Gems without whiffs

I had initially planned to use my time today to write about the immediate effects of games where pitchers have racked up unusually high pitch counts. But after running my initial queries on the highest pitch count games of the past decade, I became distracted by some of the data from one game in particular.

As it turns out, Livan Hernandez gave us the highest pitch count from a single game in the past ten years, throwing 150 pitches against the Florida Marlins back in 2005. A handful of pitchers have rivaled that total since 2002, including Edwin Jackson‘s 149 pitch no-hitter, eight-walker from just a few years ago. Hard-nosed, flame-throwing strikeout beasts like Randy Johnson, Jason Schmidt and Kerry Wood all topped 140 pitches at one point or another in the last decade, yet remarkably it was the crafty soft-tossing Livan Hernandez who managed to reach this milestone on four separate occasions since 2002.

But something about Livan’s 150-pitch game really intrigued me.

We all know that Livan was never feared for his ability to carve through lineups racking up tremendous strikeout totals. He was in many ways the quintessential ‘finesse‘ pitcher, relying on pitch-to-contact philosphies– forcing the hitters off-balance, keeping the ball in the park, and handing out no free-passes, etc.

But even by Livan’s standards, his gargantuan 150-pitch game was remarkably lacking in any sort of whiffability:

Highest pitch counts since 2002

Pitcher Date Team PC IP BFP Swinging Strikes
Livan Hernandez 06/03/05 WAS 150 9.0 37 1
Randy Johnson 07/31/02 ARI 149 9.0 38 33
Edwin Jackson 06/25/10 ARI 149 9.0 36 17
Livan Hernandez 07/31/05 WAS 145 8.0 35 12
Jason Schmidt 05/18/04 SFN 144 9.0 30 18
Livan Hernandez 09/11/04 MON 143 6.3 33 7
Kerry Wood 05/10/03 CHN 141 7.0 29 15
Livan Hernandez 06/27/04 MON 141 7.0 34 9
Mark Redman 07/06/03 FLO 140 9.0 36 12
Randy Johnson 06/05/02 ARI 140 8.0 29 25

Yes, that’s correct. Livan threw 150 pitches that evening and only one of them went passed a swinging bat. Originally brought to my attention by Jason Wojciechowski, this feat seemed to me nothing short of amazing for a number of reasons.

1. How does a major league pitcher throw 150 pitches with just one whiff?
2. How does a major league pitcher throw 150 pitches with just one whiff and hold the opposition to just two runs over nine innings?

So I decided to dig deeper and hunt down the greatest games of the modern era with the fewest swing-and-misses. Since 1988, when pitch count data is first available to Retrosheet, there have been five games where a pitcher threw at least 100 pitches without a swinging strike and did not surrender a run. In three of those bizarre outings, the pitcher went the full nine for a complete game shutout:

Greatest whiffless games

Pitcher Date PC IP BFP SwStr K NIBB H BABIP RA
Derek Lowe 05/15/12 127 9.0 33 0 0 4 6 0.207 0
Scott Erickson 04/28/02 124 9.0 32 0 0 2 4 0.133 0
Jeff Ballard 08/21/89 112 9.0 33 0 0 0 7 0.226 0
Christian Friedrich 06/04/12 113 7.0 26 0 4 2 4 0.211 0
Casey Fossum 04/28/06 106 6.0 27 0 2 5 3 0.167 0
Steve Trachsel 05/28/07 104 9.0 33 0 0 3 5 0.167 1
Darrell May 07/19/03 108 8.0 30 0 2 4 3 0.087 1
Steve Karsay 04/14/94 100 8.0 31 0 3 2 5 0.208 1
Bruce Chen 09/23/11 102 8.0 27 0 4 1 2 0.048 1
Tom Glavine 04/28/93 101 8.0 35 0 0 6 5 0.179 1

Just last season veteran sinker-baller Derek Lowe went the distance for the Cleveland Indians without giving up a run or producing one singular swing and a miss. Derek recently made headlines by blaming the rise of sabermetrics in front offices for keeping him out of baseball this year. Lowe has never profiled as a particularly FIP-friendly type of a pitcher, but he’s had plenty of success at the big league level. I am almost certain he would love to cite this particular FIP-defying performance from last May if he ever makes good on his promise to accost Voros McCraken*.

The whiffless gems Scott Erickson and Jeff Ballard are equally impressive, but I’ll admit it was Christian Friedrich’s slightly inferior seven-inning outing against the Diamondbacks last season that really caught my eye in this table. In that outing on June fourth, Friedrich struck out four batters without a single whiff. Since 1988, only Vance Worley has managed to strike out more batters without missing a bat in his July 26 outing against the San Francisco Giants in 2011.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, one of the most celebrated ‘cerebral’ pitchers of the century also shows up on this list with a gem from 1993. Tom Glavine went eight strong innings for his Atlanta Braves, allowing just one run despite very uncharacteristically surrendering seven walks before leaving the mound that night.

Glavine was always able to find ways to get players out other than by missing bats, and it was a skill he carried well into the twilight of his career. Even in 2005 at the ripe old age of 39, when his swinging strike percentage dropped to one of the lowest marks of his career, Glavine still was able to post a hearty four Win season (per Baseball Reference).

