Lucky Charms? “The Mad Prof’s” Reflection on Pitchers’ Luck So Far in 2016.
I’m picking up where I left off last week with my analysis of pitching skills. I’m focusing on starters this week and drawing upon another slick analysis by Yahoo!’s Michael Salfino. This week he ran an analysis of SP who had been lucky or unlucky thus far. It’s thought provoking and important analysis, but it raises a few issues that I address here.
This is not a rant by any means. Salfino does great work and it’s great to try to pick his brain and analysis from time to time. His analysis of pitching dominance (see last week’s column) was spot on. But I think we are missing something with regard to which pitchers have been lucky and unlucky so far this year.
The reasoning behind his analysis is pretty sound. If we assume that pitchers who stay out of trouble ought to flourish, then the ones who are striking out many and walking few ought, in general, to be the better performers. This makes a lot of sense. Anyone you strike out never puts the ball in play. Anyone you walk is strictly your fault. So, it stands to reason that the more you keep the ball out of play and the less you give batters a free pass, the fewer opportunities the opposition will have to score because, by definition, you are lowering their on base percentage.
Salfino ranks the following pitchers as lucky and unlucky based on their K:BB ratio (he uses ((K-BB)/IP)). The major league average for this is 0.56 (that is, 0.56 more K than BB per IP).
The unlucky SP have above average (K-BB)/IP and bad ERAs. In contrast, the lucky SP have below average (K-BB)/IP and good ERAs.
Problem is, (K-BB)/IP is a relative measure with limited value. Theoretically you can’t strike out more than 3 batters per inning (unless your butter-fingered catcher keeps dropping third strikes). The number of walks you can issue is, theoretically, unlimited. So, the numerator of Salfino’s ratio could lead to some bizarre results. Mathematically, the ratio should top out at 3K-0BB = 3. The low end of this ratio is limited only by the manager’s hook. So, theoretically, 0K-nBB = -?. My brain hurts!
OK, let’s get back to baseball. Salfino says that bad ERAs result from bad luck because good K/BB ratios should keep ERA low. OK, but “luck” in this case really deals with what happens regarding balls that meet bats: BABIP and HR. To keep things simple, let’s look at BABIP. Salfino’s “unlucky” pitchers averaged a 0.410 BABIP. The “lucky” ones averaged 0.283. So, while these unlucky guys may be minimizing intentional passes, they are pretty generous when not missing bats. This is confirmed by the relative WHIPs: the unlucky pitchers have an average WHIP of 1.83. The lucky ones sport a WHIP of 1.58.
When they don’t miss bats, what are these “unlucky” pitchers doing? Ducking. No, really. The average line drive percentage for the unlucky guys in Salfino’s analysis is 32.95. For the lucky guys, it is 24.2. The unlucky guys give up 33% more line drives than the lucky ones. Bang. Zoom. One of these days, Alice.
This is not a matter of luck. When the unlucky pitchers have been good, they’ve been very, very good. When they’ve been bad, they’ve been horrid. The following graph plots BABIP as a function of LD%. It should come as no surprise that the two are positively related. As LD% increases, so does BABIP.
That’s a pretty steep slope. It indicates that if you are serving up line drives, your BABIP will jump as well. That 8 point difference in LD% translates into that 13% difference in BABIP. So, there is not much luck involved here. Salfino’s unlucky aces are getting hammered when they aren’t striking batters out — even if they are walking few. Let’s take a look at some evidence from some struggling aces. Here are the unlucky ones.
|David Price||Red Sox||1.38||6.75||0.373||29.10%|
When Fernandez, Price and Archer aren’t striking you out, they are pitching batting practice. 32.9% of Jose Fernandez’s hit balls are line drives. Price rolls in at 29.1 and Archer at 26.9. A team of acrobats would not be safe behind these guys. If there is good news here it is for the owners of players like Kluber, whose WHIP is 0.95, despite a LD% of 14.9. Owners of Eovaldi and Pineda might worry, though. Their LD%s are relatively low at 16.4 and 21, respectively. But their BABIPs are 0.317 and 0.357. The ageing Yankee defense is not helping these guys. Unless they strike out even more batters, it could be a long season.
Among the lucky, we see equal but opposite trends.
|J.A. Happ||Blue Jays||1.18||2.50||0.282||24.20%|
|Steven Wright||Red Sox||1.14||1.67||0.247||23.50%|
|Mat Latos||White Sox||1.19||2.62||0.25||16.40%|
As of Sunday, 8 May at 11 PM, the MLB average BABIP is 0.297 and the average LD% is 20.6. All of the lucky pitchers fall below the average BABIP and all but three fall below the average LD%. This suggests that the lucky pitchers are making it easy on the defenses by giving up fewer than average line drives, therefore giving up easier-to-handle balls put into play.
So, there is more to this than luck. SP such as Price and Archer have very high K-rates. But when they are not missing bats, they are keeping their defenses pretty busy. No luck involved here for the most part. If you are giving up line drives, you’re gonna pay.
That’s it for now. Good luck this week.
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