More on the "New" Strikezone  (01/31/01)

Just to show how dramatic the improvements were from 1987 to 1988, here's a sampling of the tremendous leaps in performance level.  Each players' age in 1988 is listed in parenthesis by his name.

Danny Jackson (26) Mark Gubizca (25) David Cone (25) Ron Darling (27) Greg Swindell (23)
YEAR 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988
ERA 4.02 2.73 3.98 2.70 3.71 2.22 4.29 3.25 5.10 3.20
WHIP 1.464 1.065 1.456 1.189 1.323 1.116 1.348 1.158 1.461 1.153
WINS 9 23 13 20 5 20 12 17 3 18

Greg Maddux (22) Jose Rijo (23) Tom Browning (28) Bobby Witt (24) Randy Myers (25)
YEAR 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988 1987 1988
ERA 5.61 3.18 5.90 2.39 5.02 3.41 4.91 3.92 3.96 1.72
WHIP 1.645 1.249 1.793 1.129 1.432 1.076 1.776 1.348 1.213 0.912
WINS 6 18 2 13 10 18 8 8 3 (6 sv) 7 (26 sv)

Greg Maddux' inclusion on this list might come as a surprise to some - he doesn't throw hard.  Well, yes, and no.  In 1988, he stopped trying to throw the ball through the backstop and started listening to his pitching coach, Billy Connors.  Connors is recognized, along with Johnny Podres, as being one of the best pitching coaches in the last 25 years.  Both of them have tremendous records getting more out of the pitchers than outside observers thought possible.  More to the point, I'm not saying that a finesse pitcher can't succeed in a power pitcher's environment.  Greg Maddux has proved that one can.  However, unless he has a superior coach, his chances are greatly dimmed.  The power pitcher can succeed on talent alone; the finesse pitcher has to get by on guile and guile has to be learned.  There are only 2 ways to learn guile: one is from a good teacher.  The other way is from the school of hard knocks, and in this case, those hard knocks are literal.

This next list shows how the top performers of 1988 did in 1987 as far as wins are concerned.  Notice how many came out of nowhere.  Nine on that list won fewer than 10 games in '87 before winning 16 or more in '88.  Why is that significant?  It's significant because the top winners from year to year normally have a turnover rate of only about 33%.  That is, two thirds of the guys who won the most games in one year, will be the guys who win the most the following year.  But in 1988, the turnover rate was closer to 56%; less than half the guys who won 15 games in 1987 won as many in 1988.  And of the guys who won 15 or more in 1988, only 41% of them had won as many in 1987.  The moral of the story?  Given a reasonable amount of run support, it would not be too far fetched for some unknown guy like Jay Witasik (28), who has really good stuff but has had problems throwing his breaking pitches for strikes consistently, to win 15 games this year.  A taller strikezone is just what the doctor ordered for guys like him.

Continuing along this vein, notice how many young pitchers there are listed here.  The good number of these guys had fewer than 4 season major league experience.

Pitcher (age in 1988) 1987 wins 1988 wins
Frank Viola (28) 17 24
Orel Hershiser (29) 16 23
Danny Jackson (26) 9 23
Dave Stewart (31) 20 21
Mark Gubizca (25) 13 20
David Cone (25) 5 20
Rick Reuschel (39) 5 19
Roger Clemens (25) 20 18
Bruce Hurst (30) 15 18
Greg Swindell (23) 3 18
Greg Maddux (22) 6 18
Dwight Gooden (23) 15 18
Tom Browning (28) 10 18
Ron Darling (27) 12 17
Tim Leary (30) 3 17
Bob Welch (31) 15 17
Teddy Higuera (29) 18 16
Dave Steib (30) 13 16
Allan Anderson (24) 1 16
Storm Davis (26) 3 16
Eric Show (32) 8 16
Dennis Rasmussen (29) 13 16
Jack Morris (33) 18 15
Mark Langston (27) 19 15
Charlie Hough (40) 18 15
Dennis Martinez (33) 11 15
Doug Drabek (25) 11 15

All totaled, 10 pitchers who were 26 or younger won at least 15 games in 1988, compared to only 6 in 1987.  Last year, only 4 such pitchers won 15 games.  So many young pitchers in the ranks of the elite is indeed rare.  Why the young pitchers were able to capitalize on the new strikezone more effectively than more experienced pitchers is unknown.  I can only speculate that they hadn't formed their habit yet.  What I mean is that more experienced pitchers stay in the major leagues because they learn to pitch a particular way.  They grow comfortable with that way.  When the strikezone changes, that way is often no longer the most effective and they have a hard time adjusting.  The young pitchers probably haven't established a particular method for getting batters out so they are more amenable to change.  Another factor in their favor may be that many of them are still fresh from dominating minor league hitters and probably haven't developed a wariness of major league hitters.  So they pitch with confidence and without fear, and are able to build on that with their mounting successes.

Interestingly enough, 3 of the biggest winners in 1987 - Shane Rawley, Walt Terrell and Jimmy Key - dropped off significantly in the wins department in 1988.  Each had won 17 games in 1987.  Key won just 12 in 1988.  Terrell and Rawley won 7 and 8 respectively.  What did they have in common?  Each was a finesse pitcher.  Again, that's not to say that finesse pitchers can not succeed with a higher strike.  Frank Viola thrived and Greg Maddux emerged in that environment.  However, finesse pitchers must make significant adjustments from pitching to the corners to pitching up and down and not all are capable of making that change.

Another factor weighing against the established pitchers is the increased competition.  The larger strikezone makes more young pitchers competitive: they don't have to be as fine to be effective.  Therefore, their teams are in more games.  The more close games a pitcher is involved in, the more likely that the decisions can go either way.  With ERAs of 5 and 6, the young pitchers were pretty much gimme wins for the veterans.  But with their effectiveness increased in part by the expanded strikezone, those wins are no longer gimmes for the vets.  Thus a lot of veteran pitchers lose 3 or 4 more decisions that they did previously.  Unless of course, they are among the truly elite.

Truly elite pitchers are generally unaffected by such changes.  They have great stuff and they know how to pitch.  Guys like Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown and Pedro Martinez will pitch well whether the strikezone is as small as a postage stamp or as large as a billboard.  It's the guys who don't have great stuff who tend to struggle when a change like this occurs.

I expect guys like David Wells, Andy Pettitte, Rick Reed and Tom Glavine to have some difficulty adjusting this year.  Can Greg Maddux pitch well with the high strike?  Well, he certainly did before.  But that was before years of painting the corners to get hitters out.  It simply remains to be seen if he can out-adjust the hitters.  He couldn't in 1999.  His greatness will be tested in 2001.

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