The Top 100 K/100P Leaders
While strikeouts per pitch hasn't caught on as hoped when I introduced the idea in February 2006, there is no disputing the fact that this metric explains runs better than strikeouts per inning or strikeouts per batter faced.
As detailed in Strikeout Proficiency (Part Two), K/P has the highest correlation in each of the five run measures (ERA, R/G, ERC, FIP, and DIPS). K/BF has the second-highest correlation and K/IP has the lowest correlation. In any other words, K/P > K/BF > K/IP.
To give K/P more utility, I multiply this decimal by 100. Not only do we now get a real number out of this exercise but the standard of measurement is almost exactly the average number of pitches per start during recent years. In an era of pitch counts, it seems more instructive to me to measure starters by the number of K/100 pitches than K/9 IP.
(For context, among those who are currently qualified for the ERA title, the average pitcher has thrown 100 pitches per start and completed 6 1/3 innings. The average number of K/100P is 4.88.)
With the foregoing in mind, let's take a look at this year's leaders. Interestingly, there are 100 pitchers who have averaged at least one inning per team game, which is the minimum to qualify for the ERA title. (The stats were compiled yesterday evening in real time and may not include the entire results for late games.)
As shown, Brandon Morrow is leading the majors with 7.06 K/100P. He is averaging 97 pitches and 6.85 Ks per start. While Morrow leads MLB in K/100P, K/9, and K/BF, the 26-year-old righthander is 13th in strikeouts due to the fact that he is only averaging 5 2/3 innings per start. Aside from Morrow's dominating one-hit, 17-strikeout, complete-game shutout last month vs. Tampa Bay when he was allowed to throw 137 pitches, his starts, innings, and pitch counts have been managed closely by Cito Gaston and the Toronto front office. Along these lines, he was shut down for the season after making his last start on Friday against the New York Yankees. Although the former first round draft pick out of Cal will fall short of the required 162 innings to qualify for the ERA title, it makes little or no difference given that his 4.49 mark currently ranks 36th in the American League (out of 46 pitchers). However, it is worth noting that he has a bigger gap (1.31) between his ERA and FIP (3.18) than any starter in the big leagues.
Francisco Liriano ranks second with 6.87 K/100P. Like Morrow, Liriano's ERA (3.27), while excellent, understates his defense-independent pitching prowess this year as the lefthander tops the majors in FIP at 2.31 due to a strong strikeout rate, a better-than-average walk rate, and a home run rate (0.16 per 9) that is more than twice as low as the closest challenger (Josh Johnson, 0.34). While Liriano's HR/FB of 2.6% is probably unsustainable longer term, his xFIP (3.01), which normalizes the home run/fly ball rate to league average, still places him first in the AL and second in MLB (behind only Roy Halladay, 2.93).
Jon Lester ranks in the top five in the majors in strikeouts, K/100P, K/9, and K/BF. He is tenth in the AL in ERA and fourth in FIP and xFIP. The 26-year-old southpaw has produced three consecutive superb seasons and must now be regarded as one of the top five pitching properties in baseball.
With Stephen Strasburg sidelined through 2011, is there a better 22-year-old (or younger) pitcher than Mat Latos? The San Diego righthander is two months older than Brett Anderson and three months older than Clayton Kershaw, the other contenders for this mythical title. Latos (6.54) and Kershaw (6.39) rank fourth and sixth, respectively, in K/100P. Both starters play for teams in the NL West so they generally face similar competition. Although Latos' home ballpark is more friendly toward pitchers than Kershaw's, the former (.188/.247/.310, 2.36 ERA) has outperformed the latter (.241/.325/.350, 2.86 ERA) on the road this year. In the department of be careful when analyzing (over analyzing?) the effects of home ballparks, please note that Latos has pitched 99.1 IP on the road and just 56.1 IP at home this year. In other words, he has only thrown 36 percent of his innings at Petco Park, which means he hasn't benefited from the 87 park factor as much as one might believe without examining the facts. Oh, and it just so happens that Latos and Kershaw are the scheduled starting pitchers tonight when the Padres host the Dodgers.
