No this isn’t a discussion of current affairs or high-minded political talk, spoken by white people in turtle-neck sweaters. I don’t aim that high here at TTO. Instead good sirs and madams (do any chicks aside from my mom read this? That’s a rhetorical question) is a little nugget of knowledge to keep in the back of your melon as you scour the wires or scan your opponents rosters in search of a pitching upgrade.
Forgive me if this is old hat to you, but I’m not going to claim to be a sabermetric whiz. In fact I’ve only really just started drinking the Kool-Aid heavily over the past year or so. By now, most successful fantasy owners have incorporated a multitude of sabermetric statistics into their player evaluation tool-kit though and it seems that their popularity grows by the day. Metrics such as BABIP, FIP, GB%, LD%, BB/K, and others are commonly thrown around by writers on even the most mainstream of baseball sites. These numbers however, are often displayed with little context with regard to what other factors may be at work.
Lets look at a pitchers BABIP against. BABIP commonly referred to when we talk about a player being lucky or unlucky. While an individual pitcher’s BABIP can vary wildly from season to season, we will usually find that a league average BABIP for pitchers lies between .290 and .300. One starting pitcher who has underperformed the expectations and displays a higher than normal BABIP is Edwin Jackson. Yes, I am cherry picking an example, but I wanted to use a player that has underperformed but at the same time, might still hold value in some league. After a successful 2009 campaign, followed by a trade from Detroit to Arizona, Jackson is currently holding a line of 3-6/6.03 ERA/ 1.44 WHIP and 60 K over 68 2/3 innings of work. In spite of that atrocious ERA, his FIP is a slightly more palatable 4.49 due to his high K rate (7.86 K/9) and only slightly inflated walk rate of 3.28 BB/9, in contrast to his career low 2.94 BB/9 from last season. What has been really hurting Jackson is the 15.2% HR/FB rate along with a low 63.6% strand rate. Obviously giving up a ton of bombs while runners are on base is a recipe for disaster, ask his teammate Dan Haren.
Well that’s all well and good, but what about his BABIP? I’m glad you asked disembodied italicized voice! His .324 BABIP seems rather high, right? If we look at that league average number of approximately .300, and his career mark of .310, yes it is higher than should be expected. However we are missing a crucial piece of information here, that I’ve only begun delving into myself this season. If BABIP is the batting average for all hits that do not leave the park, than it stands to reason that a pitcher’s BABIP will be markedly effected by the defense behind him. Lets look at the top five teams as far as BABIP against:
1. SF Giants: .271
2. TB Rays: .272
3. SD Padres: .279
4. NY Yankees: .284
5. OAK A’s: .285
Notice the numbers for the top teams are well under that .290 – .300 range. These are teams that have been not only pitching well, but playing good defense too. If we look at team ratings for fielding range (the number that would most effect BABIP, since if a batted ball falls in for a hit, usually that means a fielder failed to get to it), we’ll notice that the top five teams are in order: Tigers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Giants, Mariners. Neither the Yanks, A’s or Rays made that list, but two of those three teams aside from the Yankees carry a positive Range Rating.
Lets back up and take a look at the bottom five on the team BABIP against list:
26. CHI White Sox: .314
27. PIT Pirates: .322
28. AZ Diamondbacks: .322
29. HOU Astros: .329
30. MIL Brewers: .346
Those are some pretty sorry pitching staffs right now. Interestingly enough, Edwin Jackson’s .324 BABIP is right about at his team’s average, despite of the Snakes fielders doing a good job of getting to batted balls – Note: The outfield defense is a lot better than the infield, so Jackson’s improved groundball rate may actually be hurting him. Regardless, the entire D-Backs pitching staff has been pretty unlucky to go along with being downright bad. An MLB worst 67% LOB rate would confirm that. D-Backs pitchers are allowing a whopping 19.9% of batted balls to be driven for liners, tied with the Reds for 2nd worst in baseball, behind only the hapless Brewers. So ‘Zone pitchers are getting somewhat unlucky but at the same time getting hit hard, compounding problems even more. To further illustrate this, Diamondback pitchers are allowing an astounding 15.2% of flyballs to leave the yard, worst in the league by a lot. That should normalize some, but they play in an extreme home-run hitters park, so you have to expect an elevated HR rate. The Pirates are the next worst team, with an 11% HR/FB rate. Now granted, a lot of this damage has been done by what may be the worst bullpen in baseball, but front line starters like Jackson and Haren have done their share of sucking too this season.
So the moral to this story is, if you really need that sort of thing, don’t just glance at a pitchers numbers and say, “he’s due for regression,” or “he’ll improve,” without looking a little deeper. The numbers need context. I took a long look at Jackson’s last week when his owner ditched him. At first look, I saw a guy who’s due for improvement, which he may well be in some small part. His xFIP is a healthy 3.90 due to K, BB and normalized HR rates. I didn’t bite though, as there are too many factors at play working against Jackson, namely an extreme hitters park with a terrible bullpen to follow him. He may give me K’s, but I believe he’ll provide little else going forward.
To find out team-wide metrics, go to Fangraphs, hit the “Teams” tab and select the stats you want. Simple as that!
For more on Edwin Jackson, check out this enlightening piece by Dave Golebiewski at Fangraphs.