Low-strikeout pitchers becoming a rare breed
Baseball shifted to power arms that rack up K's, garner attention, awards
There aren't many Major Leaguers who can talk as honestly and thoroughly about baseball as 14-year veteran Mark Buehrle. But during a visit to Boston in late June, one topic left him speechless, if only for a few seconds.
Sitting on his folding chair in front of his locker in the cramped visitors' clubhouse at Fenway Park, Buehrle, in an elite group of seven pitchers -- who is have won at least 150 games since the turn of the century while posting an ERA below 4.00 -- was asked about winning a Cy Young Award.
Buehrle thought for a second and remembered being asked about this before.
"I think for [the] Cy Young [Award], that's one that people say, 'Would you like to win?' I'm like, 'Yeah of course I'd like to,'" he said.
But at 34 years old and on the wrong side of the strikeout wave that's crashing into the modern game and carrying anyone who doesn't want to participate back to shore, Buehrle knows he doesn't have much of a chance. He never really did.
Of the seven pitchers in the previously mentioned group, he's the only one who has never finished in the top three in Cy Young Award voting. He's only been in the top 10 once.
This is a pitcher who won 19 games in the 2002 season. The year before that, when baseball was in the middle of the steroid era and the average ERA was 4.42, Buehrle went 16-8 with a 3.29 ERA. He wasn't in the top 10 for the American League Cy Young Award. He wasn't even an All-Star.
Strikeouts have been on the rise since '94. But Buehrle doesn't pay much attention to the numbers.
"I haven't really noticed it because I'm not the one striking anyone out," Buehrle said.
He has a full understanding for what it means for a "soft-tosser" like himself, who has averaged just 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings over his illustrious Major League career.
"If you put your numbers up and you're similar to a guy like [Justin] Verlander or [Max] Scherzer -- a guy who is going to strikeout 250 guys a year -- then yeah, [the Cy Young Award is] obviously going to go to them," Buehrle said. "That's a key stat for that award."
If he's never going to win a Cy Young Award, the Hall of Fame may seem even more distant. But baseball fans might want to make sure they remember guys like Buehrle.
They might soon be extinct.
Bartolo Colon, 40 years old, has been one of the true surprises this season. He's 12-3 with a 2.69 ERA and will be the lone representative from the Oakland A's at Tuesday's All-Star Game.
But Colon has only fanned 66 batters in 120 1/3 innings. And if recent history is the indicator, there's no way he can keep this up.
Over the past 15 years, baseball hasn't seen a qualified Major League starter post an ERA of 3.00 or below without striking out at least five batters per nine innings. Not one.
The last person to do it was Rick Reed, who posted a 2.89 ERA in 208 1/3 innings as a 13-game winner with the Mets in 1997 while striking out just 113 batters.
This never used to be a rarely-accomplished feat.
Before Reed in '97, there were 207 pitchers who had done it since 1970.
Why? For one, many teams aren't taking much notice of pitchers without blazing strikeout rates in the Minor Leagues. Buehrle spent just a year and a half in the Minors before making his Major League debut. But in today's game, that rarely happens to guys with similar numbers to his.
"I don't know if they even looked at that back then," he said. "I know they look at all that stuff now, and numbers are bigger than they were back when I came up."
Buehrle said he isn't quite as familiar with the Blue Jays' farm system as he was when he was with the White Sox, but certain changes are noticeable.
"It seems like a lot of guys throw 95 mph now," he said. "And those ones are going to make it [to the Majors]."
The ones who don't have electric strikeout numbers are stalling. Of the 24 starting pitchers who were called upon to make their Major League debuts this season, only five had strikeout rates below 8.0 per nine innings in the Minors.
And only one, the Pirates' Brandon Cumpton, had a strikeout rate below 6.0 per nine.
"It's a little bit more difficult [to get noticed], because everyone likes the big arms, big arms that can miss bats," said Rockies manager Walt Weiss. "Those guys a lot of times have to prove they can't do it, where the other guys have to perform a little bit more than the guys with the big arms in the Minor Leagues, the big velocity.
"Ultimately, it comes down to being able to help your team win games up here. That's how they're ultimately evaluated. But yeah, the guys with the big strikeout numbers in the Minor Leagues get a lot of attention."
And for those who don't have alarming strikeout numbers?
"They probably have to do something else really well," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who has promoted Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Jake Odorizzi, who all had strikeout rates above 9.0 per nine in the Minors, for starting opportunities this season. "And I'd bet they probably have to put the ball on the ground. There are some really good sinkerball pitchers that don't get a lot of punchouts but are very successful.
"Then it's incumbent upon [the manager] to put your guys on defense in the right spot. That's why the charting and everything going on right now is so valuable, to really help your ground-ball pitchers out as much as you possibly can. And of course the fly-ball pitchers are a little less predictable."
The discrimination is quite astounding. As of Wednesday, there were eight qualified pitchers in the International League (Triple-A) who had ERAs below 3.20. Six of them had strikeout rates below 7.0 per nine innings. None of those pitchers has been promoted this season.
The two with strikeout rates above 7.0, Jose Alvarez and Kyle Gibson, have earned chances with their big league clubs.
One of the few teams that has given the lower-strikeout guys a chance, the Rangers have found some pitching where others may have never looked.
"I'm not into strikeouts," said Texas manager Ron Washington. "I really think it depends on the organization. If you have an organization that loves power, in power there are a lot of strikeouts. But if you're an organization that can understand what pitching is, I don't think it matters. Pitching is pitching."
