Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Recently Tyler Kepner of the NYT decided to anoint Max Scherzer as the best pitcher in baseball. (To be completely accurate, he called the "perfect pitcher for the times we live in"--which might have a lot of different meanings, of course, but we'll take him on face value when he ties this claim to baseball's rampant romance with the so-called "Three True Outcomes").

Of course, greatness in pitchers has long been tied to the qualities that Scherzer (and many others before him) possess--low hits allowed and high strikeouts. While starting pitchers are unlikely to pile up the sheer numbers of innings pitched that led to strikeout totals approaching 400 K's in a season, they are riding the rise in strikeouts to K/9 averages that would seem breathtaking to the men who hold the "numbers version" of the strikeout record.

Kepner is "all in" for the worship of these rate stats (as we must admit we are as well--or, at least, for relievers, who've gone beyond surreal and otherworldly to simply unimaginable: paging Josh Hader).

But we're more interested in the other extreme--the one encompassing scarcity. That is found in the realm of hit prevention. The aforementioned Hader is--at least for now--pushing that envelope into something akin to the dead-letter file with his impossible 2.3 H/9 average. That figure is so far beyond even the most willful suspension of disbelief that we'll just trail off into silence, and wait for the conclusion of the 2018 season to see what Hader's rate looks like.

So that brings us back to Scherzer, who's been preventing hits at a prodigious rate the last two seasons. Anything below seven H/9 is excellent, but Scherzer is down there in the sub-six region, which is close to the best of all-time.

Here at BBB, of course, we prefer our Quality Matrix (QMAX) measure for starters, and it's long been an axiom that the greatest seasonal performances among starters are also the years where their hit prevention--as measured by the QMAX "S" score--is the best of all time. The top two starting pitcher seasons remain Pedro Martinez in 2000 (2.00 S/1.79 C/3.79 T .835 QMAX WPCT or "QWP") and Bob Gibson in 1968 (2.09 S/1.59 C/3.68 T .831 QWP).

We've had a lot of starters down in the two's for "S" scores since, but no one has gotten down to that level, before or since. Or--have they?

Did we miss something when we compiled and computer starting pitcher performance via the lens of QMAX? We sure didn't think so when we assembled the data almost seven years ago in this blog post about the QMAX stats for pitchers who won the MVP Award. But, as Joe E. Brown said to Jack Lemmon when Jack (playing "Daphne") finally admitted he was "a man" in Some Like It Hot: "Nobody's perfect."

And it turns out we did overlook someone--a rather well-known someone, in fact, who compiled the lowest QMAX "S" score in history. Yes, it's just a tad lower that Pedro's 2000 season. Yes, his overall QMAX score is higher, and his QWP (adjusted for a running average of expected win values which fluctuate according to run scoring levels) is lower.

Who is that man, you ask? Well, one thing is for certain: he's not named Daphne.

The answer: Luis Tiant. In 1968, as Bob Gibson was tearing up the National League, Looie was doing something similar over in the AL. Just before the All-Star Break that year, Tiant's ERA was 1.11, right in Gibson territory. He didn't hold that level, of course--otherwise we'd all know about his hit prevention, which was better than Gibson's. Tiant finished with a 1.60 ERA and a 21-9 record, but he had no chance to win the Cy Young Award in '68: Denny McLain (31-6 for the first-place Tigers) made sure of that.

But here's Tiant's QMAX chart for '68. Check it out, because it produces the lowest QMAX "S" score for any starting pitcher in history: 1.97.

Yes, it's just barely better than Pedro, who came it at exactly 2.00 in 2000. Did you expect him to shatter it? Yes, the level of precision as measured to a second place to the right of the decimal point is probably pointless. But a record is a record, and it belongs to Looie.

Note the ten 1,1 games (best possible performance in terms of hit/walk prevention). Note there are no games in the orange-colored zone we call the "hit hard region." Looie had a few games where his control was off, which brought his "C" score up to 2.26--which is still damn fine.

Which brings us back to Scherzer and 2018 and hit prevention in an age where (as we've just discussed, in the previous post) hits are becoming longer but scarcer. Is Max really the guy who's leading the charge into the empyrean realm of hit extinction? Is he, as Kepner suggests, the perfect pitcher for these times?

The answer: Of. Course. Not. (Jeez, you guys have surely been suffering through this blog long enough to know that was coming, n'est-ce pas?)

Max is having a fine year (2.13 ERA, 8-1). He's striking out a lot of guys. But QMAX tells us that he's having...a fine year, not a superhuman one. His QMAX values: 2.64 S, 2.91 C, 5.55 T, .658 QWP. His won-loss record is a couple of games better than his actual value thus far.

So who is "the perfect pitcher for these times" (at least at this very moment)? If you've been paying attention, you're not going to be surprised. The answer is...

Justin Verlander.

Since moving to the Astros, Verlander has returned to his 2011 Cy Young/MVP form--and a good bit more. His ERA in his 17 starts for the defending World Champs is right down there in '68 Gibson territory: 1.09. His QMAX values thus far this year feature a "S" score that's equal to Martinez in 2000 (2.00). His "C" value is a bit higher (2.17), but there have only been a dozen starting pitchers who've had a better "T" score than his current 4.17 over the course of a full season.

Verlander isn't quite striking out as many per nine innings as Scherzer (10.8 vs. 13.7), but his hits per nine is 4.7 as opposed to Max's 5.9.

Can Verlander stay in this territory? Odds don't favor it, of course. But then again many folks probably wrote off his September performance with the Astros as a nice little short-term return to peak form. After all, he's been nothing like this since 2011.

But right now, with a half-season's worth of starts under his belt with the Astros, Verlander is truly the closest thing to a "perfect pitcher" out there.

[NOTE: Scherzer is on his game tonight as we finish up here: seven innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, and eleven strikeouts. He's got three Cy Youngs, but he's got a ways to go to get ahead of Verlander. Stay tuned...]