1500 ESPN SportsWire

Numbers game: How strikeouts are born; how Twins will try to get them

by Phil Mackey, 1500ESPN.com Updated 25 months ago | 3907 reads

Disclaimer: Numbers Game is a place where we dive a little deeper into stats, trends, sabermetrics, and basically make peoples' heads explode.

MINNEAPOLIS -- To put it simply, the Minnesota Twins entered last week's draft looking for more velocity and more strikeouts, particularly from starting pitchers.

The team began discussing putting more emphasis on drafting, and acquiring, harder-throwing pitchers last season -- as opposed to strike-throwing contact guys, although general manager Terry Ryan said the team has always kept an eye on the dart-throwers.

"Actually every time we sit in that draft room we talk about taking power pitchers," Ryan said. "Anybody is looking for power pitchers. If you look at drafts, there are very few power pitchers that throw 95, 96, 97. ... Anybody that's in that mid-90's range is going to be sought-after."

Despite the efforts of fire-balling relievers Jared Burton and Glen Perkins, the Twins pitching staff ranks last in the majors this season with 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Since Johan Santana left five seasons ago only three pitching staffs have tallied fewer strikeouts than Minnesota -- the Pirates, Orioles and Indians.

What makes a strikeout pitcher?

According to Ryan, "a combination" of things -- not just velocity.

"Velocity you're looking for, but also location. Maybe setting it up a little bit with some other complementary pitch. But there isn't anybody out there that's just going to be able to throw 95, 96 and think they're going to strike out a bunch. Hitters will just sit on the fastball. ...

"The guys that have high strikeouts, they strike you out with a fastball, they strike you out with a slider, they strike you out with a curveball, they strike you out with a change. It doesn't matter if you're left or right-handed."

From 2008 to 2011, 199 starting pitchers threw at least 200 total innings. For the purposes of this experiment, we'll look at those 199 pitchers and pull two groups:

1.) The 63 starting pitchers with low strikeout rates (5.7 strikeouts per nine or fewer)
2.) The 51 starting pitchers with high strikeout rates (7.7 strikeouts per nine or more)

Using MLB's Pitch F/X data we can find correlations between "stuff" and strikeouts. What type of pitch repertoires lead to more strikeouts?

The differences between strikeout and contact pitchers can be subtle.


Average Velocity

 

Pitchers with low K rate

Pitchers with high K rate

Four-seam fastball

89.0 mph

92.0 mph

Two-seam fastball

88.2 mph

90.6 mph

Slider

82.4 mph

83.7 mph

Curveball

76.1 mph

77.8 mph

Changeup

81.7 mph

83.7 mph

Starters who tally more strikeouts generally throw everything harder. Francisco Liriano (92.3 mph) is the only current Twins starter whose average fastball sits above 91 mph. Prior to landing on the disabled list, Carl Pavano's average fastball sat just below 87 mph. P.J. Walters (88.6) and Scott Diamond (89.6) don't throw particularly hard either. Neither did Jason Marquis (89.1).

Average Usage

 

Pitchers with low K rate

Pitchers with high K rate

Four-seam fastball

39%

48%

Two-seam fastball

8%

7%

Cutter

4%

4%

Sinker

9%

2%

Slider

12%

15%

Curveball

8%

11%

Changeup

15%

11%

Starters who tally more strikeouts throw more four-seam fastballs, fewer sinkers, and -- perhaps surprisingly -- more breaking pitches.

Average difference in velocity

 

Pitchers with low K rate

Pitchers with high K rate

Fastball to slider

-6.9 mph

-8.3 mph

Fastball to curve

-12.9 mph

-14.3 mph

Fastball to changeup

-7.5 mph

-8.3 mph

Starters who tally more strikeouts tend to have wider spacing between pitch velocities. Anthony Swarzak -- not necessarily considered a strikeout pitcher -- actually has a 9-mph difference between his fastball and changeup as a starter this season, and a 10-mph difference between his fastball and slider. Liam Hendriks also exhibited what we'll call strikeout spacing.

Average pitch movement

 

Pitchers with low K rate

Pitchers with high K rate

Fastball

More downward movement

-

Slider

-

More downward movement, more sweep

Curveball

-

More downward movement


Other observations


• Both types of pitchers, on average, hit the strike zone an equal amount -- 47% of the time.

• Pitchers who tally more strikeouts also tend to -- on average -- induce fewer groundballs -- 43%, as opposed to 45%.

• Changeup movement doesn't affect strikeout rates as much as changeup velocity relative to the fastball.

Are the Twins doing it right?

To be honest, it's hard to say, because high school and college pitchers are usually so underdeveloped, especially their off-speed stuff.

But drafting pitchers who throw harder is a good first step.

No. 32 overall pick J.O. Berrios, an 18-year-old right-hander, throws a fastball that sits "in the 93-95 mph range," per Baseball America. Some scouts have seen him touch 97-98. He also throws "a sharp, 80-81 mph slider and shows the makings of a solid changeup with fading action."

These attributes all seem to fit in with starting pitchers who average at least 7.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Probably more.

Berrios of course needs to develop against professional competition, which means learning how to work in the strike zone, command each pitch, keep his arm healthy, etc.

After Berrios, the Twins drafted a handful of hard-throwing relievers that they hope to convert to starters -- at least some, or most of them.

No. 42 overall pick Luke Bard, 21, throws anywhere from 92 to 96, but most of his innings came out of the bullpen in college. Second-round pick, 21-year-old left-hander Mason Melotakis, threw a fastball that sat 94-96 mph for three innings during "a heavily scouted outing" on May 4, per Baseball America, which is "typical of his velocity at his best." Word is his off-speed stuff needs work. Second-round pick J.T. Chargois, 21, operated in the mid-90's as a reliever in college. So did fourth-round pick Zack Jones.

Eighth-round pick Christian Powell threw 90-93 as a starter at the College of Charleston. Baseball America says his breaking ball is "not an out pitch right now."

"If they possess two or three pitches we're going to give them an opportunity to start," Ryan said.

"If they've got the arm action, the body and the delivery to be starting, we're going to move them to the rotation."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
More from the 1500 ESPN SportsWire » Mackey: Looking ahead at Twins' starting pitching options for 2015 » Notebook: Greg Jennings' head spinning a little less in Norv's offense » NFL Network in a video offers peek at Mike Zimmer's coaching style » Twins sign Kurt Suzuki to two-year extension with third year option » AP to ESPN: 'I wasn't feeling good about being here in Minnesota'