Swing Batter-Batter: The Best Pitchers at Getting Batters to Strike Out Swinging and Looking

Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The era of the pitcher has been a hot topic in baseball over the past few seasons as batters continue to strike out at an incredibly alarming rate. The strikeout to plate appearances rate has increased in each of the last five seasons, hitting a rate of 19.9% last season. The increase is even more defined in the postseason, when elite pitchers carry their teams into October.

K Rising

As spring training draws near and the excitement of baseball season emerges (not to mention the much overdue warm weather that comes along with it), we’ll be exploring several interesting, less mainstream topics to get you ready for the new season. As elite pitchers and strikeouts seem to be the name of the game lately, it only seems right start off the series with some strikeout statistics.

One of the biggest stories to come out of the offseason was the record-setting deal that the Los Angeles Dodgers gave to their ace Clayton Kershaw, a whopping $215 million over seven years. Kershaw, a two-time Cy Young winner, led the National League in strikeouts last season whether it be by getting batters to both freeze up when watching his curveball drop perfectly into the zone or by whiffing completely when going after a slider that trails off. Because of his strikeout mastery, he was the only pitcher in baseball last year to land in the top five for both called strikeouts (67) and swinging strikeouts (165).

Most Strikeouts Looking - 2013

Called Looking K’s
Cliff LeePhillies93
Chris SaleWhite Sox73
Clayton KershawDodgers67
David PriceRays67
Felix HernandezMariners62

Most Strikeouts Swinging - 2013

Called Swinging K’s
Yu DarvishRangers221
Max ScherzerTigers187
Jeff SamardzijaCubs169
Cole HamelsPhillies168
Clayton KershawDodgers165

While Kershaw sat atop the ranks in terms of the raw number of punchouts, the percentages say that 28.9% of his strikeouts were called looking and 71.1% were called swinging, numbers that don’t deviate far from the mean of 23.6% and 76.4%, respectively. Looking even further into which pitchers are the best at catching batters sleeping and which are the best at getting batters to swing, we found the top five pitchers for both percentage of strikeouts that are swinging and looking.

Highest % of K's Called Looking - 2013 (min. 90 K's)

% Called Looking
Clay BuchholzRed Sox46.9%
David PriceRays44.4%
Cliff LeePhillies41.9%
Kyle KendrickPhillies40.4%
Jeff LockePirates40.0%

Highest % of K's Called Swinging - 2013 (min. 90 K's)

% Called Swinging
Koji UeharaRed Sox89.0%
Garrett RichardsAngels87.1%
Carlos VillanuevaCubs86.4%
Trevor RosenthalCardinals86.1%
Derek HollandRangers85.7%

Aside from the fact that the two lists are measuring each other’s inverse statistic, the obvious difference is that the leaders in percentage of strikeouts that are called consist of five starters, while the leaders in percentage of strikeouts that are swinging consist of the best reliever of 2013, one starter, and three pitchers who spent the majority of their time in the bullpen. Intuitively, it makes sense that the divide would happen this way. As a starter, your goal is to be conservative with your pitch count and your arm, aiming to place pitches and utilize the offspeed stuff more often than heat. Placement and an economical approach keep contact rates up, and therefore allow for more strikeouts called looking. On the other hand, relievers’ outings are much shorter, so they are able to aim to blow the ball past swinging bats. If we take this thought and test it on all of last seasons’ pitchers, this theory is supported.

2013 Regular Season Strikeouts

% Called Looking
% Called Swinging
MLB Average23.6%76.4%

A difference of 2% may not seem like much, but considering that the sample size of pitchers is roughly 500, it certainly is significant.

As we continue to inch closer to spring training, keep checking into StatsInsights.com for more statistics recapping the 2013 baseball season.

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