This is a guest post from Jeremy Lehrman, who writes over at Plate Coverage, and is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots.
In the baseball blogging game, one never knows when inspiration will strike, or from where.
Jerry Crasnick’s tweet below got us to thinking about K/BB (strikeout to walk) ratio, a stat that seems to have gained currency beyond the analytics community, and what it can (or can’t) tell us about a pitcher. It’s become a supporting pillar of, among other things, the HOF credentials of Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.
@jcrasnick Never understood why strikeouts should be a significant criteria for HOF.
— Swanni (@SwanniOnTV) December 22, 2016
Because most pitchers who have a lot of them (and not a lot of walks) tend to be really, really good? https://t.co/C3vgUFaiX2
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) December 22, 2016
In very broad terms, K/BB ratio can function as a general proxy for pitcher command, the ability to not only hit the strike zone, but to throw to a specific part of the zone. Command differs from control, which is simply the ability to throw strikes. Major league pitchers can throw strikes if they want to; the problem confronting pitchers is that major league hitters can hit most strikes. Think about how many times you’ve heard a broadcaster say, after a ball has been stung to the deepest reaches of the park, that the pitcher “missed his target.” That, in a nutshell, is command: The ability to hit that target within the strike zone.
Not that he needed the help, but the table below underscores Crasnick’s beautifully dismissive wisdom. Pitchers with exceptional K/BB ratios tend to be… exceptional. Here are the best career K/BB, or “command” ratios of all-time (min 2500 IP):
These are some of the best pitchers to ever toe a slab (if you tell me you expected to see Javier Vazquez among these names, you’re either a wizard or a liar). You’ll doubtlessly note some conspicuous exclusions along the lines of Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, etc.[i] That’s because K/BB, while a fun stat, only tells us so much about pitcher command. After all, there are many times the target is outside the strike zone. As Greg Maddux, perhaps the greatest command artist of all, once said: “Make the balls look like strikes, and the strikes look like balls.”
So if pitchers who strike out a lot of batters while walking few tend to be very good, is the converse always true? Are pitchers with lousy K/BB ratios… lousy?
The Worst of the Worst? Sort of?
Here are the pitchers with the worst K/BB ratio in history (min 2500 IP):
As you might expect, no true immortals here. But no real duds, either. Most of these pitchers, in fact, provided significant value over the course of their careers. The most famous—and successful—of this lot is “Sunday Ted” Lyons, who has a plaque in Cooperstown in recognition of his efforts over two decades for some terrible White Sox teams.
K/BB ratios can be a little misleading: Lyons’ command looks awful by today’s standards, but he was just about league average for his time—it was a high-contact era, and hitters regularly walked more often than they struck-out (they did neither with much frequency). The same conditions hold true for all of the pitchers on this list: Despite “terrible” command, none of them were terrible pitchers (you don’t stick around the majors for more than 2500 innings if you can’t pitch; if we lowered the work threshold to 1000 IP or less, we’d get a truly terrible batch of cast-offs). They were products of their time.
And here’s where that old bugaboo “context” comes in. As you’ll note, all the pitchers (with the exception of Juan Marichal and Dennis Eckersley) with the best lifetime K/BB ratios began their careers in the 1980s or later. It’s not a coincidence:
The trends are stark: The league K/BB ratio hovered around 1:1 from 1918 to 1953; the 1950s saw an surge in strikeouts, pushing the league K/BB ratio above 1.50. Strikeout rates would continue to increase through the 1960s (peaking at 5.9 K/9 in 1968); pitchers first whiff twice as many batters as they walk until 1964. The league K/BB rate peaks at 2.09 in 1968, the year of the pitcher (Juan Marichal posts a 4.73 K/BB mark to pace the majors; Denny McLain leads the American League at 4.44—a mark that doesn’t crack the top-10 in 2016). MLB lowers the height of the mound in 1969, the league K/BB ratio drops below 2.00—and stays there until 2001. After a dip below 2.00 the following season, the K/BB rate surges past 2.00 in 2003—and it’s been setting new highs, on an almost annual basis, ever since. The seven highest league K/BB ratios in history were recorded over the last seven seasons:
Putting this in perspective, ML pitchers have averaged 2.64 strikeouts for every walk over the last three seasons; Tom Seaver averaged 2.62 strikeouts for every walk over the course of his career.
The single-season K/BB record for a starting pitcher is held by Minnesota’s Phil Hughes, who scuttled 11.63 batters for every one he escorted to first base in 2014 (only 16 BB in 209 IP).
