In very broad terms, K/BB ratio can function as a general proxy for pitcher command, the ability to not only hit the strike zone, but to throw to a specific part of the zone. Command differs from control, which is simply the ability to throw strikes. Major league pitchers can throw strikes if they want to; the problem confronting pitchers is that major league hitters can hit most strikes. Think about how many times you’ve heard a broadcaster say, after a ball has been stung to the deepest reaches of the park, that the pitcher “missed his target.” That, in a nutshell, is command: The ability to hit that target within the strike zone.
Not that he needed the help, but the table below underscores Crasnick's beautifully dismissive wisdom. Pitchers with exceptional K/BB ratios tend to be… exceptional. Here are the best career K/BB, or “command” ratios of all-time (min 2500 IP):
So if pitchers who strike out a lot of batters while walking few tend to be very good, is the converse always true? Are pitchers with lousy K/BB ratios… lousy?
The Worst of the Worst? Sort of?
Here are the pitchers with the worst K/BB ratio in history (min 2500 IP):
K/BB ratios can be a little misleading: Lyons’ command looks awful by today’s standards, but he was just about league average for his time—it was a high-contact era, and hitters regularly walked more often than they struck-out (they did neither with much frequency). The same conditions hold true for all of the pitchers on this list: Despite “terrible” command, none of them were terrible pitchers (you don’t stick around the majors for more than 2500 innings if you can’t pitch; if we lowered the work threshold to 1000 IP or less, we'd get a truly terrible batch of cast-offs). They were products of their time.
And here’s where that old bugaboo “context” comes in. As you’ll note, all the pitchers (with the exception of Juan Marichal and Dennis Eckersley) with the best lifetime K/BB ratios began their careers in the 1980s or later. It’s not a coincidence:
The single-season K/BB record for a starting pitcher is held by Minnesota’s Phil Hughes, who scuttled 11.63 batters for every one he escorted to first base in 2014 (only 16 BB in 209 IP).[iii]
The increase in K/BB rates has been driven by an enormous, sustained, league-wide increase in strikeouts. Pitchers have averaged 3.22 walks per game over the last century-plus (3.1 the last 25 years); single-season rates have never been lower than 2.3 BB/9, or higher than 4.1 BB/9. Strikeouts, however, have been on an upward trajectory for most of the last century—and in an uninterrupted bull market for the better part of a decade. As Michael Bauman wrote last year:
“In 2016, the MLB average K/9 is 8.1, the highest ever. In 1993, it was 5.9. The last time MLB didn’t set or tie the all-time record for average strikeouts per inning was 2007, when big league pitchers came together to post a collective 6.7 K/9… The 23 percent increase in strikeouts over the past decade represents an almost fundamental alteration of the way the game is played.”
So how to truly determine the best single-season “command ratio?” Glad you asked. We call it Adjusted Command Ratio (CR+), and if you’re familiar with ERA+ or OPS+, it works in a similar way. CR+ compares K/BB rates against the league average by taking a pitcher’s K/BB rate, dividing it by the league rate, and multiplying by 100. A CR+ 100 is exactly League average; a CR+ of 200 means the pitcher’s command was twice as good as league average. Using this formula yields a different single-season list:
Best Single Season Adjusted Command Ratio (min 162 IP)
Again, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of how well (or poorly) a pitcher performed in a given season--but it’s a fun bit of ephemera.
For the record, the owner of the worst adjusted command ratio for a full season is Ernie Wingard, who in 1924 struck out 23 batters while walking 85 for a CR+ of 32. Perhaps the oddest part of Wingard’s season? Despite walking nearly four batters for every one he struck out, Wingard somehow fashioned a winning record (13-12 for a St. Louis team that finished below .500) and pitched to an ERA 29% better than league average over his 218 innings. Wingard, in fact, owns two of the five worst K/BB ratios ever.
Ok. You’ve made it this far. How about some trivia sure to impress your baseball-geek baseball buddies during your next round of boozy trivia?
