March 10, 2014
Five to Watch
National League Pitchers With Elevated BABIPs
A lot of the time, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is used as a shorthand for luck, and while that can be the case, it’s not necessarily the case. Today I’m going to look at the top five BABIP pitchers in the National League with a minimum of 150 innings pitched to see what, if anything, connects them, and if that means there is hidden value in these players.
Above is a basic chart highlighting some of the relevant statistics that one generally looks at when identifying pitching targets. Strikeout and walk percentages tell us a lot more about future performance than does ERA, but ERA is the output generally used by fantasy leagues, hence its inclusion.
Edinson Volquez - Pittsburgh Pirates
While it may be tempting to look at Volquez’s FIP (4.24), see that it is almost a run-and-a-half below his ERA, and think there’s going to be a bounce back, it’s worth noting that he has not posted an ERA even with or below his FIP since 2009. None of this explains his BABIP, though—and for that we look to his batted-ball profile. Volquez excels at generating ground balls, which often carry a higher BABIP than fly balls (though less risk of going for extra bases). Combine that with his above-league-average line-drive percentage, and there’s an explanation for his NL leading .325 BABIP. More to the point, it’s reason to believe that he won’t see a drastic reduction in said BABIP.
The only thing in Volquez’s favor is that, while he has slid down the run prevention ladder going from PETCO to Dodger Stadium and now to PNC Park, Pittsburgh’s ballpark still ranked 24th in 2013 in terms of runs. It’s even better when it comes to home runs—something of a bugaboo for Volquez despite his ground-ball-friendly repertoire—ranking 29th in MLB. Pairing his ground-ball-generating ways with Pittsburgh’s extreme shifts and emphasis on defense should be a recipe for success, but then again, Volquez’s inability to command his pitches within the zone might not play as well with the shifts as intended.
Edwin Jackson - Chicago Cubs
What Jackson can be relied on for, though, is bulk innings. Last year’s 175 frames were his lowest in the last six seasons, and he’s made at least 31 starts in each of those seasons. Jackson’s career-high 51.3 percent ground-ball rate likely played a major role in his .322 BABIP, especially when mixed with his league-average line-drive rate. That BABIP, while only 14 points above his career average, was 44 points above his 2012 number, which, when you look at his four percentage point drop in strikeout rate, starts making some sense.
At this point, the only safe thing one can predict for Jackson is a likely emphasis on ground balls (though he dropped to just under 44 percent all of three seasons ago), so his defense will have a lot to say about his BABIP quality. Given how much his BABIP has vacillated year-to-year while he’s mostly remained the same pitcher, it’s hard to tie his success to this—or any—one statistic. He’s likely better than his 4.98 ERA a year ago, but not quite as good as his 3.79 FIP.
Lance Lynn - St. Louis Cardinals
Lynn’s .314 BABIP is right in line with his career number; it was 20 points above the 2013 major-league average. Lynn is another ground-ball-heavy pitcher (sensing a theme here?), though not nearly to the same extent as Jackson or Volquez. He also misses a lot more bats than either of the previous pitchers, with a 24.1 percent career strikeout rate. Lynn did struggle with line drives, allowing a 22.5 percent rate, which actually represented a point-and-a-half drop from 2012. It’s difficult to say that he can control the line-drive percentage he allows, aside from doing a better job of executing within the zone.
Like those listed before him, Lynn has posted an ERA better than his FIP, leading people to think a breakthrough is coming. It might be more correct to assume this in Lynn’s case thanks to his ability to miss bats, and the likelihood that he can translate that skill into weaker contact. He hasn’t done it thus far in his career, though, and until he can begin to reduce the hard contact (line drives), it doesn’t seem like he’ll get any closer to posting league-average BABIPs.
Jeff Samardzija - Chicago Cubs
The other figure working in Samardzija’s favor is his career BABIP of .297, which is right around league average. He posted a .296 BABIP in 2012 despite an elevated line-drive rate, and despite lowering that for his 2013 campaign, he saw a jump in his BABIP. This strikes me as an actual case of bad luck when compared to the pitchers examined above him. That he’s able to miss bats above the league-average rate also helps one feel more secure that his talent level is closer to his 3.77 FIP than his inflated 4.34 ERA.
Paul Maholm - Los Angeles Dodgers
Maholm has seen his line-drive rate trend upward, starting with the 2009 season and culminating in last year’s 23.8 percent disaster. While he does a good job of limiting the free passes, Maholm gives up a massive amount of contact that results in hits, between his ground-ball rate and line-drive rate. He’ll likely excel as a lefty specialist given his starter’s arsenal, but if he’s forced into action, there’s no reason to anticipate a return to his sub-4.00 ERA seasons. His career BABIP isn’t insane, sitting at .306, but that’s still more than 10 points above 2013’s league average and only four points off his 2013 figure. He’s not a good bet going forward even if he does land in the rotation.