Today, Tom Boswell writes about how Stephen Strasburg is on pace to obliterate strikeout records, akin to the great strikeout artists in the history of the game.

The title of the column is "Can Stephen Strasburg resist the urge to become a strikeout king?" and he concludes,
Will this ultra-high-strikeout pattern, one that nobody -- even the Nats and Strasburg themselves -- anticipated just one week ago, continue? Should we even want it to? No one knows. But you can bet we'll be waiting, every five days, to find out.
The answer is simple:  Yes.  Strasburg, the Nats, and Nats fans should want the strikeouts to continue.

Will Strasburg continue striking out batters at a rate of 16.1 per nine innings?  No, he won't.  That's outlandish.  But he appears to have several different, legitimate strikeout pitches, which is incredible in its own right.

Nats Stats (who does very good work) compared Strasburg's first two starts with regards to pitch type/location, etc.  He concluded that Strasburg was overthrowing his two-seam fastball--his sinker--throwing it out of the strike zone much of the day.  Indians hitters only swung at two of the 16 he threw.

While Strasburg was in the minors, it's obvious that the team instructed him to put away his big, four seam fastball, the one that touches 100-MPH.  He was instructed to go out and work on the two-seamer, get ground balls, concentrate on baseball situations, etc.

Once Strasburg reached the big leagues though, catcher Ivan Rodriguez has called for the heater much more often.  It's like Strasburg is a new Ferrari, and Pudge wants to see what he can do.  Against Cleveland, Strasburg threw 38 four-seamers compared to 22 two-seamers.  In his debut, the breakdown was even more drastic:  49-9. 

Some of this may be noise in the Pitch F/X data, but one thing is clear:  he's throwing the four-seam fastball much more often than he did in the minors, and that's because Rodriguez is calling for it.  He knows how effective the pitch is.

Boswell seems to be espousing a popular theme in baseball that strikeouts = higher pitch counts = bad for starting pitchers.  If he is, he's wrong.  It's always better to record an out when the ball is not put in play.  There are so many factors to recording an out after a ball is put into play, not the least of which is team defense.

Oh, by the way, the Nats lead the league in errors and are high on the list of unearned runs.

There are lots of studies available that discuss strikeout efficiency and defense of the "pitch to contact" rationale.  A very good one is here, written by 3-D Baseball in language that most casual baseball fans can grasp.  The upshot is:
...a pitcher who already has good control has no reason to cut down on his strikeouts purely to reduce his pitch count, as he generally won't see any noticeable results.
You see, strikeouts don't raise pitch counts, walks do.  It's really that simple.

The basic premise--usually purported by managers or general managers that don't have strikeout pitchers in their system--is that by "pitching to contact", you can get an out with one pitch as opposed to three pitches "going for" a strikeout, thus drastically reducing a pitcher's pitch count, making them more efficient and saving them from injury. 

But statistically, and we have plenty of years of data to back this up, it does not correlate. 

Rather, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that "ground ball" pitchers use less pitches overall than "strikeout" pitchers.  Again, from 3-D Baseball: 
As our data suggests, there is no emerging pattern that either high strikeout pitchers or high contact pitchers require more pitches to get through 9 innings. For the most part, it doesn't matter how frequently a Major League pitcher strikes out hitters or how frequently he allows hits as to how many pitches he has to throw. The trade offs of one compared to the other mostly cancel out.

Simply put, by far the strongest factor in how many pitches a pitcher needs to get through an inning is how frequently he walks batters. Almost every time you hear a broadcaster or analyst talk about how a pitcher throws too many pitches because he strikes out too many hitters, the real reason will be because the pitcher walks too many hitters, not that he strikes out too many...
We saw clear evidence of this in Strasburg's two starts.  Against the Pirates, he walked no one, struck out 14 and cruised through the seventh inning in 94 pitches.  Against the Indians (a team that is significantly more patient at the plate), Stras struck out eight, but walked five and only got through 5 1/3 in the same relative number of pitches (95).

It wasn't the strikeouts that did him in (PIT), it was the walks (CLE).

In his history, there's nothing to suggest that Strasburg will have anything but impeccable command.  In college, and the minors, he never had a game with more than three walks.  He's facing better hitters now, but he also had considerable trouble with the mound in Cleveland.  Let's get a few more data points.

But Pudge has it right.  If you can strike batters out while limiting your walks, you will be a better pitcher.


  1. Anonymous // June 15, 2010 at 9:42 PM  

    If Stras throws a disproportionate # of 4 seamers, the better hitters will catch up with them. More important than going for K's or groundouts will be to find a mix of pitches that keeps even the good hitters guessing; if he can do this, and stay ahead of the hitters, he will get plenty of K's, but without trying to get them by main force. He will get groundouts by hitters swinging early in the count so they don't have to face his hook with 2 strikes.

    Pudge is a smart enough catcher to guide Stras to mix up his pitchers more, especially once the league starts to get used to him. If by the end of the season he had averaged one K an inning, would that be so terrible?

  2. Anonymous // June 15, 2010 at 10:22 PM  

    We'll John Lannan proved you right tonight. He threw 104 pitches in 4.1 innings, 6 earned runs, 1 K. I'll take Tom Seaver/Nolan Ryan/Bob Gibson any day.

    In response to your anonymous commenter, I believe that Strasburg throws his four seam, his two seam, and his change-up with the same arm velocity. The pitch speed is a function of grip.