Gio Gonzalez, Pitcher Abuse, and a Modern-Day Record

Last season, after joining the Nationals, Gio Gonzalez threw 3,198 pitches in the regular season, plus 209 more in the playoffs. That is an awful lot of pitches, but this article isn’t about that sort of pitcher abuse. It’s about a different sort of pitcher abuse to which the headline can also misleadingly refer. Of those thousands and thousands of pitches thrown by Gonzalez in 2012, many were thrown to opposing pitchers. It is on those pitches that we’re going to focus.

Pitchers have a lot of success when they’re pitching against opposing pitchers as batters. This is because pitchers are pitchers and not batters, and pitchers who are better at batting than pitching tend to become batters instead. Last season, pitchers struck out in 37% of their plate appearances. They struck out in nearly 42% of their plate appearances that didn’t result in sacrifice bunts. Collectively, they posted a .162 OBP. Collectively, they posted a .165 slugging percentage. Pitchers suck at hitting! You come to FanGraphs for the cutting-edge analysis.

In the comments below a post about Derek Lowe yesterday, a reader mentioned Lowe generating strikeouts against opposing pitchers in 2011. I’m not going to sit here and write any more about Derek Lowe, because I think we’ve all had enough, but that inspired me to look up individual numbers against pitchers. I made liberal use of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index and ran a few 2012 queries to isolate pitcher strikeouts against pitchers. It was all much easier than I expected it to be, because I am a man of modest expectations.

Overall, 312 pitchers recorded at least one strikeout against an opposing pitcher. Tied for fifth were Ryan Vogelsong and Lance Lynn, with 28 strikeouts of pitchers apiece. Tied for third were Tommy Hanson and Jeff Samardzija, with 29. Alone in second was Wandy Rodriguez, who struck out 34 pitchers. That’s a big gap between second and third. There’s a bigger gap, though, between first and second — ahead of Rodriguez, we find Gio Gonzalez, with 41 strikeouts of opposing pitchers. Gonzalez didn’t just finish atop the leaderboard; he blew his competition away (in a few different ways!).

On a hunch, I started going through the history. In 2008, Derek Lowe struck out 37 pitchers. In 2003, Kevin Brown struck out 38, and in 2002, Randy Johnson struck out 39. You have to go all the way back to 1983 to find a 40 (Steve Carlton), and you have to go all the way back to 1972 to find a number bigger than Gonzalez’s 41. In 1972, Steve Carlton struck out 44 pitchers, and Nolan Ryan struck out 42 pitchers. In 1972, Carlton threw 346.1 innings, and Ryan threw 284 innings. Gio Gonzalez last season struck out more opposing pitchers than any other pitcher in the last 40 years. Though it’s a counting stat, that is an achievement worthy of some recognition.

In all, Gonzalez had 57 matchups against pitchers. Of those, 41 ended with strikeouts, and three ended with sacrifice bunts. One ended with a hit. One ended with a walk. Against Gonzalez, pitchers batted .019/.037/.019, allowing themselves to be completely and utterly abused. No other pitcher finished with a better line against pitchers, not that a better line would even really be possible.

The walk? Tim Hudson, on four pitches, on the first day of July. Here’s that walk:

gonzalezvshudson

The hit? Josh Johnson, on the seventh pitch, on the third day of August. Here’s that hit:

JohnsonGonzalez.gif.opt

The hit was a legitimate hit, and with a better runner, it might’ve been a double. The walk was of lesser legitimacy, given the two pitches on the edges. Let’s pull back now because this stuff was included just for curiosity’s sake.

Gio Gonzalez completely dominated pitchers a year ago. It would be easy to refer to this as being “cheap”, since pitchers aren’t real hitters, and indeed, being able to pitch against pitchers gives pitchers an edge in the National League. But Gonzalez deserves credit for being better against pitchers than most, and I’ll remind you: 40 years. Most strikeouts against pitchers in 40 years. Those strikeouts weren’t just handed to Gonzalez, even if he had to do less to earn them than usual.

Now, however, we have to make a note. Gio Gonzalez’s raw strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 25.2%

Gio Gonzalez’s raw walk rates:

2011: 10.5%
2012: 9.3%

Let’s look at those again if we strip away the plate appearances against opposing pitchers. Adjusted strikeout rates:

2011: 22.8%
2012: 21.7%

Adjusted walk rates:

2011: 10.6%
2012: 9.8%

Before getting traded, against non-pitchers, Gonzalez posted a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After getting traded, against non-pitchers, Gonzalez posted a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Include the pitchers and that jumps all the way up to 2.7. We can’t just throw out Gonzalez’s performance against pitchers, because those plate appearances happened and were in accordance with the rules, but what we can see is that maybe Gonzalez didn’t actually take a step forward. Maybe he just took advantage of what the National League had to offer. I guess it doesn’t have to be one or the other; it can be both, and it probably is both. Gio Gonzalez probably did get a bit better with the Nationals, but against non-pitchers, he didn’t demonstrate an increased strikeout ability.

A mostly unrelated note, before I conclude: R.A. Dickey throws a knuckleball. He actually throws a few knuckleballs! He pitched in the National League, and you’d figure pitchers would have a tough time getting the bat on a Dickey knuckler. Dickey, after all, finished among the league leaders in strikeout rate. Last year, Dickey struck out 25% of pitchers. He also struck out 24.8% of non-pitchers. Dickey’s been traded to the American League and maybe that won’t be so rough an adjustment. Amazingly, in 2011, Dickey struck out just five of 60 pitchers. In 2010, five of 48. This is the opposite of what I was expecting to encounter in the splits.

Anyway: Gio Gonzalez struck out a bunch of pitchers. More than anybody else in four decades. That’s both really cool and really meaningful when it comes to analyzing Gonzalez’s statistically-improved performance. Let it never be suggested that there’s anything in baseball that can’t be analyzed.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Mark
Guest

Facing pitchers helped him, no doubt. I wonder how much facing the weaker competition of the NL helped, too.

Summertime Man
Guest
Summertime Man

Astros switching to the AL may make the leagues pretty much equal in 2013.

Scott
Guest
Scott

Judging just by the strikeout-to-walk ratio without the pitchers, it doesn’t seem like there was a large difference there. But then there are all of the other factors, like Oakland’s ballpark vs. Washington’s, the respective teams’ defenses, etc. So it’s tough to say. I’d be inclined to say he was pretty much the same pitcher, with a little extra velocity (from possibly questionable means), who took advantage of opposing pitchers’ batting.

Ben
Guest
Ben

I hate the concept of “weaker NL” like it’s a huge difference. If you look at Non-Pitchers here on Fangraphs, here’s team wRC+ statistics:

Cardinals 114 NL
Yankees 114 AL
Angels 113 AL
Brewers 111 NL
Nationals 107 NL (3 of top 5 NL)
Tigers 106 AL
Giants 106 NL
Rangers 105 AL
Padres 104 NL
Diamondbacks 103 NL (6 of the top 10 NL)

Those are also the only teams above 100 wRC+.

If you go by wOBA – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.
If you go by BB/K – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.
If you go by OPS – it’s 6 out of the top 10 in the NL as well.

Ben
Guest
Ben

Granted, on B-R, they have OPS+ listed by team and last year only 4 of 8 teams over 100 OPS+ were NL teams – so half.

Shawn
Guest
Shawn

What does this demonstrate? No seriously? Teams predominantly play their own league. Sorting a list of teams by wRC+ does not show relative run scoring abilities. Cardinals hitters have an advantage over Yankees hitters because they get to face weaker NL pitchers more often. Your analysis does not take this into consideration. However once you do the interleague game adjustment, things change.