With Luke Hochevar set to take the mound tonight, it’s a good time to ask, just how significant was his performance last Friday?
It was significant, obviously, in the sense that it was the best start of his career by far – his first complete game, and his game score of 79 was 12 points higher than his previous career high (last July 11th against Seattle.) This was the Hochevar in the catalog – not an overpowering strikeout guy, but a pitcher who throws strikes, gets groundballs, and gets quick outs.
Only Hochevar wasn’t getting quick outs – he was getting QUICK outs. Four-pitch innings in the first and ninth bookended the 72 pitches he need to get through the seven innings in the middle. Checking the box score on my iPhone that evening, I remarked to my wife (who was holding on to every word, believe me), “I think the Royals set a record tonight.” And to the best of our knowledge, they did. We only have pitch count data back to 1988, when a fledgling STATS Inc. decided to start tracking pitches – so it’s quite possible that Larry Gura or Paul Splittorff twirled a 79-pitch gem at some point. But at least in the last 22 seasons, no Royal had ever thrown a complete game in 80 pitches. No one had come particularly close. Here’s a list of the fewest pitches thrown in a nine-inning performance by a Royal:
Pitches Date Pitcher
80 6/12/09 Luke Hochevar
88 8/19/97 Ricky Bones
89 8/6/95 Mark Gubicza
90 9/2/96 Tim Belcher
91 8/12/90 Tom Gordon
Ricky Bones actually went into the ninth inning having thrown just 75 pitches, one fewer than Hochevar, but struggled in his final inning, facing six batters (but throwing just 13 more pitches.)
Honorable mention goes to Kevin Appier, who on
By any measure, Hochevar’s performance was historic. The question I have is whether it’s meaningful, by which I mean, is his performance a strong indicator that Hochevar is a quality major league pitcher.
Those of you who, like me, were weaned on the Bill James
Historical Abstracts may remember a column James wrote in the 1985 edition. The column discussed what James called “signature significance”, which is a performance so dominant and rare that, even though it occurs in a small sample size, it presages a degree of quality in that player. It is the “signature” of a great player, and only a great player, to have such a performance.
If it’s Game 7 of the World Series and you have the choice of throwing a shutout or striking out 15 batters, you would of course take the shutout – while 15 strikeouts is not typically associated with bad performances, you’d want to take the sure thing. But if the question is whether, knowing nothing else about a pitcher except his performance in one game, you’d rather have the guy who threw shutout or the guy who struck out 15 batters – you’d take the guy with 15 Ks every time.
Shutouts have inherent value, but they do not have any particular predictive value. Bad pitchers can throw shutouts. (And, against the Royals, they usually do.) Good pitchers certainly throw more of them – but the fact that a pitcher throws a shutout is not singular evidence that he is a good pitcher.
On the other hand…there have been 27 occasions this century in which a pitcher struck out 15 or more batters in one game. Here’s a list of those pitchers:
Randy Johnson (9 times)
Pedro Martinez (4 times)
Mike Mussina (2 times)
Jake Peavy (2 times)
Mark Prior (2 times)
There are 11 outstanding pitchers on that list – and, yes, Ron Villone, who struck out 16 batters on the final Friday of the 2000 season against a Cardinals team that had already clinched a playoff spot. Late September performances always come with a discount.
The point is, if you told me that a young, previously unheralded pitcher is going to strike out 15 batters tonight, I’ll tell you without even knowing his identity that he’s going to be a star. There’s always a possibility things go wrong – he hurts his arm or develops Steve Blass Disease or whatnot – but the odds are exceedingly high that he’s going to become a star. Shutouts can be a fluke; 15-strikeout performances almost never are. A 15-strikeout performance has signature significance.
So getting back to Hochevar, the question I have is this: does an 80-pitch complete game constitute signature significance? Is this one start evidence, all by itself, that Hochevar is going to become a star?
Going back to the list above, given that Ricky Bones once threw an 88-pitch complete game, I’m going to say that an 88-pitch complete game does not have signature significance. But there’s a big difference between 88 pitches and 80. If we extended our study of strikeout pitchers to include pitchers with 14 strikeouts, we’d find guys like John Maine and Wade Miller, good pitchers having the games of their lives rather than great pitchers. It’s possible that 88 pitches is at the inner edge of what an extreme finesse pitcher, even a marginal one like Bones, can do when everything is working – but that 80 pitches is beyond that range.
So what I’ve done is come up with a list of every pitcher since 1993 who has thrown 85 or fewer pitches in a game. But a word of caution: pitch count data is notoriously unreliable, as many times different sources will differ on their pitch counts by two or three pitches. Just by way of example, that Appier game above, Baseball Reference lists his pitch count at 92 – but in the same file, if you count up the pitches to each batter individually, you end up with 95! I think the problem is that in the bottom of the second, Mark Whiten was caught stealing on a 1-2 pitch to Glenallen Hill – and since Hill started over to lead off the third, the three pitches he saw in the second inning were not counted. This sort of stuff happens all the time – some sources don’t count the pitches thrown in intentional walks, for instance – so this data can’t be considered completely reliable. But we’ll do our best.
1993 – 1998
2005 – 2009
An interesting mélange of talents here, to say the least. These pitchers share certain general characteristics. They’re not power pitchers, which makes sense, since strikeouts take a lot of pitches. Also, they’re almost all groundball pitchers. This also makes a ton of sense when you think about it. Aside from hits, there are two major impediments to a low pitch count: balls, and foul balls. And while I’ve never seen a study that’s looked at this issue, I’m willing to bet that groundballs are much less likely to go foul than flyballs – and therefore groundball pitchers give up fewer foul balls than flyball pitchers. It’s easier to keep your pitch counts low when the batter isn’t fouling off pitches right and left.
In terms of quality, though, there is no firm consensus. There are 21 different pitchers on this list. Thirteen of them have made at least 180 starts in their careers, and three more – Carlos Silva (159), Aaron Cook (153), and Rich Harden (110) – are likely to get there as well (although the clock is ticking on Silva). Making 180 starts is the equivalent of being a full-time starter for six seasons – that seems to be a pretty good indication of quality. Not a star, maybe, but a valuable starting pitcher.
But then you have the other five guys, who are in italics above – Bob Wolcott, Bobby Munoz, Mike Grace, Jim Bullinger, and Chad Ogea – none of whom reached 100 career starts. And as you can see, even if we tighten the requirements to exclude the guys who threw 85 or 84 pitches, that doesn’t help Hochevar – both Wolcott and Munoz threw 80 pitches on the dot. So based on the percentages, that means that Hochevar has about a 76% chance (16 of 21) to develop into a quality starter.
If you want to spin the numbers a little, you can point out that all five non-quality starters pitched between 1994 and 1997, and the feat has become more rare since. (There were 16 low-pitch starts made between 1993 and 1998, but just nine in the decade since.) It’s possible that the feat has become rarer because it’s become harder – teams have wizened up to the importance of plate discipline over the last ten years. If that’s true, than Hochevar’s performance is more impressive – every other pitcher who has done so in the last decade has been a quality starter.
But for now, I would argue that a single 80-pitch complete game, as impressive as it was, does not constitute signature significance that Hochevar is going to have a long and successful career. It is certainly suggestive, but not an ironclad guarantee.
Keep in mind, only three pitchers have done this twice – Silva, Cook, and (3 times) Greg Maddux. So if Hochevar does this again – then we have a winner.