Yu Darvish and Swinging Strikeouts

When a young pitcher is making his way to the major league level, one of the key components of his scouting report is the pitcher’s ability to miss bats, or generate swings-and-misses. It’s an important piece of the puzzle for a pitcher when it comes to having a long, successful career in the major leagues. The ability to generate swings-and-misses encompasses every aspect of a pitcher’s toolset: his stuff, his sequencing, his repertoire, and his pitchability.When I think of a pitcher who is able to miss bats on a consistent basis, I think of the best pitchers in the game, like Justin Verlander. When I think of a pitcher who doesn’t generate many swings-and-misses, I think of innings eaters and journeyman, like Tommy Hunter (no offense to “Big Game”). There is nothing cheap about a swing-and-miss. A batter whiffing through a pitch isn’t impacted by park factors, wind, the ability of a defense, the umpire, or many other things that affect almost all of a pitcher’s “traditional” statistics. A swing-and-miss is a mano y mano, one on one victory for the pitcher.

In following the start to the fascinating and brilliant season of Yu Darvish, I am consistently finding something incredibly interesting about his performances. In his strong start against the Toronto Blue Jays on April 30th, I noticed that Darvish struck out 9 Blue Jays, all of which were swinging strikeouts. I thought that was a pretty cool trick. Then, in his next start against the Cleveland Indians, I was more aware of this and noticed that 10 of his 11 strikeouts were swinging strikeouts in that game. Now it was getting even more intriguing. I went back to look at Darvish’s game logs, and found that 39 of his 44 strikeouts have been swinging strikeouts. That’s an 89% swinging strikeout rate. For every 10 of Darvish’s strikeouts, 9 of them have been swinging strikeouts! This seemed incredible. I didn’t know if it was incredible, but it certainly seemed incredible. Let’s just say I was incredulous.I found this statistic to be amazing for a couple of reasons. First, it seems like a high rate, as I have said. Second, it also seems like it is a very important skill for a pitcher to carry in his arsenal. Getting a swing-and-miss is winning a battle against the hitter, but getting a swing-and-miss when there are two strikes on the hitter is winning the war. A hitter’s approach is often different with two strikes as well, involving a shorter swing, an acceptance of weaker contact at times just to “stay alive”, and overall a backed-into-the-corner mentality. To me, the degree of difficulty on a two-strike swing-and-miss is even higher than on a zero-strike or one-strike count.Like any good baseball nerd, I began to research if this truly was incredible (or perhaps I should start using a different adjective. I’ll go with inconceivable). Was it inconceivable for 89% of Darvish’s strikeouts to be swinging strikeouts? To my dismay, I could not find any website that tracks whether a strike out is a strike out looking, or a strike out swinging. Such a site might exist, and I think should exist, but I didn’t find it, and if any of you find one in the next 5 minutes I will be even further dismayed. However, I was not swayed from my quest, and so I determined to do the research in a rather tedious, manual manner, but I thought the work would be worth it.

I began by looking at the best strikeout pitchers in the game today. To do this, I examined the top 5 players in total strikeouts, and the top 5 players in K/9 at this point in the 2012 season. That list looks like this:

