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Entries in strikeouts (19)

Tuesday
Jul022013

Is Strasburg's More Aggressive Fastball Approach a Good Thing?

Stephen Strasburg is a shoo-in for his second consecutive All-Star game selection, as the Nationals ace has improved his ERA+ from an already-impressive 124 last season to 157 in 2013, which ranks ninth among qualified starting pitchers. He has also been a bit more efficient, cutting his average number of pitches thrown per inning from 16.4 in 2012 to 15.8 this year. While Strasburg has lowered his ERA and gotten outs more quickly, he hasn't dominated hitters like usual: he's striking out 8.7 batters per nine frames, a paltry figure compared to his 11.2 K/9 during the 2010-12 seasons.

Why has Strasburg, who posted the highest K rate in MLB history during his first three MLB seasons (minimum 250 IP), been merely good at getting punch outs this season? It looks like he decided to take a page out of teammate Jordan Zimmermann's playbook, pounding the strike zone with his fastball and challenging hitters to take their best shot. That approach is paying off so far, as opponents are making more -- but also weaker -- contact.

Strasburg's fastball is humming toward home plate at its usual blistering pace, averaging an MLB-best 95.4 MPH (he clocked in at 95.6 MPH in 2012). But he's not nibbling as much as in years past. Strasburg has thrown 56% of his fastballs in the zone this season, up from 51% from 2010-12 and north of the 53% average for starters. That puts him in the top 15 among NL starters when it comes to peppering the plate with fastballs.

Highest percentage of fastballs thrown in strike zone among NL starters, 2013

Those extra strikes have come at the expense of swings and misses, however. Strasburg's fastball had an 18% whiff rate from 2010-12, on par with Justin Verlander and well above the 14% MLB average. This year, Strasburg is getting swings and misses 14% of the time -- the same rate as his mound opponent on Tuesday night, Wily Peralta. In particular, hitters are almost always connecting on low in-zone fastballs.

Strasburg's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2010-12

Strasburg's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2013

To this point, that extra contact hasn't hurt Strasburg. In fact, hitters have a lower slugging percentage versus Strasburg's gas this year (.381) than from 2010-12 (.405). He's also inducing more ground balls with his fastball in 2013 (47%) than in years past (40%).

Is this version of Strasburg -- attacking hitters, generating grounders -- better, worse, or just different than the strikeout king we had grown accustomed to? I don't know. Ultimately, hitters will answer that question in the months to come.

Tuesday
May072013

Darvish's Slider Makes Him Strikeout King

Legend has it that Satchel Paige was so confident in his ability to strike out batters that he would call his outfielders to the infield, inviting them to take a seat and bear witness to his greatness. You probably won't see Yu Darvish motion for Nelson Cruz any time soon, but you couldn't blame the Texas Rangers ace if he did.

Darvish has whiffed 72 hitters in 45.2 frames this season, a staggering 14.2 per nine innings pitched. His closest competitor among qualified starting pitchers is Max Scherzer, with a comparatively puny 12.4 K/9. Yu is punching out batters at a pace that even Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson couldn't manage in their primes, and he's doing it by throwing nearly twice as many sliders as he did last season.

As a rookie, Darvish threw his slider about 19% of the time. Batters swung and missed 44% of the time against the pitch, a mark bested only by Zack Greinke and Edwin Jackson among starters who threw at least 500 sliders. This year, Darvish has thrown his slider 37%. Hitters aren't catching on, though, whiffing at an even higher clip (46%).

Darvish has finished off 43 of the 72 batters he has struck out (60%) with a slider. The increase in sliders thrown is a major reason why Darvish's opponent contact rate has plummeted, particularly to the glove side: 

Darvish's contact rate by pitch location, 2012

 

Darvish's contact rate by pitch location, 2013

Yu has only made seven starts, but it's worth noting that no starting pitcher in history has ever punched out hitters at the clip he's currently managing over the course of a full season. Darvish's current K/9, if it were to hold up, would put Pedro and The Big Unit to shame. Kinda makes you wonder if the Rangers need outfielders on the day Darvish pitches.

Highest single-season K/9 for qualified starters

 Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Saturday
May042013

Buchholz to Batters: Made You Look

After a mediocre, low-strikeout 2012 season, Clay Buchholz is missing lots of bats while emerging as first-place Boston's ace. Buchholz has struck out 47 hitters in 44.2 innings pitched (9.5 K/9), a marked improvement over the 6.1 batters per nine he put down last season. A certain mustachioed color commentator thinks Buchholz is taking a page out of Gaylord Perry's playbook by throwing a spitter, a charge that Buchholz vehemently denies:

"Loading up with what, rosin?" Buchholz said. "I get wet from my hair. Are they talking about the stains on my shirt? There probably are stains on my shirt, because I've been wearing the same shirt for the last three years." (ESPNBoston.com)

Whatever the truth value of Jack Morris' spitball claim, can we all at least agree it's time for Clay to do some laundry? Ick. Whether by spitball or sheer smell of his uni, Buchholz has induced plenty of Ks this season by freezing hitters. Overall, about a quarter of the strikeouts registered by pitchers this season have been called strike threes. But more than half of Buchholz's strikeouts been of the looking variety:

Most looking strikeouts among MLB starters, 2013

The vast majority of Buchholz's looking Ks (18) have been on fastballs, with just a few curves and cutters sprinkled in. He's catching righties and lefties alike with glove-side pitches thrown just off the corner of the rule book-defined strike zone:

Location of Buchholz's looking strikeouts

Maybe he's throwing a spitter. Or, maybe his well-worn shirt is offending hitters' olfactory senses enough that it's hard for them to swing. Either way, Buchholz's big increase in Ks means his breakout passes the smell test.

 

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