The Next 3000 K Pitcher?

Pitching talent, it would seem, follows its own kind of zodiac. Pitchers dominated the 60s where guys like Gibson, Koufax, et al took the game by storm and then, just as suddenly disappeared until we were left with debates over whether Jack Morris or Bert Blyleven was the pitcher of the decade in the 80s. Great pitchers got so rare that when any did happen to show up, we dismissed them as mere relics of the past (when was the last time those Morris-Blyleven junkies ever stopped to think that Nolan Ryan pitched right on through the 8os?). What the hell happened?

The zodiac happened. And it was about to turn over again. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Curt Schilling came en masse to save baseball from ever having to debate Morris or Blyleven again. Sure, those kinds of pitchers were still there, except they were called Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina and no one had to think of them as anything other than pretty good pitchers. Now those guys are all either gone or on the way out, though, and we're once again left waiting to see if the new crop of twenty-somethings turn out to be greats in their own right or just more Doc Goodens. Who will be the next to join the elite company that so many of that last generation just entered into? Who will get to 3000 Ks? Right now Santana and then Sabathia seem to be on track-time will tell how far they make it.

There is one pitcher, and only one, with any kind of shot at 3000 before Santana. He's the only one in the 30s with a prayer at it now that Moose is retiring. The thing is, though, he's not that great. He's 31 years old and has no shot at the Hall of Fame, 3000 or not. You could even ask a group of fans if they'd want this guy on their team, and a fair number would probably say no. Even the ones who say yes are probably thinking as a 3 starter or worse.

Not that he deserves that rap. He's no HOFer, that's for sure, but he's been as dependable a starter as there is for a long time now, and he's put in some very good years. He eats innings, he doesn't walk a lot of hitters, and of course he has the strikeouts. His name is, in case you haven't guessed it (no, you haven't, you just read ahead), Javier Vazquez. As crazy as that sounds, it's true-Javier Vazquez could be the next pitcher to reach 3000 strikeouts. Don't believe me? Take a look.

Right now, Vazquez is 31 years old and needs 985 more strikeouts to get to 3000. He's struck out right about 8 batters per 9 innings in 2270 IP over his career so far. In the history of Major League Baseball, only 10 other pitchers have had a K/9 better than 7.25 in over 2000 innings through age 31. Half of them have 3000 strikeouts. Only 2 have had better K/9 rates than Vazquez at those benchmarks and not reached 3000-Sam McDowell, who was already pretty much done by 31, and Sandy Koufax. So if he sticks around long enough, 3000 may very well be within reach.

How long is long enough? Assuming he strikes out between 6 and 7 batters per 9 over the rest of his career (a drop of between 1 and 2 batters per 9 from his current career rate), which is well within reason given that his last 4 years have all been above his career rate, and his last 2 have both been in the top three in his career, he would need about 7 more years at 30-35 starts a year (30 at 7 K/9, 35 at 6 K/9), or 210-245 more starts. Obviously fewer if he keeps his K/9 rate above that (i.e. 190 more starts if he strikes out 7.5 per 9). How reachable are those numbers?

Since 1947, 40 pitchers besides Vazquez have thrown at least 190 innings in every season from ages 27-31. Like I said, the guy's durable. Of those 40, 2 are still active, so I threw them out. One was Darryl Kile, whose tragic death made him unsuitable for this sample. That left 37 pitchers who have shown the kind of consistency and durability Vazquez has in the 5 years leading up to 31. Of those 37, 15 (41%) went on to start more than 210 games over the rest of their careers, and 12 (32%) went on to start more than 245. Obviously, a number of the pitchers above those thresholds were very good pitchers and better than Vazquez, which helped them get those extra years. So I narrowed the sample to the 14 pitchers who were in the same range of ERA+ over those 5 years as Vazquez. Four of them (29%) were above the 210 start threshold over the rest of their careers, and 3 (21%) were above the 245 start threshold.

So historically, pitchers with Vazquez's durability have pretty decent odds of going into their late 30s. Throw in the fact that 5-6 good years could put him within reach of 3000, and his odds of hanging on an extra year or two go way up. Also consider that he could conceivably pitch beyond that-then he has a larger margin in how many starts he can miss in a year or how much his strikeout rate can slip.

I know it sounds crazy, but strange things happen in the lulls in the zodiac. It gave the 80s Morris vs. Blyleven-so why can't it give us Vazquez for 3000? Besides, it's not like crazy things haven't happened to the record books. Sosa hit 600 HR. Palmeiro got 3000 hits and 500 HR. Vazquez striking out 3000 wouldn't be that strange. And while it's still something of a long-shot, if it does happen, when everyone else is wondering how the hell Javier Vazquez got there 6 or 7 years down the road, you'll know exactly how.

2 comments:

hostile postulate said...

derek carty at tht did an article a month ago about the statistical impact of switching leagues for pitchers (he did one prior to this on hitters), and one significant bit related to this post is that pitchers increase their k/9 rate about half a point going from the al to the nl. if this holds true for vazquez, this would obviously be a major boost for his chances of this. very interesting article - i never even thought about this as a possibility.

here's the article:
http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/2008/12/10/

Kincaid said...

Interesting article-that should help Vazquez significantly.

I never thought about it either until I really started looking at it. Just for fun, here's an example of what kind of strikeout totals he could have in the next 6 years-

180
165
165
150
150
135

That would leave him 40 strikeouts shy going into the 7th year. He has only been under 179 once this decade, and he's had 4 200 K seasons and 6 190 K seasons in that time. Two of those 200 K seasons were his last 2, and Bill James and Marcel projections predict 195 and 170 Ks respectively for him in 09. His last three years have all been well above his career K per 9 rate-

08 - 8.64
07 - 8.85
06 - 8.17
Career - 7.99

So there's no reason to think he can't keep going at this rate for another few of years before he starts to seriously decline, especially considering, in light of that article, he's been doing most of this in the AL.

For comparison, to illustrate how odd this seems, Roy Halladay is the same age as Vazquez and has 1287 strikeouts-in other words, no shot at 3000 at all. He's about as likely to get to 2000 as Vazquez is 3000.

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