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Mound Musings: Chicks Dig Strikeouts

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.

Chicks (and Fantasy Owners) Dig Strikeouts

True baseball fans all have some aspect of the game that really gets them going. It might be a majestic home run launched into the night sky, a stolen base with an evasive slide to make it all the more dramatic or a triple with a fleet-footed sprint around the bases as the outfield scrambles to recover. Those are all exciting, but for pitching junkies, it has to be the strikeout. Sometimes it's a knee-buckling curveball that sees the hitter staring, amazed, at the umpire who simply shakes his head, or maybe you prefer the come-out-of-your-shoes corkscrew when your pitcher blazes one by on the inside corner. No matter your preference, when your pitcher rings up another big strikeout, you have to smile. However, besides the obvious addition to a common fantasy counting stat, there are other reasons to rejoice. Let's take a look ...

Strikeouts are good, it's a scoring category, but there are other good things ...

One of the biggest shifts in the approach to pitching these days has been a more concentrated focus on "pitching to contact" presumably to reduce pitch counts and get starting pitchers deeper into games. There are certainly benefits to that, not the least of which is avoiding using less than reliable middle relievers in games yet to be decided. The typical MLB bullpen of today is painfully thin. In fact, as you have probably noticed, starting rotations have their share of pretenders who take the ball every fifth day. The manager knows the bullpen will be used on most days, and it's not too surprising to see a sigh of relief when his more capable starters pile up innings.

However, especially from a fantasy perspective, those strikeouts, which admittedly require more pitches to obtain, have a lot of built in advantages. Think about this - if a pitcher goes seven innings and records 11 strikeouts, that's 21 outs, and only 10 times over those seven innings, did a ball end up in play. That reduces the exposure to a middle infield with limited range, it lessens the likelihood of a few seeing-eye groundballs making it into the outfield and it even takes away the missed communication factor when two outfielders glare at each other as a catchable ball falls between them for a "double." Give them both errors, I don't care, that was no double!

When people ask what I look for in a pitcher, strikeout rate is always very close to the top of the list. I may have a pitcher on my staff with mediocre strikeout potential today, but even those I think could improve in that category fairly soon. With the exception of a dropped third strike - OK, I'll take my chances with those - not many bad things can happen to a pitcher when the umpire rings up a frustrated hitter. Therefore, given the reduced number of balls in play, and the corresponding reduction in bad things happening because of bad luck, bad defense, bad communication or bad karma, I want to lead my league in strikeouts. There are some factors to the contrary, but I think you can see how strikeouts can also be a positive influence on ERA and WHIP (assuming the strikeouts aren't accompanied by too many walks). It's a team sport, and there are eight guys behind every pitcher who want to help, but give me the guy who takes matters into his own hands, especially when one of those game-defining critical situations comes along. Two runners in scoring position, one run lead, tie game and your pitcher fans the opposing cleanup hitter. Does it get any better than that? Let's face it, there are simply too many possible ways that runner on third scores if the ball is put in play.

Some very good reasons to seek out strikeouts on draft day:

First and foremost, always remember that when a pitcher records a strikeout, the possibilities for damage to his WHIP and ERA are reduced. That equates to a minimum of a three-category contribution, and when you evaluate hitters, don't you really like the guys who can help in multiple scoring tables?

I like to count strikeouts as non-threatening at bats. Above I mentioned a pitcher recording 11 strikeouts in seven innings. There were just 21 outs required to log those seven innings, and that strikeout total means only 10 balls in play needed to safely find a fielder. Each strikeout you take away increases the number of times in a game things could go wrong. Five strikeouts in those seven innings adds six more balls in play, and it only takes one to start a big inning.

Even a guy with a modest strikeout rate can often induce a swing-and-a-miss at that critical point in a game when the outcome hangs in the balance. In essence, that's the basis for pitching to contact - pitch to contact when you can, and get the strikeout when you must. It's actually a good theory, but not all pitchers are comfortable with or capable of making it work consistently.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the bane of many strikeout pitchers - the walk. By definition, a strikeout pitcher pitches away from contact, and that usually means nibbling on the corners and pounding away at the very top of or very bottom of the strike zone. Walks will happen. In fact, my pitching staffs are often near the top of the standings in walks issued, and that can be frustrating. Just keep in mind that while walks are not good, they are less damaging than hits, and your high strikeout rate will hopefully strand many of the extra base runners who reach via a free pass. And, the total of hits and walks is the key. Nine base runners allowed on five hits and four walks is typically better than eight hits and one walk. Not always, but I like my chances.