In fact, among all pitcher seasons with at least 150 IP and a swinging strike rate below six percent, Glavine’s WAR total for 2005 was one of more outstanding whiff-deficient seasons:

Best seasons** low swinging strike rates***

# Name Year SwStr% WAR
1 Mike Mussina 2008 4.6 4.8
2 Ryan Drese 2004 5.4 4.7
3 Jeremy Guthrie 2010 5.5 4.3
4 Aaron Cook 2008 5.3 4.1
5 Ismael Valdez 2002 5.7 4
6 Tom Glavine 2005 5.8 3.9
7 Jon Garland 2007 5.8 3.7
8 Aaron Cook 2006 5.9 3.7
9 Carlos Silva 2004 4.5 3.7
10 Ricky Bones 1994 4.8 3.7

Glavine’s 2005 season shows up at number six, and his 2001 season just misses the top ten with an impressive 3.4 WAR.

It is really no surprise that we see Mike Mussina’s terrific finale in 2008 at the top of the list. Mussina, famously, is one of the few cases in baseball history where a pitcher re-learned the art of pitching as he lost velocity with age. Part of that late-career adjustment involved learning to get by without nearly as many whiffs, but if we remember from just a few weeks ago, in 2008 Mussina made up for a lack of swinging strikes with the highest called strike percentage on record (presumably on the unrivaled framing strengths of Jose Molina).

One last thing

When we look at the best seasons for pitchers with low swinging strike rates, there is something that jumps out at me as rather odd. Nine of the top ten seasons by WAR have occurred in the last decade. The lone exception is Ricky Bones 1994 season (which also happens to be Ricky’s career high). What exactly does that mean?

Why have the 2000s been kinder to these pitchers with outrageously low swinging strike rates than the 1990s?

These pitch-to-contact sinkerball-types like Jon Garland, Aaron Cook, and Carlos Silva are not new to the game of baseball. Pitchers of this genre have arguably been the bread-and-butter of the major leagues since the game began. Yet for some reason their ilk have had more of these successful seasons in recent years than before the turn of the century.

In fact from 2004 to 2008 this type of pitcher became particularly popular compared to past seasons. In 2008 we saw 14 of these pitchers rack up at least 150 innings, far more than any other season in recent history:

image

With the rise of Moneyball, sabermetrics, and DIPS theory, the number of full-time pitch-to-contact pitchers has actually gone up. I’ll let you think about that as you enjoy your baseball this weekend.

* Lowe is quoted in another article as saying, “When you see this Voros guy, point him out to me. I want to talk to him.” If I ever witnessed Derek Lowe badgering Voros McCraken about DIPS theory, I’m pretty sure that would be my life’s zenith.

** I apologize here, but I’m still using the Baseball-Reference WAR totals before the recent replacement level change.

*** Also, I’m using the term swinging strike here and elsewhere in the article to mean “swing-and-miss” strikes only.

References & Resources
Thanks to Baseball Heat Maps, Retrosheet, and Baseball Reference.

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Comments

  1. Dr. Doom said...

    Strikeouts:

    Mike Mussina, 2008 – 150
    Ricky Bones, 1994 – 57

    It appears to me that A LOT more guys watched some strikes fly by when Mussina was on the mound, than when Bones was.

  2. Jim said...

    What was slightly inferior about Christian Friedrich’s performance?  Cause he’s a Rockie, the ultimate dump-on minority of this age?

  3. tz said...

    Funny thing about Ballard’s 0-whiff, 0-strikeout shutout.  In his previous start, he struck out Don Mattingly 3 times.  Mattingly, of course, had a crazy low K%.

  4. Jim said...

    As Earl Weaver would say, “It’s what you learn after you know it all, that counts”.  Before Friday, if anyone had asked me if a starting pitcher had ever gone 9 innings without anyone swinging and missing, I would have said NO.  I can’t believe it can be done and has been done.  This just boggles my mind, what little there is.

    Thanks, James for opening my eyes to something that can and does happen.

  5. mitch said...

    In reply to comment one: Dave Cameron had an article within the past few days that does hint at the umpire strike zone being significantly enlarged over the past ten or so years.

  6. Dave Cornutt said...

    Off the top of my head, several of the guys mentioned here—Lowe, Cook, Guthrie—are high-percentage-groundball pitchers.  Clearly, one reason such pitchers might be getting more popular with teams is the shrinkage of ballparks that has occurred over the past twenty years or so.  One sure way to cut down on home runs in bandbox ballparks is to keep the ball out of the air.  I’ll have to look into this some more, though; no time this morning.

    As for Lowe: having witnessed his last two seasons in Atlanta, I can tell you that there’s a good reason that no team seems interested in him.  He only hung on in Cleveland last year because the Braves were paying most of his salary.  Look: the guy’s had a brilliant career, but he’ll be 40 years old in a couple of weeks.  Further, when Lowe was in Atlanta, he always had an excuse: the mound wasn’t right, McCann didn’t frame well, the weather in Atlanta was too hot for him to grip the ball, etc.  Sounds like that hasn’t changed.  The ironic thing is that, for the decade of the ‘10s, Lowe has actually under-performed FIP and xFIP.  So if teams were going by FIP, they’d be more likely to sign him, not less.

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