Ty Blach and his 2.8 K-BB% is second-from-the-bottom of the leaderboards for qualified pitchers. Unlike many of the denizens of the leaderboard depths, Ty Blach hasn’t been terrible. He hasn’t pitched great, mind you, but his 0.4 wins don’t look too bad compared to the sub-replacement-level likes of Sal Romano, Homer Bailey, or Lucas Giolito. How, if at all, is Blach able pull this off? And if he really can, what does that tell us about strikeouts and walks?
Despite its relative simplicity ((strikeouts – walks)/total batters faced), K-BB% is a relatively good predictor of short-term success. One investigation found that it was better than competing metrics–FIP, xFIP, SIERA–at predicting runs allowed in-season. Defense-independent pitching statistics like FIP and xFIP try and more accurately measure pitcher performance by excluding things beyond a pitcher’s control. FIP looks just at the three true outcomes–K, BB, and HR. xFIP goes a step further and tries to be more predictive than FIP by stripping out some of the randomness underlying a pitcher’s home run rate, normalizing his HR/FB%. K-BB% takes it to a greater extreme and tries to look only at things a pitcher has the most control over, strikeouts and walks. Everything else, the theory goes, is too subject to variance or randomness to be reliably predictive. But, even if K-BB% is pessimistic about a pitcher, all that other stuff can sometimes still break right the right way.
Ty Blach is a living illustration of this principle. He’s one of the closest answers we can get to the question, “how successful could a pitcher be who didn’t get strikeouts or walks at all?” Surely no pitcher is going to go any reasonable amount of time without punching out or walking a batter. K-BB% operates on the principle that strikeouts are as good as walks are bad. That isn’t true in practice, of course, but it’s a heuristic (like DIPS theory in general). Practically, it debits a pitcher one strikeout every time he issues a base on balls. In other words, every time he does a bad thing (issues a walk) it erases one good thing (a strikeout).
This means that a pitcher who struck out half the batters he faced a walked the other half will look the same in K-BB’s eyes to a pitcher who never walks or strikes out a single one. This could be just as much of a bug as it is a feature depending on how you look at it. Either way, though, it obscures a lot of variance in outcomes.
Indeed, a lot of pitchers sporting unfavorable strikeout-walk differentials have more of a problem with bases-on-balls than punchouts. Lance Lynn, for example, strikes out, around 21% of batters. Slightly below average, but respectable. Marco Gonzales strikes out about as many, and he’s been quite good. What’s the difference? Among other things, it’s Lynn’s astronomical 14.2% walk rate. On the flip side, last year Robbie Ray had the highest qualified walk rate, but, because he struck out almost every other batter he faced (well, a third of them anyway), he was quite good. If you issue a lot of walks you’re not sunk, you just have to strike out a ton of guys to make up for it.
Ty Blach, on the other hand, is different. His walk rate, hovering around eight-percent, was exactly average when I was writing this article. Here’s a selection of other pitchers with similar walk numbers.
Next, let’s look at some guys with similar strikeout numbers.
Now, not every pitcher with a similar walk rate as Blach is good, and not every guy with a similar strikeout rate is bad. These comps just help illustrate a point: no one else could appear on both these lists. In the company of both good pitchers and bad, he ends up somewhere in the middle.
Indeed, Blach’s pitched fine. A 4.12 FIP isn’t something that’ll make headlines, but these days that’s close to average. He’s not close to as good as Paxton, of course, but he sure isn’t Bailey, either. But if you look at K-BB%, he looks a lot more like pitchers in that second table than the first. With all his walks almost canceling out all his strikeouts, there must be something left over than he uses to be (moderately) successful.
What is he, then? He’s the owner of the third-highest ground ball rate in the bigs, for one. The idea that a pitcher who gets a lot of grounders can be good even if he doesn’t rack up a lot of punchouts isn’t a new one. But with as few as Blach has? Here’s a list of pitchers (with at least fifty innings) over the last five seasons with over 50% ground ball rate, less than 5 K-BB%, and a FIP better than Blach’s.
Is it all the ground balls that make this work? Grounders are good, but a pitcher who induces this many to the exclusion of strikeouts or walks risks getting BABIP’d to death. His xBABIP, though, is .317, a shade lower than his actual mark of .332.
To sustain this he’d have to be getting weak contact. And, if he’s getting weak contact, he’ll probably run a low average exit velocity.
He’s just under league average in overall and ground ball exit velocity. Exit velocity for grounders doesn’t matter quite as much as it does for fly balls, of course, but it helps at the very least. Notice that his EV on balls hit in the air is higher, though. That’s more worrisome.
But, Blach hasn’t given up too many homers yet this season and never really has. Even if his fly balls are hit a little harder, maybe Blach has a knack for home run suppression. Or maybe he just has AT&T Park. Then again, this year he’s got a lower HR/FB% away than home in about the same innings pitched, the opposite of the Giants staff as a whole. Admittedly, his splits more closely resembled the team’s last year. And, HR/FB rates fluctuate a lot. But there’s a small chance it’s not a total fluke. His average launch angle dropped dramatically from 9.2 last year to 3.9 now. Likewise, his fly ball rate is down to 8.3%.
So, even though batters hit fly balls and line drives off him a little harder than average, if he just keeps the ball on the ground maybe he can make up for it. He might still have a liner problem, but luckily those stay in the yard more often.
Blach has a lot less margin for error; he’s basically all contact. Yet he’s kept it up so far. He’s certainly fared better many of his other companions at the bottom of the K-BB% leaderboards. That’s the thing about strikeouts minus walks, though: it doesn’t tell the whole story, even if it is a great stat. Strikeout-walk differential suffers from many of the same drawbacks as other defense-independent pitching statistics. DIPS theory, though among the most important ideas in modern baseball analytics thought, isn’t right on the mark. We recognize now that pitchers do have some control over balls in play. While they can’t really control what the defenders behind them do with the ball, they can make it easier for those defenders to generate outs.
That’s what Blach’s doing; he’s making sure the ball stays down and is softly hit. And partly thanks to this, he’s kept the home run ball under control. I’m not going to say he doesn’t need strikeouts; he can just afford to walk almost as many batters. But, he’s about as close we’re going to get to someone who doesn’t.
Stats courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. Image via screengrab, MLB.tv.