|Unlucky Pitchers Starting Anew||| Print ||
Written by Lewie Pollis (Contact & Archive) on April 30, 2011
Just four weeks into the season, it's way too soon to jump to any major conclusions about how players are doing, especially pitchers. They are notorious for unpredictability and inconsistency. Because so much of their performance is based on context and luck, sample sizes this small can be incredibly unreliable.
The samples might not be significant yet, but it's interesting to see how pitchers who suffered from miserable luck in 2010 are doing this year. I took a look at some of the starters who struggled last year due to random chance to see how they're faring in the new season. For a quick review of some luck-measuring or context-neutral statistics, click here.
Masterson struggled in 2010, his first full season as a starter in the majors. Backed by the Indians' anemic offense, he limped to a 6-13 record with a 4.70 ERA. Throughout the offseason, there were persistent murmurings that Masterson wasn't cut out for the rotation and might be moved back to the bullpen.
And yet Masterson's peripheral numbers showed him to be a solid starter. His 1.92 K/BB ratio was unexceptional, but his grounder-inducing skill gave him a big boost. His 3.93 FIP, 3.87 xFIP and 3.81 tERA made him look like a decent No. 2 or 3 starter. The problems: a .324 BABIP and a 66.6% LOB rate.
So far this season, Masterson's looked a lot like he did last year. Witness his nearly identical 3.77 xFIP. And yet, in five outings so far, he's gone a perfect 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA. The difference: an insanely low .255 BABIP and an unsustainably high 82.5% strand rate. Now that's poetic justice.
The Colorado Rockies' Jason Hammel didn't catch a break at all in 2009-10. After posting a 4.33 ERA despite a 3.71 FIP and 3.77 xFIP in 2009, his peripherals barely changed in 2010 (3.70 FIP, 3.66 xFIP) but his ERA shot up to 4.81.
It's easy to see why he struggled. His .328 BABIP was the worst in the National League, and a 68.6% strand rate didn't do him any favors. The bad luck made an enormous difference in his value. He was worth 3.5 wins above replacement in 2009-10 based on his ERA, but he had 7.5 WAR using his FIP.
Hammel has experienced an interesting reversal of fortunes in 2011. After four starts, he has a 3.80 ERA but a 4.51 FIP (and, somehow, a 6.31 tERA). His strikeout rate has dipped significantly (5.3 K/9, down from 7.1 last year), but improvements in his BABIP (.303) and LOB rate (73.8%) are good for an 89 ERA- despite a 108 FIP-.
Not every unlucky pitcher is seeing the winds of fortune change direction. The Philadelphia Phillies' Joe Blanton posted a terrific 3.12 K/BB ratio last year, good for ninth in the league and putting him ahead of big names like Tim Lincecum (3.04), Jon Lester (2.71) and CC Sabathia (2.66). His 3.97 xFIP wasn't phenomenal in a low-offensive season, but he was a solidly above-average pitcher.
Unfortunately, his superficial stats didn't show it. Thanks to a .321 BABIP, 69.1% strand rate and 12.2% HR/FB rate, Blanton was saddled with a 4.82 ERA. That's why he won only nine games.
This year, Blanton's luck has somehow gotten even worse. In 24 1/3 innings, his peripherals have held steady (2.83 K/BB) and he's upped his groundball rate to 55.6%. He has a 3.57 FIP and a 3.46 xFIP to his name. But thanks to a .357 BABIP and a 63.5% strand rate, his ERA has ballooned to 5.92. Look for that to fall soon, assuming he returns from the disabled list healthy.
Of course, not all of last year's luck laggers can blame their struggles on continued bad fortune. Take Francisco Liriano. In 31 starts last year, Liriano went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. That sounds impressive, but it's not nearly as amazing as his 2.66 FIP, 2.93 tERA, and league-leading 2.95 xFIP.
Liriano would have been a Cy Young candidate if a few fewer balls had gotten through the Twins' infield. His .331 hit rate was the second-highest in baseball, which should be enough to convince those who think pitchers can really control what happens to the ball once the batter hits it. If someone who strikes out more than a batter an inning gets banged up, might it that prove that BABIP is random?
This year, though, his struggles have nothing to do with luck. His strikeout rate has fallen to 6.9 K/9. Even more troublingly, he's walking almost seven batters per nine innings. Opposing hitters have stopped chasing his stuff out of the zone (25.3% O-Swing rate, down from 34.4% last year) and haven't been afraid to swing when he throws a good pitch (72.4% Z-Swing rate, up from 64.1%). His 9.13 ERA is a little extreme (6.12 FIP, 5.31 xFIP) but there's more than bad luck in play here.
Finally, we get to 2010's unluckiest pitcher in baseball: James Shields. The 29-year-old righthander went 13-15 with an ugly 5.18 ERA (129 ERA-). And yet, his peripheral stats were fantastic. His 3.67 K/BB ranked fourth in the American League.
Unfortunately for Shields, he also posted an insane .341 BABIP, the highest in baseball. The extra hits that got through helped push his WHIP up to 1.46 and his strand rate down to 68.4%. Plus he suffered from an inflated 13.8% HR/FB rate. The result? His ERA was nearly a run higher than his FIP (4.24), and a full 163 points above his fantastic 3.55 xFIP.
Shields has looked pretty much the same in 2011 as he did in 2010. His K/BB is holding steady at 3.38, and his 3.72 xFIP has barely budged. But thanks to a .236 BABIP, 83.3% strand rate and 7.0% HR/FB rate, Shields is the proud owner of a sterling 2.35 ERA. He is the poster boy for the sheer randomness of what happens around the pitcher.