While Martin Perez has been a highly-regarded prospect, his strikeout rates have never been astounding. He posted a 5.7-per-nine ratio over three seasons in Triple-A before earning his promotion, which has paid off for Texas; Perez is 3-1 with a 2.08 in five Major League starts this season.
Nick Tepesch was a 14th-round Draft pick in 2010 who struck out 7.4 batters per nine innings throughout his 300-plus-inning Minor League career. The Rangers gave him a chance to start the season and were rewarded until his pitching elbow began giving him problems, eventually forcing him to the 15-day disabled list last week.
"He's not trying to miss bats," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "He's trying to stay in the strike zone. He buys into, 'I have good defense behind me, let's use it.' It's a pretty mature approach for a young man."
Maturity and experience are the two words often associated with the pitchers who can find success without the swing-and-miss stuff.
Maddux and his brother Greg, who made their Major League debuts in 1986, the year strikeouts began approaching 6.0 per nine again, were league average in the almighty category. That was about all Greg Maddux was average in.
The Maddux brothers operated on a pretty simple philosophy, albeit one that might seem comparable to using a telegram machine instead of an iPhone.
"Strikeouts are great and are fun to watch, but they do tax your pitch count," Mike Maddux said. "You get guys earlier in the count, you're going to pitch a lot longer in that game.
"Guys that thrive on the perfect inning being three pitches and three outs will do more than the guys who thrive on nine pitches and three strikeouts. It's just a different way to look at it."
Greg Maddux, with his career ERA of 3.16, averaged just 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
"He had 3,000 strikeouts, but he pitched a long time, like anyone else who had 3,000 strikeouts," Mike Maddux said. "He definitely thrived on getting a quick out, which is why he could log so many innings and those legendary nine-inning games with less than 100 pitches."
Mike Maddux converted to a reliever early in his career and went on to pitch 15 seasons in the Majors, with a 5.9-per-nine strikeout rate.
Maddux didn't care. He never changed his approach, never tried to miss more bats. He knew the key to success wasn't found in the glory of watching his opponent leave the batter's box and walk back into the dugout. The key was found in intellect. And learning how to hit the part of the bat that caused weak contact within the strike zone.
Missing bats is fun. There's a time and a place. But it comes at a cost.
"The second I tried to strike a guy out, I found myself behind 2-0," Maddux said. "Then 3-0."
Why are pitchers no longer successful without high strikeout rates? No one is quite sure. But consistency has been nearly impossible for low-K pitchers.
Kyle Lohse is a good example. He posted a 2.86 ERA in 2012, yet he was one of the last pitchers to sign a contract this offseason. He's gone through four teams since 2006.
It never used to be this way.
From 1970-99, there were 355 qualified pitchers to post an ERA below 3.50 while striking out 5.0 per nine innings or less in a season.
Since 2000, there have been just 10 (not counting Colon this season). And none have done it two years in a row. Take a look:
Joel Pineiro: Career strikeout rate: 5.4. Career ERA: 4.41. Pineiro was a solid pitcher through his 12-year-career, but was never named an All-Star and is currently on a Minor League contract with the Orioles.
Joe Saunders: Career strikeout rate: 5.1. Career ERA: 4.18. Saunders was a longtime innings-eater for the Diamondbacks, but has struggled this season with Seattle, posting a 4.51 ERA while striking out 4.7 per nine innings.
Jarrod Washburn: Career strikeout rate: 5.3. Career ERA: 4.10. Washburn made himself useful over a 12-year career, but was never an All-Star. He won more than 11 games just once.
Carlos Silva: Career strikeout rate: 4.0. Career ERA: 4.68. Silva was notoriously traded from the Mariners to the Cubs for Milton Bradley in one of the most bizarre swaps in recent memory. Each was owed north of $20 million on their contracts and neither was performing. Silva hasn't pitched in the Majors since his one season with the Cubs in 2010.
Kenny Rogers: Career strikeout rate: 5.4. Career ERA: 4.27. Rogers lasted 20 years in the Majors, in part because he began his career in '89, before the strikeout surge, and his experience paid off. Rogers would intentionally pitch around anyone he didn't want to challenge, walking nearly as many as he struck out at times, but he was a four-time All-Star.
Jon Garland: Career strikeout rate: 4.8. Career ERA: 4.37. The once-promising White Sox prospect has seen his strikeout rate rise late in his career, though he's struggled with the Rockies this season, posting a 5.82 ERA while fanning just 4.2 batters per nine innings.
Jake Westbrook: Career strikeout rate: 5.0. Career ERA: 4.24. Like many pitchers, Westbrook started generating more whiffs with a move to the National League in 2010 and has found much more success. He has a 2.78 ERA this season leading into his Thursday start.
Kirk Rueter: Career strikeout rate: 3.8. Career ERA: 4.27. A truly impressive career, considering he struck out 100 batters only twice in 13 years.
Elmer Dessens: Career strikeout rate: 5.3. Career ERA: 4.44. Dessens was quickly converted to a reliever, a role in which he lowered his career ERA form 4.65 to 4.01.
Joe Mays: Career strikeout rate: 4.6. Career ERA: 5.05. He had a strong All-Star season in 2001 and never pitched a full season again.
Can Jeff Locke keep his incredible season going in the second half of 2013? Travis Wood? Mike Leake?
It has yet to be seen. But recent history isn't on their side.