I'd like a "K", please
June 11, 2006

Nothing is more boring than listening to someone prattle on about their fantasy sports teams, but there is something afflicting my AL Tout team that is probably afflicting a lot of teams: a severe yet entirely unexpected lack of strikeouts.  Four of the seven guys I picked up registered at least 7 Ks per 9 innings in their last full season as a starter and another (Jose Contreras) struck out 6.77 per 9 last year.  Injuries have reduced the total number of strikeouts I've gotten from CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Contreras, but even with the down time there are a number of starting pitchers who are showing a dramatic drop-off in K rate.

Here are the 2004, 2005 and 2006 strikeout rates of each of the starters I drafted with the exception of Kelvim Escobar.  I'm including Escobar's 2003 rate as well as limiting his numbers to only what he did as a starter in that year and last year.

Jose Contreras (2004) = 7.93 K/9
Jose Contreras (2005) = 6.77 K/9
Jose Contreras (2006) = 4.56 K/9

Erik Bedard (2004) = 7.92 K/9
Erik Bedard (2005) = 7.94 K/9
Erik Bedard (2006) = 5.32 K/9

Kelvim Escobar (2003) = 7.51 K/9
Kelvim Escobar (2004) = 8.25 K/9
Kelvim Escobar (2005) = 9.93 K/9
Kelvim Escobar (2006) = 6.84

CC Sabathia (2004) = 6.42 K/9
CC Sabathia (2005) = 7.36
CC Sabathia (2006) = 7.91 K/9

Kris Benson (2004) = 6.75 K/9
Kris Benson (2005) = 4.90
Kris Benson (2006) = 4.40 K/9

Jaret Wright (2004) = 7.68 K/9
Jaret Wright (2005) = 4.80
Jaret Wright (2006) = 4.07 K/9

With the exception of CC Sabathia, all of them have experienced huge drop-offs in strikeout rate.  And if you drafted Brett Myers (8.69 in 2005 to 6.67 this year), John Lackey (8.57 to 7.03), Randy Johnson (8.42 to 7.09), Doug Davis (8.41 to 6.22), Noah Lowry (7.56 to 3.99) or Casey Fossum (7.08 to 2.89) for their strikeouts, you're probably wondering what's going on, too. 

One might conjecture that the drug testing policy has adversely affected the pitching population, but that doesn't appear to be the case.  For one, the average strikeout rate has actually increased slightly from last year, from 6.39 per 9 innings to 6.40.  Even limiting the study to just AL starters there is very little change from 2005 (5.76) to 2006 (5.70).  And if it was the lack of PEDs, we'd expect to see a drop in velocity from these guys but that hasn't been the case.  I've seen Erik Bedard regularly hit 94-96 mph this year and Jose Contreras touch 95 when he needs to.  Even Jaret Wright has been throwing his fastball in the mid-90s with some regularity.  If anything, these guys are throwing harder than they did last year.

I thought it might be due to the schedule, that maybe my guys haven't faced the strikeout-prone teams yet.  This theory might have legs with Benson, who has yet to face the Tigers, Indians, Rangers or White Sox and has only faced the Devil Rays twice; same with Bedard.  Wright has faced only the Rangers and D-Rays once apiece in his 10 starts.  But what about Escobar who has faced the strikeout prone teams in four of his 12 starts and Contreras who has faced them in four of 10 starts?  A lack of free swingers to pitch against hasn't been their problem.

Maybe they all watched Bull Durham a hundred times this offseason and decided they would embrace Crash Davis' prodding to throw more groundballs.  Benson has increased his groundball rate from 1.17 G/F to 1.23.  Likewise, Contreras has seen a modest rise, from 1.21 G/F to 1.33.  Escobar has gone from 1.23 G/F to 1.32. 
Only Bedard has seen a sharp rise, from 1.15 G/F to 1.70.   Sabathia and Wright have actually seen drops in their rates: Sabathia from 1.55 to 1.15 and Wright from 1.36 to 1.03.  So while Bedard's drop in strikeouts might be attributed to focusing more on getting groundballs, the slight increases from the others isn't enough to explain their extreme drops, and certainly not Wright's who has gone in the opposite direction. 

Bedard, Benson and Wright all have a new pitching coaches this year, but it's hard to imagine that either Leo Mazzone or Ron Guidry have had a negative effect on strikeouts.  While it's not conclusive that Mazzone boosts strikeouts, many pitchers under him have shown an immediate rebound to career best strikeout rates.  And Guidry is not exactly the perfect candidate to teach his charges to pitch to contact.  Even if the coaches were the reason, that would not explain why Contreras and Escobar have dropped off.  It might be that Contreras, Escobar and Wright have experienced some residual effects from nagging injuries but Bedard and Benson have both been healthy.  I understand there will be some drop-off in performance switching from the National League to the American League, but Benson's biggest drop occurred while he was still in the NL and Wright's continued to drop after he came to the AL.

I don't really have any idea why these individuals have seen such dramatic drop-offs but there doesn't appear to be any universal phenomenon affecting pitchers or in such large numbers that the drop can be attributed to any one thing.  It looks as though it's simply as case by case basis why my guys have not been striking out their usual number of hitters.  So unless these guys all had estrogen treatments this offseason I have to assume that they and the other aforementioned lolly-gaggers will rebound toward their previous rates.  If so, this might be a good time to target them for trade if you don't already have them.  Likewise, guys who are considerably above their previous rates like Cory Lidle, Vicente Padilla and David Bush should fall back a little if the numbers are to be believed.