Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dominant Pitching by Mets' R.A. Dickey has a couple of interesting articles on the hot streak currently being enjoyed by New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. Monday night, the 37-year-old knuckleballer threw his second consecutive one-hitter, but his pitching dominance goes back further than these last two starts.

One article, entitled "R.A. Dickey on One of Great Rolls of All Time," lays out the basic facts: "Over his past six starts, Dickey is 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks and a .131 average allowed." The author of this article, David Schoenfield, then offers his opinions on what are some of the other great streaks of pitching mastery. Here's his list, with some illustrative quotes:
  • Orel Hershiser: "spun six consecutive shutouts in September 1988."
  • Greg Maddux: "In 1994... posted a 1.56 ERA; he was mostly a model of consistency that season, allowing two earned runs or fewer in 21 of his 25 starts."
  • Pedro Martinez: "Over his final seven starts [in 1999], he allowed seven runs (five earned) with eight walks and 96 strikeouts in 55 innings. In consecutive starts, he struck out 15, 11, 15, 17, 14, 12 and 12."
  • Fernando Valenzuela: "at the start of the 1981 season ...he threw five shutouts in seven starts and allowed two runs in 63 innings."  (Note: I analyzed the "Fernandomania" streak here.)
  • Bob Gibson: "in 1968, had an 11-start stretch in which he threw 11 complete games and allowed three runs." 

In my book Hot Hand, which came out before the 2012 season, I discussed all-time streaks of pitching greatness (pp. 91-93). I also mentioned Gibson. Another pitcher I discussed is Don Drysdale, who for whatever reason was omitted from Schoenfield's article. In 1968, a great year for pitchers due in part to their getting to stand on a 15-inch-high pitchers' mound (lowered the next season to 10 inches), Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. This record held until Hershiser topped it 20 years later.

For a short-term, high-intensity streak, there's the record set in 2009 by then-White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle of retiring 45 consecutive batters, with the stretch encompassing a perfect game.

The other article I alluded to asks in its headline, "Will Dickey's Dominance Continue?" Before addressing that question, the writer, Tristan Cockcroft, adds another name to the list of great pitching reigns: "Johan Santana's 13-0, 1.21 ERA and 11.13 K's-per-nine ratio during the second half of 2004..."

What I see as the main contribution of Cockcroft's article is his division of Dickey's statistics -- apparently based on extensive watching of Dickey's performances on video -- into those when he throws his knuckleball 78 mph or faster vs. 77 mph or slower. The differences are pretty dramatic, such as a .111 opponents' batting average (or batting average against, BAA) on the faster knucklers, compared to .283 on the slower ones.

Cockcroft notes that extensive pitching-velocity data are a relatively new development, thus limiting historical comparisons. For what it's worth, Tim Wakefield (who pitched from 1992-2011) "never topped 74.7 mph since 2009."

The message from Cockcroft's article seems to be that, if Dickey can continue to throw his "fast knucklers," he can indeed maintain his streak of dominance. However, due to ordinary uncertainty and the relative lack of historical precedents for knuckleball pitchers, we really don't know what will happen. Cockcroft chooses to be optimistic, asking "who is to say [Dickey] can't continue at or near the pace he's currently on?"

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