What’s the first thing you do when you get a new spreadsheet? My answer; sort ascending, sort descending. That’s what I did on the 2021 pitching leaderboards. I looked at the plate discipline metrics for qualified pitchers and sorted the sheet by descending swinging-strike rate (SwStr%). The names I saw were not surprising. Corbin Burnes leads the group at 16.6%. He’s followed by Max Scherzer (15.9%) and Robbie Ray (15.5%). José Berríos is not in the top 30. In fact, when you sort the same list by ascending swinging-strike rate, he’s in the top 10, meaning he had one of the lowest swinging strike rates in the league (9.9% to be specific). The lowest swinging strike getters in the league this year were Adam Wainwright (8.1%), Chris Flexen 플렉센 (8.6%), and Dallas Keuchel (8.7%).
Now, do the same sorting exercise on called-strike rate (CStr%) and you’ll find the opposite pattern. José Berríos has the third-best called-strike rate (19.2%) among 2021 qualified starters behind Adam Wainwright at first (21.6%) and Lance McCullers Jr. (19.8%) at second. Does that seem strange? What qualities do pitchers who get a lot of called strikes and very little swinging-strikes have? To answer that question, let’s start by looking at starters with at least 100 IP in 2021 who have the largest differentials between their called-strike rate and their swinging-strike rate:
Is that good? Well, you certainly would rather have a guy who can do both. If we look at pitchers from the same group of 2021 qualified starters who have very little difference between the two rates we would see guys like Robbie Ray (15.5% SwStr%, 14.1% CStr%) and Lucas Giolito (15.3 SwStr%, 14.5 CStr%) and Clayton Kershaw (16.6 SwStr%, 16.0% CStr%). Doing both is good, but there’s more than one way to add strikes. José Berríos likes to do it with the curveball like this…
and with the sinker, like this…
Pretty incredible-looking stuff. One goes this-a-way and one goes that-a-way. But, why no takers? Is the late break fooling batters? Why is it that when they do swing, they make contact? Berríos isn’t missing bats, his contact rate was higher than the league average of 76.9%, as batters made contact on his pitches 78.9% of the time. Does a high called-strike rate correlate with anything in particular?
Called strike rate has a large negative correlation with the zone swing rate. Duh. It has some correlation with CSW, Alex Fast’s new metric that encompasses both called strikes and whiffs. But, none of this really pops off the page. If we look back at the pitchers in the first table, we can start to develop some commonalities amongst the pitchers on the list. Many of them have a positive PVal on their curveballs (Wainwright, Espino, Hill, Freeland, Berríos) or a positive PVal on their changeup (Gonzalez, Matz, Lopez, Ryu) and some have both.
Is called strike rate related to the value of a breaking pitch? Maybe. If you can throw curveballs and changeups in the zone that fool hitters, you’re going to bump up your called strike rate. But, if you are doing it more and more often, hitters are likely to pick up on that and start taking hacks. Some pitchers might get hit pretty hard, others may be able to limit contact, or perhaps, limit quality contact. If we refocus our attention on 2021’s qualified starting pitchers and we compare Hyun-Jin Ryu and José Berríos, we see that these two pitchers finished the year in a similar fashion.
