A story told by way of recent game notes….
@Angels 10, Tigers 0: Rick Porcello retired 1 of 11 batters, and even that GDP couldn’t save him. The 9 runs he allowed — and they were all directly off him, capped by a first-time serving of salami a la Trout — is the most since 2007 for a starter knocked out in the 1st.
Porcello threw first-pitch strikes to 9 guys, and 8 of them reached safely. With a chance to choke it off at 4 runs, he got a 1-2 count on Brendan Harris, but the light-hitting SS fouled off 3 in a row, worked the count full, and singled to restart the carousel. After a couple of infield hits filled ’em up again, Trout fouled off an 0-2 pitch and then slammed the door on the young Tiger’s workday.
Twenty-four of Porcello’s pitches were swung at. Ten were hit fair, 13 were fouled, just 1 was missed. He now has 3 Ks out of 63 batters this year. He could quadruple that rate and still be below average. You can’t survive that way in today’s game, much less succeed. Batters swing hard every time, and if they put 90% of balls into play, too many will be hit hard, find holes, find gaps, find the seats. No amount of ground balls can overcome even a 10% K rate, much less Porcello’s current 5%.
Porcello was replaced in the game by Drew Smyly, a move we’ll soon hear in a broader context. Smyly tossed 5.2 scoreless innings, and has 17 Ks in 15 IP this year and a 23% K rate for his career, nearly double Porcello’s career rate.
@Rockies 4, D-backs 3: Rafael Betancourt got his 7th save in as many chances, working out of his own mess as the Rox fought off Arizona’s late rush to win their 8th in a row. Their 13-4 start is the best in club history. But Betancourt’s shrinking K rate is a concern.
From 2007-11, Betancourt fanned 28% of all batters. But starting with 2010, his season K% has been 36%, then 31%, then 24%, and now — after tonight’s 0-for-6 — 15% so far this season.
The first 2 hits he allowed tonight were on 0-1, then came a damaging walk on 3 straight balls after a 1-2 count. Miguel Montero started 1-2, but fouled off 2 and worked the count full before pulling a groundout that moved the winning run to 2nd. A first-pitch flyout ended the threat.
While he’s allowed just 5 hits (no HRs) and 3 runs in 9.1 IP, his 5 walks are a red flag. Since joining the team in 2009, Betancourt had issued just 26 unintentional walks in 208 innings, or 1.1 per 9 IP.
Not all walks are awful, of course. But last Saturday, he began the 9th with a 2-0 lead and walked the first 2 men on 5 pitches each, escaping with the tying run on 2nd. Two days later, he entered a tie game in the 10th, and after a not-indefensible full-count walk to Ike Davis with 1 out, he couldn’t put away PH Kirk Nieuwenhuis (one of the most whiff-prone around), ending a 9-pitch battle with a 2-out walk that brought up David Wright; he fell behind Wright, but got him out on a fly. And tonight’s walk to the non-slugger Gerardo Parra loaded the bases with 1 out, pushing the tying run to 2nd base. Again, he survived.
The walks might be a small-sample fluke. But if the Ks don’t come up, he’ll face a big challenge to remain effective. And 38-year-olds don’t often reverse 3-year trends in such important measures.
The Associated Press led with:
This was more like the Roy Halladay everyone is used to. … He’s had consecutive strong outings after starting the season with two poor ones. The two-time Cy Young Award winner … has looked like his old self this week.
Halladay said after the game:
“Today was as close as I’ve felt to where I want to be. When I stay within myself and execute the mechanics the way they should be done, I feel good where I’m at.”
Well, now. We’ll just have to see about that.
Results on the board do count, and he did have 6 Ks. But to these old eyes, it was still a far cry from vintage Doc — and in spite of the score, this outing seems barely more promising than the first two, when he got beat like a drum.
Halladay threw 109 pitches, and 50 were balls. That 54% strike rate is his lowest since 2002, a span of 304 starts. Fourteen of 25 batters took a first-pitch ball, and 14 PAs were settled with the batter ahead (including 7 full counts). Twelve of those became outs — but such results won’t repeat without better stuff than he seems to have now.
Is strike rate a meaningful measure, apart from walk rate? Consider:
- Last year, starts with less than 60% strikes and no more than 2 walks produced a combined 5.56 ERA and a team W% of .390 (equivalent to a 99-loss season).
