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March 12, 2014

Five to Watch

American League Starting Pitchers

by Craig Goldstein

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As we learned in the NL iteration of this exercise, BABIP affects bad and good pitchers alike, but that doesn’t mean it is pure luck. Team defense, ground-ball rates and the ability to miss bats all factor in to a pitcher’s likelihood of retaining a low BABIP, decreasing a high BABIP or just producing consistent a consistent BABIP year-to-year.

Below are the top five BABIP affected pitchers in the American League from 2013. While one has since been sent to the National League, there’s reason to believe that four of the five have the ability to be better this year than they were last year. Then there’s Joe Saunders.

Name

BABIP

K%

BB%

ERA

Bud Norris

.333

18.9%

8.3%

4.14

Joe Saunders

.332

13.1%

7.4%

5.26

Doug Fister

.332

18%

5%

3.68

Rick Porcello

.317

19.3%

5.8%

4.43

Justin Verlander

.316

23.5%

8.1%

3.46

Bud Norris - Baltimore Orioles
Norris posted a solid 4.18 ERA (3.86 FIP) despite the highest BABIP allowed in the league. Thanks to a relatively high strikeout rate (just a bit below league average), Norris was able to find enough outs to get through a season despite this bad luck, and to be clear it was at least partially bad luck. While his career BABIP rate is still an elevated .311, his .333 represented a career high by 19 points.

In the world of high BABIPs, Norris 40.2 percent ground-ball rate is positively anemic. Combine the low GB% with a league-average line-drive rate (and a steady one as well), and you have a recipe for a significantly lower BABIP going forward.

It remains a distinct possibility that Norris ends up in the back end of the Orioles bullpen at this point, but even there, he’ll have value. His 19 percent strikeout rate in 2013 was the lowest of his career, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to miss more bats. Bullpen or not, Norris seems a good bet to experience better luck in 2014 and thus be a reasonable option for owners in deeper fantasy leagues.

Joe Saunders - Texas Rangers
Let’s make one thing clear: The Ballpark in Arlington (no, I will not call it by its new corporate name) is not a good landing place for a pitcher of Saunders’ ilk. He struggled to the tune of a 5.26 ERA in Safeco Field of all places, and an above average left on base percentage. So even if he does accrue another 183 innings (yes, Joe Saunders threw 183 innings in 2013, breathe, you will get through this) this year, the odds of them being even as effective as his 2013 aren’t great.

The one thing in Saunders’ favor might even be BABIP. His .332 BABIP from 2013 was the highest of his career and a full 35 points above his career average .297. This elevated number though may correlate with his career high ground ball percentage, which checked in at 51.2 percent, his career high by a wide margin (3.4 percentage points). This was amplified by Saunder’s almost complete inability to miss bats as evidenced by his 13.1 percent strikeout rate. With so many balls in play, and on the ground (plus another 21.7 percent as line drives), it’s no wonder that Saunders was only a tick off the major-league lead in BABIP.

Home runs don’t count toward BABIP, but it’s worth noting that while hitters struggled to hit the ball in the air versus Saunders, when they did, it went a long way, with his HR/FB rate sitting at 14.5 percent. While he used to be an option in deeper leagues, at least at his home park, signing with Texas has removed even that scarce opportunity to use him, especially since it doesn’t seem his “luck” is going to get any better.

Doug Fister - Washington Nationals (formerly Detroit Tigers)
Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat, what with Fister getting sent to the Nationals, but it’s worth including Fister for two reasons. First, he is a legitimately good pitcher instead of the borderline options that Norris and (generously) Saunders are. Second, he makes three fifths of this list Detroit Tigers which only emphasizes the point that defense absolutely matters when it comes to evaluating BABIP and “luck.”

Fister complies with the high ground ball percentage that we’ve come to expect from high BABIPers, but he makes up for that in regards to ERA by being incredibly stingy with walks, as well as recently turning himself into a close to league average pitcher in terms of strikeout rate. The best predictor of whether he was suffering from mere luck comes in the form of his career BABIP, which is .298, only two points above the 2013 league average.

Fister’s move to the NL should help him overall, as should playing in front of a defense that doesn’t include Miguel Cabrera at the hot corner. Jose Iglesias’ arrival was obviously a boon, but the Tigers infield defense was porous to say the least, especially for a ground-ball fiend like Fister. He should find more success, judging by his history as well as a transition to a better defense and more pitcher-friendly league.

Rick Porcello - Detroit Tigers
Porcello continues to post FIPs well below his ERAs thanks to limiting the walks and being stingy with the longball. As you might expect, Porcello is a monster when it comes to burning worms. He’s never posted a ground-ball rate below 50 percent in his career and took it to a new level in 2013, with 55.3 percent of his batted balls coming on the ground. The big difference last year for Porcello was a bump in strikeout rate of more than five percentage points, all while maintaining his trademark control of the strike zone.

