An update on bad pitchers with good strikeout-to-walk ratios

USA TODAY Sports

They are legion.

Rob has a piece about Joe Blanton here, in which he includes the following sentence:

Maybe he's been unlucky, or maybe he demonstrates the limits of the theories.

We're at the crossroads apparently. Or we took the fork a while ago without realizing it. It was just last year that it felt normal to write something like this: "Joe Blanton (or Tim Lincecum or Dan Haren or Phil Hughes or …) is probably unlucky. Look at that strikeout-to-walk ratio! Pitchers who strike out that many while walking that few are hardly ever that bad."

Today there's no way to write that without feeling like a relic. We wrote about the declining usefulness of the strikeout-to-walk ratio in April, and now it's time for an update. Here's the number of qualified starters with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over three, but an adjusted ERA worse than league average since 2000:

Screen_shot_2013-07-25_at_9 click to enlarge

You know about the league-wide increase in strikeouts. This isn't just a difference between the present and the early 1900s; Jim Palmer was basically Kirk Rueter when it came to strikeouts, but that sort of thing didn't matter much in the '60s and '70s. Even in the '90s, it wasn't that unusual for a pitcher to have a good season without a ton of strikeouts. There were 23 pitchers in 1999 with an above-average ERA+ and fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings pitched. There were seven last year, and six so far this year.

So strikeouts are going up, and the number of pitchers who can be effective without them is going down. This fits with our perception. The more strikeouts, the better the pitcher.

Which doesn't explain the declining usefulness of K/BB ratios, at least to this English major. There aren't just more pitchers with exemplary K/BB ratios getting knocked around. Here are the starters with a K/BB over two and a below-average ERA+:

Screen_shot_2013-07-25_at_9 click to enlarge

At first I figured that there were just more high K/BB guys in the club now, which would mean a bigger total number of struggling members, but the overall percentages would be the same. Nope.

Screen_shot_2013-07-25_at_9 click to enlarge

It gets worse if you include 2013.

What does it all mean? No idea. Do you know how hard it is for me to make a graph, even? I've been working on this since May. But as the number of strikeouts goes up, and the number of pitchers who can thrive without strikeouts goes down, there are more mediocre-to-bad pitchers with far more strikeouts than walks.

And if that's the case, maybe the gap between ERA and FIP is closing when it comes to predictive powers. The definition for FIP includes this:

(Voros) McCracken outlined a better way to assess a pitcher’s talent level by looking at results a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs.

It still makes intuitive sense. But for whatever reason, we can trust the strikeouts and walks less and less these days, and that's never been more true than with the 2013 season. I, and Joe Blanton, would love to know why.

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