tend to keep balls in the park and their team in the game in the form of high ground ball rates and missed bats. However, there is one pitcher that is the true embodiment of the effectively wild moniker—Jarred Cosart.


Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Stuart Wallace is an associate managing editor and writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TClippardsSpecs.