The most rewarding thing about getting into sabermetrics is having more tools on the workbench. To me, it's what Prospectus is all about: furthering our understanding of baseball, the same as SABR, or Retrosheet, or in a weird way, the bartender who insists on telling me stories of how Bob Gibson would pitch to the score. I'm probably the least stat-heady member of the authors, prone to taking shortcuts to rough some stats out and see if there's something interesting there instead of making sure I've included sacrifice bunts in my runner advancement data. But I love the investigation.
There's been a rumor that Freddy Garcia, who last year appeared to be an ascending ace, has been tipping his pitches, and that's why opposing teams have been teeing off on him. I regard stories like this with a lot of skepticism: most pitching coaches watch a lot of video and wouldn't be oblivious to this sort of thing, so the possibility a pitcher's struggling and, say, Bryan Price didn't think of it is slim. What happens in a local media cycle is this:
- feature writers ask coaches, player about slump
- feature writer tosses possibility out, writes column about it
- slump ends, possibility is attributed to have been true and corrected, otherwise, repeat
Freddy's 12 K start Wednesday will probably make the 'he stopped tipping pitches' theory the winner, but let's look see what the real story is, using stats through September 10th, when I'm writing this:
ERA W L IP H R ER HR TBB K 1999 4.07 17 8 201.1 205 96 91 18 90 170 2000 3.91 9 5 124.1 112 62 54 16 64 79 2001 3.05 18 6 238.2 199 88 81 16 69 163 2002 4.39 15 10 197 198 97 96 26 56 157
One of these things is not like the others, and you've probably already spotted it.
H/IP HR/IP BB/IP K/IP 1999 1.02 0.09 0.45 0.85 2000 0.90 0.13 0.52 0.64 2001 0.84 0.07 0.29 0.68 2002 1.01 0.13 0.28 0.80
Freddy's hit rate last year was way under what you'd expect. Now if you've read Voros McCracken's ground-breaking work on balls in play (and if you're reading BP, I've got to think you have), you know that generally pichers don't control that. McCracken's work is the newest and shiniest tool on the workbench, and I recommend everyone buy one.
H/BIP 1999 0.301 2000 0.247 2001 0.249 2002 0.284
Where H = H-HR, of course, since a home run's not a ball in play. About .280 – .290 is normal. .247? That's really lucky, or the product of a quality defense, which the M's have (mostly) fielded during Garcia's time in the proud white-and-blue.
Freddy's returned to the norm at the same time he's returned to giving up the long ball. Now, his walk rate's down, his K rate is still up, so those are both good signs of his continuing improvement.
Back to the question at hand, though: Is Freddy Garcia tipping his pitches? I don't think so. What would you expect to see if that were true? Hitters would be able to put bat to ball more frequently, and get more hits and home runs off them. Knowing the pitch doesn't mean you know the location, though, so I don't think it would affect walks.
And yet what we've seen is that even where Freddy's been struggling — hits and home runs — are not gaudy or improbable numbers wildly out of line with his career numbers.
Even through the season, it's easy to see:
ERA H/BIP B/IP HR/IP April 3.93 0.272 0.17 0.19 May 3.32 0.225 0.21 0.16 June 3.48 0.254 0.27 0.07 July 5.87 0.357 0.36 0.07 August 5.54 0.290 0.49 0.15
Ahhhhhh, the wonder of quality statistical breakdowns. You can see that as he really gets scorched his walk rates and his hits on balls in play are both way up, and in August, as his rate came down, he started getting toasted on walks and long balls again. Ow. That July would almost make you want to believe he was tipping, but then why no home run spike, and why did it dry up in August? I don't buy it.
It would appear we were both too quick to crown Garcia an elite pitcher when much of his success last year came from a ridiculously low hit rate, and may have been too quick to bury him as he's struggled. But that's a lot of work to explain to people, or stick in a feature column in a daily newspaper (I mean jeez, it's got tables and stuff). So let's find an easier answer.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.