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Can a Pitcher Not Walk Enough Batters?

   by Hollywood Sports - 08/09/2011

The strikeout-to-walk ratio (K:BB) is a sabermetric held near and dear to many in the baseball community. The logic makes sense: the most dominant pitchers are strikeout artists while bases-on-balls are considered self-inflicted wounds. But is the importance of this metric exaggerated? Strikeout pitchers are sexy but their importance in many fantasy baseball may have made too many people feel that producing strikeouts is a requirement for a pitcher rather than a luxury. There are many pitchers who find success even without making batters miss their pitches. The Cardinals' pitching coach, Dave Duncan (among many others), trains his pitchers to induce ground balls. While that decreases their strikeout numbers, it does produce more ground ball opportunities that are generally more manageable. And while groundball pitchers may end up giving up more base hits, they are less likely to be extra-base hits. There is a reason Duncan is one of the best pitching coaches in the game.

Strikeouts are one thing. But can a pitcher really suffer by not issuing enough bases-on-balls? I have spent a significant amount of time looking at Zack Greinke lately. In dialogues about that work, I became more and more interested in Greinke's outstanding K:BB ratio. Clearly, the former Cy Young Award winner can be absolutely dominant at times. But is it possible that Greinke chooses to not work the corners in pressure moments -- to his detriment? Check out what Greinke has said when asked about the sabermetric FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching): That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible.

Bully for Greinke! Of course, the Dave Duncan school of thought is to rely on your club's infield fielding. Different strokes for different strokes. But the deeper question is this: has Greinke's zeal for a low FIP made him so adverse to issuing walks that he is surrendering in disadvantageous moments in the count? The fact that Greinke has issued only 22 bases-on-balls in 17 starts this season is absolutely amazing. But would a few more walks really hurt him. More importantly, is he like a poker player that is not aggressively dictating the action by pitching to the corners and forcing hitters into difficult and uncomfortable situations? Consider Game Theory. Are bases-on-balls like bluffs in that pitchers should pitch with the seeming willingness to still work the corners even when behind in the count? Specifically, when Greinke has a 2-0 count, is he then too likely to groove it in the middle of the strike zone because he wants to keep that FIP low? Does doing so just make things worse for him?

Lets analyze Greinke's split stats when the count is 2-0 and 3-0. The current NL average for hitters with a 2-0 count: .382 BA/.380 OBP/1.046 OPS. These higher than normal numbers makes sense since the hitter enjoys an advantageous situation. But now look at Greinke this season when facing a 2-0 count: .733 BA/.733 OBP/2.267 OPS. Those are absurdly high numbers! Greinke has faced that 2-0 count 15 times. Only seven times has he then faced a 3-0 count this season -- and his numbers then look like this: 1.000 BA/1.000 OBP/5.000 OPS. That's right: hitters have produced a base hit in each and everyone of Greinke's 3-0 offerings. The NL average for pitchers faced with a 3-0 count this season are this: .362 BA/.951 OBP/1.719 OPS. Greinke's deviation from the norm is stark. Not only does it seem like Greinke is grooving down the middle when he gets behind the count, but it appears likely that hitters know that this is in his book.

Sabermetrics offer baseball analysts some interesting avenues to dig deeper into why pitchers are getting the results that they are. Studying these numbers helps to better predict how these pitchers will perform in the future. But perhaps pitchers like Greinke are not served by focusing on their sabermetrics like FIP. Hurting that FIP by issuing more than a microscopic 1.29 batters per start may keep starting pitchers like Greinke from losing their edge and advantage even when down in the count. To offer two anecdotal examples, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine never gave up on working the corners of the strike zone even when down 2-0 or 3-1 -- and they worked on getting the home plate umpire to expand that strike zone to the corners in the first inning. Neither of those guys threw better fastballs than Greinke yet they both still earned their share of Ks given their commitment to pitching to these corners. Dave Duncan takes non-superstar talent who cannot hit the corners like those future Hall of Famers from the Braves and commit them to pitching low. It produces fewer strikeouts but also more ground balls (and fewer line drives). Given Greinke's amazing stuff, perhaps he would be better served by continuing to rely on this talent when behind in the count even if he then issues one or two more walks per game. Best of luck -- Frank.

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