Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Earl Weaver and pitchers strikeouts

Earl Weaver during the 1979 World
Frequent readers know I believe in the predictive power of two pitchers stats: strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeouts per nine innings.

Pitchers who are subpar in either of those markers might be successful for a year or two, but they are extremely poor bets to maintain that success. There are certainly commenters on this blog who dispute that; to be blunt, they don't know what they're talking about.

And having said that, Earl Weaver — whose historical reputation is based in large part on his ability to get big seasons from his starting pitchers — always had below-average strikeout pitchers.

Before I talk about the specific numbers for Weaver's moundsmen, I should note the drastic difference between his era and today. In 1979 — when Weaver won his fourth and final American League pennant — AL pitchers averaged 3.3 walks and 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings (that last the lowest K rate since 1955). That's a K/BB ratio of 1.36, which was also worse than a typical season, but not markedly out of line ( it was 1.39 in 1978, 1.44 in 1980).

In 2012 — no doubt because teams are increasingly focused on pitchers who can miss bats — the K/9 rate was 7.4 — a full half-strikeout higher than in any previous season. The past seven seasons have have the seven highest strikeout rates in AL history. And the walk rate is at historically low (post-deadball era) levels as well, 3.0 BB/9. The combination leads to a 2.45 K/BB ratio, the highest in league history.

(A recently as a decade ago it was safe to assume that a pitcher who struck out twice as many as he walked was going to be successful. Today he's well behind the field.)

But even accounting for the lower strikeout rates of the period, Weaver's pitchers didn't strike guys out. Weaver had 20-game winners almost every season, but he never had a pitcher rack up 200 strikeouts in a season. Even the great Jim Palmer, who had eight 20-win seasons and four times topped 300 innings, never fanned 200. Palmer's K rate for his career was a relatively mediocre 5.0 — and that's above the norm for Weaver's staffs. (Mike Cuellar, who averaged 18 wins in seven seasons pitching for Weaver, was at 4.5 K/9 in that period. Dave McNally, who also averaged 18 wins a year for Weaver, was at 4.4.)

As Chris Jaffe notes in this fine Hardball Times piece on Weaver, only the Royals and Brewers struck out fewer opponents in 1969-82, the core of Weaver's career.

How did he get away with it? Defense. Jaffe points to some defensive metrics that suggest the 1973 Orioles were the greatest defensive team ever, and the '69 Birds were the next best. Regardless of how accurate the metric is, Weaver certainly put a premium on glove work — men like Mark Belanger and Rich Dauer lasted a long time with him despite a lack of offensive production.

It's also worth noting that the low strikeout rates of the Orioles didn't stand out as much then as they would now. Combine those same strikeout rates with less than stellar defense in today's era, and you get the 2012 Twins pitching staff.


  1. "n 2012 — no doubt because teams are increasingly focused on pitchers who can miss bats — the K/9 rate was 7.4 — a full half-strikeout higher than in any previous season. "

    K/9 measures the percentage of outs a pitcher gets from strikeouts. It tells you nothing directly about how often batters strike out.

    "How did he get away with it? Defense"

    Actually, the REASON Weaver teams had low K/9's is probably there defense. They got MORE outs on balls in play. There is no evidence batters struck out less often against his Oriole teams.

  2. To make that clear. The worse the defense, the higher the pitchers' K/9 will be given the same number of strikeouts.