Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 27, 2001
BASEBALL: A's Coming On; The K/BB Record For Pitching Staffs
Originally posted on Projo.com
Mariners 52-22 .703 (20-6)
An object lesson, here, in the importance of April. The A’s and White Sox were 8-18 and 8-16, respectively, on the morning of May 2, and the Angels 11-15, while the Twins were 18-7 and the Red Sox were 17-9. Some other points of note: the Blue Jays’ hot start has masked the complete collapse of the team over the succeeding 77 games. The Orioles have sought out their true level after initial aspirations of mediocrity. And did anyone think the Angels would hang in there to play competitive baseball, despite the loss of Mo, a horrible year by Tim Salmon, the continued offensive black hole that is Garret Anderson (RBI opportunities go in, but they don’t come out), and all manner of other problems? Granted they should be bringing in guys off the street who could out-hit their DHs, but give Mike Scioscia a hand for dealing with a no-win situation in terms of making the most of the available talent.
Anyway, the main point of this chart is to show why the Oakland A’s are probably not going to dump salaries, or shouldn’t. They’ve been the second-best team in the league since their April swoon, playing at the pace of a 98-win club for 76 games now. That’s not a hot streak; it’s a good team. I’ll get into why in a later column, but unless Oakland management decides to cut bait on Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, this team should prevent the contenders in the East and Central from assuming they have the wild card to safely fall back on.
One of the few causes for optimism in this dismal season for the Mets has been the pitching staff’s control of the (allegedly new) strike zone. Experience teaches us that pitchers who control the strike zone (as measured by K/BB ratio) succeed far more often than not – because it’s a sign that they are staying ahead of the hitters and fooling enough of them to get strikeouts, and simply because strikeouts and walks are the elements of the game a pitcher has the most control over.
The starting rotation is largely responsible. Among other things, the starting rotation’s great K/BB ratios early in the season suggested that Al Leiter, Glendon Rusch, Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel were not likely to continue struggling all year. Indeed, while Trachsel hasn’t been good he has improved some, and the others have all pitched well. Here are the lines (all stats through Sunday’s action):
IP BB K
Trachsel, like Kevin Tapani and John Burkett, has long been one of those rare pitchers who is unable to translate consistently good K/BB ratios into good pitching. Some of that is a tendency to give up home runs, but all three have tended to give up an extraordinarily high number of hits per balls in play. Burkett’s success this season has come largely as a result of reversing that trend, but who knows if Trachsel ever will? (One might speculate that his tendency to give up hits is exacerbated by his slow pace on the mound, which puts his fielders to sleep).
Anyway, the staff overall has a remarkable 2.71 K/BB ratio, and I started wondering if this would be any kind of record. As it turns out, the Mets don’t even lead the league – that distinction belongs to the Diamondbacks, at 2.75, led by Randy Johnson (225/45), Curt Schilling (180/24), Byun-Hyung Kim (85/30) and Greg Swindell (26/4). And Arizona doesn't lead the majors; that distinction falls to the Hated Yankees at 2.80. The Yanks are getting great K/BB numbers from nearly everywhere on the staff:
IP BB K
But what’s the all-time record? For that, I don’t have a sortable database, so I hit the books, and while I may have missed somebody I’m pretty sure I got the answers. As so often happens with searches for records, the answer to this one was simultaneously staggering and unimpressive. The best K/BB ratio ever posted by a major league pitching staff is 10.69 (!) by the Milwaukee team in the Union Association in 1884.
As students of the game’s history will recall, the Union Association was a third major league (in competition with the NL and the American Association, which did business from 1882 to 1891) that operated for just one season, 1884. The league’s status as a “major league”, conferred retroactively by historians, is extremely dubious; in the late 1800s there were always a number of competing leagues filled with players of quality similar to the National League, but only the AA was able to consistently match the Senior Circuit’s overall quality. As an example, Fred Dunlap, a career .283 hitter elsewhere, dominated the UA, hitting .412 with power. The league had five teams with a collective .239 winning percentage (that’s 39-123 on a modern schedule). Anyway, the Milwaukee franchise was one of several that folded early in the season, but after 12 games the pitching staff had struck out 139 batters and walked 13 in 104 innings. This must have impressed somebody, because the 3 pitchers – Henry Porter, Ed Cushman and Lady Baldwin – all caught on to pitch successfully in the real majors (Baldwin went 42-13 for the Detroit Wolverines of the NL two years later) despite having minimal major league experience before this. So somebody got something out of it, anyway. Me, I’m left wondering how a professional ballplayer in the 1880s got stuck with the nickname “Lady”.
Not satisfied with the result, I looked at teams that played a full schedule. This, too, yielded a spate of Boston Red Caps/Beaneaters teams (later the Braves) from the 1880s, most headed by ace Tommy Bond but the capper being the 1883 team, with basically a 2-man pitching staff of Jim Whitney (a staggering 345/35 in 514 innings) and Charlie Buffington (188/51 in 333 innings) combining for a 5.98 K/BB ratio. Still, this was back when it took 7 balls to walk a man, so I kept on going to the modern ball-strike count (4 balls and 3 strikes became the standard in 1889).
The best team of the past 2 decades, entering this year, was the Expos of 1994 at 2.80, with (naturally) Pedro Martinez leading the way (142/45). Other teams above 2.7 included the 1996 Braves (2.76), led by Greg Maddux (172/28) and the 1988 and 1990 Mets (2.72, 2.74) led by Dwight Gooden (175/57) and Bob Ojeda (133/33) in 1988 and David Cone (233/65) and Gooden (223/70) in 1990.
But the kings of the mound, the only team I could find with a better than 3-to-1 K/BB ratio since the 4-ball rule came in in 1889, turned out to be an eminently logical candidate: the 1966 Dodgers, with three Hall of Famers in their 4-man rotation. The Dodgers struck out 1084 batters, an impressive total at the time but one that would be in the middle of the pack in the 1990s. But they walked just 356 batters, barely over 2 a game. Eight pitchers threw more than 97% of the Dodgers’ innings:
Player IP BB K
Dodger Stadium or no Dodger Stadium, that’s a pitching staff. Osteen also had a long, successful career, and except for Moeller all of the relievers had several other good seasons. This staff carried a weak offense all the way to the World Series, although, unfortunately for the Dodgers, they didn’t score a run after the third inning of Game 1 of the Series.