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On Pitchers and Cognitive Dissonance

In my mind, Phillies fans were waiting with the greatest anticipation on two of their homegrown starting pitchers: Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick. The starters in games 1 and 2 of the 2007 NLDS had both been up and down since then, and tales of a new cutter, good spring training numbers, and following Roy Halladay around like a lost puppy had given the fans hope.

Well, two starts in, the jury’s still out. I’ve had strong opinions about both since their respective playoff meltdowns, and despite neither blowing the doors off the joint, those opinions couldn’t be more different.

Here’s how they’ve done so far, going into Hamels’ next start tonight (thanks to riccaboni for putting me straight):

Hamels: 2-0, 5.06 ERA, 10.2 IP, 11 K, 5 BB
Kendrick: 0-0, 17.47 ERA, 5.2 IP, 3 K, 3 BB

Not too good, and certainly unexpected. With such a small sample size, it’s hard to write either pitcher off. But while I still fully expect Hamels to bounce back and be a solid No. 2 behind Roy Hallday, Kendrick is done as a major league pitcher, and has been since 2007. It all boils down to one simple statistic: strikeouts.

This, by the way, is not something I noticed myself out of nowhere–it is based on research done by Bill James, written in an article called “Bird Thou Never Wert” and published in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, a must-read for any fan of baseball. That book sat next to my toilet for four years in college.

Anyway, James’ thesis is that Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the psychotic Detroit Tiger who took the American League by storm as a rookie in 1976, would not have lasted very long as an effective major league starter for the reason that he didn’t strike out very many batters. While injuries played a role in his decline, Fidrych was out of baseball by 1981, winning only 10 games in his last 4 years after winning 19 as a rookie.

Pedro Martinez once said the reason he loves pitching is the control. “If the second baseman makes an error,” he said, “it’s my fault–I let the batter hit the ball.” You see, pitchers, particularly starting pitchers, need to miss bats to be effective. Once the ball is hit, anything can happen. You can either get a 400-foot fly ball for an out or a 60-foot RBI single to win a World Series game. The best way to reduce the risk of giving up hits is to miss bats and strike people out.

On balance, according to James, a pitcher needs to have a K/9 ratio of 4.5 or higher in order to be effective–in other words, strike out a batter every other inning. Other qualities help–having good control and getting ground balls are the two biggest–and so you sometimes see a crafty lefty type winning games without striking out very many batters. But even Jamie Moyer has struck out 6.01, 5.64, and 5.22 batters per 9 IP in his three full seasons with the Phillies.

You don’t need to be Roger Clemens, but even “finesse” pitchers like Greg Maddux and Brandon Webb tend to strike out a lot of batters–a shade over 7 K/9 for Webb and about 6 K/9 for Maddux. Even they get their share of strikeouts.

Kendrick, during his excellent rookie season, only struck out 49 in 121 IP, a ratio of 3.64 K/9. And Kendrick, a young righty with a K/BB ratio of less than 2-to-1, a sinker that doesn’t really sink, and decidedly average stuff, could get by for a while on luck and guile, but after major league teams developed a book on him, the game was up. As much as his apprenticeship with Halladay was talked about, unless Kendrick developed another pitch, sharpened his sinker, and started striking out half again as many batters, he never really had a chance.

Hamels, on the other hand, does strike batters out: about 8.4 K/9 for his short career. His control is also better than Kendrick’s–only 2.3 BB/9, an excellent 3-to-1 ratio. Hamels’ problems, as we’ve gone over so many times, have been with bloop hits and BABIP–his strikeouts and ground ball ratios have stayed more or less constant throughout his career. Even through 2 starts this season (I know, I know, small sample size, but it’s all we’ve got so far), his struggles look to be the result of a high BABIP (.321, about the same as last year) and the fact that while he’s only let up 9 fly balls all year, 2 of them have gone for home runs, twice his career percentage. At the very least, those numbers require that we continue to be patient with him. The Phillies are still trotting him out there every fifth day, and he’s going to start catching breaks sometime.

So while you can quit booing Hamels in the second inning of April games, I think we’ve seen enough of Kyle Kendrick. Once Joe Blanton comes back, I don’t care how thin the upper levels of the Phillies’ farm system are–it’s time to cut our losses and move on.

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