At 6.41 K/100P, Jered Weaver is sandwiched between Latos and Kershaw. Weaver ranks among the top five pitchers in the majors in Ks, K/100P, K/9, K/BF, and K/BB. He is 8th in ERA, 6th in FIP, and 5th in xFIP among AL pitchers. The 6-foot-7 righthander also ranks 5th in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and 3rd in Win Probability Added (WPA) in the junior circuit. While the Angels' ace lacks the gaudy win totals and winning percentages of CC Sabathia and David Price (and others), he has clearly been one of the five most effective starting pitchers in the league this season. Weaver can take the next step by pitching deeper into games as he is without a complete game and has only worked more than seven innings three times, primarily due to the fact that he leads the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.17).
A lot has been written and said about Tim Lincecum's up-and-down 2010 but the fact remains that the two-time Cy Young Award winner is seventh in the majors and third in the NL in K/100P. His fastball velocity and movement have declined this season, yet he is getting more batters to swing at pitches outside the zone than ever before. In the aftermath of a poor August, the 26-year-old righthander beat the Colorado Rockies with a strong performance (8-5-1-1-1-9) on September 1. I would be slow to give up on this extraordinary talent.
Felix Hernandez leads the majors in strikeouts and ranks eighth in K/100P. He deserves to win the AL Cy Young Award as much as anybody, yet may be hurt if voters hold his mediocre win total (11) and W-L % (.524) against him. Both can be easily explained by the fact that Felix has received the lowest run support (3.90) in the AL this season. According to Lee Sinins, Hernandez would be 15-6 if he had received average run support. Sure, Sabathia is 19-5 but he has been supported by an average of 7.59 runs from his Yankees teammates. Similarly, Price (16-6) has received an average of 6.72 runs. Even Clay Buchholz, whose 15-6 record and league-leading 2.25 ERA will draw considerable attention, has been backed by 7.06 runs per nine. The truth of the matter is that Hernandez is 2nd in ERA, 3rd in FIP, 3rd in xFIP, 3rd in WAR, and 1st in WPA. No other pitcher matches those rankings.
Cole Hamels has also pitched much better than his 9-10 W-L record would suggest. He has received the fifth-lowest run support (4.92) in the NL. Teammates Roy Oswalt (3.72) and Roy Halladay (4.68) rank first and fourth, respectively. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old lefthander ranks 4th in the NL in K/100P, 7th in K/9, and 8th in K/BB and xFIP. No team wants to face the Phillies' Big Three in the postseason.
Yovani Gallardo ranks 10th in the majors in K/100P. While the Milwaukee ace can frustrate writers, analysts, and fans at times, it is hard to argue against the following NL rankings: 1st in K/9, 4th in FIP, and 6th in xFIP and HR/9. While Gallardo needs to improve his control to reach his potential, he has been victimized by the fourth-highest BABIP (.337) and the eighth-lowest LOB% (69.2%). I mean, let's give the guy a break — he's only 24 years old.
There are a number of other pitchers having superb seasons, including the next four on the list: Adam Wainwright, Cliff Lee, and the previously mentioned Roy Halladay and Josh Johnson. Along with Ubaldo Jimenez, Wainwright, Halladay, and Johnson are probably the leading favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award in 2010. An argument could be made for all four at this point. Although Lee and Halladay aren't thought of as strikeout types, both have posted strong K/100P marks in part due to their pitch-count efficiency. Lee is 3rd among qualified MLB pitchers in P/PA (3.49) and 2nd in P/IP (14.0), while Halladay ranks 6th (3.58) and 3rd (14.2) in these two measures.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Strasburg (92 Ks and 1,073 pitches) averaged 8.57 K/100 pitches in 12 starts spread over 68 innings. That, my friends, is 1.51 K/100P more than the leader among all qualified pitchers!