How many times this year have you witnessed Billy Hamilton’s defensive range save a run or two? Or Zack Cozart’s sparkling play at shortstop? Or Jay Bruce’s rifle of an arm? Or Brandon Phillips’ Gold Glove performance? Plenty.
As a result, fewer balls put into play by hitters tend to fall in for hits, doubles are held to singles, runners don’t advance on the bases or are thrown out trying to score. Reds pitchers, all else equal, benefit from strong defensive play behind them. That’s part of what lies behind an important statistic that relates to pitching – batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The better your defense, the lower the BABIP.
If you look over the pitchers with the lowest BABIP in all of baseball, you’ll find two familiar names. Right at the top, in slots 2 and 3, are the names Johnny Cueto and Alfredo Simon. When a hitter puts a ball in play against Johnny Cueto, the defense has turned it into an out 78% of the time. For Simon, the defense has recorded an out 77% of the time. For the Reds as a team, that number is about 73%.
In 2014, defenses across the league are turning balls hit into play into outs at a 71% clip. Simon and Cueto are both experiencing their career-low BABIP, and not surprisingly, other teams are not scoring many runs against them. How much can we expect this to continue into the second half of the year?
Travis Wood is a good case study on BABIP and its important role in the number of runs a pitcher gives up. In 2013, Wood enjoyed a sparkling, career-low 3.11 ERA. But the underlying fundamentals indicated otherwise. His xFIP was 4.50 and SIERA was 4.43.
In 2014, Wood’s ERA is a not-so-great 4.62. He must be pitching worse this year, right? Nope. Wood is actually striking out more hitters (18.1% to 17.5%) than last year, he’s reduced line drives quite a bit (22.3% to 20.7%) and increased his ground ball rate (33.2% to 37.2%.). And Wood hasn’t been more home run prone. His HR/FB is an identical 6.9% to last year. His pitch velocity is the same.
So why is Wood’s ERA so much higher? He’s given up a few more walks. But it’s mostly just been bad luck. Last year, balls put in play (BABIP) fell in at .248 while this year, they’re becoming hits at a rate of .306. Wood has basically been the same pitcher as last year. Looking under the hood tells you that. Looking at his ERA last year told you nothing going forward. It’s gorilla dust.
By the way, Wood’s xFIP this year is 4.65 and SIERA is 4.48.
Does this mean that Wood, and other pitchers, have no control over what happens to a ball once its put into play? Research supports the idea that ground balls are turned into outs at a higher rate than line drives. Furthermore, it appears that pitchers who strike out hitters at a higher rate also experience weaker contact when the ball is put into play. So it would be unfair to say that pitchers have “no” control over the balls put into play behind them.
They key question is: How much control does a pitcher actually have over their BABIP?
Let’s turn to two fearsome hurlers, Clayton Kershaw and Greg Maddux, to help us answer this question.
You can file this under Clayton Kershaw is amazing: Last year he won the Cy Young by posting this line: 32.7% K, 7.3% BB, and 1.5% HR. This year he is posting 43.8% K, 4.59% BB/9, and 1.5% HR/9. He’s pitching much better this year than last year, right? His ERA last year was 1.83, and this year it’s 1.85. You might say thats much ado about 0.02, but given that all of his underlying stats show he is pitching better, you would expect his ERA to be lower. His FIP last year was 2.39 (2.88 xFIP), while his FIP this year is 1.49 (xFIP, 1.64).
What explains the fact this Kershaw has a higher ERA this year despite pitching better? Last year, he had a .251 BABIP while this year that number is up to .294.
Greg Maddux suppressed balls hit into play from becoming hits, yet he also experienced an unusual year in 1999. His BABIP was very un-Maddux like, at .324. This anchored his ERA at 3.57, and for the first time since 1992, he did not finish in the top-5 for the NL Cy Young. Don’t feel too bad for him, his BABIP went to .274 the next year and he finished third in Cy Young voting.
So, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture: Kershaw’s career BABIP is .284 while Maddux’s is .281. Both of them have lower than average BABIP, but that variation is not very far away from MLB’s average (around .290). So for an “average” MLB pitcher, they surrender about 29% of balls put into play as hits. For these two great pitchers, that number falls to 28%.
So, do pitchers have some control over how many balls put into play are turned into outs?
Yes, but very little. If the baseline for MLB pitchers is around 29% and Maddux et al. are hanging around 28%, it doesn’t appear that even the best pitchers can lower their BABIP by a large margin. New statistics are trying to incorporate this into their calculations (for example, SIERA recognizes that higher K% results in a slightly lower BABIP).
This should also be a warning when you see a pitcher hanging around a .220 BABIP. Johnny Cueto is a great pitcher, but I don’t believe that he is three times better at suppressing hits than Greg Maddux. Cueto has a career BABIP mark of .276, so it is more likely than not that his BABIP will rise in the second half of the season, and with it, his ERA.
Great pitchers stand out from their peers in other ways, though. They strikeout a lot of hitters and do not walk very many batters. This combination prevents the number of balls put into play (via strikeouts), and runs from scoring when batters do record a hit (by limiting base runners). The amount of control pitchers have over these numbers is much greater than the number of balls that fall for hits, which is why they tell us more about the underlying talent of a pitcher than their BABIP.