The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Ed Thoma

August 22, 2010

Counting the strikeouts and the pitches

Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls — it’s more democratic.

— Crash Davis in “Bull Durham”

Even worse, strikeouts build up the pitch count.

Or do they?

This is an area in which cause and effect are easily jumbled.

We know that a pitcher’s strikeout rate correlates directly to career length and effectiveness. The more batters he strikes out, the more effective he is and the longer he stays in the majors. Pitchers can have good years with low strikeout rates, but they seldom sustain that success for more than one or two seasons.

Power pitchers rule.

On the other hand — nobody gets a strikeout on one pitch.

Imagine two pitchers, “Frankie” and “Nicholas.” Frankie, in a typical nine innings this season, strikes out about 10 batters, Nicholas about three. Frankie allows 11.5 baserunners in those nine innings, Nicholas about 15.

Which one is going to throw more pitches?

Well, you probably already guessed that Frankie is Francisco Liriano and Nicholas is Nick Blackburn. And you probably know Liriano is throwing more pitches this season — because he’s the guy getting outs. Blackburn lost his rotation spot in midseason for ineffectiveness, although Saturday’s injury to Kevin Slowey will give him another opportunity.

But on a per-out basis, the pitch-count difference between Liriano and Blackburn this season is almost meaningless.

Liriano averages an out every 5.25 pitches, Blackburn an out every 5.08.  It will take Liriano about 142 pitches to get 27 outs (nine innings); it will take Blackburn 137.

A five-pitch difference between the two for nine innings — and that’s comparing one of the highest-strikeout starters in the majors this season (Liriano is third in strikeout rate among pitchers with at least 120 innings) to one of the lowest.

Bill James did a study in 2008 (published in the 2009 Gold Mine) that concluded that high-strikeout pitchers throw almost no extra pitches.

One nugget from that study: The average strikeout takes 4.80 pitches, the average non-strikeout out 3.53. That difference gets washed out, James says, because the high-strikeout pitchers allow fewer baserunners.

Again: Lots of strikeouts does not equal more pitches, no matter what the broadcasters say.

Still, the leaders in total pitches thrown are always high-strikeout guys — not because they need more pitches to get outs, but because they get more outs, thus pitch more innings, thus throw more pitches. Liriano has thrown almost 800 more major-league pitches this season than Blackburn has.

If they get the same number of outs, the non-strikeout pitcher has only a slight advantage in terms of the pitch count.

But the power pitcher is still likely to have the superior result.

For more on the subject of pitch counts and strikeouts, see the Baseball Outsider blog.

Edward Thoma is a Free Press staff writer. He is at 344-6377 or at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com.

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