A.J. Burnett is behind only Yu Darvish in strikeouts this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
We took a look on Monday at five Pirates hitters and which stats have a large enough 2013 sample size for us to see year-to-year changes.
Now it’s time for the pitchers. Remember a couple important caveats. First, batting statistics tend to be more reliable than hitting statistics, especially in small samples. Second, early-season pitcher performance can often be skewed by which teams the pitcher has faced. I’ve talked about the importance of strength of schedule in evaluating a team in April, and that idea is even more important when we are discussing a pitcher that has made seven starts at most.
For example, Washington’s Jordan Zimmermann has faced one of the weakest offensive schedules in baseball this season (Marlins twice, White Sox, Mets, Reds, Braves), while Oakland’s Jarrod Parker has faced one of the strongest (Angels twice, Tigers, Orioles, Rays, Indians, Mariners). Such a fact shouldn’t belittle Zimmermann’s strong April, nor should it completely excuse Parker’s bad numbers. It simply is something to consider when discussing early-season performance.
Quick note: while overall offensive numbers like OPS and runs are at their lowest in April, so are strikeout rates and strikeout-to-walk rates. The weather does not skew the numbers we will be looking at in the pitcher’s favor.
Keep in mind that this article wouldn’t exist without Russell A. Carleton’s (née Pizza Cutter) hard work on sample reliability, and the great stats available at FanGraphs. Here are Carleton’s determinations of sample size reliability for pitching stats:
150 Batters Faced – K/PA (strikeout rate), grounder rate, line drive rate
200 BF – flyball rate, GB/FB
500 BF – K/BB, pop up rate
550 BF – BB/PA
On to the Pirates! A.J. Burnett has faced 198 batters, so we will call the first five stats pretty reliable for him. As for the rest? Jeff Locke has faced 142 hitters, James McDonald has faced 138, Wandy Rodriguez has faced 129. Remember that these 150/200 plateaus are not necessarily “magic” numbers, they just represent about where correlation passes .70. If you want to learn more of the specifics, Carleton’s study is here.
1. A.J. Burnett could win the NL Strikeout crown.
The Pirates’ ace owns the National League lead with 66 strikeouts. Only the Mets’ Matt Harvey (58), the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (56) and the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija (52) are currently within shouting distance of Burnett.
Somehow, Burnett’s strikeout rate has taken an enormous leap from 21% last year (around his career average) to 33% this year. For Pirates fans, that is great to see, but how does a 36-year-old pitcher start striking out one out of every three hitters when he never has before in a full season? More to the point, how does Burnett have the fourth-highest swinging strike rate in the National League?
Let’s take a look at Burnett’s PitchFX numbers on Brooks Baseball. His two biggest strikeout pitchers are his curveball and his two-seam fastball, and the whiff rates have not substantially risen this year. Burnett has gotten more whiffs, though, on his four-seam fastball (8.8% vs. 6.4%).
What is also up a little bit is the number of called strikes. Last year, umpires called strikes on 18.7% of Burnett’s pitches. This year, they are calling strikes on 20% of his pitches, with the biggest increase coming on his four-seam fastball. Could the difference in pitch-framing ability between Russell Martin (who caught all of Burnett’s 2013 starts until Wednesday) and Rod Barajas (who caught all his 2012 starts except one) be a key factor in Burnett’s rising strikeout rate? It is certainly worth exploring.
2. Wandy Rodriguez is getting more strikeouts and fewer line drives. Good.
The left-hander’s strikeout rate is rising, though not as dramatically as that of Burnett. Rodriguez has struck out 19.4% of hitters this season (about career average) after a 16% strikeout rate last season. What is interesting here is that Rodriguez’s swinging strike rate, unlike Burnett’s, has barely budged from the 7% rate of 2012.
Instead, Rodriguez is benefitting from more strike calls.
2012: Called strikes on 18.9% of pitches
2013: Called strikes on 20.6% of pitches
Wandy Rodriguez is ringing up more hitters in his first full Pirates season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
All six of Rodriguez’s starts have been caught by Martin, who was determined by Mike Fast’s study to be one of the best catchers in baseball at getting extra strike calls with just over one extra called strike per 100 pitches. It doesn’t seem at all impossible that Martin’s pitch framing could be earning Rodriguez an extra two strikes or an extra strikeout per start (his K/9 is up from 6.1 to 7.2 as well).
Another positive sign in Rodriguez’s numbers is that batters are hitting fewer line drives, on 16.3% of all batted balls this year compared to 20.5% last year. If Rodriguez had enough innings in 2012, he would have the 15th-best line drive rate among MLB pitchers. This improvement seems pretty reliable for a veteran pitcher learning to generate softer contact, even if won’t be enough to maintain a .227 BABIP all year.
3. James McDonald has generated softer contact, but his control has been off.
There is some good news to dig out of seeing “Bad James McDonald” in April. In McDonald’s first six starts, batters have been hitting more ground balls than last year (42% vs. 40%) and fewer line drives (17% vs. 21%). It is encouraging to see a pitcher entering his prime years start to generate weaker contact, and both the ground-ball and line-drive numbers are career bests for McDonald.
That fact is of little condolence to J-Mac, who now finds himself on the 15-day disabled list with a shoulder injury. While season walk numbers will not become reliable for a while, it was a point of frustration that McDonald was throwing a career-low 46% of pitches inside the strike zone (according to PitchFX) and a career-best 50% of pitches in the zone last season. McDonald’s control has always been dicey, so now the question is if his downturn in 2013 was due mostly to the shoulder issues.
One important note about Rodriguez and McDonald: they have faced relatively easy opponents in 2013. According to Baseball-Reference’s RA9opp stat, McDonald has faced the 11th-easiest opposition (out of 145 pitchers with at least four starts) and Rodriguez has faced the 15th-easiest opposition. Perhaps the stats demonstrating “softer contact” generated by these two pitchers are more the work of softer opponents.
4. The numbers point to future trouble for Jeff Locke.
Locke’s early season results have been an absolute delight: a 2.95 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP and opponents hitting just .203 against him. Then there is this tweet from ESPN’s Jayson Stark:
How bout this: Jeff Locke has allowed 3 hits or fewer in 4 straight starts. How many other #Pirates in live-ball era have done that? None!
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) May 10, 2013
All of that makes it look like Jeff Locke is putting it together in his age-25 season. But almost every peripheral stat this year spells doom for the left-hander.
Strikeout Rate: 13%, which is 108th of 121 MLB starters with 30+ innings, less than his 22% AAA strikeout rate.
Walk Rate: 11.5%, which is 115th of 121 qualified MLB starters, much higher than his 7.5% AAA walk rate.
Line Drive Rate: 24%, which is 103rd lowest of 121 qualified MLB starters.
Ground Ball Rate: 46%, which is 58th of 121 qualified MLB starters.
BABIP: .214, after posting a .310 BABIP (in few innings) his first two MLB seasons and a .297 BABIP in AAA.
In short, Locke gave up very few hits in his first seven starts despite not striking guys out, giving up a lot of line drives and only giving up about a league-average rate of ground balls. There may be no better candidate out there for BABIP-induced regression than Locke, especially because it’s not like he is deceiving hitters with his pitches in the zone. Batters have made contact on 92% of Locke’s pitches in the strike zone, according to PitchFX, which is among the 20 highest rates among MLB starters.
Good luck, Jeff Locke.
Well, I guess he has already had a lot of good luck this season.
Good… throwing of baseballs?