Strikeouts and Walks. What Else Really Matters?
By Marcus Meade
Apparently, it’s important to strike hitters out without walking that many. Can we check to see if the Royals starters have gotten this memo? MLB.com posted an article yesterday explaining that this year’s strikeout to walk ratio is at its highest since 1884. That’s right 1884, not 1984. Back when Willie Nelson first started owing the IRS a ton of money and Teddy Roosevelt rode a dinosaur during his charge on Hitler’s bunker (I minored in revisionist history).
The SO/BB ratio is super high: 2.42. That means on average pitchers get 2.42 strikeouts for every walk. So, for a game if a pitcher has three walks seven or eight strikeouts. The upturn, seems to reflect a trend in pitching evaluation. Nowadays, with the prominence of statistical analysis, sabermetrics, and an emphasis on peripheral statistics for pitchers, more people are searching for strikeout pitchers, with the hopes of lowering their walk numbers if need be.
I think many people, and I count myself among them, look at the strikeout and the walk as polar opposites (even if they’re really not it’s easiest to understand them as such). A strikeout guarantees the hitter will not get on base (as opposed to a ball in play). A walk guarantees the runner will reach base (again as opposed to a ball in play). What a high SO/BB ratio means is that the pitcher is controlling that game in the positive. What a really low SO/BB ratio means is that the pitcher is also controlling that game in the negative.* If a pitcher has low strikeouts and low walks, they are kind of abdicating control of the game … kind of.
*Please note that I do believe the pitcher controls batted balls to a degree, but let us assume for the moment that he does not.
When I read the article on MLB.com, I wanted to see how the Royals’ pitchers are controlling the game with regards to their SO/BB ratio. As a team, the Royals’ SO-BB ratio is 2.08, which is below league average by a significant amount. A small section of the problem is that the Royals don’t strike that many guys out, 17th in MLB with 808. The big problem is that they walk way to many hitters, fifth most MLB with 388. Part of that was a certain terrible pitcher named Jonathan Sanchez (44 BB in 53 IP), but part of it is the high walk rates of Greg Holland, Tim Collins, Luis Mendoza, and the sometimes starters like Will Smith, Everett Teaford, and Danny Duffy.
Looking at the data, the picture is a little fuzzy but seems to point to the fact that Royals pitchers are not controlling the game in a positive way. Of their current starters, only Bruce Chen and Jeremy Guthrie have a SO-BB ratio better than league average (and they both serve meat balls with high HR/9 and BABIP numbers to prove it). Mendoza, the teams best starter for the last couple months, has a frightening 1.5 SO-BB ratio, but is saved by low HR/9 totals and good ground ball numbers. Smith also has frightening SO-BB numbers at 1.70.
In comparison, the best pitchers in the AL hang out from 3.70-4.00 for their SO-BB ratio: Justin Verlander (4.05), Jered Weaver (3.75), Felix Hernandez (3.70), Chris Sale (3.91). Right now, the Royals have none of these types of pitchers (not even Duffy as he has been so far). Guys like Mendoza, pitchers who keep the ball low and get a lot of weak groundballs, can work as fourth and fifth starters. But to compete at a playoff level, the Royals need pitchers who can be in the 3.70-4.00 range with their SO-BB ration. And those guys can’t be anomalies like Guthrie who are in the zone all the time but only to the hitter’s delight.
Looking down the road, it doesn’t look that much better. Jake Odorizzi’s got a 2.29 SO/BB ratio, which isn’t very good. Again, he strikes out a fair amount but walks too many (gives up too many hits as well). Kyle Smith in Low A has been good at 4.5 SO/BB, but that’s Low A. Yordano Ventura is another pitcher who could use fewer walks; he’s struggled since being called up to AA.
Right now, it looks pretty grim, especially if you believe that the Royals need someone who can serve as an ace, which I do. But we’ll see. Duffy has that potential if he stops walking so many hitters. Kyle’s Smith and Zimmer have that potential I think. But potential can’t play a game. It can’t win a pennant. When it can, the Royals will be set.
*All data from Aug. 11, 2012