BABIP for Pitchers
As has been previously alluded to, there is considered to be a great amount of randomness when it comes to balls in play. I do acknowledge, however, that there is some skill of the hitter involved when it comes to having success with balls in play. We looked at Joe Mauer whose career BABIP is about .344. Also, good hitters like Jason Bay & Ryan Braun can have career BABIP around .330, when the MLB average is close to .300. And we also looked at some weaker hitters, like Orlando Cabrera among others, who have a BABIP in the .280s. And then there’s Rod Barajas. Poor, poor Rod Barajas.
But even when a hitter establishes his own career standard for BABIP, there still can be substantial fluctuation from one season to the next. And said fluctuation is often greatly due to randomness.
So you’re probably tired of hearing about randomness. “Move on, you jerk. We get it!” And if those are your thoughts, you’re probably hoping that this is the installment when I start talking about things that are controllable and are less due to randomness.
Sorry. This is not the one.
In fact, comparing hitters’ BABIP to pitchers’ BABIP, the hitter has substantially more influence on his BABIP than a pitcher does. That’s right. I’m saying that pitchers’ BABIP is even MORE due to randomness than it is for hitters.
Your likely thoughts:
Okay, wise guy.
1. Proving It
Each hitter has his own skill level. Some are indeed better than others. Some make good leadoff hitters. Some are good cleanup hitters. Some are good for being buried at the bottom of the order. And their skill level does affect how well they may make contact with the ball and the likelihood that it might lead to a base hit...marginally.
The pitcher has his own skill level too. But the pitcher faces all various kinds of hitters including those described above. Sure, a pitcher has to face Joe Mauer. But he also faces the 8 & 9 hitters of every lineup. Because the pitcher faces all sorts of type of hitter with varying batted ball skills, and the difference of BABIP for hitters is already rather marginal, the pitcher’s BABIP is even less a result of his skill.
Let’s perform another small sampling.
I sorted all pitchers who had 162+ innings in 2009 in the NL by reverse alphabetical order and chose the first 10 names (actually names 6-15 reverse alphabetically…I don’t have a Baseball-Reference.com subscription so they don’t allow me to see the top 5 in the search). And fortunately, they each have at least 300-400 innings pitched in their career so we have at least that much of a track record for each pitcher. They are: Javier Vazquez, Max Scherzer, Johan Santana, Jonathan Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez, Joel Pineiro, Mike Pelfrey, Roy Oswalt, Ross Ohlendorf, and Ricky Nolasco.
We have a couple aces, a couple established veterans, and a few others who are still trying to establish themselves. Here is a listing of their career BABIP-allowed from lowest to highest:
.286 .294 .301 .303 .303 .307 .310 .314 .315 .315
Let’s compare that with our random sampling of 10 hitters from the BABIP Supplement article:
.251 .282 .286 .287 .297 .305 .326 .327 .328 .336
Hitters high: .336
Pitchers high: .315
Hitters low: .251
Pitchers low: .286
Hitters range from top to bottom: 85 points
Pitchers range from top to bottom: 29 points
Okay, maybe there are severe extremes that skew the range. Let’s look at the quarter-points of each sample, those ranking #3 & #8:
Hitters 3rd highest: .327
Pitchers 3rd highest: .314
Hitters 8th highest: .286
Pitchers 8th highest: .301
Hitters range from #3 to #8: 41 points
Pitchers range from #3 to #8: 13 points
Certainly there is much more variation between hitters’ BABIP than pitchers from our small random samplings. In fact, 6 of the 10 hitters had a BABIP outside of the entire range of our 10 pitchers! Only 4 hitters fell within our pitchers’ 29 point range.
Hitters average: .303...range goes from up 33 to down 52
Pitchers average: .305…range goes from up 10 to down 19
Both samples’ average still hovers around the .300 mark. But clearly there is less fluctuation with pitchers’ BABIP than hitters’. The skill of the pitcher is less represented in BABIP than for hitters.
So, let’s return to the sample data. Can we even clearly identify which pitchers match with which career BABIP allowed? Look at the names. Look at the BABIP. You’d think that the pitcher with the lowest BABIP allowed would be Johan Santana, wouldn’t you?
Well, you’d be right. The .286 belongs to Johan. And Johan is so good, that he is one of the few pitchers whose skill level can be detected by BABIP. Examine Johan’s BABIP per season, starting with 2003 when he first came close to qualifying for the ERA title:
Steadily in the .280s, and never even hits the .300 mark.
