Let's talk about Kirk Reuter

May 15, 2022

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kirk Rueter, and if he would have made it to Major League Baseball had he come up today rather than three decades ago. Heck, he might not have even gotten drafted, given his underwhelming stuff and mediocre strikeout numbers in a non-power college conference.

However, Rueter managed to fashion a long Major League career during which he had multiple solidly above-average seasons, despite being a soft-tosser who only had two full seasons in which he struck out more batters than he had runs allowed.

Surely, with the Dusty Baker-era San Francisco Giants, he got more leeway to find success than he would have with many other teams, his teams played in pitcher-friendly ballparks, and in that particular era, perhaps he wasn’t punished for pitching to contact as he would be today.

All that said, the thing I think about most with him is: What if there are more Kirk Rueters out there — not superstars, but perfectly serviceable Major League-quality baseball players — who are getting passed over because they don’t succeed in a way that we can easily measure?

Ken Arneson’s blog post, “10 Things I Believe About Baseball Without Evidence,” got lodged in my brain the first time I read it a few years ago (I’ve referenced it here before, when discussing basketball), and in particular, I think the No. 3 entry might be as close as I’ve come across to a Grand Unifying Description of Stats vs. Gut. Kirk Rueter played winning baseball for a few years, in that his teams prevented runs from scoring when he was on the mound and Baker kept sending him out there despite the very obvious and noticeable fact he wasn't striking anyone out, but if you put his widely-available statistical inputs into the standard formulae for determining how much of his success was attributable to him and for predicting his future performance, I wouldn’t blame you for seeing the results and thinking he should have been in the minor leagues all along. Yet, he kept succeeding.

Perhaps the Giants’ fielders from 1997-2002 were better than we thought — they often had consensus plus-defenders in the corners, guys like Bill Mueller, J.T. Snow, Barry Bonds, and Reggie Sanders, but up the middle, just as often they featured players with middling-to-bad defensive reputations, like Jose Vizcaino, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Kent, an aging Darryl Hamilton, and Marvin Benard. Perhaps Statcast and other batted-ball data would suggest Reuter somehow limited hard contact — though that doesn’t seem right, either, because he gave up plenty of home runs and a good number of hits.

We’re not talking about a player you’d want to build your rotation around, even at his best, and Rueter had pretty ugly seasons during that time period, but I have a hard time believing that he had a 3.96 ERA in 2000, a 4.42 ERA in 2001, and a 3.23 ERA in 2002 through some combination of good defense behind him and luck, because, as noted, the defenses behind him weren’t exactly stocked with Mike Camerons, and he was apparently lucky in the same way for three straight seasons.

All three seasons, Reuter’s FIP was way higher than his ERA, and in all three seasons, he was the only Giants starter of note who had an FIP way higher than his ERA. In 2001 and 2002, in fact, Livan Hernandez and Jason Schmidt had far lower FIP figures than their ERA. All of this suggests Rueter was doing… something. His GB/FB ratio those three years was 0.61, 0.60, and 0.73, respectively, which meant he was a marked fly ball pitcher those first two years and then a marked ground ball pitcher in 2002.

He was a notoriously fast worker. Watching this game from 1997, there were times I counted 8 seconds from the time the ball hit the catcher’s mitt to when he started his windup for the next pitch, and when it took longer, it was because batters were stepping out and wandering. I’m reaching for explanations that aren’t “these things happen,” or “someone was bound to get lucky the same way three years in a row, and Reuter was that guy.”

I don’t have answers. But I’m hopeful we’ll get more Kirk Reuter types (perhaps when MLB expands?) because baseball is more interesting when it’s confounding.

(Screengrab from YouTube)