Pre-PITCHf/x leaderboards

The release of PITCHf/x data over the last few years has been a revelation for baseball fans and analysts alike. After reveling in its wonder all this time, it may be almost impossible to remember those dark ages, when we were unable to track velocity, movement, and location so conveniently and on a large scale.

But prior to the PITCHf/x era, we still had some very fascinating and useful information available to us regarding called strike and swing-and-miss rates, strike-to-ball ratios, contact percentages and other anecdotal details of how individual pitcher’s strategies varied.

Realizing that I have never read an article outlining the more extreme seasons regarding these topics, I decided to use the retrosheet files from 1988-2012 to compile some of the more interesting seasons within that time frame.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been particularly fascinated by the steady increase in called strikes over swinging strikes, so that may be as good as place as any to begin. Because more strikes have been called recently more than in the past, the pitcher-seasons with the very highest called strike percentages dating back to 1988 are almost exclusive to the last few years (minimum 500 batters faced):

Called strike leaders 1988-2012

# NAME Year Called Strike %
1 Mike Mussina 2008 25.0%
2 Bartolo Colon 2011 23.1%
3 Doug Fister 2010 22.7%
4 Scot Shields 2003 22.6%
5 Bert Blyleven 1992 22.4%
6 Bartolo Colon 2012 22.1%
7 Livan Hernandez 2010 22.0%
8 Justin Duchscherer 2008 22.0%
9 Vance Worley 2011 22.0%
10 Kyle Lohse 2011 21.9%

With the exception of Blyleven’s final season in 1992, all of the top called strike seasons have occurred in the past decade, with six of the 10 occurring in the last three years. This historical distinction didn’t have particularly favorable consequences for Blyleven, however, as he finished the 1992 season with a largely forgettable 117 ERA-. It’s worth mentioning that Blyleven was also 41 years old at the time, while also returning from rotator cuff surgery that kept him out of the entire 1991 season. So it’s uncertain whether this was a common approach for Blyleven, or if it was an adjustment he made in the twilight of his career.

Mike Mussina, however, was much more fortunate in his farewell act%mdash;a season in which he posted the highest called strike percentage on record. Amazingly, one of every four pitches Mussina threw in the 2008 season were called strikes. This unique demonstration of pinpoint control helped contribute to a fine strikeout rate and an phenomenally low walk rate of just 3.8 percent, with both his ERA and FIP for that season rated as 20 percent better than the league. The end result of all this was one of the better season’s of Mussina’s very distinguished career and one of the greatest final seasons for a pitcher in the history of the game.

Bartolo Colon ranks in the top ten twice, with more than 22 percent of his total pitches as called strikes in both his 2011 and 2012 seasons. Bartolo was 39 years old this past season, the same age as Mussina in 2008 and just two years younger than Blyleven in his 1992 season. This might help provide us with insight into what type of pitcher is best suited to set these called strike records. Perhaps the craftier veteran pitchers learn to rely more on this sort of ‘pounding the zone’ strategy once their ‘stuff’ begins to betray them? And how much of this is pitchers benefiting from the so-called ‘veteran strike zone’ effect?

While the called strike is just as effective as the swing-and-miss strike, it doesn’t carry nearly the amount of emotional wallop. The swing-and-miss strike is certainly the sexier of the two, but unfortunately a leaderboard of the greatest single season swing-and-miss leaders since 1988 doesn’t provide us with a very interesting table. It is mostly the a listing of the usual suspects:

Swing-and-miss strike leaders 1988-2012

# NAME Year Swing and miss %
1 Pedro Martinez 1999 17.3%
2 Pedro Martinez 1997 17.3%
3 Randy Johnson 1999 16.4%
4 Randy Johnson 2002 15.6%
5 Pedro Martinez 2000 15.6%
6 Rich Harden 2009 15.1%
7 Johan Santana 2004 14.9%
8 Nolan Ryan 1991 14.9%
9 Nolan Ryan 1989 14.9%
10 Randy Johnson 1998 14.8%

Certainly Pedro’s seasons from the turn of the century showing up at the top of this list should come as no surprise to anyone. I am almost certain at this point that I will never see a pitcher with ‘nastier’ stuff than Pedro Martinez at the peak of his game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and his astonishing 17 percent swing-and-miss rate is a testament to that possibility. Randy Johnson’s unrivaled intimidation of hitters from the opposite side of the rubber is similarly well-known, as is the all time strikeout leader Nolan Ryan.

But curiously, Roger Clemens does not make an appearance in the top 50 all-time swing-and-miss rankings either. In fact, the Rocket’s swing-and-miss skills appear to have peaked at just 12.9 percent in 1988.

Rich Harden’s name may come as a bit of a surprise, as his reputation for missing bats isn’t nearly as well regarded as the rest of the company in this table. Harden’s 2009 season wasn’t his best season, but it was certainly his last good season. Harden had issues with both walks and home runs during the course of his career that contributed heavily to his inability to evolve into the type of pitcher that others in this list have, but his ability to generate whiffs was truly special.

And what about pitchers who have stayed inside the zone most often? Or pitchers with the fewest balls per pitch?

