Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Andrew Albers: Fool's Gold?

A lot of people have probably missed this, but the Twins' Andrew Albers has had an amazing start to his career. In his first start, last Tuesday against the Royals, he pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings. In his second start, Monday against Cleveland, he pitched a a two hit shutout. He is one of only six pitchers in baseball history to have pitched 8+ scoreless innings in his first two starts. The next great Twins starter?

Eh, I'd bet against that. The thing about Albers: He hasn't struck out a lot of guys. (At 27, he's also pretty old for a rookie, but let's leave that aside.) That's a problem. I know that the Twins have a pitch-to-contact philosophy, that they like pitchers who induce ground balls instead of whiffs. The thing is, it isn't working for them. They are last in strikeouts in the AL, by far, with 694. Houston is second-worst, with 788. No other team has fewer than 800. And results? The Twins have the sixth-worst ERA in the league. 

But is that a Twins thing, or are strikeouts really an important feature for a successful pitcher? It turns out that a pitcher's ability to strike guys out is an excellent indicator of how good he is overall. I looked at strikeouts per plate appearance, i.e. the percentage of times a pitcher gets hitters to strike out. The top three starters are Yu Darvish (34%), Max Scherzer (29%), and Anibal Sanchez (27%). They're all, you know, really good. I retrieved data for every American League pitcher and divided all pitchers into five groups (based on innings pitched) ranked by their strikeouts per plate appearance. Here are the results.

The top 20% of pitchers get strikeouts on 29% of plate appearances. They have a collective ERA 3.00. The next 20% strike out 22% of batters with a 3.83 ERA. The next 20% strikes out 19% with a 4.03 ERA. The fourth group has an ERA of 4.30 ERA and strikes out 17% of batters. The bottom fifth get strikeouts against 13% of batter, with a 4.99 ERA. 

You see the pattern? The more strikeouts you get, the better you are at preventing runs. Period.  I know that Kevin Costner said in "Bull Durham" that strikeouts are fascist, and that traditionalists roll their eyes at the increase in whiffs, and that there's more to pitching than blowing the ball past the batter, but you can't escape it: For pitchers, strikeouts = success. Here's a table:
                Average     Average
      Quintile   K/PA         ERA
          1      28.7%        3.00
          2      22.0%        3.83
          3      19.2%        4.03
          4      17.0%        4.30
          5      13.0%        4.99
(Quintile, for those of you who've forgotten standardized test results and the Statistical Analysis for the Social Sciences course you took sophomore year, divides a group into fifths--the top quintile is the top 20%, etc.)

Andrew Albers? 6.9% strikeout ratio. That's the 14th lowest among 319 pitchers who have appeared in American League. In other words, he's solidly in the bottom fifth. It is really unlikely that he'll continue to be anywhere near this good with a strikeout rate like that. Sorry, Twins fans.

A ray of hope, though: In the minors, Albers struck out 21% of the batters he faced. He doesn't have overpowering stuff by any means, with a fastball that sits at 87.5 mph, but he keeps the ball on the ground, and he's walked only one batter. If he can bump his strikeout rate up, his pitching could match his backstory (Canadian, drafted out of high, school, didn't sign, signed with the Padres four years later after pitching at Kentucky, released after the 2009 season, signed by the Twins after pitching in the independent Canadian-American Association in 2010).

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