One decision the Reds general manager faces this offseason is whether to pick up the second year on relief pitcher Burke Badenhop’s contract. The Reds owe Badenhop $1.5 million if they don’t pick up the 2016 option and $4 million if they do. To simplify, the Reds are paying Badenhop $2.5 million/year for either one year of service or two.
A narrative has developed, fueled by Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley and others, that the reliever simply had a bad April but other than that he has been excellent in 2015. What is the basis for the Bad April theory? Simple, it’s the reliever’s ERA split:
By that single measure, Badenhop has been outstanding for five months of the season. But the Bad April theory about Burke Badenhop is a textbook example of sloppy statistical analysis leading to an incorrect conclusion.
To start, Badenhop pitched seven innings in April. Reaching a multi-million dollar conclusion about Badenhop that is premised on separating out his April performance is not sound. It’s akin to the disastrous thought process that put Kevin Gregg on the mound for the 8th inning on Opening Day.
But just for kicks, let’s ignore the sample size problem with Bad April. If you check the right numbers, the ones that pitchers can control, Badenhop’s April wasn’t much different from the rest of his season.
Start with strikeouts:
Both of these rates are extremely low (league average is 8.42 K/9). Badenhop struck out a slightly higher rate of batters he faced in April.
How about walks?
Badenhop’s walk-rate was a bit higher in April. Keep in mind that rate is based on a total of 3 walks. One fewer walk in April would have moved his BB/9 below the rate for the rest of the season. At worst, his “elevated” walk-rate in April resulted in one more base-runner than his average.
As a soft tosser, Badenhop’s calling card for retiring hitters is inducing ground balls. So what about his April ground ball rate?
These numbers are pretty similar. If anything, Badenhop induced more ground balls in April than the rest of the season.
(As an aside, it was Badenhop’s reputation as a ground-ball pitcher that presumably caused manager Bryan Price to use Badenhop in games with runners on base. The idea being that a ground ball pitcher could induce a trouble-solving double play. It’s a strategy Price has used 14 times, including last Saturday. But a quarter of ground balls end up as hits. And not every fielded ground ball leads to a double play. Most don’t. On the contrary, when runners are on base, what the team needs most is a strikeout to prevent the ball from being put in play. And Burke Badenhop has the lowest strikeout rate among any NL reliever with more than 40 innings pitched. So bringing Badenhop in with runners on base is a dumb strategy. Results: Badenhop faced 46 batters with an opportunity for a double play. He succeeded in that 4 times, or 9 percent. League average is 11 percent. Badenhop allowed 48 percent of inherited runners to score. League average is 34 percent.)
But back to Bad April. It turns out that Burke Badenhop’s strikeouts, walks and ground ball rate – the stuff pitchers can influence – don’t support the claim that Badenhop was bad in April and good the rest of the season.
So what explains Badenhop’s huge variation in ERA?
In April, Badenhop was victimized by a huge percentage of batted balls falling in for hits, something a pitcher has little control over. Pitchers face a mix of hitters and data shows that a pitcher’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) converges to .290-.295 over time. Even if you believe that pitchers do have some control over BABIP, the range is small compared to Badenhop’s variance. Clayton Kershaw’s career BABIP, for instance, is .273 (.283 this year). The controllable amount of BABIP comes nowhere near the astronomical level Badenhop experienced at the start of the year.
If you wash out that factor, his actual performance in April wasn’t that much different than it was the rest of the season.
SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) is an ERA estimator/predictor, like xFIP, based on the factors that pitchers can influence, like strikeouts, walks and ground ball/fly ball rates. Research has shown it to be better than past ERA at predicting a pitcher’s future runs allowed performance.
It turns out Badenhop’s Bad April is a myth.
Now, back to the more important bigger picture. Don’t be distracted by the small difference in Badenhop’s April and May-Sept splits because what’s important is that both numbers are horrendous. Burke Badenhop’s good May-Sept ERA hides the more accurate picture of a well-below-average pitcher in sharp decline.
The two middle columns – K-BB% and GB% – should terrify the Reds front office and make any decision regarding Badenhop’s 2016 option trivial.
K-BB% is the single best predictor among common, public measures of how a pitcher will perform in the future. Burke Badenhop is way, way below league average for relief pitchers (13.4). In fact, 73 relief pitchers in the National League have thrown at least 40 innings this year and Burke Badenhop ranks dead last in K-BB%.
Badenhop’s ground-ball rate has fallen to right around league average for relievers (46.3%). Based on his 2015 season, he’s no longer a ground-ball or double-play specialist. That, in combination with allowing batters to put the ball in play at a higher rate than any other reliever in the NL (40 IP), is a dreadful combination.
If you look at the right measures, the decision whether or not to keep Burke Badenhop, who turns 33 in February, at $2.5 million next season is a no-brainer. Badenhop hasn’t been close to a league average pitcher this year and odds are he’ll continue to decline next season.
If the Reds general manager decides to keep Badenhop, it would be a clear-cut example of decision-making that is the opposite of smart. If that decision is based even in part on the Bad April myth, it’s disqualifying malpractice.