Notice anything jarring about this chart (well, other than the inclusion of Carlos Silva)?[iv] Every one of these seasons took place in the last 23 years; seven out of 10 in the last 15. Prior to 1994, only two pitchers produced a K/BB ratio north of seven: Cy Young (1905) and Fergie Jenkins (1971). Since 1994, the feat has been achieved 18 times. Does this mean pitchers en masse are more dominant today than ever? Again, yes and no (more on that in moment).
The increase in K/BB rates has been driven by an enormous, sustained, league-wide increase in strikeouts. Pitchers have averaged 3.22 walks per game over the last century-plus (3.1 the last 25 years); single-season rates have never been lower than 2.3 BB/9, or higher than 4.1 BB/9. Strikeouts, however, have been on an upward trajectory for most of the last century—and in an uninterrupted bull market for the better part of a decade.
As Michael Bauman wrote last year:
“In 2016, the MLB average K/9 is 8.1, the highest ever. In 1993, it was 5.9. The last time MLB didn’t set or tie the all-time record for average strikeouts per inning was 2007, when big league pitchers came together to post a collective 6.7 K/9… The 23 percent increase in strikeouts over the past decade represents an almost fundamental alteration of the way the game is played.”
Pitchers as a whole are striking out a greater percentage of batters than ever before, while keeping walk rates essentially flat. So in one specific aspect of the game (strikeouts), they are more dominant than ever–that said, while strikeouts are at historic highs, runs scored per game are nowhere near historic lows, mostly because hitters continue to mash home runs like it’s 1999.
So how to truly determine the best single-season “command ratio?” Glad you asked. We call it Adjusted Command Ratio (CR+), and if you’re familiar with ERA+ or OPS+, it works in a similar way. CR+ compares K/BB rates against the league average by taking a pitcher’s K/BB rate, dividing it by the league rate, and multiplying by 100. A CR+ 100 is exactly League average; a CR+ of 200 means the pitcher’s command was twice as good as league average. Using this formula yields a different single-season list:
Silva and Max Scherzer fall out of the top-10, while Bret Saberhagen’s 1994 season is buffed to an even brighter shine (his 564 CR+ is 11% better than the next best mark in history). A couple of so-so pitchers from the Deadball era enter the Top-10, while Pedro Martinez offers even more evidence for his 1999-2000 peak as perhaps the highest in the game’s history.
Again, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of how well (or poorly) a pitcher performed in a given season–but it’s a fun bit of ephemera.
For the record, the owner of the worst adjusted command ratio for a full season is Ernie Wingard, who in 1924 struck out 23 batters while walking 85 for a CR+ of 32. Perhaps the oddest part of Wingard’s season? Despite walking nearly four batters for every one he struck out, Wingard somehow fashioned a winning record (13-12 for a St. Louis team that finished below .500) and pitched to an ERA 29% better than league average over his 218 innings. Wingard, in fact, owns two of the five worst K/BB ratios ever.
Ok. You’ve made it this far. How about some trivia sure to impress your baseball-geek baseball buddies during your next round of boozy trivia?
Of the 379 pitchers to log at least 2000 innings in the majors, only one ended his career with exactly the same number of strikeouts and walks. In 2477 IP, Ned Garver both walked and K’d 881 batters.[viii] Pitching for some terrible teams, Garver finished with a career record of 129-157, despite an adjusted ERA that was 12% better than the league average (Garver, in fact, makes our Unluckiest Staff of All-Time, where he keeps some excellent company). Garver pulled off quite the magic trick in 1951, compiling a 20-12 record for a pathetic St. Louis Browns club that went 52-102. Garver became the second pitcher to win 20 games for a team that lost more than 100 (Irv Young was the first). He struck out 84 while walking 96.
We’ve looked at the best of all-time, the worst of all-time, and the most symmetrical of all-time. So where does this leave us when it comes to K/BB ratio?
We can say with ironclad certainty that command ratio tells us a lot about pitcher effectiveness—except when it doesn’t. It tells us a lot about pitcher command—except when it (sometimes) doesn’t. Pitchers who produce lots of strikeouts as compared to walks allowed are usually very good, and pitchers who have poor K/BB ratios are usually very bad—except when they’re good. Command ratio means more today than it did even 20 years ago, but it’s probably useless when measuring some of the great pitchers (like Lefty Grove, with his career 1.91 K/BB) who worked in very high-contact eras. Oh, and some of those eye-popping K/BB rates you see across the game today aren’t nearly as impressive as they might seem, when playing conditions are taken into account.
As with most things baseball, it’s all very tidy.
Tweet us with your thoughts.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links.