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Mound Musings: How to Improve the Game

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

For more than 25 years, pitching guru Brad "Bogfella" Johnson has provided insightful evaluation and analysis of pitchers to a wide variety of fantasy baseball websites, webcasts and radio broadcasts. He joined RotoWire in 2011 with his popular Bogfella's Notebook.

Watching Grass Grow and Paint Dry

I don't usually get on one. So you'll forgive me if I crawl up here on this soapbox and rant a bit about something that annoys me, right? I'll start with a disclaimer. Yes, I am a fan of pitching, so something that benefits pitching could theoretically be considered a bias. That said, I am also a fan of the game and watchability (is that a word?) is important in maintaining fan interest and longevity. Even pitching enthusiasts like to see hitters swing the bat. Do we have to sit on our hands and hope the wood moves once or twice this inning? Can we have a strike zone that encourages hitters to hit? And how does this impact my fantasy team? OK, let's take a look at a way to make the game better:

Matching Up Pitchers and Which Teams to Avoid

This all started as I took the opportunity to watch a couple of pitchers this past week. Interestingly, both were facing the Oakland A's. The A's are playing well, so the games figured to be a fair test of the pitcher's prowess. Although I am not a stat addict and don't usually keep close tabs on how pitchers do against certain teams (by the numbers), I have never been fond of having my pitchers face Oakland. You would think with half of those games being played in a pitcher's paradise, they would be a good opponent.

Wrong. As I watched the games I found myself drumming my fingers on the desk, cursing softly with a "c'mon, c'mon" followed by more drumming, and finally giving up and switching back and forth between other games. About the only positive I could come away with was the extraordinary number of pitches I was able to view.

So, I thought about it some more, and I did some statistical research. It occurred to me that the strike zone is too small. Further, umpires make that small strike zone even smaller by shrinking its outer, inner, upper and lower edges. Many hitters have come to the realization that if you are willing to take a lot of pitches, you will either get a free pass, or the umpire will force the opposing pitcher to throw a meatball over the middle of the plate. Of course, you have to be incredibly patient since the pitcher will go to great lengths and high pitch counts to avoid that, and the fans will have to take anti-coma drugs to stay awake during at-bats that last longer than the ice age. Obviously individual umpires impact this, but I think I'll draw the line on matching up against specific umpires.

So, could this be an organizational plot? Is Oakland a horrible team to watch and an equally frustrating team to face from the mound? I found the answer is definitely yes. Oakland hitters are drawing 4.26 walks per game. That's almost half a walk more than the next highest team (Minnesota at 3.86) and an incredible 1.78 more walks per game than the team drawing the fewest (Baltimore 2.48). Not surprisingly, opponent WHIPs against the A's are an MLB-high 1.44 (compared to the lowest, San Diego at 1.07). And, they don't even reward your patience with a few extra strikeouts as they are fifth in the majors with an average of just 7.10 per game (that compares to the highest rate, the White Sox at 8.99). Oh, and don't expect strikeouts when your pitcher faces the Royals - they provide only 5.70 strikeouts per nine innings, which is an almost unbelievable full strikeout less than the next best team (Detroit at 6.70). The bottom line is, when facing certain teams, pitch counts will elevate dramatically and your chances of a quality start diminish accordingly. In one of those games I watched - the command savvy Masahiro Tanaka lasted just six innings, throwing more than 100 pitches to the annoying A's.

Everyone tends to avoid pitchers toiling in Colorado, and they prefer to have pitchers working in San Diego, but it's not all venue. Some teams just make it a habit to force the opposing pitcher to throw more pitches - frequently getting into weak bullpens earlier - and more center-cut strikes - with the obvious benefit. Certainly teams with more skilled hitters will take advantage more often, but it's a feasible plot for almost any team. Maybe it's time we expanded the strike zone and encouraged hitters to take the bats off of their collective shoulders? It would significantly speed up the game.

Facing the Slow Torture of High Pitch Counts

As mentioned, if you are looking for your pitcher to go deep into a game, avoid teams like Oakland (1.44 WHIP against), Toronto (1.41, and it leads MLB in home runs, making those extra base runners especially volatile), Cleveland (1.40), Colorado (1.38) and Minnesota (1.37). Of note, all of these teams are much better at pushing the opposing pitcher at home, except Toronto which actually has a slightly higher WHIP against on the road.

