Cleveland Sports Insiders

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Strikeout and Swinging Strike Percentiles: May 26th

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Entering the season, Carlos Carrasco’s strikeout rate posed something of a conundrum. Carrasco’s ‘stuff’ going into the year was very good – put less interestingly, his pitch mix induced a swinging rate that was average to above-average for starters. Typically, the meme for minor-leaguers is that they have good-looking pitches but that those pitches don’t translate to whiffs. This was the explanation reflexively thrown out there for Carrasco, despite the fact that his pitches did translate to whiffs. The gap, then, was the dissonance between Carrasco’s Swinging Strike rate and his strikeout rate – in other words, the approach was good, but the results did not follow.

Entering late May, this dissonance no longer exists – Carrasco’s above-average swinging strike rate has resulted in an above-average strikeout rate, as one expects. Raw Whiff Percentage is the leading predictor of strikeout rate, and it does so with incredible reliability. Of course, judging by Carrasco’s exiled last-man-in-the-pen role, Cleveland has the same regard for Whiff%/FIP/xFIP that Poet Laureate Violent J has for Scientists – who should not instruct him De Magnetum Natura - but those of us who harbor the terribly misguided delusion that the Cleveland ballclub has any interest in saber might be interested in the current starters’ Swinging Strike/Strikeout differential.

There have been five starters who ave compiled 20+ innings as a starter before the Memorial game day. Two of them are no longer starting for the club because they had grievously failed to sacrifice to the BABIP gods and were justly punished for their hubris, whereas Tomlin was excluded both because he had pitched less than 20 innings as a starter, with three of his 21.2 IP coming in relief, and because his Gritty Texas Pitching Magic can’t be captured in Bolshevik statistics like Swinging Strike rate.*

The chart below details the Swinging Strike and Strikeout rates, followed by the SwStr% and K% percentile within the group of starters with 20+ IP, in turn followed by the difference between K% Percentile and SwStr% Percentile so as to determine how much of the pitcher’s strikeout rate is skill-based, and how much is – like Carrasco pre-2014 – as a result of good or poor sequencing. (For reference: mean starter SwStr% is 8.7%, mean starter K% is 19.5%. Median percentile for both is 50%. A=A.)

  SwStr% K% SwStr% Percentile K% Percentile K%ile-SwStr%ile
Corey Kluber 11.8% 27.0% 90.62% 93.75% 0.0313
Danny Salazar 10.6% 25.5% 85.00% 89.37% 0.0437
Carlos Carrasco 9.6% 23.5% 68.75% 83.75% 0.1500
Justin Masterson 9.4% 18.9% 66.87% 46.87% -0.2000
Zach McAllister 6.6% 20.1% 13.12% 57.50% 0.4438

Credit: FanGraphs

Corey Kluber has been either red-hot or icy cold – whichever cliche one prefers. Good at throwing baseballs with the intent of not hitting bats, is the point. A differential of 3.13% indicates, however, that his breakout K rate has been more or less matched by a nearly-equally-good Swinging Strike rate. He actually is as great and terrible as his strikeout rate suggests. Let us all run and hide from the scary monster.

Salazar’s situation is similar. The issue with Salazar was not that his 2013 strikeout rate was unsustainable within the context of his 2013 whiff rate; Salazar’s 2013 whiff rate of 14.6% was portended nothing less than an incredible strikeout rate. The issue, rather, was that Salazar’s swinging strike rate cratered. In the case of 2011-13 Carrasco, it was argued that Carrasco wouldn’t get a high strikeout rate because, despite his good stuff, he was still too raw – an argument obviously flawed because Carrasco did induce an excellent swinging strike rate.

In Salazar’s case, however, the statistics absolutely bear out this same argument. It’s not to say that Salazar’s strikeout capacity is in any way in question, but his ability at whiff induction did decrease. The decline in K% from his 2013 30.8% to his 2014 25.5% should therefore is completely warranted – and given that the latter still qualified as an 89th-percentile K rate, should prompt terrible reflection on just how good 2013 Danny Salazar was.

The remaining three – Carrasco, Masterson, and McAllister – have variously untenable situations. As if to compensate for previous years’ bad sequencing, his 2014 strikeout rate rather substantially out-performed his Swinging Strike rate. Given that he was audacious enough to play in front of the Cleveland defense, it was obvious that he needed to be removed from the Cleveland rotation, but WHIP aside, Carrasco elicited the strikeout rates necessary to be a successful starter.

Justin Masterson is the only starter on the staff whose 2014 whiff rate suggests a higher strikeout rate. Masterson’s strength has always been the ground ball, but his breakout 2013 strikeout rate would be what would have vaulted Masterson to the highest tier of the pitching world.

Retrospectively, Justin Masterson’s walk rate has spiked, so an increased strikeout rate would not have single-handedly powered Masterson to excellence in pitching; that said, the decline in strikeout rate (24.3% to 18.9%) has hardly helped matters. His 2013 strikeout rate, Mike Podhorzer argued before the season, was unsustainable – but his greatly-lowered 2014 strikeout rate is not an equilibrium point, just a shifting to the opposite extreme. Justin Masterson will begin striking out batters at a better pace than now – but a return to 2013 form is unlikely.

McAllister remains a sad regression candidate. He’s likely not as bad as he looked in his three most recent outings, which have spanned a combined 7.2 IP with 7 K, 6 BB, and 4 dingers, but he is certainly not as good as he looked in his first seven. His 6.6% swinging strike rate is one of the worst in the league, contrasted with an above-average strikeout rate. A dichotomy this pronounced never lasts, and in McAllister’s case, it creates substantial reason to worry. His control is not good enough to become a Bartolo Colon, a low-K, low-BB pitcher, and he has extremely pronounced flyball tendencies.

Z-Mac’s most recent three starts have been among his worst on the year re: SwStr%, but they were by no means the only deficient performances: in only two of his first seven games did McAllister’s SwStr% exceed the starter average. McAllister has been on the receiving end of substantial good luck – good luck is good for the team and good for McAllister. The only danger to the good luck that McAllister has received is the possible expectation that McAllister is a substantially better pitcher than he actually is – an expectation that the above chart explicitly countermands.

On the whole, the Cleveland starters have taken Pharrell and Daft Punk out for a nice dinner at Red Lobster, as they have indeed gotten lucky. After the conclusion of the Memorial Day game, Tomlin is likely to also exhibit a very large positive difference between K% percentile and SwStr% percentile. Good luck is not something that a team needs in any way to apologize for – but in terms of decision-making, one must never confuse luck with skill. In the case of Swinging Strike rate and Strikeout rate, that difference can be very pronounced.

*So obviously Tomlin fans 8 in 5 IP with a 7.8% SwStr rate in Monday’s game

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Author: John Grimm

John can be contacted on Twitter at @JHGrimm, or via e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

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