The Curious Case of Captain Kirk

Last week, the Cincinnati Reds acquired Kirk Saarloos from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for a Double-A relief prospect. There’s nothing all that interesting about the trade; the A’s freed up some salary while easing the crunch in their bullpen and the Reds needed a cheap option for the back of their rotation. An entire article profiling a swingman may seem like overkill for a slightly above-replacement level pitcher, but I find him fascinating as a pitcher. Baseball is more about the mundane than the spectacular, and Saarloos is about as mundane as they come. What kind of pitcher will Queen City fans be seeing next year?

Who is Kirk Saarloos?

Saarloos had excellent statistics in his final year at Cal State Fullerton, catching the eye of Oakland assistant general manager Paul dePodesta. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis noted, “Grady [Fuson] and his scouts had ignored Paul when he said they ought to check out a college pitcher named Kirk Saarloos.” That assessment is hardly fair; the A’s drafted Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, and Neal Cotts prior to the Astros selecting Saarloos in the third round. John Sickels noted that the “lack of a hot fastball kept him out of the first two rounds.”

But Saarloos looked as if he would prove the scouts wrong as he rocketed through the minor leagues with a strong 2.56 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. His peripherals were also extremely impressive: 8.2 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, 0.49 HR/9. What lack of stuff? Armed with an 87-mph fastball, Saarloos was practically unhittable in the minors. He more or less skipped Triple-A and posted okay-to-bad ERAs in the majors during 2002 and 2003. Though his peripherals weren’t quite what they had been in the minors, they weren’t so terrible either. But after the Astros traded him to the Athletics early in the 2004 season for Chad Harville, his strikeout rate plummeted, and his walk and home run rates spiked.

These days, Saarloos lives and dies on the strength of his sinker and its ability to induce groundballs. Had he pitched enough innings to qualify, he would have ranked near the top of the American League in GB% in 2006, somewhere between Roy Halladay and Kenny Rogers. That’s a good thing, and it is more or less the basis of any success he has as a pitcher. His home run rates have swung wildly over the last two years, from one of the best in the league in 2005 (0.62 HR/9) to one of the worst in 2006 (1.41 HR/G), so it’s not clear that his groundball proclivity is necessarily keeping the ball in the park. But it is clear that his ability to strike men out and stay away from the base on balls has all but disappeared.

Saarloos definitely isn’t what you would call a strikeout pitcher. He’s not even what Kirk Rueter might call a strikeout pitcher. Consider that Saarloos has struck out 4.3 batters every nine innings over the course of his career, and over the last three numbers his mark is 3.7, 3.0, and 3.9. Those marks are not even 60% of the American League average and generally some of the worst in the league. Had he pitched enough innings to qualify last year, he would nestle between Carlos Silva and All-Star (!) Mark Redman on the list for fewest strikeouts per game (K/G). And it could have been worse, too: in his final start of the season, he somehow struck out 11 Cleveland Indians in only five innings.

Of course, pitchers can succeed without striking out every fourth batter. Some guys are as stingy with the walks as they are with the swings and misses. Saarloos is not one of those guys. But his walk rate is awful, both as ratio—he has walked more men than he has struck out over the last two years—and as absolute—had he qualified, he would have ranked third from bottom in BB/G. (Irrelevant side note: the three worst among qualifiers in the AL last year were Barry Zito, Gil Meche, and Ted Lilly. Maybe Saarloos can land a $75 million contract when he hits the market!)

So Saarloos walks a ton of guys and doesn’t get enough strikeouts. Does he just not throw enough strikes?

His Stuff Don’t Ever Work

Strangely, Saarloos doesn’t have an awful ball-strike ratio; in general, three out of every five pitches are strikes and the other two are balls. That is definitely on the low end, but it is not awful either. It’s not obvious why his peripherals should be so poor given that he throws 60% strikes. Is the early diagnosis of a lack of stuff showing its effects? I’m far from a scout, so let’s see if there are any data to help us out here. Using retrosheet data to look at 2005 pitch-by-pitch data, we can classify his strikes as follows:

Classification of strikes
Swinging	8%
Called		28%
Foul		26%
In-play		39%

When Saarloos throws a strike, it’s rarely a swing-and-miss, make-the-batter-look-silly pitch. In fact, in fewer than 15% of plate appearances did Saarloos induce even a single swinging strike. Batters make contact with almost two-thirds of his strikes, or almost 40% of all pitches. Despite this, he’s not loathe to attack hitters early in the count, as his strike percentage is about the same on the first pitch as it is overall. But the behavior of batters on his first-pitch strikes is not encouraging:

Classification of first-pitch strikes
Swinging	5%
Called		56%
Foul		13%
In play		26%

It almost seems like the called first strikes are batters just trying to get their timing down early in the count, doesn’t it? He’s quite hittable (in the sense that it is easy to make contact), so there’s no need to attack the first pitch even if it is a strike. This corresponds to my memory of watching him pitch for my favorite team, the Oakland A’s. It was extremely frustrating as a fan to watch him get ahead in the count on called strikes only to watch him nibble in an attempt to get the batter to pound his sinker into the ground. Without a way to put away hitters, the nibbling would often lead to walks, rarely lead to strikeouts, and occasionally lead to hits.

His low strikeout and high walk rates aren’t a function of an inability to put the ball in the strike zone. It’s too easy to make contact with his pitches, so Saarloss’s strategy is to get ahead and hope that hitters chase the sinker. It doesn’t work all the time, but for somebody who can’t generate swingthroughs or crack 90 mph, he acquits himself well.

What Lies Ahead

Saarloos will be 28 next year and has delivered two relatively similar seasons in a row. There’s no reason to think that he won’t continue to do so, within the boundaries of league and ballpark adjustments. The major freely available projection systems think the same:

System		IP	ERA	HR/9	BB/9	K/9
Bill James	116	4.97	1.01	3.4	4.0	
CHONE		121	4.98	1.04	3.5	3.7
Marcel		124	4.79	1.09	3.5	4.4
ZiPS		130	4.98	1.11	3.7	3.8

Saarloos was a very successful college and minor league pitcher, but it appears that the scouts were right to think that his stuff wouldn’t translate to major league success. Baseball Prospectus 2003 said of Saarloos, “There’s a debate as to whether Saarloos can thrive with a fastball that’s a few ticks south of average. Put us down squarely on the side that believes his minor league dominance portends success in the majors.” I would have agreed wholeheartedly. Saarloos isn’t a bad pitcher, but he hasn’t quite lived up to that prediction or his minor league resume. But his current pitching style, as seen through pitch-by-pitch data, would seem to reflect an approach based on a lack of stuff. This is in turn reflected in his walk and strikeout rates.

But at least Saarloos has that sinker. As a back-end starter, the Reds could do a lot worse than a grounder-inducing junkballer, particularly in a home run park.

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