Of the 379 pitchers to log at least 2000 innings in the majors, only one ended his career with exactly the same number of strikeouts and walks. In 2477 IP, Ned Garver both walked and K'd 881 batters.[viii]
We’ve looked at the best of all-time, the worst of all-time, and the most symmetrical of all-time. So where does this leave us when it comes to K/BB ratio?
We can say with ironclad certainty that command ratio tells us a lot about pitcher effectiveness—except when it doesn’t. It tells us a lot about pitcher command—except when it (sometimes) doesn’t. Pitchers who produce lots of strikeouts as compared to walks allowed are usually very good, and pitchers who have poor K/BB ratios are usually very bad—except when they’re good. Command ratio means more today than it did even 20 years ago, but it’s probably useless when measuring some of the great pitchers (like Lefty Grove, with his career 1.91 K/BB) who worked in very high-contact eras. Oh, and some of those eye-popping K/BB rates you see across the game today aren't nearly as impressive as they might seem, when playing conditions are taken into account.
As with most things baseball, it’s all very tidy.
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[i] Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson share the record (nine) for most seasons leading the league in K/BB ratio. Dazzy Vance led the league for eight consecutive seasons beginning, at age 31, in 1924.
[ii] So named for the genteel schedule he kept in his pitching dotage. After 2600 innings (and more than 200 CG) over his first 10 seasons, Lyons’ shoulder by 1934 was no longer able to bear the ravages of a full season. Beginning in 1935, White Sox Manager Jimmy Dykes designated Lyons as his “Sunday Pitcher,” starting the stocky right-hander on six days’ rest. Lyons responded well to the reduced workload, arguably pitching the best ball of his long career after the age of 35. From 1935-1946, Lyons completed 139 of 181 starts, with an ERA+ of 131. His 1942 season—at the age of 41—is a sensational study in statistical symmetry: 20 GS, 20 CG, 180.1 IP. Lyons went 14-6, leading the league in ERA (2.10) and ERA+ (171) .
[iii] Clayton Kershaw was on pace for the best Command ratio of all-time for a starter before being sidelined with a back injury in 2016. After 15 starts, Kershaw had struck out 141 batters while walking… seven. That’s not a misprint: His K/BB ratio stood at 20:1 (he’d finish the season with almost 16 strikeouts for every walk over 149 innings).
[iv] Silva in 2005 established the single-season record for fewest walks per nine innings (0.43).
[v] There are a number of factors contributing to this rise. Hitting philosophy has changed: Strikeouts, rather than signifying a particularly shameful kind of failure, are just another out (which seems awfully accommodating to pitchers, since they’ve taken the approach that strikeouts are the best kind of out); pitchers are throwing harder than ever (bullpens are stocked with fire-breathing robot dragons designed to throw 101 MPH), and pitches are sharper than ever (cutters, sliders and splits have replaced the old-fashioned curveball as the wrinkle of choice); and teams have all but abandoned contact-based strategic elements like sacrifice plays. In response to the disturbing strikeout trends, MLB has proposed a tightening of the strike zone.
[vi] HR/G: 1999: 1.14; 2016: 1.16
[vii] 2016 Cy Young Award winners Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer each led their respective leagues in K/BB, but CR+ puts their command ratios in proper perspective: Porcello's 5.91 K/BB translates to 224 CR+; Scherzer (5.01 K/BB) weighs in at 201 CR+. Very good, but hardly elite by historical standards. The lowest K/BB ratio to ever lead the league was Walter Johnson, at 1.38 K/BB in 1925. Johnson’s CR+ mark of 179 was still 79% better than the league average of .77 K/BB. Had Clayton Kershaw been able to muster 13 addition innings in 2016, he tops the CR+ list at an absurd 618.
[viii] Honorable mention to Al Smith, who turned the trick in 1662.1 IP (587 K and BB).
[ix] Irv Young was the first, for the 1905 Boston Beaneaters.