Tigers pitchers struck out 11 last night against the Royals to rise to 699 on the season – good for 3rd in the league behind the Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies. It isn’t even a fair comparison: they get to strike out pitchers (and those squads have both thrown more innings). If you watch the telecasts, you’ve heard them mention a number of times already that no Tigers team has ever struck out this many batters at this point in the season. After 84 games, the Tigers have amassed 133 more strikeouts than the 2011 squad – a 23.6% increase. Overall they are striking out almost 8 and a half batters per nine innings. Wow. What’s going on?
Lets start by mentioning one thing: why this matters. Crash talks sense… Strikeouts may be “fascist”. It may not always be the best strategy for a pitcher to try to blow it by every guy they see. And a strikeout is still just one out. But… a strikeout is a guaranteed out – while anything can happen on a ground ball. A nasty hop to your usually sure-handed second baseman and suddenly you’re down 5 unearned runs. And with a defense like the Tigers have out there “anything” is bound to happen. For a team which appears to have one of the least effective defensive units of the past decade limiting contact is the best possible way for the team to limit the damage that that defense can do. So… the Tigers (though we’re all experiencing a bit of euphoria over it at the moment) are still just a .500 team. But if there hadn’t been such a massive spike in strikeouts this team would be genuinely hopeless as opposed to an underachieving dark horse in the pennant race.
We can clear up who isn’t causing this to happen first off – and by “this” I mean the big increase in Ks from last year. First, it isn’t Justin Verlander. He is getting plenty of strikeouts, as he tends to do, but at a rate slightly lower than last season and only a hair over the rest of the Tigers. It isn’t Jose Valverde, whose strikeout total has plummeted. And it isn’t last year’s strikeout specialist Al Alburquerque who has spent the whole season on the DL.
So, the answer to “who is causing this” is basically everybody else. Guy one: tonight’s stud Drew Smyly. Smyly has been an imperfect pitcher all-in-all, mainly due to some struggles with extra base hits, but I think he’s doing an admirable job at holding down that 5th starter spot. The numbers Matt Garza has put up in Chicago are essentially the same (maybe quite a bit worse if you take the dim view of the NL competition that I do) but that is a subject for another post. And in 79 1/3 innings, Smyly has now fanned 75. He’s striking guys out at almost the same clip as Verlander! And they say he isn’t a strikeout pitcher? I suppose MiLB strikeout champ Charlie Furbush wasn’t a strikeout pitcher either – since he didn’t throw 98. The 5th starter Smyly replaced was Brad Penny who struck out only 74 in 31 starts.
As a starter in the first half of 2011, Phil Coke wasn’t striking out any more batters than Penny was – as a reliever this year he’s striking out 8.4 per 9. His replacement has been Doug Fister (and filler named Crosby and Wilk while Fister was laid up). When he was acquired, Fister was expected to be a sort of soft tossing innings eater that limited damage by limiting walks but made the defense work. It hasn’t worked out quite that way – Fister struck out 7.3 per 9 as a Tiger last year and has struck out 7.6 per 9 so far this year. As a Mariner he struck out about 5 per 9 overall and his velocity hasn’t gone up, so what exactly it is that makes Fister such a different animal than, say, Nick Blackburn will have to be left to better minds than me. One thing I will say: zone-painter Fister has always gotten guys to swing at a lot of pitches outside the zone, and every year they’ve made progressively less contact. Those two changes to the rotation are responsible for a big chunk of the team increase, but those aren’t the only changes.
As for “increases in velocity”, two other Tigers starters have seen such a thing: Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer. In Rick Porcello’s case, this has led to a small increase in Ks (since Porcello seems to have taken Crash’s advice a little too seriously). In Scherzer’s case, it has led to a large increase in Ks – which currently sit at 114 in only 90 1/3. The only starter to throw 90 innings with a higher K rate this year is glass-armed superman Stephen Strasburg. So in the rotation Porcello is the only guy who you could really say isn’t a “strikeout guy”.
And the bullpen? Despite the lack of Alburquerque and Valverde’s slippage, that ‘pen has been throwing gas and comes in 5th in the MLB with 9.05 strikeouts per 9 innings. Brayan Villarreal has stepped in to do his own Al Al impression with almost 13 Ks per 9. Old men Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit are striking out 13.33 and 11.61 per 9 – those are numbers neither has put up at any point during fairly illustrious careers. So part of it is the big guns and big surprises – Valverde, Coke, Villarreal, Dotel and Benoit have combined for 161 1/3 innings so far and have struck out 10.3 per 9. But the other guys (you know, the filler?) haven’t been all that shabby: and in 93 1/3, those guys have struck out 6.8 per 9. That’s guys like Below, Putkonen, Balester, Downs, etc… And it’s a full K per 9 more than the Tigers got last year from relievers not named Valverde, Coke, Alburquerque, Benoit or Schlereth.
Of course, that’s nothing more than giving credit where credit is due. As far as why so many Tigers are striking out more batters? No clue. But there is one last thing worth mentioning… around the MLB the strikeout rate has risen year-on-year from 7.1 to 7.5. Is this the “Cutter” at work? Or maybe somebody’s been monkeying around with the strikezone.