All Things Considered: Pitchers BABIP

June 2, 2010

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.

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What The Hell Happened To Max Scherzer?!

May 16, 2010

There hasn’t been a more stunning fall grace in the early going of 2010, than the horrible start that Max Scherzer is off to pitching in Motown. An integral piece to the deal that saw Le Tigre receive Action Jackson. send Baby Grand to NY and Edwin Jackson out west to ‘Zona, Scherzer has been a massive disappointment so far and this angry fantasy owner has had enough! *stomps foot*

The former 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft posted impressive numbers in his first full season in the Diamondback rotation last year and just about everyone figured he’d at least take a lateral step this season, his first in the AL. Facing a DH instead of a pitcher never helps a pitchers numbers, but I figured that might be mitigated somewhat by the spacious dimensions of his new home ballpark in the Motor City. With a 3.87 FIP and 9.19/3.33 K/BB per 9 rate over 170 1/3 innings, Max’s peripherals were better than the modest 9-11 4.12/1.34 line he posted in his 30 2009 starts. With numbers like those, I was more than happy to drop $7 on the young fire-baller on auction day, in hopes of snagging a cheap strike out source with a ton of upside.

Fast foward a month and a half and I’ve just thrown Mad Max onto the scrap pile in the Big Ballers League, to let him be a headache to another fantasy owner. His numbers are eye-popping, toss the laptop across the room bad: 1-4 with a 7.29 ERA 1.67 WHIP and only 26 K’s in 42 innings. It’s hardly a matter of luck in spite of the unfortunate 58% strand rate and .327 BABIP against (last year he saw hits fall in at a .323 clip). He’s getting hit hard and often, to the tune of nine jacks and a 22% LD rate. With his BB/9 up slightly to 3.43, he isn’t walking many more batters, it’s simply a matter of him not missing bats: Down to only 5.57 K/9. Swallow that for a second. This guy had 9.19 K/9 last season. In what kind of god awful bizarro world do we live in, where a top prospect can turn into a heaping bowl of awful seemingly overnight? On a team flush with high K starters and needing an extra bench bat, I just couldn’t stomach his awful pitching anymore.

“I thought Max Scherzer was better.” – Jim Leyland

Me too skip. Well we need not look any further than the power pitchers sudden lack of power. After averaging 93.6 MPH on his heater last season, that number has dropped to a below league average 91.7 MPH through his eight starts this year. Suddenly that plus heat is getting smacked on a regular basis as his contact rate has jumped to 81.1% from 76.9% and his percentage of swinging strikes has fallen to 7.4% from 10.6%. A further investigation of his PitchFX data tells us that his secondary pitch, a slider, has fallen in velocity as well but it has also been markedly straighter, breaking markedly less than last year. This is particularly troubling in light of the reservations that the D-Backs had about his history of arm problems. Sliders are said to be the most arm-damaging pitch that a pitcher can throw and it seems that there is a fair amount of evidence to believe that Scherzer is pitching through some arm problems. I’ll quote David Golebiewski, who’s quoting himself.

The most likely reason is that Arizona doubts Scherzer’s long-term health and viability as a starting pitcher. To recap his extensive injury history since 2006: shoulder and biceps tendinitis in ‘06, shoulder inflammation in 2008, shoulder fatigue and tightness in 2009. His health certainly bears watching, especially considering that Scherzer’s innings total increased from 109 in 2008 to 175 in 2009 (major league innings plus one rehab start).

When asked if Scherzer’s rotation spot is in jeopardy, Leyland responded, “That’s nothing I’d discuss on television after a tough loss. But it’s a good question, a legitimate question.” Armando Galarraga, who’s been pitching well at AAA Toledo (4-2/38K/3.92ERA/1.20WHIP in 41.1 IP) was just called up to the big club and will start today at home against the Red Sox.

NOTE: Shortly after finishing this piece early Sunday morning, I read on Rototimes that Scherzer was sent down to AAA.

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