Sunday, September 09, 2007

And it falls in for a hit.

“And it falls in for a hit.”

There are ten starting pitchers who’ve heard those words a lot in 2007. They are among the unluckiest players in baseball. With a combined 79-109 win-loss record, they’ve allowed an average of 5.73 runs in the 257 games they’ve started. But it’s not all their fault.

Who are these ten? They’re the major league leaders in BABIP – batting average on balls put in play. The victims of poor defence and bad luck, these pitchers saw the ball fall in for a hit at a .343 pace – more than 50 points higher than average.

Mussina, M238-10127.35.735.42.1.352
Olsen, S299-12159.36.336.84.1.350
Wells, D (SD)225-8118.75.864.82.5.344
Hernandez, F2511-7157.
Jackson, E274-14138.06.657.15.0.343
Perez, Od268-11137.35.874.23.3.341
Contreras, J268-16160.06.815.63.3.341
Weaver, J236-12125.06.345.02.2.340
Kazmir, S3011-8182.
Millwood, K269-11146.05.866.83.6.339

As you can see from the list, only two have made a significant contribution to their team’s success. Scott Kazmir and Felix Hernandez each hold winning records, boast superlative strikeout rates, and have contributed more than 30 runs worth of production over replacement level despite a high rate of production from opposing batters.

Stars from an early age, they have a lot of development still ahead: Kazmir is just 23, and Hernandez 21. With time and experience comes endurance. Combined with better luck, better fielding, and good health, they’re expected to by Cy Young contenders.

Whether that good fielding shows up anytime soon is open to question. Both Tampa (Jackson) and Seattle (Weaver) contribute another name to the top-ten list, and they do so for a reason. Tampa is dead last in defense this year, with a defensive efficiency rating of .663, and Seattle is 28th at .679. Sandwiched between them are the Marlins, who’ve missed a lot of drives behind Scott Olsen.

The worst fielders on these teams, measured by zone rating: third basemen Iwamura, Cabrera and Beltre; first basemen Sexson and Pena (they get their high fielding percentages by standing still, apparently), and star shortstops Hanley Ramirez and Yuniesky Betancourt. The infields are absolutely porous.

The rest of the list is a dog’s breakfast. Mike Mussina could try to blame the quality of opposition – the batters he faced combined for an OPS of .766, the 9th highest in baseball this year. But that doesn’t mean much where BABIP is concerned, as the pitchers who faced tougher opposition performed much better. He’d do better to look to his teammates, who rank a mediocre 17th overall in fielding.

Odalis Perez can look to his defence as well. The Royals are 24th overall, and all of their starting pitchers suffer from BABIPs that are above league average. Kevin Millwood’s Texas team ranked 21st.

David Wells, however, is a different story. The Padres produced a sterling .237 BABIP for Chris Young, the second best in baseball, but a miserable .344 for Wells. Those numbers are interesting; they average .290, which coincidentally is around league average.

Had San Diego’s defence spread its proficiency more evenly between these two pitchers, and luck concurred, their win-loss records would be dramatically different. As it stands, San Diego was so dismayed by the 44 year-old’s performance that Wells lost his job. The Dodgers saw things differently, and are taking a chance on the veteran.

I don’t mean to whitewash Wells’s situation entirely. His low strikeout rate – it last topped 5 SO/9 in 2002 – means he relies heavily on his defence for the outcome. L.A.’s fielding is actually a notch below the San Diego’s, but perhaps it will perform better for Boomer.

Particularly high or low BABIPs are usually associated with regression the following season. For that reason, you might look to any of these pitchers to have better records in 2008.

For seven of these pitchers, however, the fielding support they’ll get in 2008 is highly suspect. Barring a major personnel change, Seattle, Florida and Tampa will likely remain near the bottom of the fielding charts, and a young Kansas City team may not be far behind.

For Mussina, Wells and Contreras, age and declining ability makes it tough to feel good about a rebound. Usually I look at a high BABIP and feel optimistic about a pitcher’s prospects for the following year. The long term projections for Hernandez and Kazmir are excellent; but other than that, it’s tough to think next year will be any better.

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At 4:11 PM, Blogger J.R. Hippe said...

I enjoy your writing, Avi. I appreciate someone trying to keep this once prosperous blog alive.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Thanks. Much appreciated.


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