Radke precision guided
To appreciate what control is, perhaps it's best to start off with what it is not. For this we'll call in Professor Schilling.
"Control is the ability to throw strikes," he said. "Command is the ability to throw quality strikes."
This makes our task of selecting baseball's pitcher with the Best Control considerably easier. Without taking Curt Schilling's definition too literally, given that control still ain't about grooving pitches down the pipe, it remains a fine starting point.
It would be hard to argue that the best control today doesn't belong to one of these pitchers: Jon Lieber, Brad Radke and David Wells. Yes, Greg Maddux was the master at one time, while Schilling and Randy Johnson command (there's that word again) far more imposing arsenals. But for consistency within the strike zone, it's Lieber, Radke or Wells.
Those three pitchers issue walks considerably less often than anyone else. To look at this statistically, let's choose walks per 36 batters faced, which is roughly a full game. (This is very similar to walks per nine innings, but some pitchers give up more hits than others, it's a good habit to get into.)
|Walks Per 36 Batters Faced, 2004|
|Jon Lieber||18||0.87||Kaz Ishii||98||4.71|
|David Wells||20||0.90||Al Leiter||97||4.66|
|Brad Radke||26||1.04||Brandon Webb||119||4.59|
|Ben Sheets||32||1.23||Russ Ortiz||112||4.50|
|Greg Maddux||33||1.36||Shawn Estes||105||4.18|
|Curt Schilling||35||1.38||Jose Contreras||84||3.99|
|Carlos Silva||35||1.45||Miguel Batista||96||3.99|
|Randy Johnson||44||1.64||Jason Jennings||101||3.93|
|Jose Lima||34||1.74||Ted Lilly||89||3.79|
|Mark Buehrle||51||1.81||Cliff Lee||81||3.64|
In case you're interested, looking at the last three years combined, Radke finished first at 1.17 and Wells second (1.19) among pitchers with at least 400 innings pitched. Lieber was at 0.81, an astoundingly low figure, but after being injured all of 2003 missed the innings cutoff.
An informal survey of scouts led them to pinpoint Radke as the game's best control pitcher, even if Lieber walks fewer batters. Lieber is seen as a pitcher who gets at-bats over with early by letting hitters put the ball in play. Radke, meanwhile, uses his pitches as precisely as a stiletto, his control more of a weapon than an enabler. As one National League scout put it, "He's the living proof of location, location, location."
"Now that he's healthy again, it's Radke for me," one AL scout said. "He's able to throw all four of his pitches to both sides of the plate. He doesn't walk people, but that's because he was throwing a 2-0 fastball down in the zone, knowing what he was doing. Just like Wade Boggs could wait for his pitch, Radke can wait, too."
Radke, 32, has been the Twins' only constant pitching presence through their recent renaissance, lending their young staffs a degree of veteran know-how. (No wonder the cash-starved club anted up $18 million this offseason to re-sign him for the next two years.) Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire credits his team's outstanding defense with allowing Radke to thrive with his control-first approach.
"He's going to make you swing the bat," Gardenhire said. "He understands that we catch the ball very well, so he understands what we try to do around here." One NL executive (who voted for Lieber over Radke) said the difference among those two and Wells is negligible. He also noted that all three of them are sinkerballers.
|Strikeout-Walk Ratio, 2004|
"They use the plate to put it on the left or right black, down in the zone to expand it," he said. "Schilling can elevate -- he works vertical. These guys work horizontal." Speaking of Schilling, it seems appropriate to give a nod to pitchers with great stuff who still dole out walks with an eyedropper. These are guys who miss so many bats that they work deep counts, yet still put the ball where they want to late, leading to loads of strikeouts compared to few bases on balls (see right):
Of course, pitching is a lot more than getting strikeouts and avoiding walks -- it's knowing when to go for each. Obviously there are times when issuing a walk (even to someone not named Bonds) is the preferred move.
This might sound counterintuitive, but Mets pitcher Tom Glavine is considerably more willing to walk people during a rally than with the bases empty.
"The old adage is, 'solo home runs aren't gonna beat you,' " Glavine said. "(With no one on base) you're going to fall back on not wanting to walk the guy -- you want to make him put the ball in play and earn his way on base, and worse comes to worse you give up a solo home run, and a solo home run's not gonna beat you most of the time.
"With runners in scoring position, the game that you play within the game is much different. My philosophy is, in those situations, I'm going to try to make a pitch, try to get a guy out, and if I walk a guy, I walk a guy. I'd rather walk you than to throw a pitch you can hit and risk giving up a three-run home run or a base hit that scores two runs. I'd rather continue to try to make that nasty pitch and maybe walk you and take your chances with the next guy."
One of the more cerebral pitchers of his generation, Glavine was on a roll. He spoke of the walk not as a pitcher's woe, but weapon -- in the proper hands.
"I think some guys get caught up in not walking people that they forget to think about the situation and manage the game," he said. "It's almost like they'd rather give up a single that scores two runs than walk a guy to load the bases. Well, why? You still haven't given up any runs, and you're still in control of the inning.
"I guess a lot of it has to do with your confidence in your ability to throw strikes. If you're confident in your ability to throw strikes, you don't care if the bases are loaded. So many times when someone loads the bases they're like, 'He has to throw strikes now.' Like it's some big deal!"
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.