Thursday, June 18, 2009

Around The World In Eighty Pitches.

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 July 23rd, 1992, threw 92 pitches – in ten innings. Appier was notorious for racking up high pitch counts, but on this day he threw just 80 pitches in the first nine innings, then 12 more in the tenth. I remember watching this game on TV, and while I was surprised to see Appier come back out for the tenth inning, there was a perception that he hadn’t been worked all that hard. I say “perception” because pitch counts simply were not available at the time – I had no way of knowing whether Appier had thrown 92 or 192 pitches, and I’m not sure the Royals did either. If they had known that he was still under 100 pitches, I wonder if they would have let him pitch the 11th inning as well. (Which would have been awfully cool; no pitcher has gone more than 10 innings since Dave Stewart threw an 11-inning shutout on August 1st, 1990.)

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)

Erik Bedard

Cole Hamels

Johan Santana

Curt Schilling

Jason Schmidt

Ben Sheets

John Smoltz

Ron Villone

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.

Since 1993, a pitcher has thrown 85 pitches or less in a complete game 25 times. (I’m defining “complete game” as “9 or more innings”, to eliminate complete games of the 8-innings-in-a-loss variety.) Here’s a list of those 25 in chronological order. An asterisk denotes a start of 80 pitches or less.

1993 – 1998

Jim Abbott

John Smiley

Tom Glavine*

Orel Hershiser

Darryl Kile

Billy Swift

Bobby Munoz*

Greg Maddux

Chad Ogea

Bob Wolcott*

Jim Bullinger

Greg Maddux

Greg Maddux*

Joey Hamilton

Mike Grace

Andy Ashby*


Jon Lieber*

Steve Sparks

Roy Halladay

2005 – 2009

Carlos Silva*

Rich Harden

Carlos Silva

Aaron Cook*

Aaron Cook*

Luke Hochevar*

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.


Go Whale! said...

Ummm, I think Roger Clemens threw a few games where he struck out more than 15 guys.

Anonymous said...

yeah, but he CHEATED

Anonymous said...

What about the Reds hitters part in all this? Shouldn't they take as much blame as Luke gets credit? If the Royals got beat and only saw 80 pitches, I think we would be calling for Seitzer's head, not marveling at the opposing pitcher (assuming he was another team's equivalent of Hochevar).

sw said...

Go Whale, Rany only listed the times since 2000 (took me a while to figure that out too). Although Roger Clemens did strike out 15 in a postseason game in 2000.

Shelby said...

I think Hochevar will end up being a #4 or #5 starter for his career, if he ends up being a successful major leaguer. If anyone ever decides he'd be a better reliever than a starter, it's curtains for Hoch.

In other news, our defense is dreadful. DREADFUL.

There is NO WAY we end up finishing above 3rd place in the AL Central.

Shelby said...

Er, pardon the panties-in-bunch frustration dripping from my previous comment.

I (like many of you, I'm sure) have more personal hope and emotion invested in this season than any in recent memory.

Anonymous said...

You would think with a defense this bad it would be because we sacrificed fielding for a bunch of slugging DH-types. But when you get this much bad offense with this kind of defense, well ...

Anonymous said...

What a joke.

Matt S said...

Rany please stop writing anything positive about the Royals. Every time you do we plummet further into the abyss.

Anonymous said...

Over the years, the Royals have had some truly awful defensive players: Lonnie Smith, Willie Aikens, Steve Balboni, Mike Sweeney, Kevin McReynolds, etc. But they weren't all on the field at the same time. Then you have the 2009 Royals.

AxDxMx said...

If Carlos Silva did it, it means nothing. Also, it seemed more like the Reds were determined to swing at everything, no matter what Luke threw. Take out Jonny Gomes, and a hard base hit through the infield, and Luke would have had a shot at a no-hitter that night. I put the blame on the Reds. Hochevar is not that good now, though he may become a reliable pitcher eventually. Tonight batters swung at a lot of his pitches too, but they squared those up pretty nicely and got a crapload of hits. I'm tired of the Royals, much more of this and I'm going to go Rob Neyer on this team.

Ryan said...

While many of these pitchers are not big strikeout guys, striking out batters does NOT need higher pitch counts. There was a great article on the Hardball Times showing this (with fewer Balls in Play [more K], pitchers ended up with the same or fewer number of pitches.

LB said...

That's true (regarding SO pitchers) according to the numbers, but it's almost impossible for a strikeout pitcher to have a pitch count in the 80's and throw a complete game. That's evidenced by Rany's list.

If a guy strikes out 15 with an average of 4.5 pitches per strike-out he only has 21.5 pitches left to get 12 more guys out in order to have a sub 90-pitch game. And 4.5 pitches per SO is probably being pretty generous to the pitcher.

Goetzo said...

I'm assuming when you say "Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract", you're actually referring to the "1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract", since the first edition of his Historical one didn't come out until later in the decade.

Anonymous said...

SS Prospect Jeff Bianchi was recently called up from A ball to AA ball. He had 3 doubles in his first game! Maybe they plan on getting him to the majors soon

Unknown Royals Fan said...

Hochevar proved exactly how meaningless his 80-pitch game was in his next outing. Unlike the Reds, the D-Backs weren't swinging like they had a dinner date with a Playmate, and Hochevar's essential mediocrity showed. I've said it before and I'll say it again - perhaps the greatest predictor of eventual mediocrity is a player's willingness to sit out a season for a few more sheckels on his initial contract.

Anonymous said...

Where's Kerry Wood's 20 game strikeout on your list?

Anonymous said...

How could you seriously forget Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout performance in only his 5th career start? Honestly... terrible.

Anonymous said...

yep, no Kerry Wood makes this suspect analysis

Anonymous said...

"Where's Kerry Wood's 20 game strikeout on your list?"

Read the article: "On the other hand…there have been 27 occasions this century in which a pitcher struck out 15 or more batters in one game."

We are in the 21st century now. Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in 1998.