The great debate has been raging for years: which strikeout-related metric is a better predictor of actual pitching success? Some would say there is no right or wrong answer — that each metric has it’s own unique merit and value. That one must look at certain strikeout-related metrics in combination with others. Unfortunately, as tragic as it may seem, statistical evidence begs to differ. Statistics tell us there is in fact a right answer, and it’s a whopper.
Let’s start with K/9. Looking at all 2013 pitchers with 80+ innings, the correlation (R2) between strikeouts per 9 and ERA is a solid .1081. This correlation has been consistent, plus or minus a few hundredths, for the past five years. So nothing exciting or anomalous can be found in looking at other seasons. Yu Darvish leads the category with Tony Cingrani, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and A.J. Burnett rounding out the top five. Additionally, eight of the top ten K/9 leaders ended up with sub 3.10 ERAs. So a decent indicator all-around.
K/BB get’s a bit more interesting. We see a jump in linear correlation to .1671 — more than a 50% increase over K/9. Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, and Adam Wainwright all leap into the top ten of this metric, with Hisashi Iwakuma climbing into the top fifteen — four elite hurlers in 2013 left out of the K/9 leaderboard.
But the real gem is K%. It shows double the correlation versus K/9. Plus, the top fifteen in this category ended the year with sub 3.30 ERA — whereas Scott Kazmir (4.04) and Josh Johnson (6.20) smeared the good name of the K/9 leaderboard; with Kevin Slowey (4.11) and Dan Haren (4.67) unpleasantly loitering on the K/BB board.
The reason K% is so powerful is that it simplifies how effective a pitcher is at simply striking out each batter he faces. When BABIP gets involved — as it does for K/9 (high BABIP pitchers are rewarded on K/9 since the number of outs remains the same even if they’re giving up, say, 10+ hits per game) — the value of each strikeout is severely reduced.
|2013||R2 (correlation to ERA)|
So should we end the debate completely? No. But if you asked me to put money on Tim Lincecum, a career 25.8 K% pitcher with no decline in the stat over the past 2 years, over Tyler Chatwood, a career 13.0 K% who had a breakout year in 2013 with his freakish 76.3% LOB, I would bet on Lincecum every doggone time.
Slava Heretz is a Finance Manager, Red Sox fan, and adult ball league hack in Somerville, MA. Business metrics is like sabermetrics... just a different form of nerdy storytelling.