Pitching by the Numbers: Swing and a miss

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports
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It sure feels like swinging strike percentage (SS%) and strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) should track together. But they often don’t. Let’s look for the outliers under the assumption that players who have a much higher SS% rank than their K/9 rank have strikeout upside not reflected in their 2013 category total. Conversely, if you have a SS% ranking much lower than your K/9 ranking, that may indicate that your higher K/9 rate is a mirage.

Yes, I’m hedging a little. Readers know that I don’t do that often. Here’s my problem: a pitcher’s rankings in SS% and K/9 are not clustered together as neatly as, say, WHIP and ERA. I feel like they should be. It makes perfect sense that they would be. But they are not.

I’ve charted the 158 pitchers last year who, according to Fangraphs.com, qualify as starters and pitched at least 70 innings. (I use 70 innings since that’s a number we feel good enough about to bet on for relievers; plus I always want to cast the widest net). Of those 158 pitchers, 96 have SS% ranking and K/9 ranking within 25 spots of each other. That seems to me to somewhat discount the relationship between SS% and K/9.

But let’s proceed and say that anything outside of 40 spots in ranking differential -- either 40 spots higher in K/9 than SS% or vice versa – makes you an outlier.

That gives us 31 total pitchers to focus on. Many of them are fantasy non-entities in mixed leagues but that’s okay because we can track them this year for the purposes of seeing if this great discrepancy in categories that seem like they should be closely related is meaningful for projection purposes.

And because we care about the guys we’re drafting in mixed leagues, we’ll follow that up by pulling out all from the list who have a ranking differential of more than 20 spots in these categories. The entire chart can be viewed here.

First, here are the pitchers with a much higher swinging strike rate than strikeout rate, meaning you have a seemingly sound basis for projecting more Ks from them in 2014:

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This bodes well for mixed-league assets Weaver, Straily, Medlen (check injury status/elbow) and Kuroda. No one has consistently backed Dillon Gee more than me and I continue to love Gee in deeper formats and especially NL-only leagues. Straily is the real outlier here though, as he's top 10 in SS% while being just 69th in K/9. Sure, that’s bettable, especially for what Straily is costing (ADP of 243). It is not bankable though – nothing is in this projection racket. Maybe I’m wrong about Weaver being a mixed-league dog given that K rate. If you’re going to use this to argue against my anti-Weaver stance, I pretty much have to stand down. But is it enough for me to overlook the 87 mph fastball? Nope.

Here are pitchers who had a K/9 way higher than their SS% rank suggests is reasonable.

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This is bad news for Jimenez, but no one is really betting much on him. I like Santiago in deeper formats and this concerns me, but not enough to get off of him. I wish Masterson wasn’t on this list. But his strikeouts spiked because he used his slider as an out pitch. So maybe that’s the problem with this: highly-leveraged use of an out pitch isn’t really reflected here. Perhaps Santiago’s screwball is similar.

As for the pitchers we most care about who came closest to meeting the above thresholds, here are those whose SS% suggests that they are in store for higher Ks and thus may be bargains:

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Hamels has injury issues. Sabathia and Dickey aren’t even that great in SS%. But I think Greinke can beat me and I like Corbin and Iwakuma a lot more than the market (ADPs of 175 and 130, respectively, though Iwakuma is likely sidelined through April).

Here’s where I make enemies in the comments. But I’ve already detailed some caveats. These pitchers should have K/9 rates much lower than last year, if we believe the correlation with SS%:

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I’ve already downgraded Cain in prior columns. Lee shows here why he shouldn’t be in the first tier. Ditto Price, who has always had a subpar SS% but didn’t pay for it until last year. The only guy I’m not more afraid of with this information is Fernandez, since he’s so close to normal variance and also because his swinging strike rate is so good. I guess we can say the same thing about Cingrani, but I can’t buy highly into a fastball-dominant pitcher when that pitch is not a sinker.