Monday, July 23, 2007

Vanity of the Ks

The roof had been closed. It was a hot and humid day. He threw 116 pitches in his last start. And the Jays have a lot of power. There were lots of reasons being thrown around last night for the four home runs that Johan Santana gave up in Toronto's Sky Dome. But there's one we shouldn't ignore: Santana is giving up a lot of home runs this year.

They've been a problem all year. They're up over 50% from his career rate before the season started, and his career rate was only slightly better than average. We're used to seeing Johan's name atop leader boards, but now we find it in third place in home runs against. Second place winner Jamie Shields gave up 10 earned runs on Sunday to be the active leader. First place winner Ervin Santana was awarded a trip to AAA.

It's not necessarily evidence that Santana is somehow slipping - his ERA is still just 2.82. It's not necessarily evidence of anything, but....

Remember how a month ago, Santana threw his first shutout this year? There were lots of strange things about that game. First, there was the fact that he was challenged to do so by a Hall-of-Fame caliber pitcher earlier in the day. Then there was the fact that there was only one strikeout. And I couldn't help but wonder if Santana had changed his approach for that game, like he decided to "pitch to contact".

Could it be that Santana's pursuit of strikeouts is hurting him? And the Twins?

Tonight feels like another data point. The Twins entered the night desperate for a long outing. (Desperate enough to trust a two-run deficit to long reliever Ramon Ortiz, because he wanted to rest more effective pitchers.) They needed a win and they needed innings.

From the first inning, the general agreement is that Santana was struggling with his location. So why continue to challenge the hitters over the plate? Well, he still racked up four Ks in five innings. And gave up four home runs. And lost the game. Oh, and burned a few more innings in the bullpen.

And then there are all these home runs. At exactly the time when he's clearly chasing another pitcher (Baltimore's Eric Bedard) for the strikeout title for the first time in several years. Meanwhile, the Twins face a shortened bullpen, and could consistently use someone to go eight innings at a time, instead of six or seven. But Santana's starts are averaging slightly less than in previous years.

We pay a lot of attention to strikeouts, but we do so because it is an indicator of dominance, not because strikeouts themselves are that impactful. Occasionally a pitcher needs to strike someone out to get out of a jam, but for the most part strikeouts are vanity. Or as Crash Davis would say "fascist".

But they're also valuable financially. They're always referenced in the Cy Young race and a pretty good case can be made that Santana's Cy Young awards would've gone to someone else if he had fewer strikeouts. And besides the value that has for a future contract, a top three finish for Santana automatically kicks in a no-trade clause, which can be handy from a negotiating standpoint.

It's strange to think that fewer strikeouts might lead to better pitching, or a more valuable pitcher. But baseball is a strange game. And if we're going to be exploring the effect of a closed roof or humid air, it may not be so outlandish to look at the pitcher's approach. And the vanity of the Ks.


ubelmann said...

Too many strikeouts? Please.

I suppose that Ted Williams was a no good bum who had too many hits and Babe Ruth hit too many home runs and didn't hit enough weak ground balls to second base.

Santana's had a bit more trouble throwing strikes this year than he has in the past. He has a 67% strike rate this year compared to 69% last year and 70% the year before. Tonight against the Blue Jays, he threw only 63% strikes. (You'll notice he had no strikeouts looking, only strikeouts swinging.) When/if he gets his best control back, he'll be the RoboSantana we remember.

Until then, it's probably good to realize that while he's a great pitcher, he's also a human being, and not every outing is going to be as good as the last, and not every season is going to be as good as his best season. The last thing this team needs is for its best player to overhaul his current approach which is working just fine.

John said...

Listen, I'm especially sensitive to the criticism that the media feels obligated to pile onto a Ted Williams or Kevin Garnett or Joe Mauer. But the goal of a pitcher is not to strike people out. The goal of a pitcher is to keep runs off the board and provide innings. And it's a litte concerning that the one time where that was clearly Santana's goal, the strikeouts plummeted. It's a legitimate questions whether the concentration on Ks is distracting from the primary goal.

brianS said...

Well, the goal of a pitcher is run prevention. Missing bats is a proven, key part of run prevention, especially for a fly ball pitcher. I want Santana to be efficient in his run prevention (not too many pitches). If he's actually caught up in a "strike-out race", that's a bad thing. But I'm not convinced that he is caught up with pursuing Bedard. He's averaging 3.8 P/PA, right in line with his career averages.

I think the main "problem" he has shown so far is that he's below his typical rate of GB pct (36.4, compared to just over 40 pct each of the last 3 years). Fewer GBs, almost all of which are being replaced by FBs. That sounds more like (slight) trouble with location. But it's still early for SuperJohan.

ubelmann said...

