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Conventional baseball wisdom harps on the importance of the first-pitch strike (F-strike%). As pitchers get ahead in counts, they gain an advantage on hitters and have more pitch choices at their disposal. However, smart people discovered a hitter's average with a 0-1 count (.321) is only marginally worse than a 1-0 count (.337). The pitch that actually matters is at 1-1, where a ball keeps a hitter's average north of .300 and two strikes sink their chances to .164. With two strikes and any number of balls, a pitcher has a comfortable edge with hitter averages ranging from .148 to .210.

Another viewpoint suggests looking at hitter averages after certain counts instead of just on that count. This observation demonstrates a hitter performs at a respectable .270 clip after 1-0 counts, but dips to a Jason Castro-esque .224 from 0-1 onwards. Average is not the only determinant of count-relevance, the data indicates slugging percentage also declines dramatically in both analyses. The arguments confirm fluctuations in AVG year-to-year are minimal and the relationship between counts and hitting performance is stable. Of course, the flaws in the study are numerous variables like game context and aptitude of the pitchers and hitters themselves.

The simple conclusion is F-strike% does matter and the laymen without access to PITCHf/x is correct to assume so. F-strike% ultimately impacts a number of pitching metrics, but today we'll isolate the strikeout. In accordance with K/9, whiff-rates (SwStr%) and pitch values, we'll identify three pitchers with a high F-strike% that could see their strikeouts increase. We'll also observe three pitchers with strong peripheral indicators, whose Ks could spike with a better F-strike%. We'll ignore pitchers with consistent ranks across categories like Chris Sale, Luis Severino or Jose Urena. For reference, the average F-strike% is around 59% with minimal annual variation.

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Potential Strikeout Risers

Jose Quintana, Chicago Cubs (67.1% F-Strike%, ADP 72)

Jose Quintana ranked third in F-strike% out of 58 qualifying pitchers in 2017 and posted a career-high 9.87 K/9. He achieved this by improving his changeup and pitching more outside the zone. The drop in swings in the zone (Z-swing%) from 66.6% to 62.5% suggests he was successful at keeping hitters off balance.

Where he can improve is his whiff-rate, which ranked 48th at 8.5%. Prior to 2017, Quintana was a sub-8 K/9 pitcher. He increased that to 9.42 with the White Sox and upped it to 10.49 after joining the Northsiders. If Quintana is in fact improving pitch selection and location, hitters may stop viewing him as a contact pitcher, increase their cuts and create a higher floor for Quintana's strikeout count.

Jeff Samardzija, San Francisco Giants (65.1% F-Strike%, ADP 136)

Jeff Samardzija was top-8 in F-strike% and like Quintana is a historically low K/9 pitcher (8.17). Encouragingly, Samardzija has increased his K/9 each season since 2015 and finished last year at 8.88, his best since 2013. During that span, F-strike% sequentially increased and Z-swing% declined each year. Positive signs. Further, his 10.0% SwStr% was still well below his heyday (12.1% in 2012).

Samardzija has increased his velocity and usage of a strong slider, reintroduced a curveball and curtailed a mediocre cutter. Pitching to his strengths has reinforced his confidence as a strikeout pitcher, and further progress could mean another uptick in Ks for 2018. Unscientifically, all four NL West competitors also ranked in the top-half last year in strikeouts.

Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees (64.6% F-Strike%, ADP 100)

Masahiro Tanaka parlayed a career-best F-strike% last season into a career-best 9.79 K/9. His leap in SwStr% to 15.1% ranked third in the majors. This corresponded to lower contact rates across the board and higher swing rates outside the zone. You get the point; 2017 was a milestone year for Tanaka and strikeouts.

Tanaka's velocity increased on all pitches year-over-year. He emphasized an effective slider which he threw 30.5% of the time. Tanaka also mixed in a curveball that went from subpar to eighth best, although he used it only sparingly. Tanaka's K-signals all agree favorably and if he continues improving on his 11th-ranked F-Strike%, further progress in strikeouts could be in store.

Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians (56.9% F-Strike%, ADP 141)

On the opposite spectrum, Trevor Bauer was 56th in F-strike% in 2017. Bauer transformed an ugly 5.24 ERA and 1.41 WHIP before the All-Star Break into an excellent second half, including a 2.90 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in September. Through the makeover, his K/9 was consistent at 10.0. Bauer replaced a poor cutter with a slider that caused a whiff-rate of 20.6%.

While Bauer's development bodes well for his real-life usefulness, strikeouts could also be a beneficiary. Probably because of his past wildness (3.68 BB/9), his SwStr% is still a pedestrian 9.2% (39th). Advances in F-strike% could give him more flexibility in dropping his slider during advantageous counts. A full season of better control and pitch selection could lead to even more superior numbers than last year's career highs.

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays (58.6% F-Strike%, ADP 132)

An ongoing shoulder injury could impair this analysis, but Marcus Stroman is coming off a great season. Alongside personal bests in wins and ERA, Stroman's SwStr% increased and contact rates fell. Despite this, his K/9 stubbornly stayed at 7.34 (40th). Velocity and pitch metrics imply possible improvements in 2018. Speed is up on his power fastball-sliders and he found new life in a strong changeup.

Unfortunately, Stroman's pitch-to-contact style (62.1% GB%) could put a ceiling on his strikeout potential. However, a better F-strike% coupled with his advances in pitch value indicators could result in a K/9 closer to last year's league median of nearly 8.5.

Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals (59.1% F-Strike%, ADP 54)

Carlos Martinez possesses the fastball-sinker-slider combination strikeout artists are made of. At least he should. Because of his middling F-strike% and wildness (3.21 BB/9), Martinez has yet to make the leap into the elite class of power pitchers. All three pitches rate above-average, yet the 10.5% SwStr% is ordinary (25th). An improvement he needs to make is getting hitters to chase outside the zone, which has fallen from 34.9% in 2014 to 28.8% last season.

His velocity has been stable throughout his career so the adjustment really seems to be getting ahead in counts and ultimately putting batters away. His 9.53 K/9 in 2017 is nothing to scoff at, but with his stuff, Martinez should rank with the top-15 pitchers above 10.0.

 

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