Is Joel Pineiro getting lucky with his walks?

Warning: Back-of-napkin math will be used.

Joel Pineiro is having a phenomenal year, due mostly in part to his Roy Halladay impersonation. He doesn’t walk anyone and gets a bunch of groundballs. Here are his 2009 numbers:

3.03 FIP, 3.31 tRA, 61.1 GB%, 1.00 BB/9

Impressive, I know. His ground ball percentage is absurd. He’s first in baseball, and it’s not even close (second is Derek Lowe at 56.3%). This is Pineiro’s tenth year in the majors, and before this season his highest GB% was 48.6% in 2007. All Hail Dave Duncan.

But what may be equally impressive is his miniscule BB/9 ratio, which stands at just 1.00 as of today. For reference, Cliff Lee led all of baseball last year with a BB/9 of 1.37. Pineiro has far and away the lowest rate in the majors, better than any other starting pitcher. And this is coming from a guy who was at 2.12 BB/9 last year, and 3.48 in 2006! We might want to tip our caps again to good ol’ Dave Duncan, but I’m a cynic. I doubt for fun, and I just don’t buy that Joel Piniero has this good control.

Progressive baseball analysis is looking in-depth on a micro level to figure out how to value someone on a macro level. We’re trying to cut down the game as best as we possibly can, but what we sometimes forget is that we have more data than we think. We usually tend to look at at-bats as the individual accomplishment, but we need to understand that within every at-bat are a series of pitches, each one that can tell us something valuable about a player.

Walks are interesting. This isn’t batting average, where we can look at BABIP numbers and indicate if a guy is getting lucky or unlucky due to outside circumstances. But maybe, on a more mitigated scale, we can. The greatest indicator of a pitcher’s walk total must be their ratio of strikes thrown to balls thrown, and I don’t think we need to get caught up in post hoc ergo propter hoc debates, as the causality is clear.

I don’t have strike and ball information readily handy in a neat excel file at all times, but what I wanted to do was look at the ratios of strikes to balls (we’ll reference it as K:B) for the top ten 2009 starting pitchers with the lowest walks per nine average. Here’s what I found:

    
Player           BB/9  Strikes    Balls        EFF
Joel Pineiro        1    1495       752        199
Roy Halladay     1.16    1736       782        222
Chris Carpent     1.3    1258       624        202
Dan Haren        1.34    1713       882        194
Mark Buehrle     1.78    1600       886        181
Scott Baker      1.79    1621       765        212
Carl Pavano      1.82    1488       745        200
Javier Vazque    1.86    1735       871        199
Ted Lilly        1.88    1327       630        211
Cliff Lee         1.9    1884       904        208

I labeled the last column EFF, for efficiency. It’s simply a pitcher’s strike total divided by their ball total multiplied by 100 and rounded up. With long decimals things can get messy, and this is far easier and at the same time doesn’t mess with the data. An EFF rate of 200, which is where Carl Pavano is at for 2009, means that his K:B ratio is basically at 2.00 (really 1.997). A pitcher should always strive for the highest EFF rate as possible. For context, here are the five worst starting pitchers in 2009 in terms of walks per nine innings:

Player               BB/9     Strikes  Balls     EFF
Clayton Kershaw      5.16     1510     985        153
Doug Davis           4.69     1580    1080        146
Joba Chamberlai      4.41     1285     883        146
A.J. Burnett         4.39     1528    1019        150
Yovani Gallardo      4.29     1606    1089        147

As you can see, this is a much different picture. We have a group of some interesting pitchers, but obviously they don’t come close to the previous group of guys in terms of control.

But let’s go back to the original group of good control guys and look at how Pineiro is doing. Out of the ten, only two guys are worse than him in terms of EFF (Haren and Beuhrle) and one is tied (Vazquez). In fact, the guy who is tenth in baseball, Cliff Lee, is nine points ahead of Pineiro in EFF, but his walk rate per nine innings is almost double! Last year, Pineiro walked 2.12 batters per nine innings and his EFF was at 193.

Another interesting factor is a pitcher’s ability to get ahead in the count (directly tied to K:B), which is another good indicator as to the control of a pitcher. A ball on the first pitch means the pitcher is 25% of the way to a walk; a strike means that he is 33% of the way to a punch-out. Luckily, Fangraphs carries this data in the form of F-Strike %. While Pineiro is very high (fifth in baseball) at 65.4%, four of his partners on the aforementioned list are ahead of him, including Roy Halladay, who leads the majors at 68%.

There are a lot of other things that are important to look at when analyzing a pitcher’s control, and a lot can be seen in the pitch/fx data. Also, some pitchers who get ahead in the count may use balls as tools to get batters to chase and/or to change eye levels. However, Joel Pineiro‘s walk rate does not seem to be near sustainable considering that his K:B ratio, while very good, is not even as high as other pitchers who have significantly worse BB/9 numbers. There are a few pitchers, such as Halladay, who have thrown a higher percentage of strikes to balls than Pineiro, but don’t come all that close to his walks per nine rating. There’s no doubting that Joel Pineiro is really good, and the Cardinals are much better off for it; however, his walk rate is probably better than it should be. You can credit Duncan, the St. Louis water, or the deity of your choice, but we may see some more free passes from Pineiro sooner than later.

