Game 157, Astros at Mariners – The Gerrit Cole Show

marc w · September 24, 2019 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Justin Dunn/Tommy Milone vs. Gerrit Cole, 7:10pm

In 1999, Pedro Martinez went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts. It was one of the greatest pitching seasons ever, and it marked the first time in history a pitcher posted a K/9 ratio over 13. Somewhat like today, baseball saw strikeout records fall in the mid-late 90s, as Pedro and Randy Johnson hit their primes. Pedro’s K/9 record topped Kerry Wood’s 12.58 mark, which had been set the previous year. RJ came just shy in 2000, with a K/9 of 12.56, but he topped it in 2001, striking out 372 batters in 249 2/3 IP for a K/9 of 13.41. For years, pitchers got close, but couldn’t quite eclipse them. But this season, we’re set to crown a brand new all-time single season K/9 champion. Gerrit Cole enters play tonight with a K/9 of 13.57, and 302 K’s in 200 1/3 IP.

Wait, wait, you say. K/9 just tells you how a pitchers got his *outs*; it’s obviously correlated with dominance, but a pitcher who gets hit hard and walks a ton of people could theoretically have a super-high K/9 even as they struck out a lower percentage of opposing hitters! This is absolutely true. I led with K/9 because Baseball-Reference has a wonderful all-time single-season K/9 page, linked above, and it’s just a great visual. Did you know that 10 of the top 50 K/9 season in baseball history are occurring this season? You’ve got this list of some of the most amazing seasons in history and also Matt Boyd’s 2019, and some Robbie Ray years, Shane Bieber, etc. It’s absolutely remarkable, and the problem is that there’s no equivalent single page like this for K%. I’m sorry. Fangraphs lists K%, so we can overcome some of the downsides of K/9, but it’s just really hard to figure out how to get a bunch of different season leaderboards to cohere into an all-time leaderboard. You can do it using the splits leaderboards, and I tried, but I failed.

Still, I just went through a bunch of years, and I’ll just cut to the chase: Cole’s K% this year of 39.1% is going to smash the previous record. It’s not terribly close. Chris Sale got over 38% just last year, and that would’ve been the record, but he only tossed 158 innings. From what I can see, Pedro Martinez’s 1999 had the old record, at 37.5%, just barely edging out Randy’s 2001, at 37.4%. But that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? Pedro had a BB/9 of just 1.56 in 1999. He gave up *9* HRs. In the entire year. Why isn’t that K% higher? Gerrit Cole’s BB/9 is in the low 2s this year, like RJ’s in 2001. Why is Cole’s K% so much higher than Pedro’s if Pedro wasn’t giving up as many walks or HRs?

The answer of course is hits. Even in the greatest pitching seasons I’ve ever seen, batters managed to get a decent number of base hits. It’s all relative, of course; Pedro gave up 160 hits in 1999, and RJ yielded 181 in 2001. Sure, they faced more batters, but Cole’s given up just 136. Pedro faced 63 more batters in 1999 than Cole has right now. To match Pedro exactly, he’d need just 11 more Ks in those 63 ABs, but he would give up 24 more hits. Batters hit .202 off of Pedro in 1999 (they’d drop even further in the next few years, but so would Pedro’s K rate), and .200 off of RJ in 2001. Batters are hitting .188 off of Cole.

So is Cole’s 2019 in the conversation with these Mt. Rushmore-type seasons of yore? Errr, no, not really. Part of what made Pedro and RJ so remarkable was that they posted those K numbers at a time when K’s weren’t as big a part of the baseball landscape as they are now. The game’s just different now, and well, now the top 19 pitchers in baseball have a K/9 over 10, and 10 have a K% over 30%. Part of it is the fact that nobody in 2019, not even record-setting strikeout mavens, are immune from the HR glut. Cole has given up 28 dingers. Against lefties, Cole’s given up more HRs than *singles*. People complain about it, but there’s no real way to argue that stringing singles together is a better way to get to Cole than to wait for a mistake and hope someone’s on board. If Cole pitches in 1999, he’d probably give up a few more hits, but I’d bet his ERA/runs-allowed would drop considerably.

Cole is now closely associated with the Houston Astros player development wizardry. After solid seasons in Pittsburgh, he’s become absolutely dominant for Houston, and it happened essentially right away. The same thing happened to Justin Verlander, who’d been a big strikeout pitcher in Detroit, but is averaging 11 K/9 in Houston. I probably harp on this too much, but it’s why the M’s plan to contend in 2021 still has some Astro-y problems.

Those plans would look better if Justin Dunn would kindly refrain from walking more batters in 2019 and 2020. It’s a tiny sample, and he looked much better in outing 2, sure, sure, but…he’s walked an awful lot.

1: Long, LF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Lewis, RF
4: Seager, 3B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Nola, 1B
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Smith, CF
SP: Dunn/Milone

Julio Rodriguez is at 1-13 in the Arizona Fall League, which obviously isn’t what we wanted/expected, but it’s still fairly meaningless. Angels uber-prospect Jo Adell is 1-19 and Reds prospect Jonathan India is 0-13.

Statcast’s new swing/take feature looks interesting. It breaks up a hitter’s total run value above/below average by zone – the heart of the plate, the “shadow” pitches on either side of the edge of the zone, chase pitches off the zone, and waste pitches that are way, way away from the zone. Most everyone has positive values on waste pitches, because they’re obvious balls, and people don’t swing at them. But different hitters vary considerably in how they rate on the pitches near/in the zone. This great LL article on Dan Vogelbach’s reticence to swing used the new visual to great effect: Vogie takes too many strikes, and thus he rates poorly in and near the zone. Vogelbach does some damage on middle-middle pitches, though, so he was at -4 runs on pitches in the “heart” zone, better than his -21 runs on shadow pitches. Anyway, I bring this up because I believe Mallex Smith may have the lowest rating on “heart” pitches in the game. Joe Panik’s been the anti-leader for months, and is now up to -25 runs on pitches in the heart of the zone. Smith is now sitting at -26. He’s also at -15 on shadow pitches. It’s been an abysmal year all around for Smith, and I’m not sure if the M’s are going to invest the time to get him right, or just turn to Jake Fraley/Braden Bishop going forward.


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