Credit or Blame?

Ben over at Talking Baseball has some interesting commentary on Ben Sheets’s 18K performance yesterday against the Braves. I watched the whole thing, and I have to admit I was almost cheering for Sheets at the end. I have never had the privilege to witness a feat like that. Normally, I just get the recap on Sports Center, which is spoiled by the yip-yap (boo-ya!, no soup for you!, etc.).

But Ben makes an important point: how do we assign blame or praise for such a feat? Entering the game the Braves were already quite adept at striking out with almost 20% of their ABs resulting in strike-outs and tied for sixth worst in MLB. Compound this with the fact that a large portion of this line-up was in Richmond last year. So, Ben looks at the opponent quality of other big strike-out performances. He finds,

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.

So yes, great pitching performances have indeed been aided by weak opponents. This is not surprising, but what is more interesting of his finding is the typical career quality of pitchers who reach such achievements.

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.

Unlike no-hitters, which can happen to mediocre pitchers on good days, these high-K games seem to only happen to very good pitchers. I think this is a very good omen for Sheets’s career.

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