You’ll notice that in general, these are all names that you would expect to see on the list. If you were to create a “Who’s who” of MLB pitchers, there are only a handful of players missing from this list. Also, because Strasburg duplicated in both top 5s, and Darvish himself was in the top 5 for K/9, I drilled down to include Santana and Hamels, so that I would have 10 players. Then, I thought that it would also be interesting to see how Darvish’s swinging strikeout rate compares to the rest of the pitching rotation for the Texas Rangers. In total, I wound up with 15 MLB pitchers with whom I am fairly familiar, either because of their abilities, or because they’re a Texas Ranger.As I said before, I pulled this data manually, so I can’t tell you that I am 100% certain there are no errors. My eyes may have mis-labeled a strikeout here or there, but in general I believe this is accurate. Now, behold the chart of all 15 players, sorted by swinging strikeout percentage.
Darvish’s 89% swinging strikeout percentage stands atop of my customized leaderboard, and that is by a considerable margin. Colby Lewis’ 84% rate was boosted by his start on Thursday in Baltimore, in which he struck out 12 of 12 Orioles on swinging strikeouts (on a day he also gave up 5 home runs – inconceivable!). The average swinging strikeout rate from this group of some of the best strikeout pitchers in the game is 77%, which was much higher than I originally expected. I would not have guessed that approximately 3/4ths of all strikeouts are swinging strikeouts. Despite the average being higher than I expected, Darvish is still significantly ahead of any other pitcher at getting his strikeouts on swings-and-misses.So how does Darvish have such a higher swinging strikeout rate than the strikeout kings of baseball? I dug into even further data to try and pinpoint just what it is that Darvish is doing so successfully. This next data table is a little intense, but I’ll explain, I promise.
SwStr% = The percentage of total pitches a batter swings and miss on (from fangraphs.com).
O-Swing% = The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone (from fangraphs.com).
Swinging Strikes/IP = The average number of swinging strikes a pitcher has induced per inning pitched.
% of swinging strikes that were for strike 3 = of all swinging strikes, the ratio that were for strike 3.
When looking at Darvish’s line compared to the rest of the competition, we will see that he is 7th in SwStr%, 8th in O-Swing%, 7th in Swinging Strikes/IP, and 4th in terms of % of swinging strikes that were for strike 3. While it seems that each of these would be reflective of Darvish’s high swinging strikeout rate, there isn’t one area in which he dominates in such a way that would confirm that assumption. Darvish does have the advantage of being new in the league, and so hitters have not yet seen him as often as the other pitchers on this list. However, that unfamiliarity does not appear in Darvish’s SwStr% or O-Swing%, which you would expect to be higher if the main factor at play was simply that Darvish is new to the league.

Once again, I came back to the question of how does Darvish do it? I think it boils down to three things.

Repertoire – Darvish has thrown 7 different pitches this year according to brooksbaseball.net’s PitchFX data – a fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup, and splitter. In those 7 different pitches, Darvish has also thrown at least 2 varieties each of a fastball and a curveball, and possibly a slider. This means that Darvish has flashed 9-10 different pitches, which is certainly well beyond any other pitcher in the league. This gives Darvish the advantage of keeping a hitter guessing with a two-strike count, perhaps better than any other pitcher.

Working ahead – Darvish has struggled with his control at times this season, as evidenced by his 4.8 BB/9 rate. However, his control has been very hot-and-cold, and when he has his control (throwing strikes) it seems he also has his command (throwing good strikes). When Darvish is commanding his fastball, and getting ahead in the counts, he is able to expand the zone with his various off-speed pitches, and induce many swings-and-misses outside of the zone. For an example of this, feel free to hop over to this post I wrote on another site which captures the images of Darvish’s 9 swinging strikeouts in that Toronto game I referenced earlier.

The have-to, or #want – Darvish is a warrior on the pitching mound. He demonstrates this every time he finds himself in a jam. He seems to find a way to get out of the jam with minimal damage, even on days where he hasn’t looked his best. So far this season, when there are no runners on base, Darvish opponents have a .293 BAA (batting average against). When there are runners on base, the BAA drops to .187. Darvish knows how to fight, and he knows how to put hitters away. He has the killer instinct.

We have not yet seen the best of Yu Darvish, of this I am certain. He still has room to grow as a MLB pitcher, and after all, he is still only 25 years old. Already though, after just 6 starts, Darvish has thrust himself into an elite group of pitchers. For me, personally, he is must-see TV anytime he is on the mound, and I don’t believe I have ever said that about an athlete before. He is on the right path, and as Rangers fans we have the fortune of being buckled in for a beautiful ride for the years to come.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @Peter_Ellwood
Peter Ellwood

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