The teams with the lowest WHIPs against are your pitchers' friends. They include San Diego (1.07), Cincinnati (1.18, and even lower without Joey Votto), Seattle (1.19), Chicago Cubs (1.20), Atlanta and Kansas City (both 1.23). It's notable that teams playing in two of the most pitcher-friendly parks (Oakland and San Diego) are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to getting on base.

If you are looking only at walks - which teams will stand forever and take pitch after pitch - Oakland is by far the worst (4.26 walks per game), followed by Minnesota (3.86), Boston (3.71), Cleveland (3.67), New York Mets (3.63) and Toronto (3.50). Again, teams generally draw more walks at home, but both the Mets and the Blue Jays are more walk prone on the road.

Which teams draw the fewest walks from the opposing pitchers? Hey, games between these teams could last less than three hours. Baltimore (2.48), Kansas City (2.49), Arizona (2.50), San Diego (2.50) and Milwaukee (2.55). Milwaukee is especially anxious to get back to the hotel as it draws barely two walks (2.15) per game on the road.

Some Notable Rotation Ramblings

That it happened against the A's (see above) makes Garrett Richards' recent outing all the more impressive. He went seven innings and left after giving up only one run and tossing just more than 100 pitches. He didn't excite me early on, but he makes me believe just a little bit more every time I see him.

It looks like Mat Latos is on track to step back into Cincinnati's rotation this weekend. His comments about the Reds wanting another rehab start after one was cut short because of a calf cramp didn't show a lot of maturity, but he does seem to have a better handle on his emotions when on the mound.

We're far enough into June that blue chip pitching prospects can begin getting in major league innings without Super 2 repercussions. Kevin Gausman is one of my favorites, and while the Orioles won't let him pile up too many innings, I expect to see some very positive output as he gets comfortable.

The Braves sent Alex Wood to Triple-A Gwinnett after the lefty posted lackluster numbers when they moved him to the bullpen. I'm not sure I agree with their handling of Wood since he clearly has a future in their rotation, but they didn't ask me. He should be back before long and hopefully in the rotation.

Only one pitcher shows up in the top 10 of both pitches per plate appearance and strikeout per nine innings. Corey Kluber only throws an average of 3.6 pitches to each hitter he faces (eighth), and strikes out 10.3 hitters every nine innings (fourth). I need to watch him again - that's impressive.

The next bullet point lists my favorite five-man starting rotation, but I limited it to pitchers I have actually seen pitch in person, and I didn't include any active pitchers. If I had included pitchers still taking a turn, Adam Wainwright would have received serious consideration. I marvel at his robotic consistency.

A couple weeks ago someone asked me to name a five-man rotation of my favorite pitchers - not the best pitchers I have watched pitch, but my favorites to watch. I limited it to pitchers I have seen in person (which kept Walter Johnson off the list) and it was very hard to narrow it to just five, but here they are: Dave Steib, Ron Guidry, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Fergie Jenkins, and I will make my closer either Tom Henke or John Wetteland.

Endgame Odyssey

As mentioned last week, Joe Nathan will be in the Hall of Fame one day, but he has a lot of problems now. Joba Chamberlain received a chance after Nathan had pitched on consecutive days and he got torched, so the waters are murky in Tigertown today. Expect Nathan to get a lot of leash. ... Tommy Hunter is back from the disabled list soon, but Zach Britton should remain the Orioles' closer barring any significant slides. ... I really like Grant Balfour, but he has struggled mightily, and the Rays are going to go committee for the time being. I look for Jake McGee to get the biggest slice of the pie but I also think Balfour will be back before long. ... Pedro Strop is back in the driver's seat for the Cubs and could hold the job with even a decent stretch. But, I still want to see Kyuji Fujikawa get a shot if/when he comes back. ... Cody Allen seems to have settled the case in Cleveland, at least for now. He was always the best fit anyway. ... Ronald Belisario has become much more comfortable in his new closer role with the White Sox, but I still question whether he is the answer. They just don't have many options. ... After a shaky April the Cardinals' Trevor Rosenthal has calmed down and become pretty reliable. Jason Motte and Carlos Martinez still lurk in the shadows, but Rosenthal should be fairly safe. ... There were some faint hearts when the Diamondbacks used Brad Ziegler to close a game last weekend, citing Addison Reed's "tired arm," but Reed was perfect in the next save opportunity. As long as he's healthy (and it appears he is) Reed is in no immediate danger.