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Pitching by the Numbers: Balls in play

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Johnny B. Lucky? (USAT)

Let’s continue looking at the stats that reasonably indicate whether some high flyers and duds, thus far in 2014, are likely to reverse course. This week, we examine batting average on balls in play, or BABIP for real nerds.

First some general rules. These columns often take a buy/sell format. But that does not mean that all buys are better than all sells or, even worse, that I’m implicitly saying to trade Buy X for Sell Y. It only reflects what I believe the stats are saying about the highlighted players’ prospective/going forward value relative to their present actual value.

Last week, I wrote, as I often do, that hitters generally control outcomes. I don’t want to get into the deep weeds on this. Most of you can take me at my word that this is a fact and not an opinion because this is not an opinion column. There is much support for hitters mostly controlling outcomes, all things being equal, but here’s an example if you are so inclined. Be warned, though, that this is the stuff you want me paraphrasing.

The degree to which pitchers control outcomes over similarly skilled hitters ranges from 33 to 40 percent. Implicit in this is regression to the mean. It takes great skill or great luck to break away from league-average rates in many pitching categories. Vice versa if you break away on the down side. This doesn’t mean that pitchers don’t have any control, or all have the same degree of control, or that Clayton Kershaw isn’t good but just lucky. Don’t be dumb about this. It only means that maybe 50 percent of starters are mostly blowing in the wind of randomness. And even the ones who are highly skilled can run into some good hitting that there’s not much they can do about, especially when the hitters are hitting them where they ain’t. The best example of this below is Stephen Strasburg.

Conversely, even really good pitchers like Johnny Cueto can have a stretch where they are also incredibly lucky. That’s been Cueto’s April, for sure. Let’s look at him and the other most lucky pitchers, based on BABIP. I’ve also noted the line-drive rate allowed by each pitcher, keeping in mind that about 70 percent of liners typically go for hits. But again, limiting liners or even allowing them at a high rate isn’t all skill (or lack thereof) but still largely attributable to the hitter. My back-of-the-napkin calculation is that the average pitcher controls about 40 percent of outcomes like liners. The good pitchers, 50 percent. The great pitchers, 60 percent-plus, but not much more than 60 percent.

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Note: the average line drive rate throughout MLB as of Monday was about 24 percent.

It’s not news that Cueto won’t have a 1.50 ERA going forward. His Ks are also way up. He’s absolutely an outstanding pitcher as long as he’s healthy. I have no idea how susceptible he is to more abdominal injuries but I do know that past injuries predict future ones. Mostly because of that, if someone is going to pay me near a “best pitcher in baseball” price for Cueto, I’m selling.

Note that there are just two lefties on the list (Niese and Kazmir). I think I know why – the shift. You can’t really shift righty hitters. Shifts are just killing lefty hitters and thus asymmetrically helping righty pitchers. It used to be that you wanted lefties because lefty hitters just can’t seem to hit same-siders. But now maybe, the shift has, um, shifted this in favor of righty pitchers (when you are breaking ties).

I don’t keep saying to sell Teheran. The models do. But does it kill you to make a profit on him now? Warren Buffet: “No one ever went broke making money.” Integrate this into your fantasy focus, readers.

What do we make of guys with low BABIPs and higher-than-average LD rates? That’s Lyles, Niese, Wainwright, Harang, Burnett, Lohse and Felix, in that order. Seems undeniably lucky to me. But again, a lot of this can be being on teams that shift often/wisely. And, no, I’m not saying to sell Felix.

Here is the possibly unlucky/should be a lot better going forward list:

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This is more fun for me, the buys. Bailey was on our unlucky homer list last week. He’s top 20 in (Ks-BBs)/IP. He’s sporting an obscene BABIP against. What’s he going to cost you now? Bailey will be better than Teheran going forward and you can work a two-for-two with him where you also get the better hitter. Bailey’s line drive rate is also below average.

Joining Bailey in high BABIP with below average LD% are Bumgarner, Sabathia, Kluber, Buchholz, Nolasco (man, this guy just spits in the face of sabermetrics, so caution here), Price, Hutchinson, Ross, Lester, Hughes. Wow, that’s a long list. It’s too late for Kluber after Sunday. Hughes is an extreme fly baller, so this lack of liners is not too surprising. Am I saying to buy Hughes? Um, stammer, stall…. Yes. Well, the model is. Blame it. And look at all these lefties. Sabathia is still top 10 in (K-BB)/IP. It’s always darkest before the dawn? Okay, I don’t know what inspiration to give you to go and get Sabathia now. I know it seems like running straight into a sword. But the numbers say to charge, so charge!

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