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Evaluating Cardinals and Free Agent Pitchers Using Called Strikes and Whiffs

What can called strike and whiff rate (CSW) tell us about the Cardinals and this year’s free agent class?

MLB: MAR 29 Cardinals at Brewers Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this year, Alex Fast at The Pitcher List introduced a highly useful new metric called CSW rate. It stands for “called strikes + whiffs” and the formula is straightforward (called strikes + whiffs, divided by total pitches, yielding CSW%). It tracks better with SIERA (skill interactive ERA) than whiff rate and swinging strike rate, and stabilizes after about ten starts. It’s also more predictive for future years than swinging strike rate and whiff rate. Unsurprisingly, it’s more predictive for starters than relievers, but it’s effective for both. I highly recommend reading the original article. Today, we’ll review what CSW% can tell us about this year’s Cardinals staff and the free agent class.

First, let’s look at the Cardinals specifically. What you’ll see here is any Cardinal with 500 or more pitches thrown (plus Jordan Hicks, who missed the 500 pitch barrier), their CSW%, and their percentile rank league-wide.

Cardinals CSW%, 2019

Player CSW% CSW Pctile
Player CSW% CSW Pctile
Jordan Hicks 30.83% 79.58%
Carlos Martinez 29.14% 61.47%
Miles Mikolas 27.73% 40.32%
Jack Flaherty 31.20% 82.21%
Daniel Ponce de Leon 26.83% 27.79%
John Gant 29.00% 59.37%
Adam Wainwright 28.13% 46.32%
Michael Wacha 24.60% 5.79%
John Brebbia 30.73% 78.95%
Andrew Miller 32.51% 89.47%
Giovanny Gallegos 35.50% 98.74%
Dominic Leone 27.42% 35.79%
Dakota Hudson 26.54% 23.68%
Ryan Helsley 26.34% 21.26%
Tyler Webb 25.42% 12.63%

This list is intuitive for the most part. It’s no surprise at all to see Giovanny Gallegos at the top of the list. His CSW% was seventh best in baseball this year, trailing pitchers like Ryan Pressly, Taylor Rogers, and Gerrit Cole. He was every bit as dominant as we all came to realize. Jack Flaherty’s presence in the upper quartile also makes perfect sense, while Michael Wacha (poor performance) and Dakota Hudson (pitching to contact) settling at the bottom makes sense for different reasons. John Brebbia continues to be underrated, and it shows here, with an upper quartile CSW% that most might not expect.

Given what we saw a few weeks back about Daniel Ponce de Leon’s whiff rates, it’s a little surprising to see him rank so low league-wide. That’s likely a result of his highest whiff rates coming on pitches (four-seamers and changeups) that don’t generally yield called strikes and whiffs in bunches. Miller is slightly surprising merely because his walk rate continued to climb in 2019, from 10.4% in 2019 to 11.4% in 2019. That’s 1% fewer hitters who were chasing or swinging through his offerings. Tyler Webb was arguably a top 15 LOOGY last year, but apparently did so without the benefit of a high CSW%.

Jordan Hicks was truly special before his injury and his CSW% is another data point that proves it. Keep in mind that he had an upper quartile CSW%, nearly as good as Jack Flaherty’s, in addition to his elite ability to dampen loud contact using his face-melting power sinker. He can’t come back soon enough.

Overall, the Cardinals were tied for 15th in baseball, perfectly average. That’s not bad, particularly considering the defense supporting the pitching staff, but there’s room for improvement.

Gains and Losses

These CSW figures are all relative. How do they compare to 2018? After all, ideally you want your pitchers to add more called strikes and whiffs from year to year. You also want to avoid declining CSW rates. The 2018 samples for Gallegos, Hudson, Helsley, and Webb are insufficient to compare to 2019. Here’s how the others performed relative to 2018, with their percentile rank in CSW +/- over 2018:

  • Jordan Hicks, 1.55% increase in CSW, 75.9 percentile
  • Carlos Martinez, 1.18%, 70.5 percentile
  • Miles Mikolas, 0.40%, 58.0 percentile
  • Jack Flaherty, 0.36%, 57.1 percentile
  • Daniel Ponce de Leon, 0.15%, 54.6 percentile
  • John Gant, -0.23%, 48.9 percentile
  • Adam Wainwright, -1.38%, 30.7 percentile
  • Michael Wacha, -1.54%, 27.0 percentile
  • John Brebbia, -2.64%, 13.4 percentile
  • Andrew Miller, -3.03%, 8.6 percentile

That certainly changes the perspective a little on Miller and Brebbia, who each saw significant declines in their CSW%. In both cases, they declined from elite to well above average. If they can hold where they are, they should be fine. Wainwright’s decline is a bit alarming and could be a harbinger of a bumpy final season. Martinez’s gains are a result of pitching exclusively out of the bullpen in 2019, while we see Hicks- again- as an emergent force before the injury.

