Matt Cain sacrifices goatsby Will Hatheway
January 28, 2011
Earlier this winter, The Hardball Times offered prospective fantasy baseball writers the opportunity to compete in a Hardball Times fantasy league. Entrants wrote fantasy baseball articles, the best of which would be chosen as our winner. While we could only choose one winner to play in the league (congratulations, Dave Chenok), we had so many great articles that we have decided to publish some of the best. This is one of those submissions.
What? You got a better idea? Just how would you describe a pitcher for whom “lucky” doesn’t even begin to capture his defiance of all laws of probability. Think I’m being hyperbolic* here? Well consider that of the 85 starting pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings pitched and who played since line drive and home run/fly ball percentages were recorded, Matt Cain's career ranking for liners is eighth lowest, while he is lower than everyone homers per fly ball.
That’s just the half of it, though: He is also the holder of the very lowest figure when it comes to batting average on balls in play and has the fifth highest left on base percentage of all of those same pitchers. In other words, the combined paucity of line drives allowed, balls in play that turned into hits, fly balls that became home runs, and baserunners who made it all the way home stands in open mockery of what we believed to be the unassailable truth that extremes will, sooner or later, regress to the mean. Hence the goat thing….
* (When I taught "hyperbole" in English class, I'd slam my fist and scream "I've told you a hundred thousand times what hyperbole means." Sadly, they didn't share my estimation of my cleverness.)
But I’m not saying that there is no such thing as unsustainable pitching luck … far from it. I’d be willing to bet that, since you’re spending your time reading saberist sites such as this one, we could look at the draft summaries from the leagues you just finished playing in and see strong pitchers you picked up for chump change because they just couldn’t catch a break on balls in play the year before; or, conversely, that you didn’t bite on the guy that everyone else thought had a real breakthrough last year because you knew he couldn’t possibly keep so many fly balls in the park again.
I, for one, must admit to the occasional look back at my auctioneering brilliance, though I should probably share with you three words that kind of put a damper on my celebrations of self: 1) ESPN. 2) 10-team. 3) Mixed. That is, if I sat down to draft against you all, instead, do you really think I alone would adjust my rankings to account for last year’s luck? Of course not … veering from the crowd’s ADP isn’t just something that the LABR guys do.
So what do you do when the low hanging fruit is no longer there? I suggest, in the great tradition of sabermetric thought, that you go against the crowd; that is, now that everyone knows to adjust for luck, don’t do it! Yep, my solution to everyone else getting smart is, er, to engage your inner Tim McCarver, say “xFIP who?” and look forward with anticipation to Felix Hernandez leading you to ERA nirvana.
That’s right, I’m betting Felix’s ’10 suggests a similar ’11 despite the fact that he wouldn’t have bagged a 2.27 ERA without such feats as limiting hitters to an absurdly low 16.3 line drive percentage, .273 BABIP and 8.5 HR/FB, as well as stranding an astounding 77.4 percent of his baserunners. And on what grounds? Nothing short of having good ol' great “stuff.”
I’m serious, actually, but it’s a little more complex than I just made it sound. I believe I have found a small, but very real, instance in which we can explain luck, paradoxical as that may sound. Specifically, we have in Felix’s statistical record the sabermetric evidence that Hernandez wields what a scout would call “plus” pitches, by which I mean that in the Pitch Value section of his Fangraphs player page he has thrown, in each of the last two years, both a fastball and a change-up that saved at least a full win of runs more than average (e.g. in '10 his wFB was 25.5, or worth 2.5 wins above average, while his wCH was 18.7). And it is with that specific arsenal that I believe (and have the numbers to back it up) a pitcher can control all those things we have come to believe he can’t.
His xFIP (which I’m using both because players are starting to rely on it when projecting next year’s performance, and because it is the one ERA variant that counts all four metrics discussed here as measures of luck) is, in its full point difference, very clear that we should expect a significant regression. Now, regressing from 2.27 can only be so bad, so I’m not saying that my hypothetical league rivals are going to rate him below a slew of others, but rather that you may be able to take him a good five or 10 bucks lower than those who downgrade his projections on the basis of his apparent luck, in turn making him the rare ace to justify his cost and maybe even then some.
(Just a quick look at the last couple of NL LABR drafts suggests that more "expert" players do indeed diverge from the crowd when there is strong evidence of luck at play. Those starting pitchers whom xFIP predicted would regress the most almost universally went cheaper in the following year’s LABR draft than would have been the equivalent cost of where they ended up on the general public's ADP).
Okay, I’ll finally get to the goods:
The odds that any given pitcher will end up among the top 10 “luckiest” according to BABIP (or one of the other three metrics) in any one year is about 12 percent. Of the nearly 700 qualifying starting pitcher seasons since the onset of batted ball data in 2002, there were 14 pitchers (before Felix in ’10) who had a dominant fastball/change-up combo. Sample size, I know, but just look at how extreme their numbers compare: 29 percent of the time such a pitcher is on the BABIP list, more than double average, and the same 29 percent goes for HR/FB. Impressive, but then there’s LD percentage, where they have a 43 percent chance. In left on base rate, the odds rise all the way to 50 percent.
Even when you compare those odds to pitcher seasons with any other combination of two “plus” pitches (of which there were 33), it’s not even close: Their odds, like the overall average, remain in the teens for all but LOB percentage, which occurred an impressive one-third of the time. (That in turn suggests that we should really be wary when using FIP and the like to project pitching studs, insofar as it appears elite pitchers do have an actual ability to strand more runners than others).
But that still means fastball/change-up pitchers are half-again as likely to rank at the top of the LOB list. As for commanding a single dominant pitch of any type, there is zero evidence of any significant impact on these metrics (too bad for my hopes to eventually explain Cain via his sick fastball).
Probably the starkest difference was the huge influence the FB/CH group had on line drive percentager, while even those with other plus-pitch combos didn’t shift the odds an inch. (You might think, then, that tERA would be the way to go, but remember, we’re talking about just a tiny fraction of all starting pitchers, so in most cases you actually wouldn’t want to consider batted balls a skill as that metric does.)
Why should this matter to you? To put it in the clearest fantasy baseball terms,line driveLD percentage influences your ratio categories in a significant way. Felix, for example, with a LD percentage three full points below average, lowered his ERA by .2 through that form of control alone. (I’ve gone on way too long to add in all the calculations here, but you can replicate them easily using standard linear weights).
Of course, none of this would matter were it not for the fact that these players' performances the next year continued to defy advanced RA metrics' predictions: A majority of the "lucky" FB/CHers had, on average, a following year ERA lower than xFIP predicted by an average of a half-point.
Ultimately, this is just one small way to get an edge on your opposition, but in an age when so much advanced data is freely available to all, knowing any way to play this knowledge against your league mates can only help. And there are surely other occasions in which to employ this angle; Clay Buchholz, for example, is the 32nd starter drafted at Mock Draft Central— going that late largely because of the appearance of massive luck last year—but if this 26-year-old can improve his change-up only slightly (2010 wCH: 7.7) and maintain anything near the quality of last year's fastball (20.8 wFB), he just may reward his owners by delivering crazy low ratios for a second year in a row at a very, very nice price.
In the end, it's just classic saberist thinking, no? When others zig, you zag, and then when they learn that they should have been zagging, you gotta find a way to zig to your advantage.
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