But maybe those who are used to pitching that way can be successful?
- In the past 5 years combined, out of 18 pitchers with 7 or more such starts, only Trevor Cahill produced an ERA under 3.74; the average was 5.13, the median 5.21. Halladay has 13 such starts in his career, with a 4.81 ERA.
- Two of the best recent nibblers were Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer. In this kind of start, Glavine’s ERA was 4.21 career, 4.45 from age 33 on. For Moyer, 4.79 career, 4.44 from age 33 onward.
- For 1988-present — the entire span of B-R’s pitch data — out of 66 pitchers with at least 30 such starts, just 3 produced an ERA under 4.14 — Barry Zito (3.27), Derek Lowe (3.36) and Al Leiter (3.84). The median was 5.31.
Bottom line: No one fares well for long when working behind the hitters. From 2001-12, Halladay averaged a consistent 67% strikes and 64% first-pitch strikes — both marks 4 to 5 points above the league average — and that didn’t change last year, despite his struggles. This year, he’s at 59% strikes and 53% first-pitch strikes. Three of his first 4 starts have had strike rates under 60%, with a total of 14 runs and 5 HRs in 14.1 IP. Even the savviest pitcher is likely to lose 2 out of every 3 starts with such a low strike rate.
For sure, it’s still early days in Halladay’s adjustment period. He might get back a couple of lost MPH. And he might figure out how to work ahead even with diminished stuff. Greg Maddux certainly did; his excellent strike rates never declined, even when you could catch his fastball with a sheet of tin foil, and from age 37-40 he produced a 108 ERA+ despite a K rate well below average. Getting a couple of good results under his belt should help his confidence, no matter the luck involved. But if Halladay can’t get back to working ahead of the hitters, he’s unlikely to have much success.
@Mets 7, Nationals 1: In previewing this young-gun matchup, Jerry Crasnick wrote that Stephen Strasburg this year is “focusing less on strikeouts and more on getting maximum efficiency from the pitches he’s allotted.”
That might just be Jerry’s inference, or it might be a strategy that doesn’t mean quite what it sounds like there. But if there really is an intent to have Strasburg sacrifice some strikeouts in search of longer outings, whoever thunk that up should haul his thinker down to the shop for a 24-point inspection.
What’s the point of “efficiency” unless you win? Strikeouts aren’t just the jewels in Strasburg’s crown; they’re the very reason he is so successful. In 25 games with 7 Ks or more, Strasburg has averaged just over 6 innings. Sure, you’d like to get another inning or two — but in those games, he has a 1.70 ERA, and the team is 19-6.
Would “focusing less on strikeouts” really improve his efficiency, extend his outings? In 23 starts with 6 Ks or less, Strasburg has averaged just over 5 innings with a 4.56 ERA, and the team is 11-12.
And guess what? — His career BAbip is .308, the same as Aaron Cook, Bud Norris and Justin Masterson, and 8 points above last year’s NL average. Take away his strikeouts and Strasburg is like Johnny Friendly without the shakedown cabbage and the pistoleros: “just another fellow.”
If the plan is to settle more ABs early in the count, compare his results to the league’s in early counts and overall:
BA — Strasburg .224 (career) / NL .254 (2012)
SLG — Strasburg .334 / NL .402
Early counts (ABs settled on 0-0, 0-1, 1-0 or 1-1):
BA — Strasburg .325 / NL .330
SLG — Strasburg .502 / NL .523
He’s much better than average overall, but just a little better in early counts. (And I ran those stats before Friday, when the 8 ABs settled on early counts produced 2 HRs, a double and an RBI single.)
And here’s a quick tale of two innings: In the 1st, Strasburg got 2 strikes on the first 2 batters; each extended the AB with a foul and a ball, each got on base, and each wound up scoring. In the 3rd, the Mets got a man to 3rd base with 1 out; Strasburg escaped by whiffing the next two.
All pitchers nowadays need strikeouts, and the more, the better. Maybe it’s not my kind of game, the way 9-ball isn’t Fast Eddie‘s game; but even if it is just for bangers, everybody’s doing it. Lucky for Strasburg, that happens to be his greatest skill. He’s a strikeout artist, one of the best there is. Don’t mess with success. Let the man pitch!