2011 Fantasy Baseball: Determining a Pitcher’s Worth

Just how good is David Price? Well...

Here at the headquarters of Fantasy Baseball Sportal we like to do thorough evaluations on pitchers for the upcoming season. One of the tried and true methods we use when first evaluating a pitcher’s past performance and whether or not that performance will continue is to look at a pitcher’s Batting Average on balls hit in play, more commonly referred to as his BABIP (at this point all Sabremetrician’s can stop reading this article as this is an introductory blog post for the rest of the baseball fans, after all).

What is BABIP? Well it’s a measure of the batting average against a pitcher when one of their pitched balls is hit into play, just like the name says. Foul outs, strikeouts and walks are not measured by BABIP, only the batting average of balls hit into play.

But why is this statistic important to Sabremetricians? Why should you be using it to judge a pitcher? And why would any fantasy baseball owner worth their salt consider this statistic before making a selection? Because throughout the history of the sport, from the days of Ruth and Gehrig to the days of Pujols and Jeter, BABIP rates always come in at .300 (well .299 to be exact). Over the course of a full season any pitcher’s BABIP is expected to regress to .300. Of course, as with any statistics there can be big variations with small sample sizes, and some variations can persist over the course of a season or two, but any pitcher who’s pitched more than a few years in the major leagues will have a lifetime BABIP very close to .300.

So if it’s true that a BABIP over time will always mean-revert to .300 what are we to make of a pitcher who’s BABIP in one season was much higher or lower than .300? Well, most simply put we can use their BABIP to help us determine if they were largely lucky or unlucky that year.

For instance, if a starting pitcher had a season-long BABIP of .255 (like say, Jonathan Sanchez from last year) he would be considered to have a had a very lucky season. What the statistics tell us is that when batters hit balls into play off him last year, more often than not those balls ended up going directly to a fielder rather than into the gaps between his fielders.

Now, some baseball ‘experts’ still like to push the myth that pitchers can control exactly where a ball is hit, but this is obviously hogwash because the .299 BABIP number has held up for every pitcher in the last 120 years, over the course of millions of at bats. Want proof? Here are the career BABIPs for the last four Cy Young winners from both leagues (there are only seven pitchers listed because Lincecum won twice):

.310 – Zack Greinke

.301 – Tim Lincecum

.298 – Cliff Lee

.297 – Felix Hernandez

.294 – Roy Halladay

.291 – CC Sabathia

.287 – Jake Peavy

As you can see there is a general clustering around .299 from some of the best pitchers in baseball. What this should signal to every manager, GM, owner and fantasy baseball player is that a major league pitcher can only control three things when he’s on the mound:

1.) Swings and misses at his pitches (good pitchers are deceptive, they change speeds or they have nasty breaking stuff, all of which leads to swings, misses and strikeouts)

2.) Walks (good pitchers have command and good pitchers refuse to walk batters because walking batters leads to elevated pitch counts, tired arms and the appearance of bullpen pitchers who are bullpen pitchers for a reason – they’re not good enough to be starters)

3.) Home Runs (good pitchers with good command don’t get in bad counts to good hitters, but when they do they have enough command and ability not to leave a hanger over the fattest part of the plate)

What’s absent from this list, obviously, is controlling exactly where the ball is hit and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, no matter who they are. Pitchers cannot control where a batter hits a ball. BABIP is proof of that.

The only people who can help (or hurt) a pitcher’s BABIP are the fielders behind him. Some of the variations in the career BABIP numbers of Peavy and Greinke above can be explained away by their defenses. If a pitcher has terrible defense behind him and most of his fielders have the range of say, David Ortiz, then it is expected that his BABIP can remain significantly above .299 for a full season (or more) and can’t be chalked up to bad luck alone. Conversely, a pitcher has a team full of Ozzie Smiths behind him he can maintain a persistently low BABIP not attributable solely to good luck.

Which brings us back to Jonathan Sanchez and his .255 BABIP in 2010. We could partially explain that away if he had a fantastic defense behind him and to find this out we could spend the time looking at Ultimate Zone ratings for all his defenders or dig through a host of other Sabremetric fielding statistics. But it’s much easier to just look at the other San Francisco pitchers and see what their BABIPs were.

