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Collette Calls: Strikeout Rate Surgers

Jason Collette

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

The strikeout rate across baseball is up yet again. Every season since 2005, the league-wide rate has risen. With that rise, it is only natural that some pitchers will see a spike in their strikeout rates over the previous season while others drop as they lose velocity or command of their pitches.

So far this season, there are 17 pitchers that have seen their strikeout improve by five or more percentage points. That level of shift should raise your eyebrows or maybe even your suspicions, Let's take a look at those showing that level of improvement in 2014 (with at least 70 batters faced).

Pitcher20132014Difference
Zack Greinke21%32%12%
Jon Lester20%30%11%
Garrett Richards16%26%10%
Ervin Santana19%27%9%
Jose Fernandez28%36%8%
Brandon McCarthy13%21%8%
Aaron Harang18%25%7%
Stephen Strasburg26%33%7%
David Price20%27%7%
Kyle Lohse16%22%7%
Jordan Zimmermann19%25%6%
Nathan Eovaldi17%23%6%
C.J. Wilson21%26%6%
Jason Hammel16%21%6%
Travis Wood18%23%5%
Ian Kennedy21%26%5%
CC Sabathia19%24%5%


What (if anything) is each guy doing differently?

Zack Greinke: He has eliminated the cutter from his repertoire, which is a pitch that is used to create bad contact rather than strike batters out. He has replaced that pitch with an increased usage of his changeup and his Whiff% on his changeup is his best in six seasons.

YearWhiff%
200810.5
200911.3
201010.3
201115.9
201213.7
201315.1
201419.4


Jon Lester: Coming off a 15-strikeout performance certainly helps one make such a list. Simply put, Lester is getting primal in 2014. He has cut way back on the usage of his changeup and is now going fastball/cutter 83% of the time. The changeup was a pitch he threw 10-11% of the time, but has thrown it one-third of that rate so far this season while using his four-seam fastball at a career-high rate of 52%. Someone wants to get paid.

Garrett Richards: Much is made of the likes of Danny Salazar, Yordano Ventura, and Nathan Eovaldi's fastballs, but it is Garrett Richards who has thrown more pitches at 95-mph or higher this season. He already has 433 fastballs clocked that high, nearly 50 more than the next guy on the list. In terms of using his pitches, he isn't doing that much different than he has in the past outside of using his curveball a bit more often. The life on his fastball is playing up as batters are having difficulty squaring it up. In 2013, batters swung and missed at his fastball 11.7% of the time and put 53.5% of them in play. This season, they are swinging and missing 18.6% of the time and putting just 43.1% of them into play.

Ervin Santana: Santana's evolution was covered here last season, but he is also enjoying the benefits of changing leagues right now. Derek Carty noted a couple of years ago that pitchers going from the American League to the National League see a 1.6% bump in strikeout rate. Santana is also throwing more changeups this season – more than double the amount he threw last season.

Jose Fernandez: He was already awesome, and is getting better this season. Why? A tick fewer fastballs and more of his devastating curveball and changeup. He's also throwing a tick harder this season as well.

Brandon McCarthy: He is 1-5 with a 4.67 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP, but the improvement in his strikeout rate stands out in a big way. One reason is that he is throwing harder this season than he has in past seasons with an average fastball velocity 1.5 miles an hour above what he did last season. He has also cut back on the use of his cutter and has thrown more fastballs with the bump in velocity.

Aaron Harang: We all saw this coming, right? He isn't throwing any harder than he has in the past, and isn't really throwing anything different than he has before. He is switching leagues, but it's not as though he is any kind of stranger to the National League. He has two big strikeout games against the Mets and the Marlins, but each team made more contact the second time they faced him. That's a trend to follow in the coming weeks if Atlanta allows him to remain in the rotation.

Stephen Strasburg: Another case of the awesome getting better. Three guesses which pitch Strasburg is throwing more frequently this season. Yep – his changeup. He's also throwing the new slider and those two pitches are getting it done for him.

David Price: No new velocity, no new pitch, but Price has cut back on his cutter and while throwing a few more changeups. More importantly, he is pitching from ahead more than he has in the past. He has a first-pitch strike rate of 74.1% this season – better than any other starting pitcher in baseball. League-wide in 2014, if a pitcher throws a first-pitch ball, they end up striking out 16.5% of batters. If they throw a first-pitch strike, that rate jumps to 28.6%.

Kyle Lohse: This ranks up there with one of the bigger surprises on the list as Lohse's rate has historically been in the mid-teens. Lohse's first-pitch strike percentage has been one of the 20 best in baseball, but it's the increased use of his breaking balls that is helping him right now. He is throwing 44% breaking balls this season which exceeds his rate of 37% last season and 27% from the season before that.

Jordan Zimmermann: Zimmermann has the third-highest first-pitch strike rate in the league as one of just six pitchers that have thrown first-pitch strikes at least 70% of the time. He's throwing a few more fastballs and fewer curveballs, but the career-best first-pitch strike rate seems to be the secret sauce to this spike for him right now along with two starts against Miami and Houston.

Nathan Eovaldi: Whereas Garrett Richards is the leader in cooking with gas, Eovaldi is next on the list. He struck out 10 Mets in his start Monday night, and is doing so with the same velocity as last season. He is throwing more sliders this season and fewer fastballs because he is pitching while ahead in the count more frequently than last year. His first-pitch strike rate is the 11th-best in the league.

C.J. Wilson: Veterans typically do not show this kind of shift in strikeout rate, but Wilson is. He has cut back on the usage of his slider to throw more two-seam fastballs and is doing it with the same velocity he always has. The two-seamer is not a typical strikeout pitch, so the improvement appears to be more matchup-based than anything else.

Jason Hammel: Hammel is throwing more sliders this season than he ever has before, and it was a pitch that he had a strong Whiff% with two years ago. He did not throw it as much last season, but now that he is healthy, he is using it more frequently and it is working well for him. The league is hitting just .103/.122/.154 off his slider as just 26 of the 151 sliders he has thrown have been put into play. He has had batters swing and miss at the slider more often than they have put that pitch into play.

Travis Wood: Wood has to do what he can to avoid the regression monsters, and that appears to be throwing more cutters and fewer changeups. He has had his three big strikeout games against Arizona, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia – each team is below the league average in terms of strikeout rates against lefties.

Ian Kennedy: He is essentially throwing the same pitches, but he is throwing them harder. He is averaging nearly 93 mph on his fastballs this season whereas he lived 90-91 previously. New velocity is getting new results for him.

CC Sabathia: Sabathia is dealing with declined velocity, but has adjusted by throwing his two-seam fastball and changeups more frequently. He currently has a 21% whiff rate on his changeup, a rate he hasn't seen since his pre-Yankee days. He already was 25 swings and misses on his changeup this season, putting him on pace to get more than 100 whiffs on the pitch for the first time since 2010.

If you are wondering which pitchers would be on the other end of that spectrum, this is that list.

Pitcher20132014Difference
Ricky Nolasco20%11%-9%
A.J. Burnett26%19%-7%
Clay Buchholz23%16%-7%
Paul Maholm16%9%-7%
Yu Darvish33%26%-7%
Mike Pelfrey15%8%-7%
Tommy Milone19%13%-6%
Shelby Miller23%18%-6%
Eric Stults15%10%-6%
Ubaldo Jimenez25%20%-5%
Tony Cingrani29%24%-5%
Edinson Volquez18%13%-5%
Jeff Samardzija23%19%-5%
Felix Doubront20%15%-5%
Julio Teheran22%18%-5%


Which pitchers surprise you on either list? Let me know in the comments and we can discuss further!