On the left, you will see the cover of one of my favorite baseball books of all-time. It is "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract". Printed in 2003, I likely have not read this great thing cover-to-cover, but I reference it all of the time.
I always find it interesting how polarizing Bill James can be to people. The reason I find it curious, is that when he has an opinion that seems controversial, he then demonstrates why he believes what he believes about the great game of baseball. When he demonstrates his cases, it always includes the miles of research that appears to cement his thoughts. Once you have a mountain of evidence that supports his claims, then it no longer is a claim. Based in facts, one's opinions seem to carry much more substance. And that is the way Bill James seems to operate in his book.
The essay that he wrote about studying young pitchers and trying to figure out how to project a pitcher's success rate is called "Bird Thou Never Wert" from pages 289-294 of the book. If you would like to read the entire essay, you should be able to read it here .
It is very compelling and very eye-opening. The essay basically suggests that despite many different efforts being used to project the success chances of a young pitcher, there is only one stat that can be applied to a body of work that is supported by evidence when you check the stats. Not wins, not ERA, not WHIP, and not minor league work loads. It is very simply, K's per 9 innings.
James writes: "I am always amazed that people fail to see this on their own. The career expectation for a strikeout pitcher is so much greater than the career expectation for a non-strikeout pitcher of the same age and ability that the difference is very obvious if you study the issue. Of course, not that many people actually study baseball issues, but it is not like this is a trivial matter. Trying to figure out what a pitcher's potential might be is basic to being a baseball fan.
If a pitcher's strikeout rate is less than 4.5 per 9 innings, you can pretty much write him off as somebody who is going to have a real career."
In fact, he writes, that if you desire a pitcher who has a chance to be one great pitchers of his decade, then you should know that all of those pitchers "were all above the league strikeout average early in their careers. Probably 7 of the 10 greats of any era led their league in striekouts at least once." - One detail that may interest you is that in 2009, the league strikeout average rate is 6.8 per 9 innings.
What does all of this have to do with anything? The curious cases of the young Rangers' pitchers.
As I watch Rangers baseball this season, I often wonder what the Rangers rotation will look like in 2010 or 2011. If we feel like 2009 is a bonus year, and that this team is really ready to win big in 2010 and beyond, then treating 2009 as a chance to see which of these pitchers have something is a fair objective of this season.
So, I watch Scott Feldman and get quite excited. I think the guy can flat-out pitch. The way he has mowed through start after start is very promising. He doesn't get strikeouts, but my eyes tell me the kid can pitch. His opponents do not hit him (opponents AVG is .228) and 17 starts into the year, he is 9-3, with a 3.59 ERA. When Dan McDowell and I debate his merits on our radio show, I swear that Feldman is the real deal and Dan is reminded of Ryan Drese.
Ryan Drese in 2004 was a very solid pitcher for the Rangers. 14-10, and over 200 innings with a 4.20 ERA. He did many things well, and if you examine his game log from that season you will probably agree that he appeared to be the real deal. But, before 2004 and after 2004, Drese was not the real deal, and that is why after 2005, Drese started only 2 games in the major leagues.
I was ready to buy stock in Drese after 2004, and Dan once again directed me to the Bill James essay that said that Drese could not last. Why? Because Drese's strikeout rate in 2004 was 4.2 per 9. And, as James pointed out, "I have been looking for a starting pitcher who could pitch consistently well with a low strikeout rate. I still haven't found one."
So where is Scott Feldman, you ask? Well, since 2007, the Rangers have had only 5 different pitching seasons from a pitcher where the strikeouts per 9 innings fell below the Bill James standard of 4.5 per 9.
Scott Feldman, 2009 - 4.49 per 9
Mike Wood, 2007 - 4.44 per 9
Scott Feldman, 2008 - 4.40 per 9
Scott Feldman, 2007 - 4.38 per 9
Sidney Ponson, 2008 - 4.04 per 9
* list only includes those who pitched a minimum 30 innings
James writes more about his findings: Combining these two almost aboslute facts: 1) That all good, young pitchers with strikeout rates below 4.00 per game disappear quickly and 2) That all pitchers who have long careers start out with strikeout rates in excess of the league average.
Keep in mind that he is not saying ALL power pitchers with high strikeouts end up with great careers. He is actually saying that to become a pitcher with a great career, you must have a strikeout rate above the league average. By the way, Derek Holland has a strikeout rate this year of 7.0 per 9.
Also, later in the essay he discusses the fact that every pitcher's strikeout rate falls as he gets older. Kevin Millwood is a great example of this, as his K rate has never been lower. But, his career rate is 7.1 and he has had several seasons over 8.0 per 9. So, obviously, if Feldman starts at 4.5, then when it falls, James suggests that 100 years of baseball indicate that he won't be a functional starter in the big leagues.
Can Scott Feldman be the exception to the rule? My eyes say yes. Bill James says there is no example of this ever lasting for the long haul. I tried to call his bluff. I ran the numbers for every pitcher who has won 100 games in the big leagues since the year 1970. 40 seasons of major league baseball to see if I could find a few. 214 pitchers have won 100 games since 1970. Of those, 27 had a career K rate lower than 4.5 per 9.
Of those, only 1 pitcher has pitched in the last decade. Kirk Rueter. Kirk won 130 games with the Expos and Giants with a career K rate of 3.8 per 9. And there is your entire list.
As you watch Feldman tonight, see what you think. I am very interested if Feldman is what we think he is, or is he another Ryan Drese?