Welcome to the second edition of The Weekly Walk, in which I look at the kooky goings-on of Major League Baseball. You can find the first edition of this series here. Today, we'll live up to the series' name, as we focus on two of the three true outcomes: strikeouts and walks. For three starting pitchers, 2014 has brought an unforeseen twist of fate, involving one or both of these statistics.
Off we go!
Part I: Deception, Without Fortune
We'll begin our journey in the nation's capital, where a starter hasn't accrued many outs despite a sizable inclination toward whiffs. Stephen Strasburg has always ranked among the game's elite, with a career ERA of 3.11, the 14th-best mark among starters since 2010. This year, the story has changed a bit — his 3.74 ERA ranks a mere 51st out of 95 qualified starters.
Or has it? He's retiring batters on strikes at a breathtaking pace; his 27.7% strikeout rate comes in at fourth in baseball. Horrible luck on balls in play has undermined him; his .356 BABIP beats every other pitcher. This seems like a rare combination — most power pitchers allow weak contact, which lowers their BABIPs. While I've written of Strasburg's poor luck before, neither I nor anyone else had noted this weird angle to it.
As is the purpose of this series, let's look at history. Using z-scores, we can put Strasburg's talent into perspective. The aforementioned K% translates to a z-score of 1.94, meaning he has struck hitters out at a rate 1.94 standard deviations above the mean for qualified pitchers. In and of itself, that's pretty incredible: Going back to 1920, of 7,079 qualified pitcher seasons, 290 have topped that mark.
But that doesn't delve into the main question here: How many pitchers have coupled strikeout ability with little-to-no BABIP suppression? Looking at z-scores again, we see that Strasburg's BABIP comes in at 2.25 standard deviations* over league average — an astonishingly high figure.
*Note: Unadjusted for parks.
Let's get some nice, round numbers for our parameters. Of that large sample, how many men had z-scores of 1.5 and 2 for strikeouts and BABIP, respectively? A mere ten, listed below:
Strasburg could do something this season that only nine other men (since 1920) have done. What's more, ZiPS gives him a decent chance of doing it — its Update projections predict he'll have a .338 BABIP come October, which, with the smaller standard deviation granted by a larger sample size, could keep his BABIP z-score above 2. He probably doesn't want this distinction; luckily, I don't care about what he wants.
Part II: Corrected Control
Next, we'll move to Pittsburgh, where one hurler has dramatically bettered his command. Jeff Locke came to the Pirates as a throw-in in the Nate McLouth trade; after two unimpressive trial runs in 2011 and 2012, his splendid 2013 debut (166.1 innings, 3.55 ERA) helped the Bucs make a surprise playoff run. Of course, luck played a large role in that success; an ominous 4.19 xFIP didn't inspire optimism in the sabermetric cognoscenti, who thought Locke's production would drop off precipitously in the following year. Despite this negativity, he has still pitched pretty well, by both traditional (3.74 ERA) and modern (3.40 xFIP) standards.
A huge improvement in control has catalyzed this peripheral progress: Whereas in 2013, he walked 11.8% of the batters he faced, in 2014 that number has shriveled to 3.1%. There are reasons to believe this change is legitimate, ZiPS's skepticism (3.67 BB/9 RoS) notwithstanding. While he has only pitched 33.2 innings, he has now thrown to 131 batters, nearing the 170-BF threshold for walk rate stabilization. Moreover, for what it's worth, he's pounded the zone more (49.5%, up from 41.0% last year) and has thrown more strikes overall (68.9%, up from 59.3% last year).
However, this series doesn't focus on the process, but on the results. Aside from leading the majors, that ignominious 11.8% base on balls rate was 2.75 standard deviations above the mean. Since 1920, only 89 other pitchers have been at 2.5 or worse in one campaign.
Now, I'll have to bend the rules here a bit, as Locke doesn't yet qualify for the ERA title. If he did, though, his walk z-score for 2014 would be -1.82 — a massive improvement over last year's mark. Of those 89 starters, how many saw their walk rates drop below average for Year 2?
Morehead only upped his discipline in 28.0 innings, so Righetti is the lone comparison for Locke. This means that only one pitcher, ever, has decreased his walk rate so much after sinking so low. Locke won't compile enough innings to qualify — he would need 128.1, and the Pirates only have 83 games left. Even so, the future looks bright for him, if he can maintain this extraordinary trend.
Part III: Ks And BBs Galore
For our last tale, we'll head to the Trop, where an erstwhile Cy Young winner could rise to heretofore-unreached heights. Coming into 2014, every team in the majors would kill to have David Price, and the Rays, ostensibly, made that a possibility; however, he remained in Tampa, and he probably feels good about how things are going for him.
Yes, the Rays have done unbelievably terribly this year — FanGraphs gives them a 0.9% chance of making the playoffs. Yes, Price hasn't excelled on the surface — his 3.63 ERA ranks a mediocre 48th in the majors. Other stats matter, and Price's peripherals couldn't be much better. He has struck out 28.4% of the batters he's faced while only walking 2.8%; this potent mixture has given him a 2.54 xFIP, third in baseball.
Let's focus in on the former two figures for now. Because Price has punched out so many batters in a year with the highest strikeout rate ever, you might feel that a healthy dosage of sodium chloride should accompany any accolades doled upon him. Nevertheless, even when we take into account the era in which he pitches, his accomplishments still stand apart.
Price currently has a strikeout z-score of 2.11, and a walk z-score of -1.95; this means that an across-the-board 2-z season is potentially feasible. Returning to that 95-year sample, we see that only one qualified pitcher finished with a K z-score above 2 and a BB z-score below 2: Curt Schilling, who did so in 2003.
Let's be pessimistic, though, and assume Price declines (which he probably will, what with regression to the mean and all). We'll broaden the scope a bit, to 1.5 standard deviations. Since 1920, how many pitchers have surpassed that point for both strikeouts and walks?
(For funsies, I included ERA-, to show that Price's 2014 misfortune leads this list by a wide margin).
Yes, hegemony of this level doesn't come often, which casts a whole new light on Price's dominance thus far. Only 0.2% of those 7,079 hurlers belong to this club, and Price could become one of them.
As you might suspect, ZiPS doesn't see Price keeping this up; for the rest of the year, it projects 9.12 K/9 and 1.74 B/9 — numbers that, while superb, could knock Price down a peg. If he can sustain this, though, he'll achieve something spectacular; now that it appears the Rays actually will deal Price, potential buyers should keep this in mind.
That's all I have for this week. On the one hand, I could run out of ideas for this piece pretty quickly; on the other hand...
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Friday, June 27th, 2014.
Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.