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Being Wrong, With The Nationals' Pitching Coach

Steve McCatty believes that his pitchers should pitch to contact, and that strikeouts are [expletive]. His pitchers aren't following his advice, and they're flourishing.

WASHINGTON, DC:  Gio Gonzalez #47 and Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals watch the game against the San Francisco Giants  at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC: Gio Gonzalez #47 and Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals watch the game against the San Francisco Giants at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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"Strikeouts are bullshit."

All right, there's a quote. Who might've said it? Somebody who's beyond frustrated with Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, perhaps? Somebody who refuses to believe in the very existence of strikeouts in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Those are decent guesses. Here's the answer: Steve McCatty, pitching coach for the Washington Nationals.

I don't know if it's fair to say that Steve McCatty hates strikeouts, but read through that Les Carpenter article for more. He refers to them as an arbitration stat. He says that if you don't need a strikeout, you should get an out on one pitch, instead of several of them. McCatty basically champions the idea of pitching to contact, which is not a new idea, but which is most certainly controversial.

Seeing as how the Nationals currently have baseball's lowest team ERA, one's immediate thought is that McCatty might be on to something. But then, of course, these are the Nationals, and think about some of the pitchers that they have. As a team, the Nationals have the second-highest strikeout rate in baseball. They have the second-lowest rate of contact allowed in baseball. The have the very lowest in-play rate allowed in baseball. Steve McCatty strongly believes that pitchers ought to pitch to contact. He is the pitching coach for a staff that, if it's trying to pitch to contact, is failing miserably.

It's all an argument about conserving pitches and being efficient. You want pitchers to be as efficient as they can be, so with that in mind, of course a first-pitch ground-out is better than a five-pitch strikeout. Those strikeout pitches add up. But here's the problem:

"I'd rather win 2-1 and have our pitcher strike out two and walk four than lose 2-1 and have our pitcher strike out 13 and walk one."

Yes, it is indeed better to win than to lose. Can't slip anything by Steve McCatty. But if you have two pitchers, and the first one always strikes out two and walks four, and the second one always strikes out 13 and walks one, the second pitcher will be very good in the long run and the first pitcher won't last in the majors for more than a few months. McCatty seems to believe that pitchers are able to consistently generate feeble contact if they want, and there's just nothing in the historical record to suggest that is true.

Remember how the Nationals rank second in strikeout rate? Funny thing: they've averaged 16.0 pitches per inning, which is the seventh-lowest rate in baseball. The Twins have the lowest team strikeout rate, and they've averaged 15.9 pitches per inning. The Indians have the second-lowest strikeout rate, and they're up at 16.5.

Let's make this individual. This year, 144 starting pitchers have thrown at least 50 innings. Here's a plot of their pitches per inning against their strikeout rates:


There's no meaningful relationship. This is hardly an exhaustive study, but you'd think if there were something real, it would show up in the 2012 sample data. Intuitively, strikeout rate and efficiency seem like they could be related, but what matters isn't pitches per plate appearances -- it's all about pitches per inning, and with fewer strikeouts, each inning will feature more plate appearances. Because strikeouts can't be hits, and non-strikeouts can be.

This is probably nothing you didn't already know, or at least nothing you couldn't have guessed, but Carpenter's article about Steve McCatty raised my eyebrows. Especially when it concluded with:

He is left to stand here: a lone voice crying for sanity in a world obsessed with strikeouts.

And he can only hope they are listening.

Maybe people care a little too much about strikeouts, I don't know, but there's sense behind the alleged obsession. Strikeouts are very good. The best! Aside from double plays and triple plays. In this case, I would hardly describe McCatty's as being the voice of sanity. McCatty is incorrect, and other people have figured it out.

By pitches per inning, the most efficient pitcher in baseball this year has been R.A. Dickey. He's got the fourth-best strikeout rate out of everyone. Jonathan Sanchez has been the least efficient, and his strikeout rate is about half of Dickey's. Pitchers of all types can be efficient or inefficient, and maybe a bigger point is that the standard variation in pitches per inning just isn't enormous. We're talking just a few pitches per frame. Meaningful, sure, but hardly the difference between lasting nine and lasting five.

Among starters, baseball's highest strikeout rate is Stephen Strasburg's. One of McCatty's pitchers. The starter with baseball's third-highest strikeout rate is Gio Gonzalez. He is McCatty's, too The Nationals should be thankful that Strasburg and Gonzalez aren't pitching to contact, because what they're doing instead is extraordinary. Strasburg's ERA plus Gonzalez's ERA is lower than Ervin Santana's ERA.

Here's where we give McCatty some credit. Maybe he wasn't represented completely accurately by Carpenter. Maybe he was intentionally exaggerating his personal beliefs in the interview. Maybe his whole idea isn't that he wants guys to pitch to contact, but that he wants guys to be more efficient, and that he just doesn't want his pitchers to nibble around the strike zone or overthrow if they don't have to. Maybe McCatty just doesn't want his pitchers to try for a strikeout every single time, and that's great, because sometimes it's good to coast, even if it means you allow some more hits. Maybe McCatty is smarter about pitching than all of us. He really ought to be.

But within the article, his quoted words were not the right words. Steve McCatty said strikeouts are bullshit. The Nationals' pitching staff has worked as if strikeouts are the opposite of bullshit, and the Nationals' pitching staff is the reason why the Nationals might be going to the playoffs.