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Monday, June 27, 2011
Strikeouts still the key to pitching success

By David Schoenfield

In 1985, Dwight Gooden won 24 games, struck out 268 batters and posted a 1.53 ERA, the second-lowest in 60 years.

The next spring, the Mets decided to change Gooden's approach. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre directed him to not go for so many strikeouts. Later that season, with Gooden going through a rough patch, Stottlemyre told The New York Times, ''I have downplayed the strikeouts with him for the simple reason he doesn't need to strike out 10 batters to have a strong game. The important thing is put zeros on the scoreboard. I probably made too great an emphasis with him on getting ground balls, and not enough on getting pop-ups."

It should be mentioned that Stottlemyre was a ground ball pitcher during his own pitching days. He averaged 4.3 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, far less than the league average during his time. He undoubtedly was coming from a good place; Gooden was just 21 years old, and he wanted to preserve his arm and make him more durable over the long haul.

But Stottlemyre's advice was bad advice. As Bill James wrote in the "1987 Baseball Abstract" about Stottlemyre's thinking, "That's a common belief among baseball men, but it is dead wrong. Among all of the hundreds of issues that I have studied in the ten years I have been doing this, the most definitive evidence I have ever found on any issue is the evidence that the career expectation for a strikeout pitcher is dramatically longer than it is for a control pitcher."

Gooden, who had struck out 11.4 batters per nine innings as a rookie in 1984 and 8.7 in 1985, dropped to 7.2 in 1986. His ERA rose to 2.84. Obviously, Gooden faced extenuating circumstances later in his career -- he entered drug rehab in the spring of 1987 and later injured his shoulder -- but in the summer of 1986, he claimed velocity wasn't an issue.

"'I'm throwing harder than at any time in my career,'' he said, ''but the ball has been going straight and it's been getting hit, and that's been part of the problem." The magic of 1985? Gooden never regained it.

* * * *

After Justin Verlander no-hit the Blue Jays on May 7, I watched his postgame interview, and he said he and Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp had been working on slowing down his delivery, trying to make it more methodical to improve his consistency and location. He said he even dialed down his fastball early in the game, throwing 92 to 94 mph instead of his customary 96-plus. He didn't exactly say it, but in the back of my mind, I thought, "Uh-oh, that sounds like he could be saying that he's trying to pitch to contact."

Verlander struck out only four Blue Jays that day. On May 24, after he gave up six runs to Tampa Bay, his ERA stood at 3.42. It was looking like another typical Verlander year -- while that's a solid ERA, in 2011 it hardly makes you one of baseball's elite pitchers. (Currently, that would rank only 48th among starting pitchers.) And as good as Verlander has been, he's never had a season ERA less than 3.25 or a top-five finish in ERA in the American League.

But in the six starts since May 24, Verlander is 6-0 with a 0.72 ERA, allowing just four runs in 49 2/3 innings. He's also struck out 51 batters.

Yes, strikeouts matter. As he continues to blow away hitters, it appears to me now that Verlander wasn't working on inducing more contact. He was working on becoming a more dominant pitcher, refining his control and mixing up his repertoire. But he's shown over the past month that he's still trying to strike guys out. And now he's become perhaps the best starter in the game.

* * * *

Fans will invariably say, "Yes, but what about Tom Glavine? Or Greg Maddux. Or Jamie Moyer!"

In Glavine's first Cy Young season, in 1991, he struck out 7.0 batters per nine innings, well more than the National League average of 5.9. In 1998, when he won his second Cy Young, he was still striking out 6.2 per nine, a tick less than the NL average of 6.8. The point is, he had room to work with: He started out above the league average strikeout rate before slowly dipping through the years.

Maddux was even more of a strikeout pitcher than Glavine. During his 1992-98 peak, when he went 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA, his K rate was 6.9 per nine, peaking at 7.8.

Even Moyer will surprise you. He certainly didn't throw hard, but he struck out just enough hitters -- 5.4 per nine over his career -- to pitch forever. Last season he was still averaging 5.1 K's per nine, not a great total, but enough to get by, which is what he did.

And those pitchers, of course, are extreme examples, masters of location, control and changing speeds. Maybe they didn't blow 100 mph fastballs past hitters like Verlander can do, but they still got their swings and misses.

* * * *

I checked the pitchers with the best ERAs since 2008 (at least 500 innings pitched). Among the top 25 pitchers, only Tim Hudson has averaged less than 6.3 K's per nine. Thirteen of the 25 have averaged more than 8.0. For the most part, the best pitchers are strikeout pitchers. Yes, there is an occasional Tim Hudson or Mark Buehrle, who has thrived for years without a high K rate. They are a rare breed.

This is why it's important to check out a pitcher's strikeout rate -- no matter how often your local broadcaster says it's a good thing that Pitcher X isn't trying to strike everybody out anymore. Bottom line: It's difficult to maintain a high level of success without a K rate at least close to the league average (currently about 7.0 per nine innings). Here are some starters to monitor closely:
As I write this, I'm watching Brandon Beachy of the Braves pitch. Most analysts projected him as a fifth-starter type heading into the season. Heading into Monday's start, he had a 3.22 ERA while averaging more than 10 K's per nine. I'm beginning to think he might be better than initially advertised.

Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Jim Leyland
Safe to say Jim Leyland isn't trying to get the crowd to applaud the umpiring crew. Just a guess.