Free Agents

After the flood of non-tendered free agents earlier this week, there are approximately 85 to 90 free agent pitchers. Instead of a data dump of all of them, here’s a selective list of noteworthy free agents (name recognition, above average CSW%, or large gains or losses in CSW%). It includes their CSW percentile for 2019 and their CSW% +/- since 2018. Three of the top six CSW gainers since 2018 have already signed- Jake Diekman (who signed about an hour after I posted this table), Chris Martin, and Drew Pomeranz.

Notable Free Agent Pitchers, CSW Rates

Player 2019 CSW Pctile +/- 2018
Player 2019 CSW Pctile +/- 2018
Gerrit Cole 99.16% 2.69%
Jake Diekman 94.53% 3.49%
Rich Hill 92.63% 0.57%
David Hernandez 89.90% 4.73%
Stephen Strasburg 87.79% 1.67%
Yoshihisa Hirano 80.21% 1.58%
Jerry Blevins 77.90% 1.51%
Derek Law 75.79% #N/A
Kevin Gausman 74.74% 2.19%
Yimi Garcia 74.00% #N/A
Hector Santiago 73.37% 3.72%
Blake Parker 71.05% 1.89%
Hyun-Jin Ryu 61.05% -3.15%
Cole Hamels 60.00% 0.28%
Madison Bumgarner 55.37% 1.40%
Michael Pineda 50.95% #N/A
Zack Wheeler 43.26% -0.55%
Homer Bailey 42.32% 2.09%
Aaron Sanchez 25.90% -0.25%
Blake Treinen 25.26% -7.48%
Rick Porcello 22.95% -2.26%
Martin Perez 21.79% 2.08%
Gio Gonzalez 14.63% -1.75%
Dallas Keuchel 13.58% -0.38%
Tanner Roark 11.90% -0.97%

For free agent starters, Gerrit Cole should give you the vapors. Not only did he have an elite CSW, but he somehow gained from his elite 2018 numbers. Rich Hill’s health is a total crapshoot but he’d be a perfect fit in many ways for the Cardinals. Cole Hamels had a very good CSW (he signed with Atlanta this week), as did Hyun-Jin Ryu, though Ryu’s decline in the metric raises alarms. Madison Bumgarner wasn’t far behind, and even improved significantly over 2018. Wheeler is a well-documented case of an electric arm that should get more whiffs (called or otherwise) than he does, and his CSW bears that out. It’s moot, as he signed with the Phillies earlier this week. Finally, the Gio Gonzalez/Dallas Keuchel/Tanner Roark high contact triumvirate shows up at the bottom of the list.

There are lots of other interesting names on the relief side, though most amount to lottery tickets. David Hernandez is a fascinating case, with top shelf CSW rates and double digit K/9. However, he was stung hard by the homerun bug in 2019, released by the Reds in August, picked up by the Yankees, and released again in early September. Through June, he had a 2.37 FIP, the 12th best reliever FIP in the game. From that point forward, he had a 14.36 FIP and a 24.43 ERA across 10 games and 7.0 IP. I don’t have the foggiest idea what happened, but he’s a free shot at a good reliever or quad-A depth. He was one of the biggest CSW gainers in 2019.

The recently non-tendered Yimi Garcia was very effective for the Dodgers. Hector Santiago and Blake Parker have a knack for racking up strikes, even if it’s frequently short-circuited by other problems. Blake Treinen is one of the bigger names among non-tendered free agents, but his decrease in CSW is alarming. Kevin Gausman holds some intrigue in a Brad Thompson/Tyson Ross/Carlos Villanueva sort of way, which probably isn’t worth the effort. Unless you want to spend big or take rock-bottom gambles with no risk, the free agent market offers little by way of called strikes and whiffs without massive caveats.