Berrios – 192 IP, 204 K, 3.52 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 3.47 FIP
Ryu – 169 IP, 143 K, 4.37 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 4.02 FIP
From those lines, Berríos looks much better. But, looking at some of the underlying statistics we see very little difference between the two:
Ryu – 29.9 Hard%, 35.1 O-Swing%, 71.9 O-Contact%, 85.5 Z-Contact%, 41.1 Zone%, 18.8 CStr%
Berrios – 32.5 Hard%, 34 O-Swing%, 64.1 O-Contact%, 85.6 Z-Contact%, 51 Zone%, 19.2 CStr%
The only telling difference here is that hitters made more contact out of the zone on Ryu than they did Berríos. But, Ryu put the ball in the zone less often. Many fantasy managers may be wondering what happened to Ryu in 2021 and the key is in his changeup. He just didn’t have it. In 2020, Ryu’s changeup PVal was excellent at 7.0. In 2021, it sunk down to 0.2. In 2020, Berríos changeup was valued at 1.1, and in 2021 it soared up to 4.2. These two pitches went in opposite directions. When Ryu was trying to place a good changeup in the zone, he missed or gave up contact. Berríos on the other hand was doing this:
Getting to the point now, if you’re going to be a pitcher who lives in the zone, you have to have good stuff. Does that mean high CStr% pitchers with good stuff should be valued a little higher this offseason? Let’s look at how the top five CStr% starting pitchers (qualified) finished from a fantasy perspective in 2021:
Adam Wainwright – 25th K, 10th WHIP, 11th ERA, 2nd W
Lance McCullers, Jr. – 23rd K, 24th WHIP, 12th ERA, 14th W
José Berríos – 14th K, 12th WHIP, 20th ERA, 20th W
Hyun-Jin Ryu – 31st K, 26th WHIP, 32nd ERA, 11th W
Joe Musgrove – 15th K, 14th WHIP, 14th ERA, 23rd W
None of these pitchers finished the season at the top of their class, but they all did pretty well. When I first started writing this I thought I was going to focus on just Berríos. I had him rostered in one of my Ottoneu leagues and he was awesome. He scored the 12th highest in FanGraphs points among all starters! That’s a little different in a points league but still really great. He also accumulated 192 IP. But, according to Fantasy Pros ADP, he was the 24th pitcher off the board in most leagues with an average ADP of 78. If you were valuing a pitchers’ ability to get called strikes pre 2021, then you likely rostered a few of these pitchers and hopefully, you did well.
As you prep for 2022, you may be able to gain an edge using CStr%. But first, let’s make sure it’s repeatable.
While the data is limited and the 2021/2019 (I removed 2020, maybe you can guess why…) comparison shows a decrease in r-squared, I still like what I see. As fantasy baseball writers and analysts will soon begin making their top 100 lists, I’m going to be looking for a cluster of pitchers in the 20’s and 30’s that have displayed the ability to put good pitches in the zone for strikes. Hopefully, none of my league mates read this.
65-97 (5th in Division; 25th in MLB)
SP Wins: 42 (17th)
RP Wins: 23 (2nd)
Saves: 36 (22nd)
1+ Save: 4 (Brad Hand 21, Kyle Finnegan 11, Tanner Rainey 3, Paolo Espino 1)
100+ Ks: 4 (Max Scherzer 147, Patrick Corbin 143, Erick Fedde 128, Joe Ross 109)
.260+ AVG (min. 350 PA): 5ish (Trea Turner .322, Juan Soto 313, Josh Harrison .294, Alcides Escobar .288 – in 349 PA, Josh Bell .261)
65+ Runs: 3 (Soto 111, Bell 75, Turner 66)
65+ RBI: 2 (Soto 95, Bell 88)
10+ HRs: 5 (Soto 29, Bell 27, Kyle Schwarber 25, Turner 18, Ryan Zimmerman 14)
5+ SBs: 4 (Turner 21, Soto 9, Victor Robles 8, Harrison 5)
BEST BUY: Lane Thomas
Thomas had a fantastic third of a season after being traded for Jon Lester. He posted a 127 wRC+ with 7 HR and 4 SB in 206 PA and should be in line for a full-time role with the Nationals in 2022. He is 26 with a collection of league average or better skills at the dish as well as plus speed and plus defense in the corners annnd a great opportunity at playing time. Soto is the only locked in outfielder for the Nats heading into 2022.Thomas is a bit platoon heavy favoring his work against lefties, but if he can maintain some at or better than the .715 OPS he had versus righties with Washington, then he can avoid a short-side platoon.
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61-101 (5th in Division; 27th in MLB)
SP Wins: 28 (29th)
RP Wins: 33 (17th)
Saves: 25 (29th)
1+ Save: 3 (Richard Rodríguez 14, Chris Stratton 8, David Bednar 3)
100+ Ks: 2 (JT Brubaker 129, Wil Crowe 111)
.260+ AVG (min. 350 PA): 2 (Adam Frazier .324 [w/PIT; he hit .305 altogether], Bryan Reynolds .302)
65+ Runs: 1 (Reynolds 93)
65+ RBI: 1 (Reynolds 90)
10+ HRs: 3 (Reynolds 24, Gregory Polanco 11, Colin Moran 10)
5+ SBs: 1 (Polanco 14)
BEST BUY: Bryan Reynolds
Nothing sneaky here, their best player is their best buy. His rough 2020 proved to be a small sample fluke and his 2021 (142 wRC+) picked up right where his 2019 breakout (130 wRC+) left off. He went 90/90 R/RBI on the Pirates for crying out loud! He has great plate skills, a high AVG floor, and above average power.