Some Notable Rotation Happenings

Patrick Corbin (ARZ) -
Put this name high on the list of arms I'm sorry I didn't pursue more aggressively in more leagues this spring. I always thought he had solid stuff, but he displays more poise on the mound pretty much every time I see him. His outing against the Giants earlier this week was just one more step forward.

Scott Kazmir (CLE) -
At one time I was a huge Kazmir fan, and with his 2013 spring performance, I was eager to see how close he has come to being back. Not close. There just isn't anything there, maybe someday, but not yet.

Adam Wainwright (STL) -
I have been on the Wainwright bandwagon all spring, and he was exceptionally sharp in his last start. There was some rust evident last year, and I really don't think he is as sharp as he will be when the season heats up. Don't be surprised if he is in the Cy Young running at season's end.

Chad Billingsley (LAD) -
The Dodgers entered the season with what looked to be the luxury of a very deep rotation. Billingsley may be done for the year, and with their other injuries, they are now looking for help. I have watched Billingsley slide down the upscale slide, and this may be enough to take him off that list completely.

Matt Garza (CHC) -
He was scratched from his last rehab start with what the Cubs are calling a "dead arm" issue. He is expected to be ready to jump back in fairly soon, but this is likely to delay his return to Chicago. June might be optimistic now.

Josh Johnson (TOR) -
I watched his last start, and he has yet to show that he can command the strike zone with a delivery altered to reduce the stress on his shoulder. I liked some of what I saw, there was some jump, and movement, but it is very difficult to re-make a pitcher who got to this level with his own specific motion.

Jarrod Parker (OAK) -
He's an excellent buy-low candidate, but you may not want to wait much longer. He is showing signs of getting everything in sync, and that should mean a return to his 2012 form - perhaps even better. There was some explosiveness in his fastball last time out, and he appeared more confident and comfortable.

David Price (TB) -
His performance hasn't been as bad as the numbers suggest, and he has had a large share of bad luck on top of it. The dip in velocity is a bit concerning, but he is apparently healthy (the Rays would not risk sending him out if he wasn't) so it is probably a minor mechanical glitch. Improvement is likely.

Stephen Strasburg (WAS) -
I'm actually getting a little concerned with this "pitch to contact" approach. It's not his game (see Strikeouts above), and he doesn't look comfortable with it. With some pitchers, it's a good idea, but with a pitcher like Strasburg it might be compared to telling Babe Ruth to bunt more often.

Danny Hultzen (SEA) -
He is getting settled in at Triple-A, and if he continues to show progress, he could be in Seattle before too much longer. Be ready to jump if and when it happens, especially in a keeper if he is available. He's blue chip.

The Endgame Odyssey

The Cardinals are trying out Edward Mujica, and while it's an interim thing, his ability to avoid walks makes him an appealing option. ... Detroit is where a lot of shuffling has become commonplace, and it's getting even more interesting. Jose Valverde is back with the Tigers, and they wasted no time in getting him into the end-game picture. He saved his first game of the season in his first appearance, and has put himself in the driver's seat for saves. ... In Boston, Joel Hanrahan should be back fairly soon, but Andrew Bailey might keep the job if he performs well. ... Greg Holland is gradually getting a grip on things in Kansas City, and Kelvin Herrera really hasn't made up any ground in the end-game race. ... Jim Johnson was a bit of a surprise last season, and the Orioles closer might fit into that category again this year, but it's hard to argue with success, and he is showing the mindset to be a top-tier closer. ... I have always been a bit skeptical of Rafael Betancourt in the closer's role, and while he has done a solid job, the guy I think will eventually inherit the job in Colorado, Rex Brothers, is suggesting he is ready if needed. ... The Cubs aren't ready to hand the job back to Carlos Marmol (the good - idea), and Kyuji Fujikawa is hurt (the bad - news) so they actually handed the ball to Kevin Gregg in a save situation earlier this week (the ugly - very). ... Arizona has also been the scene of a few erratic closings lately, but J.J. Putz is still safe, at least for now.

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