Ball% leaders 1988-2012

# NAME Year Ball%
1 Carlos Silva 2005 28.7%
2 Paul Byrd 2004 28.9%
3 Cliff Lee 2010 29.0%
4 Brad Radke 2005 29.0%
5 Curt Schilling 2002 29.4%
6 Greg Maddux 1996 29.5%
7 Curt Schilling 2001 29.5%
8 Cliff Lee 2012 29.5%
9 David Wells 2003 29.8%
10 Johan Santana 2005 30.1%

Basically we have two types of pitchers here. We have our share of K/BB magicians with the likes of Cliff Lee, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, and even a young Johan Santana. But we also have a handful of seasons from some pitchers that relied almost exclusively on limiting their walk rates. This seems especially true for Paul Byrd in the latter part of his career, where it seemed he only had low walk rates to brag about. Well, possibly that and his infamous double (sometimes triple) pump wind-up.

Carlos Silva, on the other hand, was able to rely on both his low walk rates and his ability to generate ground balls. Which is why its no surprise that he also shows up as having one of the highest balls-in-play per pitch rates since 1988:

Ball-in-play pitch leaders 1988-2012

# NAME Year BIP/pitch
1 Bob Tewksbury 1990 29.4%
2 Carlos Silva 2005 29.2%
3 Rick Reuschel 1988 28.1%
4 Bob Tewksbury 1992 28.0%
5 Bill Swift 1990 27.9%
6 Jerry Reuss 1989 27.9%
7 Bob Tewksbury 1993 27.7%
8 Bob Tewksbury 1991 27.6%
9 Dave J. Schmidt 1989 27.5%
10 Bill Gullickson 1992 26.9%

No pitcher in the last three decades was more prone to pitching to contact than Bob Tewksbury. Four of his nine eligible seasons from 1990 to 1998 appear in the top ten, and nearly all of those remaining seasons made the top 25. Bob was all business all the time, getting to the point with nearly 30 percent of all his pitches in his BIP-iest year.

The aforementioned Carlos Silva ranks a hair behind Tewksbury for top BIP honors, and the ever-underrated Rick Reushel is not too far behind him, but what I found most interesting about this query was Greg Maddux’s presence at sixteenth overall.

In his 1996 season, over 26 percent of all pitches Maddux threw were immediately sent back into the field of play, yet he still managed a strikeout rate of 17 percent. This was, of course, the season that ended Maddux’s string of consecutive Cy Young awards, and his ERA- ballooned to an uncharacteristic 64 by season’s end. Interestingly, Maddux posted similar ball in play rates in the final seasons of his career, posting over 25 percent ball-in-play rates each season from 2006-2008.

And finally, I’m not really sure what to make of this last category. In fact, I am almost certain that I would have opted to exclude this last table entirely as the stuff of randomness were it not for the fact that one pitcher in particular appears at the top of the rankings multiple times:

Foul strike leaders 1988-2012

# NAME Year FlStrpit
1 Scott Baker 2009 24.8%
2 Scott Baker 2008 23.7%
3 Phil Hughes 2010 23.5%
4 Bret Saberhagen 1989 23.5%
5 Scott Baker 2011 23.3%
6 Pete Harnisch 1990 23.0%
7 Sid Fernandez 1992 23.0%
8 Bret Saberhagen 1994 22.9%
9 Scott Elarton 2004 22.8%
10 Brad Radke 2005 22.6%

Three of the top five foul strike seasons belong to Scott Baker during his time with the Minnesota Twins. Baker isn’t nearly the type of pitch-to-contact type of pitcher that you would expect to catch so many bats, with his strikeout rates typically well above the league-average. Yet it seems Baker has an uncanny knack for not quite missing bats fully, but not quite letting the batter square up enough to put the ball in play.

So exactly what it is about Baker’s pitch repertoire or approach that causes him to induce such an egregious amount of foul balls will have to be an investigation for another day. But I’d definitely like to ask those readers that have watched Baker a few questions concerning the matter.

1. Is this something that you have noticed about Scott Baker in the past?
2. What is it about Baker’s pitching that enables such a strange feat year after year?

As always, I appreciate your feedback about this and anything else related to these pre-PITCHf/x leaderboards.

References & Resources
Thanks to retrosheet and Baseball Heat Maps for making this data available to the public. All data includes post-season when available. Pitch counts exclude intentional balls and pitch outs.

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Dan Rozenson
11 years ago

I don’t know what specifically about Baker it is that invited so many foul balls, but Brooks Baseball says that four of six pitch types were about one standard deviation above the league average in foul rates, while one was average and one was slightly below average.

11 years ago

Great stuff, James. I wonder if you could be a bit more specific about your definitions?  Specifically, what are the denominators for Called Strike %, Swing and Miss % and foul strikes?

James Gentile
11 years ago

Thanks, Dave. For all tables the denominators were all pitches excluding intentional balls and pitchout pitches. I only used plate appearances where pitch count data was recorded in retrosheet.

@Dan: Thanks for the info! I’ll likely get to the Baker mystery when I get free time, but I was fully expecting the culprit to be a singular pitch type. Good to know!

11 years ago

Very cool article!  One other thing that interests me, and may be worthy of a follow-up: can you year- or league-adjust the percentages?  I.E. were Pedro and Randy really that good at getting swing-and-misses, or was everyone just hacking in 1999?

James Gentile
11 years ago

Thanks, Mike! And that’s a great idea, don’t be too surprised if you see a post like that in the near future. From preliminary looks at swing/miss rates, it looks like it may not make too much of a difference as the league rates have remained relatively stable since 1988: