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A new kind of power closer

A very recent phenomenon is the existence of relief pitchers with more strikeouts than baserunners allowed. As if hitters didn't have enough problems already.

Dellin Betances of the Yankees
Dellin Betances of the Yankees
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ideas come from many sources, like reading what other smart people are writing about and expanding their frame, updating excellent research from the past (one of my favorites), and sometimes from Twitter. This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, since a medium limited to 140 characters is an ideal mechanism to discuss complicated subjects (especially politics). However, one of my favorite follows on Twitter (more on that later) tweeted this:

The job of any pitcher, particularly any reliever or closer (and that's who these pitchers are, obviously) is to get outs. They typically enter the game in the ninth with empty bases, and any strikeout is one fewer opportunity for a ground ball to slip through or for a runner to reach on an error. This table adds more information:

Pitcher From To BF KO BR KO-BR
Billy Wagner 1995 2010 3600 1196 968 228
Craig Kimbrel 2010 2014 1127 476 280 196
Aroldis Chapman 2010 2014 994 430 263 167
Kenley Jansen 2010 2014 1139 448 289 159
Koji Uehara 2009 2014 1340 412 305 107
Greg Holland 2010 2014 1104 381 305 76
Dellin Betances 2011 2014 383 147 95 52
Rob Dibble 1988 1995 1979 645 598 47
Sergio Romo 2008 2014 1390 394 355 39
Jonathan Papelbon 2005 2014 2526 721 683 38
Sean Doolittle 2012 2014 693 209 171 38

The KO-BR number goes to zero (and below) quickly--in fact, since 1914, there have been 7,323 players who have thrown a pitch in a game (including position players), and only 73 have more strikeouts than baserunners allowed. Fifty five of those have a difference of ten or fewer. In other words, 18 pitchers have as many as 20 more strikeouts than baserunners--that's an incredibly small number.

I made a Tableau data viz to illustrate this data but don't like how it turned out, mainly because the negative values overwhelm the positive. It shows this data for all pitchers, and also has a tab showing strikeouts per batters faced. This is a recent phenomenon, one abetted by using flame-throwing closers like Aroldis Chapman to completely overwhelm hitters at the end of a game. Dellin Betances sticks out in particular, not just because he strikes out around forty percent of hitters he faces (fourth in baseball history, min 50 IP), but couples that with a stinginess in allowing baserunners.

It's a fine line between trivia and useful information, and this sits right on the demarcation point. However, the state of baseball today is that teams are setting the back ends of their pitching staffs to delineate even seventh inning roles, and the Royals' success in 2014 will only exacerbate this trend. Not every team will be successful, since strategy is easy to define and difficult to implement.

As Opening Day approaches it will be interesting to see adjustments team make with pitching, and how batters will respond. If hitters continue to flail away at pitches outside the strike zone, they'll never get decent pitches to hit, and if catcher framing continues to improve, the effective strike zone will be the size of a postage stamp since pitchers would have no incentive to pitch in the meat of the strike zone if hitters won't wait them out. The new style of closer like Betances, Chapman and Kimbrel is making it very difficult for hitters in that not only are they getting hitters out, they're not even giving them a chance to reach on an error. Runs have been decreasing since 2007, and if pitching continues to overwhelm hitting like it has been recently, there's no end in sight.

One last unrelated note as I mention some of my favorite follows on Twitter because they help me learn more about baseball and give me some great ideas to research and potentially develop. In addition to the Ace of Baseball Stats, there's High Heat Stats, who also provides entertaining factoids, Daren Willman of Baseball Savant for all the PITCHf/x data you'll ever want to see, Harry Pavlidis of Baseball-Prospectus and Brooks Baseball because, well, I'm not entirely convinced he's real (I heard him do a radio interview once, it sounded very robotic), and my fave, Christopher Kamka, who does Chicago-centric things that are still very informative and interesting--here's one of his gems from Saturday:

There's so many others, but these folks have broadened my horizons and helped me learn new things and resources. Give 'em a follow if you don't already--you won't be disappointed.

Thanks to Ace of Baseball Stats for permission to write about this. At heart, I'm a researcher, not an idea man, and without ideas, I have nothing to research. All data from Baseball-Reference, and any mistakes in gathering or processing the data are mine.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter at your own risk at @ScottLindholm.