And it's a litte concerning that the one time where that was clearly Santana's goal, the strikeouts plummeted.

One time. One time. That's the key here. No one start can really be that disconcerting. I remember watching that start against the Mets, and Santana had a lucky game. Never before have I seen him allow so many hard-hit line drives and deep fly balls. (In Shea Stadium, I might add, which is notorious for keeping long fly balls from becoming HR.) Of course, a lot of the line drives were hit right at fielders, so he escaped without damage, but that ain't a skill--that's luck. It was a fun night, but it's just not a good long-term strategy.

Let's think about implementing this plan. On that fateful night, Santana struck out one batter. I'll assume that you don't want his K/9 to drop to 1, since no pitcher in the history of baseball has ever been successful with a strikeout rate that low. So let's say he cuts his strikeout rate in half, and in the process cuts his walk rate in half because he's throwing more hittable pitches and allowing the batters to put the ball in play.

Over his career, when the hitter makes contact with the ball, Santana has allowed a hit 29% of the time (19% 1B, 6% 2B, and 4% HR.) Over his career, when the hitter doesn't make contact with the ball, Santana has walked the hitter 16% of the time (and struck him out 84% of the time.)

This season, Santana has struck out 144 batters and walked 34. So we're saying he cuts that in half. Now he's down to 72 strikeouts and 17 walks. Hooray, 17 fewer walks.

Now we have to figure out what is going to happen to those 89 extra balls in play. By his career rates, those will turn into roughly 17 singles, 5 doubles, 3-4 HR, and 63-64 outs.

So first, we've lost about 8 or 9 outs by making this trade-off. Second, we've traded 17 walks for 17 singles (which is a bad trade-off) and on top of that allowed 5 doubles and 3-4 HR (which is really bad.) So clearly, this trade-off is bad for Santana's ERA.

Now, on top of that, because we've gotten fewer outs over the same number of batters faced, we've taken a step back as far as eating innings goes. Because hitters are being retired at a lower rate, Santana has to face more batters per inning. So even if he does make fewer pitches per batter, it is highly unclear that this will help him to pitch more innings (which are now lower quality innings.)

But I'm not done there. The only way for Santana to really put more balls in play is to make his pitches more hittable by throwing closer to the middle of the plate. If he's making his pitches more hittable, then his 1B/BIP, 2B/BIP, and HR/BIP rates should increase, not decrease, and he'll actually allow more than the 17 singles, 5 doubles, and 3-4 home runs that we estimated above.

Of course it is clear that a pitcher's job is to allow as few runs as possible and not strike out as many as possible. It is equally clear, though, that the best way for Santana to allow as few runs as possible is to keep doing what he's been doing. The strikeout isn't about vanity anymore than the groundball double play is about laziness--strikeouts have proven, and will continue to be, the most effective way for Santana to keep runs off the board.

Anonymous said...

ubelmann killed it.

It clearly is a miss on location. We just haven't seen him do that at this time of the year over the course of his career. Hopefully that is the abberation.

brianS said...

But I'm not done there.

sounds vaguely familiar.

Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
Vizzini: Wait til I get going! Now, where was I?
Man in Black: Australia.

Anonymous said...

Wow...a Princess Bride reference here? Thanks for my smile of the day, brians! Oh yeah: and thanks for the detailed analysis, ubelmann...though I really just come here for the pop culture in-jokes. ;-)

David Wintheiser said...

Great question, Geek - you remind me why I keep tabs on this team and on these blogs.

I've got only one thing to add - with just a handful of exceptions, pitchers' strikeout rates go down over the course of their careers, and it's how a pitcher reacts to that decline that helps determine the length of his career.

Check out some of Santana's of-age comps:

Sid Fernandez: Came up throwing gas from age 22 (he had two separate seasons of over 1K/IP), then got hurt at 28; he had a few good seasons after that, but injuries ultimately forced him out of baseball before he turned 35.

Mario Soto: Not too dissimilar from Santana; Soto started as a rookie, went to the bullpen, then split time between the bullpen and rotation before finally locking in a rotation spot at 24. His fastball was good, but his best pitch was a circle change thrown with the same motion. Soto only broke 1K/IP once in his career, but was close in a number of seasons. Soto, too, was a pitcher who didn't age well, and he was all but done as a big-league pitcher by age 30.

Kevin Appier: People don't remember Appier as a fireballer, but he had very good K rates as a young pitcher - 158 Ks in 207 innings at age 23, 186 in 238 at age 25, and 207 in 211 at age 28. He had one more good season, then blew out his arm and never got back to where he was.

None of this is to claim that Santana is going to be washed up by 30, but there's ample evidence in baseball history that chasing after Ks just for the machismo of it doesn't make you a great pitcher, and to ask if Santana might be on that same track is a perfectly valid question.