Pitching has been terrible. The MLB ERA of 4.33 is higher than any year since 2007. As recently as 2014, it was 3.74. One of the reasons is that pitches per batter faced is at a post-2000 high of 3.89, and more pitches means more hitter counts. And there is no more hitter-friendly count situation in baseball than 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2.
Our friends at Inside Edge, stat provider to MLB teams, have data not just on three-ball counts but on all hitter counts: 2-0, 2-1 or three-ball. In these situations, pitchers retire the hitter just 55% of the time. That means a .450 OBP. Of course, every walk comes in this situation. But the best way to avoid walks and hard hits is to not have to throw a hitter a do-or-die pitch.
The league average of 20% of batters faced getting to a three-ball count is a post-2007 high, too. But there is wide variance here, with the range going from Ivan Nova (11%) to Wade Miley (33%). While we’ll focus on efficient pitchers like Nova here, we also explored pitcher’s who struggle to limit hitter’s counts (read guys you should be ready to dump).
Now back to Nova. He’s pitching downhill and carefree most often, rarely having to come into the hitter’s zone. What helps Nova even more is that his out percentage in bad counts, which are rare for him to begin with, is better than average — 57% (expected is 55%). This is the primary skill Nova has as a pitcher. It’s why he’s 87% owned on Yahoo and likely to continue to contribute for owners in this pitching-starved season.
Some other surprising pitchers this year can find their success rooted in this skill of avoiding three-ball and all hitter counts. Michael Fulmer isn’t messing around, getting to three-ball counts on just 17% of hitters.
Jimmy Nelson is even better at 15%. Nelson last year was 19%. This is the big reason why his ERA has sunk from 5.12 to 3.22 this season. Furthermore, in 2015 when he posted a 4.10 ERA, Nelson’s percentage of batters faced with three-ball counts was just 16%. The question is whether Nelson’s strike-throwing is bettable going forward. I’d say it is. Knowing the three-strike data explains the walk-rate sinking from 4.3 per nine to 2.2 (it was 3.3 in 2015). You can’t walk a batter unless you have already missed the strike zone three times — so don’t get there.
Unfortunately this is not working presently for Josh Tomlin (13%). You can’t trade avoiding hitter’s counts for being pounded in the zone, of course. But I’m more bullish about Jeff Samardzjia (12%) because Samardzjia even excels at dealing with hitter’s counts (61% outs vs. expected 55%). I still say that 4.86 ERA makes zero sense and to hold Samardzjia.
R.A. Dickey, owned in just 21% of Yahoo leagues, is another pitcher you should be considering. It’s vital that he not fall behind with that knuckler and he’s avoiding that in 2017 (16% vs. about 19% in recent years); back in his Cy Young 2012, Dickey’s 3-ball-count rate was just 12%.