Thanks to Fangraphs for the data.

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Comments

  1. Nick Steiner said...

    Great post.  Using my numbers from the umpire post, Pineiro’s also been receiving about 2 extra strikes a game.  That combined with this data, is almost certainly the reason his BB/9 is so low.

  2. Dave Allen said...

    Interesting idea, and I definitely agree that going forward we do not Pineiro’s walk rate to be anywhere near 1 bb/9.  But I do think that a pitcher like Pineiro can have fewer walks than those other pitchers even with a higher percentage of balls, because of his high contact percentage. 

    Since batters swing at and make contact with his strikes at such a high rate his at-bats end a lot sooner than almost any other pitcher.  His at-bats rarely last long enough for batters to accumulate four balls, even if his pitches are not in the zone as often as the other pitchers.

  3. Pat Andriola said...

    Thanks, Dave. That’s a great point. If we were to do extensive analysis as to whether or not a pitcher was getting more/less walks than he should, strikeouts and contact % should definitely be factors. Four out of the five guys I listed with high walks per nine also happen to be high strikeout pitchers, and that’s not surprising. When you try to prevent batters from putting the ball into play you inevitably risk prolonging at-bats, and if the batters can’t make contact you only have three real outcomes available, two of which (BB and HBP) result in the batter reaching base. Thanks again for pointing that out, Dave.

  4. Brad said...

    One thing that should be considered as well is a pitchers % of swing and misses when looking at their walk ratios as well as strike outs. If hitters are making more contact with Piniero’s strikes and putting the balls in play, then Pinerio would have a lower BB rate that pitchers with similar K:B ratios. While I have not looked up the data explicitly, let’s just take a look at Piniero’s K/9 rate compared to Halladay who has a much better K:B ratio. Piniero’s K/9 rate on the season is a ridiculously low 4.38 compared to Halladay’s at 7.63. Not exactly sure how you would include this to calculate an expected walk ratio, but I do believe that it can be used to defend Piniero’s walk ratio a bit. While it is quite low, his sinkerball nature these days and inability to miss bats could actually help his walk ratio. Just a thought…

  5. Pat Andriola said...

    I agree, Brad. This is what Dave and I were talking about in the comments right above yours. What you called Pineiro’s “inability to miss bats” is definitely keeping his walk rate down.

  6. Jonas Fester said...

    As a former pro player, the sinker was always seen as an escape pitch.  kind of a, “get out of jail free card.”  Even if you were behind in the count, let’s say 2-0, if you threw a nasty sinker that hit the bottom half of the strike zone, you could get a free out b/c the batter would be likely to swing at a 2-0 fastball.  The fact that Pineio is throwing strikes with it, he is getting easy outs by creating weak contact.  It’s amazing to me that his sinker hasn’t taken many days off, as they are wont to do at times.

  7. Colin Wyers said...

    Do me a favor, would you? Instead of calculating EFF as K/B, try calculating it at K/(B+K) and see what you get.

  8. Pat Andriola said...

    Colin,

    Did it for the top ten pitchers and multiplied by 100 again for simplicity. Here’s what I got:

    Roy Halladay   68.94360604
    Scott Baker   67.9379715
    Ted Lilly   67.80786919
    Cliff Lee   67.57532281
    Chris Carpenter 66.84378321
    Carl Pavano   66.63681146
    Javier Vazquez   66.5771297
    Joel Pineiro   66.53315532
    Dan Haren   66.01156069
    Mark Buehrle   64.36041834

    So here he’s actually even worse than before. Again, Halladay is awesome.

  9. Colin Wyers said...

    Sure.

    But we’re talking about a difference of about 2 balls per game, assuming somewhere around 80-100 pitches per game. I don’t think it’s a substantial difference in EFF from Halladay to Piniero.

  10. Pat Andriola said...

    I agree, Colin. Halladay is slightly ahead, but it’s slightly. Cliff Lee is also slightly ahead. However, Pineiro is walking .17 less batters per nine than Halladay, and .9 less batters per nine innings than Lee. A lot has to do with the contact rate, but I think he’s still getting fortunate based on his balls and strikes.

    Also, here’s Clayton Kershaw’s rating: 60.52104208

    And he has the worst BB/9 rating in the majors. So when the difference between the worst and best is somewhere probably around ~10, I would think 2 means a little more.

  11. Brandon Tingley said...

    Actually, expanding upon what Jonas Fester said, I’d love to see a graphic of ground ball % vs. count. Does he generate more ground balls when behind in the count, just by trusting his sinker in those situations?

  12. Dave Allen said...

    Yeah Pat,

    It would be really interesting to see how well you could predict BB rate with just ball percentage and contact percentage (or maybe balls in play per pitch).  Great post, I had never thought about the idea of being lucky with walks (or strikeouts for that matter).

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