The pitchers who exhibit low strikeout and walk rates, and a high ground ball rate, means more action for viewers.
We are told time and time again that baseball is moving closer and closer to a Only Three Outcomes league. Strikeout rates, walk rates, and home run rates are all at all-time highs, and they are only climbing as the seasons pass.
At the same time, it’s generally agreed upon that this is a more boring form of baseball.
Seeing a player slap one to the third baseman and sprint down the first base line to beat it out is far more enjoyable than watching him take six pitches and head back to the dugout — even if the at bat ends with the same binary result (out).
With that in mind, it’s time to find some of the pitchers that are the best in baseball at providing us entertainment. The non-Three True Outcome result kind of entertainment.
The pitchers who provide the most action. The ones who are steering clear of the three true outcomes — or at least the two outcomes which are the most boring to watch (strikeouts and walks).
To find our ‘secret-most-fun’ pitchers, the following requirements were set: the pitcher must have throw at least 100.0 innings since start of 2017. His strikeout and walk rates must both rank in the bottom 20 percent of that sample (lower than 17.3 percent for strikeouts and lower than 6.4 percent for walks).
With only those three requirements, our nearly-nice sample of 169 pitchers was already cut down to just 12 pitchers.
To trim down the pool even further, I added ground ball rate to the mix, since ground balls (typically) require two fielders, whereas, fly balls require only one. Of the 12, only five ranked in the top half of the league in ground ball rate.
First, here are the seven honorable mentions who were cut out when ground ball rate came into the mix:
Not exactly the most enthralling group of names, but that’s kind of the point. If there are no aces going on a certain night, and you want to tune in and catch a game that is going to see the fielders as engaged as possible, you’re going to have to deal with the downside of that. Namely, watching Jason Hammel pitch.
Let’s meet our Top Five, though.
Near “Non-TTO Aces”
Nova was practically made for this list. He is a throwback to another era. He’s an off-brand Roy Halladay who seemingly goes into the eighth inning on 78 pitches every game. He’s not afraid to let his defense work behind him, and it has, for the most part, worked well for him. While Nova has a 5.01 ERA this season, his ERA since coming over to Pittsburgh is 4.05, good for a 104 ERA+. Also, his xFIP this season (3.84) suggests he has been getting a bit unlucky. (Although it should be noted that Nova’s ERA has consistently run higher than his xFIP in years past as well.) And really, we’re not here to convince you this is the best method to evaluate pitchers, but rather, that it is the most entertaining for viewers who want to see balls in play.
As an added bonus, Nova’s starts fly by thanks to the low pitch count and (typically) low number of relievers used. Something we can enjoy.
This season, the main draw for an Alex Cobb start has been runs, runs, runs. Cobb has a 7.06 ERA this season, and while one might posit that those struggles have come as a result of his being a late free agent signing, as Daniel Epstein looked at on Thursday, 2018 late-signing pitchers have actually been a bit better than they were in 2017.
Maybe the better excuse is simply small sample size, as Cobb’s xFIP (4.43) is much more within the range of respectable. Regardless, Cobb’s low strikeout and low walk rate mean plenty of balls in play and plenty of action for the viewer.
Unlike our first two entrees, Pruitt is (usually) not a starting pitcher, meaning it is a lot harder to plan your calendar around one of his appearances (because I know you have been so convinced by this article that all Nova and Cobb probable starts from now until August have been circled on your calendars).
He does, however, come with the added bonus of being the only pitcher from this entire list to also be in the bottom (top?) 20 percent in stolen bases allowed, meaning: runners go wild on the basepaths against Pruitt, as well. Yay! Even more excitement for our viewing pleasure.
The King and the Almost-Closer
Here is our final tier. The only two pitchers with at least 100.0 IP since the start of 2017; a strikeout and walk rate both in the bottom 20 percent; and a ground ball rate in the top 20 percent.
Not to play spoiler to the only name remaining, but Leake is the only starting pitcher to reach those cutoffs since the start of 2017. In 237.0 innings, he has allowed 263 hits and 28 home runs, while striking out only 164 and walking only 53. Those are some beautifully 1980s stats right there. The impressive part is that he has done so without getting absolutely demolished (his 6.00 ERA in 2018 is high, but since the start of last season, it is a far more solid 4.37).
If you want to tune into a game where you are bound to see plenty of balls in play but, at the same time, not feel like you’re just tuning in to see a pitcher get savaged, Mike Leake is the best chance you’ll get among the starting pitchers in baseball today.
That being said, Claudio is the true ultimate in ‘Reverse True Outcomes’. His strikeout and walk rates are both lower than Leake’s (14th-lowest K rate and 2nd-lowest BB rate) and no pitcher in baseball (min. 100.0 IP) has a higher ground ball rate since the start of 2017 than Claudio. (He also enforces the Sam Miller rule that whenever you set a minimum for innings, the most interesting case will be the one closest to that minimum, as Claudio barely crested that 100.0 IP plateau.)
Of course, Claudio has also been struggled in 2018 (one interesting pattern is that all five of these pitchers have higher ERAs in 2018 than in 2017), and as such, he has lost the closer’s job in Texas, meaning it is a lot more difficult to know exactly when he’ll be pitching.
But: If you’re flipping around MLB At Bat one night and happen to see Claudio on the mound for the Texas Rangers, make sure to flip over and see pitching like you won’t see anywhere else in the league these days.
Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.