As with Fister, all those grounders in a range-challenged infield is going to cause something of a high BABIP as Porcello’s .315 figure from 2013 was only three points above his career average and actually a 29-point drop from 2012. The big question for Porcello of course is whether this new and improved strikeout rate is repeatable. Of course it’s impossible to say but there is reason to believe that it might be, thanks to a change in his pitch usage. Porcello reduced his usage of his slider, a bad pitch by all accounts, in 2013, opting instead to challenge same-side hitters with his changeup. The results were clearly positive, and if he can continue this process in 2014, there’s every reason to expect another season like 2013, BABIP and all.

Justin Verlander - Detroit Tigers
Color me surprised. Of course, we’ve gone over Detroit’s infield defense to the nth degree, but for Verlander to show up on this list is still a bit of a shock. While he did struggle early on last year, one might still expect a pitcher with Verlander’s stuff to induce weak contact and thus low BABIPs. This sentiment stands up if we look at his career BABIP (.288), and that was accrued with the same defense behind him.

Verlander posted a .319 BABIP in 2009, but rebounded to produce three straight years well under .300. While it’s not fair to expect that of him now given the additional years and mileage on his arm, it’s not unreasonable to expect a return towards the league average, which would make an already valuable Verlander even more so. Like Norris above, Verlander is not an extreme ground ball-pitcher, as he produced more fly balls than ground balls in 2013, making it all the more likely we see a return to his low-BABIP ways come 2014.

Not that one needs convincing to draft a stud like Verlander, but if there were qualms about his ability to rebound, producing another top-five AL BABIP shouldn’t be a part of them.

Craig Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

buckoneil

Craig:

Thanks for this. Great stuff! Given the apparent correlation between infield defense and BABIP, has anyone at the team taken a look at the best/worst projected infield defenses and lined them up against the pitchers with the highest GB%?

What metrics could/would you use for infield defense? Besides "2013 Tigers bad, Pirates good", I'm ignorant.

Mar 12, 2014 04:58 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Craig Goldstein
BP staff

It's a good idea and I'll see if we can carve out the time to look at it. I'm not sure off the top of my head what the approach would be to tackling this in terms of metrics but it's worth discussing. Thanks!

Mar 12, 2014 08:03 AM
 
majnun

Wow I knew the Tigers didn't play defense but three on the list was still shocking

Mar 12, 2014 05:06 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Craig Goldstein
BP staff

It *is* a bit shocking, though it's worth noting that all three pitchers had seen lower BABIPs in their previous seasons with the Tigers, so luck is a part.

Mar 12, 2014 08:03 AM
 
kcheaden

Watching Peralta and MCab at SS & 3rd base was a joke last year. The worst range for a 6&% combo I've ever seen. There was one Fister start in which Peralta allowed three infield hits. I felt bad for their picthers.

Mar 12, 2014 19:57 PM
rating: 0
 
TGisriel

After reading this article, I assumed that Norris' BABIP declined in 2013 when he moved teams from Houston to Baltimore because of Baltimore's defense. Nope. It went up from .316 in Houston to .382 in Baltimore. His ERA also went up after the move from 3.93 to 4.80.

But his FRA went down from 3.98 to 3.31. How do we explain this?

I think it was because his K/9 improved when he moved to Baltimore from 6.4 to 10.1, his OppSlg improved from .418 to .405 and his GB% increased from 41% to 45%.

I find this a curious mix of stats.

Mar 12, 2014 09:13 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Craig Goldstein
BP staff

It's also worth pointing out that 50.2 IP just isn't a large sample and his BABIP likely wasn't normalized while in Baltimore. A few weird hits here or there would wreak havoc on the overall numbers

Mar 12, 2014 18:48 PM
 
Nacho999

I could have sworn they used to call it The Ballpark at Arlington, but I guess I'm wrong...Anyway, I totally understand that frustration...I call Boston (The Shawmut Center, New Garden, FleetCenter, TD Banknorth, do'h!, TD) Garden The Naming Rights For Sale Center...I detest name changes for fields...Great money for the owners, but it really eats at tradition...Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park...Those names (with any luck) will never be for sale...ever!...It's tough when a company builds a place and corporate takeover forces a name change; I suppose that's what happened to Pac-Bell without knowing, but I don't think company names have any place in naming a park and should never be for sale...Advertise all you want, but don't ever change the name Madison Square Garden...It's not right...

Mar 13, 2014 16:04 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Having a stadium named after a company is one of the oldest traditions in baseball- Wrigley Field!

Mar 13, 2014 17:01 PM
rating: 0
 
MaineSkin

There's a direct correlation between batted ball speed off the bat and BABIP. All I heard from Fantistics owner was it's use for hitters like Marte who ranks in the top 5 which supports the BABIP he supposedly cannot sustain in '14. Ok, I'll get to my point. Bud Norris gets hit and hit hard and I'd put money on his pitches have a high batted ball speed off opponents bat. The stuff just isn't that good and until we get all of this type of data from MLB guys like Norris will never leave the interesting ranks. The Tigers guys actually make sense, but Norris? Os had the best defense by a large margin I believe, so the high BABIP w/a 45% GB% in Baltimore tells me he's jmbeing barreled up which obviously will allow more hits per contact.

Mar 14, 2014 23:13 PM
rating: 0
 
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