60-102 (5th in Division; 28th in MLB)
SP Wins: 33 (25th)
RP Wins: 27 (28th)
Saves: 31 (27th)
1+ Save: 5 (Ian Kennedy 16, Joe Barlow 11, Spencer Patton 2, Josh Sborz, Joely Rodriguez 1)
100+ Ks: 3 (Jordan Lyles 146, Dane Dunning 114, Kolby Allard 104)
.260+ AVG (min. 350 PA): 2 (Isiah Kiner-Falefa .271, Nathaniel Lowe .264)
65+ Runs: 3 (Adolis García 77, Lowe 75, Kiner-Falefa 74)
65+ RBI: 2 (García 90, Lowe 72)
10+ HRs: 6 (García 31, Joey Gallo 25, Lowe 18, DJ Peters 12, Nick Solak 11, Jonah Heim 10)
5+ SBs: 9 (Kiner-Falefa 20, García 16, Yonny Hernandez 11, Leody Taveras 10, Lowe 8, Solak, Charlie Culberson 7, Gallo 6, Brock Holt 5)
BEST BUY: Nathaniel Lowe
Lowe’s season was buoyed by an 8-for-8 effort on the bases and even with that he was just 20th at 1B. If the speed contributions are legitimate, he’s a mini-Goldschmidt coming into his own with a strong foundation. Even if it regresses, there is power and AVG upside that could yield a .280 AVG/30 HR season.
52-110 (5th in Division; 29th in MLB)
SP Wins: 30 (28th)
RP Wins: 22 (30th)
Saves: 22 (30th)
1+ Save: 8 (Joakim Soria, Tyler Clippard 6, Stefan Crichton 4, J.B. Wendelken 2, Noé Ramirez, Riley Smith, Sean Poppen, Chris Devenski 1)
100+ Ks: 4 (Zac Gallen 139, Merrill Kelly 켈리 130, Madison Bumgarner, Caleb Smith 124)
.260+ AVG (min. 350 PA): 3 (Ketel Marte .318, Pavin Smith .267, Josh Rojas .264)
65+ Runs: 2 (Rojas 69, Smith 68)
65+ RBI: 1 (Eduardo Escobar 65)
10+ HRs: 7 (Escobar 22, Marte 14, Carson Kelly 13, Smith, Rojas, Daulton Varsho 11, Christian Walker 10)
5+ SBs: 4 (Rojas 9, Nick Ahmed 7, Varsho 6, Locastro 5)
BEST BUY: Josh Rojas
Rojas looked like he was breaking out with an 81-game run from late-April to mid-August during which he hit .306/.384/.502 with 10 HR and 6 SB in 340 PA, but then finished with a .530 OPS in his last 149 PA leaving his full season line a bit underwhelming (102 wRC+). Power/speed bat with triple eligibility (2B/SS/OF) who won’t be super expensive and still carries some upside, even at age-28.
52-110 (5th in Division; 30th in MLB)
SP Wins: 24 (30th)
RP Wins: 28 (26th)
Saves: 26 (28th)
1+ Save: 6 (Cole Sulser, César Valdez 8, Tyler Wells 4, Dillon Tate 3, Paul Fry 2, Adam Plutko 1)
100+ Ks: 2 (John Means 134, Jorge López 112)
.260+ AVG (min. 350 PA): 1 (Cedric Mullins .291)
65+ Runs: 4 (Mullins 91, Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini 77, Austin Hays 73)
65+ RBI: 3 (Mountcastle 89, Mancini, Hays 71)
10+ HRs: 8 (Mountcastle 33, Mullins 30, Hays 22, Mancini 21, Anthony Santander 18, DJ Stewart 12, Maikel Franco, Pedro Severino 11)
5+ SBs: 2 (Mullins 30, Jorge Mateo 5)
BEST BUY: Anthony Santander
Santander has been averaging about 30-100 over the last three seasons (33 HR/95 RBI per 162 gms since ’19), but he has struggled to stay on the field with just 93 and 110 games in his last two full seasons (2019 and 2021). He still hit the ball with authority this year despite the injuries that piled up (ankle, hamstring, knee). The skills are there for him, it is a matter of staying healthy and finally reaching that 500+ PA level.