2010 BABIP – SF Pitcher

.315 – Tim Lincecum

.314 – Madison Bumgarner

.254 – Matt Cain

We need not go any further than Tim Lincecum, who’s .315 BABIP last year was markedly higher than Sanchez’ .255 and signals-clearly-that Lincecum (and Bumgarner) were unlucky last year while Sanchez and Cain were lucky. The defense can’t explain away such huge variations.

So now that we fully understand BABIPs and how they work we can start to analyze some of the starting pitchers in baseball and see how it can help. Firstly, let’s look at what Ubaldo Jimenez’s first- and second-half splits would have told you about him last year:

In the first half of the season Jimenez was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA (remarkably good numbers for a Coors Field pitcher) but he had a BABIP of only .252. If you owned Jimenez at the All-Star break and knew about his BABIP you might have tried to trade him while the price was high. In the second half of the season Jimenez’s BABIP rose to .303 and he finished 4-7 with a 3.80 ERA.

BABIP shows that Jimenez was lucky for most of the first half of the season — the hitters he faced hit a lot of ground balls and fly balls directly at his fielders – but in the second half, that luck disappeared. Not only that, but when his lucky streak ran out it appeared to shake his confidence as well. Jimenez’s walk rate increased markedly in the second half which means he started nibbling at the plate and second-guessing himself.

(I would like to take a moment to point out that a lot of ‘baseball people’ including Major League pitchers themselves don’t understand BABIPs. This means that when a pitcher’s BABIP starts to mean-revert to .299 and more and more batters start reaching base with bloop singles or ground balls that sneak in between the first and second basemen, a pitcher will often begin to think it’s his fault, that they don’t have their “best stuff” and that they need to compensate for the loss of their “stuff” by nibbling around the plate and not throwing strikes. Jimenez appears to have suffered a classic case of this syndrome last year)

This is not to say that any pitching analysis should rely solely on BABIPs. Other factors like walks, strikeouts and homeruns are more important. But BABIP numbers do help show whether or not a pitcher has been lucky or unlucky over an extended period of time. And this comes in handy when pinhead fantasy ‘experts’ write articles telling you that Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain will both have better years in 2011 than Tim Lincecum. Clearly such ‘experts’ are not experts and have little or no business writing articles about fantasy baseball.

Now that you’ve come to understand BABIPs here’s a short list of pitchers with large deviations from .299 last year. This list does not suggest that the pitchers with high BABIPs are going to better than the pitchers with low BABIPs, only that (all else being equal) the pitchers with abnormally high BABIPs should improve their numbers in 2011 and those with low BABIPs will likely regress.

It’s our hope, here at Fantasy Baseball Sportal, that this short list will help you find an undervalued fantasy baseball pitcher this year while steering clear from an overvalued one:

HIGH BABIPs (Unlucky Pitchers in 2010):

.348 – Brandon Morrow (TOR)

2010: 10 Wins / 4.49 ERA

.345 – James Shields (TBR)

2010: 13 Wins / 5.18 ERA

.337 – Francisco Liriano (MIN)

2010: 14 Wins / 3.62 ERA

.326 – Scott Baker (MIN)

2010: 12 Wins / 4.49 ERA

.318 – Tim Lincecum (SFG)

2010: 16 Wins / 3.43 ERA

.316 – Clayton Richard (SDP)

2010: 14 Wins / 3.75 ERA

.314 – Dan Haren (LAA)

2010: 12 Wins / 3.91 ERA

LOW BABIPs (Lucky pitchers in 2010):

.243 – Bronson Arroyo (CIN)

2010: 17 Wins / 3.88 ERA

.253 – Tim Hudson (ATL)

2010: 17 Wins / 2.83 ERA

.255 – Jonathan Sanchez (SFG)

2010: 13 Wins / 3.07 ERA

.259 – Tommy Hunter (TEX)

2010: 13 Wins / 3.73 ERA

.266 – Clay Buchholz (BOS)

2010: 17 Wins / 2.33 ERA

.273 – David Price (TBR)

2010: 19 Wins / 2.72 ERA

.277 – Jason Vargas (SEA)

2010: 9 Wins / 3.78 ERA

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