Cleveland, OH, USA: Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander pitches against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field. Credit: Eric P. Mull-USPRESSWIRE
On things you might not know about Edwin Jackson, Justin Verlander, R.A. Dickey, Kyle Drabek, and James McDonald. Knowledge is humanity's greatest resource.
Sometimes, a writer gets a good idea for something to write about. An idea he can explore and flesh out at length, producing something he thinks will be readable and entertaining. Sometimes, a writer can't find one good big idea, but stumbles across a bunch of worse, littler ones. Articles like this are often the result.
Below, I highlight five pitchers and five plate-discipline stats. I don't think any of these are worth writing about for 800 words apiece, or at least I'm not feeling that inspired, but I do think they're interesting enough as bite-size nuggets. These are statistical facts I consider worth knowing. I couldn't come up with one really fascinating topic, so hopefully by slapping together a handful of lesser-fascinating topics I can approximate the same reader sensation. Off you go now!
Before the 2011 season, Drabek was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 29 prospect in the league. 23 years old, Drabek started 14 games for the Blue Jays. Over those 14 starts, he threw 1,370 pitches, and just 54.6 percent of those pitches were strikes. Among all starters to throw at least 50 innings last year, Drabek's strike rate was the lowest by a good margin. He was demoted to the minors, and returned in September to work out of the bullpen.
This year, given another chance, Drabek has started 11 games for the Blue Jays, throwing 1,115 pitches. Just 54.4 percent of those pitches have been strikes. Among all starters with at least 50 innings this year, Drabek's strike rate is the lowest by a good margin.
Baseball people are always going on about the importance of consistency. It isn't enough to just be consistent. You could say that Kyle Drabek is very consistent.
Jackson has always been incredibly talented, and he's still just 28 years old. Do you know what can happen for a talented 28-year-old? Almost anything can happen, including a breakthrough, and Jackson's posting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career with the Nationals. Between 2009-2011, Jackson generated 2.5 strikeouts per unintentional walk. In 2012, he's sitting at 3.5.
The secret? There's probably more than one secret. But among them, there is this one, which is now no longer a secret: Jackson's throwing a lot more first-pitch strikes than ever. Last year, 58 percent of his first pitches were strikes. The year before that, 57 percent, and the year before that, 55 percent. This year, he's up to 64 percent, which is not extraordinarily high, but which is very high for Edwin Jackson.
Jackson's also been better this year after getting ahead, so there's more than one thing going on. But by getting more of those early strikes, he's put himself in position to have greater success.
While we're talking about first-pitch strikes, McDonald presents an interesting case. McDonald has emerged in a big way for the Pirates this season, racking up 71 strikeouts against just 18 unintentional walks. His ERA's down at 2.14, and on a few occasions he's flirted with the idea of making some history. There are a lot of different kinds of history a pitcher could make, but you know exactly what I'm referring to when I say that.
And yet McDonald has hardly begun half his plate appearances with a strike. His first-pitch strike rate of 52.6 percent is the lowest of his career, and the third-lowest in baseball, ahead of just Edinson Volquez and Kyle Drabek. He's between Drabek and Ricky Romero. Where the average National League pitcher has gotten into an 0-and-1 count 48.6 percent of the time, McDonald's at 41.5 percent, making things challenging.
Yet McDonald has thrived. He's thrived because he's been impossible after getting ahead, and because he's done a good job of bouncing back after falling behind. I don't know whether this can continue, but McDonald's taken things this far.
Based on the PITCHf/x strike zone, FanGraphs monitors swings at pitches within the zone, and swings at pitches outside of it. They also monitor how often those swings make contact. This year, about 87 percent of swings at strikes have made contact, and about 65 percent of swings at balls have made contact. These numbers aren't surprising, although maybe you couldn't have guessed them exactly.
So, most pitchers will show a wide difference between their zone-contact rates and their out-of-zone-contact rates. R.A. Dickey is one exception. Dickey is currently flipping the f*** out, and the difference between his two rates is just 9.3 percent. It's the second-smallest difference in baseball, behind Mark Buehrle and ahead of everyone else. One interpretation might be that Dickey is allowing too much contact on balls. But the alternate interpretation would be that Dickey is doing a good job of preventing contact on strikes. I'm not here to explain everything, I'm just here to show you numbers, and here are numbers. Wherever Dickey has been putting the ball, it's been hard to hit, because R.A. Dickey's balls knuckle, in case you hadn't heard.
I spend a lot of time looking at contact rate allowed. Contact rate doesn't really tell you anything more meaningful than strikeout rate, but strikeout rate includes called strikes and I prefer the more cathartic satisfaction of a swing and miss. Now, anybody can get a hitter to swing and miss at a ball. Some pitchers will be less tricky than others, but even a guy who's wild with a bad curveball can occasionally get a guy to whiff at a ball in the dirt.
It takes something more to be able to consistently generate swings and misses at strikes. This year, among all the pitchers with at least 30 innings, Max Scherzer has posted the fifth-best contact rate on strikes. Matt Moore's in fourth, R.A. Dickey's in third, and Alexi Ogando's in second. At the very top of the leaderboard is Justin Verlander, at 77.7 percent. The league-average contact rate overall is 79.9 percent. Verlander has posted a better-than-average contact rate even when you take away all of his pitches out of the strike zone.
When people talk about how dominant Justin Verlander is, this is a big part of it. Verlander has the heat, obviously. He's not afraid to bring it, and even when he brings it into a guy's wheelhouse, he's still hard to hit.
The fastballs you see above were pretty much right in the center of the zone. It didn't matter. A pitch thrown by Justin Verlander is a pitch thrown by Justin Verlander, regardless of where it ends up.