“Well, Chuck. Johan sure seems to have blown your little theory there.”
It looks like it. Or perhaps not. Johan ranks among the elite pitchers of his era and will go down as one of the greatest of all time. I don’t mind consenting to the fact that the most elite of pitchers can have an impact on their BABIP. But that kind of skill level being detectable by BABIP does not go far beyond the most elite.
Who from that list would you expect to be #2? And who would you think would be last? The rest of the list is a jumbled up mess. I’ll give you Johan and his clear ability to maintain a below-average BABIP. The other 9, from 2-10, is completely indistinguishable.
My take on who I would rank #2 from this group is Roy Oswalt. Is he the proud possessor of the .294 BABIP that ranks 2nd?
Nope. Oswalt is at .303; middle of the pack. Okay, if it’s not Oswalt, then it should be Javier Vazquez. Nope. Vazquez is the .307.
My guess is that Ross Ohlendorf would rank last of the group. Would anyone argue that? Even if you would disagree that he would be the worst of the bunch, you can’t make an argument that more than 1 or 2 of these guys should be ranked lower than him. But the .315s belong to Max Scherzer & Mike Pelfrey. The .314? Ricky Nolasco.
Okay, so where does Ohlendorf rank?
He’s the .294!
“Are you telling me that Ross Ohlendorf is better than Oswalt, Vazquez, Pineiro, Nolasco and the rest?”
No. That exactly what I’m not telling you. I’m telling you that one pitcher’s BABIP is indistinguishable from the next, with the exception that the most elite of the elite might be able to stand out. Otherwise, BABIP is almost entirely random.
2. Why We Bother Caring
It’s a valid question to wonder why we should even bother caring what a pitcher’s BABIP is if it doesn’t tell us anything about his skill level. The whole point of statistics is to try to distinguish who has performed better than whom. BABIP doesn’t do that for us.
Pitching statistics are filled with so much noise. By noise, I mean that there are a lot of factors that go into a pitcher’s stats that the pitcher has little to no control over. Do we give a pitcher a “thumbs down” for things that go wrong that he can’t control? Or do we give him a smiley face for a job well done when his success wasn’t at all due to his skill level, but rather the skill of the defense or even the positive consequences of randomness?
Pitching stats are like a distant & faint radio signal that has a lot of static. We’re trying to decipher the signal (the true skill level of a pitcher) by filtering out the noise. BABIP is part of that noise.
The point is that we can use BABIP to determine whether a pitcher’s performance can be repeated (due to skill level) or if it was a fluke.
Look at Roy Oswalt from 2005 to 2009, and take note that his ERA is climbing with each season:
There is no correlation between his rise in ERA and BABIP. In fact, in 2008 Oswalt has the lowest BABIP since 2005 and yet had his highest ERA to that point in these seasons. Then in 2009 his ERA jumps even higher but it is not at all due to his BABIP, which is still below his seasons with sub-3.00 ERA. It’s possible that Oswalt’s rise in ERA is due to a decline of skill, not simply that he was suffering from bad luck. We can’t blame Oswalt’s decline on BABIP. His decline is obviously coming from elsewhere.
Oswalt’s 2010 ERA is currently 2.94. “Oh, hey! He’s right back to 2005 form!” Should we believe it? His 2010 BABIP is .263, which tells us that he’s been getting a lot of breaks. Heck, his previous low BABIP was .287 in 2003. He is shattering that mark.
So what does that tell us? It tells me that’s he’s not at all back to 2005 form. If his 2010 BABIP were at his career mark of .303, what would his ERA look like then? BABIP helps us not get suckered in.
Take our buddy Ross Ohlendorf. His 2008 ERA was 6.46 in 62 innings. In 2009, he had a 3.92 ERA in 176 innings. Will the real Ross Ohlendorf please stand up? His BABIP in 2008 was a fluky high.373. His 2009 BABIP was a fluky low .265. Which is the real Ross Ohlendorf: 6.46 ERA or 3.92 ERA? The truth is likely somewhere in between. We’ll see what happens when his BABIP stabilizes. In 2010, it’s .293, leading to a 4.07 ERA. There’s possibly some promise.
Among qualifiers, Randy Wolf had the NL’s lowest 2009 BABIP at .257. His ERA showed it by dropping an entire run lower than his previous low of the preceding 6 seasons.
What a drop off! Did Randy Wolf turn the corner as a pitcher at age 32? What happens when his 2010 BABIP regresses back to norm?
Whoops. Nevermind. Same old Randy Wolf.
Don’t get suckered in.