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A Baseball Blog - Scientific and Speculative Thoughts from Third Base

Monday, June 25, 2012

Not This Again

Are we really sliding back to using Pitching Wins as an important stat? When I saw it here, I assumed it was a one-of thing, you know, some disgruntled fan who was trying to stir the pot. But then David Schoenfield, who’s normally pretty good at following stats, went and added to it.

“Yes, Lee has pitched far better than his 0-4 record would indicate. Lee also has the 12th-best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) among starting pitchers at 3.01 and the fourth-best xFIP (FIP adjusted for home run rate on fly balls) at 2.90.

On the other hand, Lee's 3.72 ERA ranks just 45th among major league starters. Just like it's wrong to say that Lee has been bad because he's 0-4, I suggest it's wrong to say Lee has been great just because his FIP and xFIP are good. The pitcher's job, after all, is to prevent runs, not post a nice FIP. While those things usually go hand-in-hand, they don't always.”
Does he have a point, though? I mean, the pitcher is supposed to prevent runs. However, part of preventing runs does fall on the defense, which is the point of FIP; if things broke normally, and the pitcher had a reasonable defense, how well have they prevented runs?

Well, according to Fangraphs, Cliff Lee has allowed a .320 batting average on balls in play. That mark would, over a full season, make for the worst mark in his career (yes, even counting the years when he was just “Cliff Lee”, before he became “THE CLIFF LEE”). For his career, his BABIP allowed has been .296 (a mark he’s been close to the past two seasons, so it isn’t too affected by his early years). Well, maybe he’s just getting hit harder, right?

It’s doubtful. His percentages of line drives allowed is actually down. Ground ball percentage and fly ball percentage are both slightly up, but his ground ball to fly ball ratio is the same as last year, more or less. So he’s not really getting hit any harder.

But you know what is really different? The Phillies defense. Last year, the Phillies posted a .703 defensive efficiency (which is basically how many balls in play the defense converted into outs, or outs/balls in play), third in the NL and sixth in MLB. This year? .683, twenty-sixth in the majors. The four teams that rank below the Phillies include the Brewers, the Royals, the Rockies (who have mysteriously forgotten how to field all together), and the Tigers (who are going for the record in “Most DHs playing out of position in a season”). So yeah, maybe there are some legs on the “Bad Defense” theory.

“Sunday's start indicates that sometimes Lee's desire to not walk anybody can bite him. Brooks Conrad delivered the big hits on Sunday and there was nothing lucky about them. In the second inning, after Lee had walked Jeff Keppinger, and Ben Zobrist singled and Sean Rodriguez doubled to deep center, Conrad lined a 3-0 pitch down the left-field line for a two-run double. Sure, maybe Lee wasn't expecting the green light at 3-0, but the fact is he fell behind in the count. In the sixth, after Zobrist singled and Rodriguez walked with two outs, Conrad crushed 1-1 fastball down the middle off the scoreboard in right-center for another two-run double. They were two bad pitches, with Lee's usual pinpoint command, and Conrad made him pay.”
Doesn’t this sound familiar? If you didn’t read that Crashburn Alley piece earlier, go do so. Specifically, the part about the Cardinals.*

*For Cardinals fans, this has the dual purpose of giving you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Really, it’s picking a small sample size. It’s baseball; weird things happen. One minute, you’re the worst fielder in history; the next, you’re crushing a perennial Cy Young candidate. Neither one of them actually indicates his real talent level; it’s just random variation. You play 162 games a year, and some bizarre things pop up from time to time.

Maybe he isn’t as good as last year, but he also finished third in Cy Young voting last year. There isn’t a whole lot of room to move up there. And even then, it isn’t like he’s been awful this year; he’s still pitching at an All-Star level.

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