Reading the title of this post, you might be asking “Haven’t there always been intimidation pitchers?”. What I’m referring to, though, are pitchers who intimidate batters not only with their stuff, but also because the batter isn’t always sure where the next pitch may be headed.

To this point in the 2012 season, these three pitchers (min. 80 IP) are having dominating seasons, as evidenced by their ERAs and strikeout totals.

Rk Player Year BB ER IP Age Tm Lg G GS W L W-L% H R SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Brandon Beachy 2012 29 18 81.0 25 ATL NL 13 13 5 5 .500 49 24 68 2.00 200 6
2 Ryan Vogelsong 2012 32 21 82.2 34 SFG NL 12 12 6 2 .750 64 22 58 2.29 156 5
3 C.J. Wilson 2012 38 22 86.0 31 LAA AL 14 14 7 4 .636 57 26 76 2.30 166 4
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/19/2012.

But, they’re also on pace for allowing 50% more walks than earned runs, something that hasn’t been accomplished by 3 pitchers in the same season in more than 20 years (if it happens this year, the trio will have to include someone other than Beachy, who was shelved for the year today pending Tommy John surgery).

After the jump, I’ll take a closer look at this unusual pitching profile.

Allowing 50% more walks than earned runs has happened only 12 times since 1980. These are the seasons.

Rk Player Year BB ER IP Age Tm Lg G GS W L W-L% H R SO ERA ERA+ HR
1 Clayton Kershaw 2009 91 53 171.0 21 LAD NL 31 30 8 8 .500 119 55 185 2.79 143 7
2 Daisuke Matsuzaka 2008 94 54 167.2 27 BOS AL 29 29 18 3 .857 128 58 154 2.90 160 12
3 Al Leiter 2004 97 62 173.2 38 NYM NL 30 30 10 8 .556 138 65 117 3.21 133 16
4 Chan Ho Park 2000 124 82 226.0 27 LAD NL 34 34 18 10 .643 173 92 217 3.27 132 21
5 Al Leiter 1996 119 70 215.1 30 FLA NL 33 33 16 12 .571 153 74 200 2.93 139 14
6 Wilson Alvarez 1993 122 68 207.2 23 CHW AL 31 31 15 8 .652 168 78 155 2.95 143 14
7 Randy Johnson 1992 144 88 210.1 28 SEA AL 31 31 12 14 .462 154 104 241 3.77 105 13
8 Mike Moore 1991 105 69 210.0 31 OAK AL 33 33 17 8 .680 176 75 153 2.96 129 11
9 Randy Johnson 1991 152 89 201.1 27 SEA AL 33 33 13 10 .565 151 96 228 3.98 103 15
10 Jose de Jesus 1991 128 69 181.2 26 PHI NL 31 29 10 9 .526 147 74 118 3.42 107 7
11 Sid Fernandez 1985 80 53 170.1 22 NYM NL 26 26 9 9 .500 108 56 180 2.80 125 14
12 Nolan Ryan 1983 101 65 196.1 36 HOU NL 29 29 14 9 .609 134 74 183 2.98 114 9
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/19/2012.
 
Notice that all of these seasons are above 100 ERA+ and eight of them (two-thirds) have ERA+ of 125 or better. So, these pitchers were certainly effective, despite their wildness. And, wild they were – half of these seasons led the league in walks allowed. But, why do the walks not catch up with these guys?

The not surprising answer is that many of these pitchers were intimidators – guys who were tough to hit, piling up the strikeouts and economizing on the hits and HR allowed (if not on WHIP). The lowest K ratios on the list were by Jose de Jesus and Al Leiter (in 2004), yet Leiter was still above 6 SO/9, and de Jesus just a touch below that mark. Similarly, eight of the twelve allowed fewer hits than strikeouts, and all were below 1 HR/9. Being wild was almost an added benefit – discouraging batters from digging in and getting their best swings. 

So, have these types of seasons always been this unusual (only 12 times in 32 years)? Here’s a table of such seasons by decade. Note that my K/9+  and BB/9+ metrics are simply the average for these seasons divided by average of MLB annual rates, times 100. Thus, numbers over 100 indicate more than the league average.

DecadeSeasonsMedian ERA+BB/9+ K/9+ Most TimesEarned Runs %
2001-2010314315112192.2%
1991-20007129160130Randy Johnson (2)91.2%
1981-19902119.513716489.6%
1971-198019123154154Nolan Ryan (7)88.7%
1961-197021135131132Sam McDowell (4)88.0%
1951-196018125.5145137Bob Turley (4)88.6%
1941-195021125155163Hal Newhouser (4)86.6%
1931-19405140160187Bob Feller (2)85.8%
1921-19301157124102Sheriff Blake (1)83.%
1911-192049126135131Jeff Tesreau (3)75.9%
1901-191036135131134Ed Reulbach (5)70.2%

 

So, there is quite a bit of fluctuation in how frequently these seasons occur, more especially if we consider that the seasons shown are raw totals and not normalized to the number of MLB teams in each decade. Also worth considering is that as the ratio of earned to total runs allowed has increased over time, this has made it somewhat more difficult to achieve the 50% margin of walks over earned runs, particularly in comparison to pitchers in the deadball era. Yet, the profile of a high strikeout, high walk and very good ERA pitcher relative to league average is consistent, albeit with very small sample sizes in some decades.

So, why such drastic fluctuation? I think a possible answer may be discerned from the following chart.

 

As the run environment increases, the tolerance for this type of pitcher diminishes. But, when runs start becoming harder to come by, this type of pitcher season returns. Ergo, those extra walks aren’t so concerning when runs are hard to come by. This also makes sense in a high run environment when minimizing baserunners becomes paramount. Perhaps also pitchers, consciously or otherwise, become not so precise with their pitches when runs are hard to come by.

You’ve noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned the current decade. There weren’t any such seasons last year – the pitchers who came closest were Tim Lincecum and Gio Gonzalez, each of whom fit the higher strikeout, higher walk, very good ERA profile. Now that it seems fairly evident that we are into a diminishing run environment, should we expect to start seeing these kinds of seasons more often? What do you think? 

 

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