Gems without whiffsby James Gentile
May 17, 2013
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
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
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***
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:
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 and Resources
Thanks to Baseball Heat Maps, Retrosheet, and Baseball Reference.
James Gentile writes about baseball at Beyond the Box Score and The Hardball Times. You can follow him on twitter @JDGentile
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