Limit walks, avoid home runs and strike batters out. If pitchers excel in those three areas over time, they will succeed. It is easier said than done.
All three areas are controlled primarily by the pitcher. He does not depend on his fielders for success in them, although home runs can get impacted by his home ballpark.
Sabermetric theory holds that pitchers have limited control over the batting average on balls put into play against them. On these plays, pitchers with a strong defense behind them have a huge edge over those that don’t. Pitchers who perform well in the big three can usually offset poor fielding. And when helped by a strong defense, they can dominate.
Our research shows that very few pitchers shine in all three of these vital areas. For both relievers and starters, we chose levels about 10 percent better than league averages. For relief pitchers, that was 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings and fewer than 3.0 walks and .75 home runs allowed per nine innings in at least 250 career innings pitched. Four active pitchers made the cut: Joakim Soria, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams and Takashi Saito.
The criteria for starters proved even tougher: 500 innings pitched, 7.25 strikeouts per nine innings, and fewer than 2.5 walks and .8 home runs allowed per nine innings. Roy Oswalt stood alone at these levels. Two young starters – Daniel Hudson and Madison Bumgarner – join Oswalt if we drop the innings requirement to 250.
Incredibly, the groups expand by just one player apiece with non-active pitchers included. Reliever Tom Henke and starter Pedro Martinez join them.
Several elite pitchers miss these lists by falling just short in one category, such as Mariano Rivera, C.C. Sabathia and Felix Hernandez.
Prior to free agency and arbitration, we will update this research and vary the criteria to identify other pitchers who stand out in the big three. Why is this important for baseball agents? Because success in these areas makes pitchers more likely to sustain excellence when changing teams.