Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Monday, May 17, 2004

Between the Sheets

By now, Ben Sheets' 18-strikeout performance is old news. The baseball world is always impressed by a dominating pitching performance, and Sheets ranks up there with the best. He threw 116 pitches and only 25 of those were called balls. That's a lot of swinging and missing on behalf of the Braves.

Yet, as I was looking over the box score and talking with Jon about this game, a thought occurred to me. Sheets' performance was great, but what if he was aided by a weak lineup? Let's take a look at the lineup the Braves featured tonight. These stats are for games played before Sheets mowed down 18 on Sunday.

ABAVGK'sKs vs. Sheets
DeWayne Wise75.213152
Adam LaRouche95.253202
J.D. Drew101.317203
Johnny Estrada107.35583
Andruw Jones132.250272
Mark DeRosa128.211231
Wilson Betemit20.15083
Nick Green4.25020
Jaret Wright8.12551
Chipper Jones59.254171

Breaking this down, before Sunday's game, the Braves' hitters who faced Sheets had recorded 729 at-bats, 145 strike outs, and 190 hits. The team that faced Sheets, then, was hitting .261 while recording a strike out average (K/AB) of .199. Furthermore, going into Sunday's game, the Braves, as a team, had struck out 262 times, tied for sixth worst in the majors. Now, they have sole possession of fourth place. Clearly, this is a team that strikes out a lot.

I don't mean to belittle Sheets' performance at all, and the Braves were certainly making no excuses. Bobby Cox had high praise, in fact, for the young pitcher. "He probably had the best breaking ball we've seen all year," Cox commented after the game. But my investigation made me wonder about the other high strike-out performances. How much of it is a dominating pitcher and how much of it is the strike-out rate of the other team? Did Kerry Wood fan 20 guys who liked to swing a lot or was he truly overpowering? What about Roger Clemens and his two incredible performances? I thought it was worth a look into the history of the teams that have been on the wrong end of the impressive strike-out games.

Let's check out another table. Here are the top 10 strike-out performances of all time. I omitted a few 19-strike-out games in which the starting pitcher pitched more than 9 innings. Those don't count for the sake of this study.

PitcherDateK'sOpponentOpponent's Total Season K'sLeague Average
Roger ClemensApril 29, 1986 20Seattle Mariners1148933
Roger ClemensSeptember 18, 199620Detroit Tigers12681004
Kerry WoodMay 6, 199820Houston Astros11221091
Randy JohnsonMay 8, 200120Cincinnati Reds10771119
Randy JohnsonJune 24, 199719Oakland Athletics11811044
Randy JohnsonAugust 8, 199719Chicago White Sox9011044
Steve CarltonSeptember 15, 196919New York Mets1089969
Tom SeaverApril 20, 197019San Diego Padres1164951
Nolan RyanAugust 12, 197419Boston Red Sox811793
David ConeOctober 6, 199119Philadelphia Phillies1026954

Based on this table, then, on average, teams that are victims of high strike-out games finish with nearly 89 more total strike outs than the league average. Omitting the two teams that finished with strike out totals lower than the league average, our average increases to over 178 more strike outs than the league average. Of these 10 teams, four of them led their leagues in strike outs, three of them finished third in strike outs, two of them finished fourth, and only one of those teams — the 1997 Chicago White Sox — had the fewest strike outs in their league. There's always one outlier in the bunch, it seems, and the White Sox are our winners.

But back to the pitchers. Looking at this list of pitchers, it doesn't appear as though any of them got really lucky. With the exception of David Cone (and Kerry Wood because it's too early to tell), all of the guys who racked up 19 or more K's in 9 innings are Hall of Famers. Expanding the list to 18, we also see Ramon Martinez, Bill Gullickson, and Ron Guidry join the company. While these three guys are not Nolan Ryan or Tom Seaver types, they all were considered to be top-notch pitchers. So it does take quite a bit of pitching skill to whiff a lot of guys in one game. But at the same time, the pitchers shouldn't always get the credit they receive in the media. The offense is to blame also.

To some people out there, this may seem like a fairly pedestrian point. Is it really a secret that batters who strike out more often are more likely to strike out? That, to me, sounds like a tautology or, as Dave likes to call it, a truism. At the same time, though, baseball analysts tend to over-react after games like these. The best times to expect a record-setting strike-out performance is when a strike-out pitcher faces a strike-out team. The odd games, such as the 1997 White Sox falling victim to Randy Johnson, that truly reveal how great a pitcher can be. If one flame-throwing lefty can induce the team that strikes out the fewest times in one season to strike out 19 times in one game, greatness is at hand. If, on the other hand, a strike-out pitcher can induce a team that strikes out almost 1300 times to strike out 20 times in one game, it's not nearly as impressive.

Now, there's no reason to think that Ben Sheets will be an aberration, and there's no reason to take all of the credit away from Sheets. He was utterly dominant on Sunday, missing the strike zone only 25 times the entire game. Looking again at the list of pitchers, it's clear that Sheets is in elite company, and as a highly touted pitcher who helped deliver a U.S. gold medal in 2000, he'll probably reach the upper echelons of that list again. He just won't do it every start, and he shouldn't be expected to do it every start. We just need to wait now until Sheets faces another team that strikes out a lot. Considering that only the Mets and his Brewers strike out more than the Braves, if Sheets has his stuff against the Mets, the breeze coming out of Shea may be cool and steady all afternoon.

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