Pitching Report: Why has Strasburg been so unlucky this season?

Tuesday June 3rd, 2014

Stephen Strasburg has a .359 BABIP -- the second-highest in the league behind Jordan Zimmermann.
Alex Brandon/AP

At this point in the sabermetric revolution, even the most old-school baseball puritans will likely admit that there are a number of factors outside of a pitcher's control. Over the course of a 162-game season -- or, more likely, two or three seasons -- those luck factors should even out. In a small sample like, say, two months, luck will have a major influence over a pitcher's numbers.

There are a number of stats to quantify good luck and bad luck. Fielding independent pitching, or FIP, is a number used here often that strives to measure the outcomes over which a pitcher has total control. Take BABIP and factor in a pitcher's batted-ball rates, and you can get a sense over how fortunate or unfortunate a pitcher has been. None of these measures is perfect, but they all contribute positively and help us isolate pure pitcher performance.

Boiled down to its most basic elements, pitching is about avoiding hard contact. Neither the pitcher nor hitter has a great deal of control over what happens once the ball is put in play, but, at the risk of being obvious, the weaker a ball is hit, the better a chance the defense has to turn that into an out. Pitchers want to make hitters swing and miss, or hit the ball weakly. Hitters are trying to square the ball on the barrel and drive it with authority.

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Given the fundamental goal of the pitcher and the hitter, it stands to reason that a pitcher who allows a relatively low rate of hard-hit balls will be among the league's ERA and WHIP leaders. As we know, however, the vagaries of baseball frequently prevent that from being the case in the short term. And that brings us to Stephen Strasburg's thus-far under-appreciated 2014 season.

By many metrics, Strasburg is having a fine season. He has a 3.15 ERA, which would be the second best of his career during a season in which he qualified for the ERA title. He has a 28.5-percent strikeout rate, and has fanned 90 batters in 74 1/3 innings. He has also cut his walk rate to a would-be career low of 6 percent. On the flip side, he has a 1.28 WHIP and has surrendered 76 hits, which is the ninth most among pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched this season, and more in a similar number of innings than Jason Vargas, Lance Lynn and R.A. Dickey. Unsurprisingly, there are two very strong pieces of evidence that Strasburg has been quite unlucky this year.

The first is obvious, and it's his .359 BABIP. That's the second-highest BABIP in the league, trailing only teammate Jordan Zimmermann. Now it's certainly possible for a pitcher to post a BABIP far higher than league average if he's giving up a lot of hard-hit balls, but that is not the case with Strasburg.

Also, as Mark Simon of the wonderful ESPN Stats and Info department noted on Twitter, Strasburg has allowed hard-hit balls in just 11.9 percent of balls in play this year, the 14th-best rate in the league. There's simply no way for hitters to have a .359 BABIP against a pitcher allowing that sort of hard-hit rate unless that pitcher is wildly unlucky.

Despite his poor luck, Strasburg is having a fine season. Assuming his luck takes a turn for the better, he will notch the best year of his career.

Pitchers of the week

Tim Hudson, San Francisco Giants -- Last week: 14 IP, 2 W, 11 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.79 WHIP

Hudson continues to defy age and is one of the biggest reasons why the Giants have the best record in the majors. The righty, who will turn 39 in July, beat the Cubs and Cardinals last week, holding each scoreless in seven innings. He allowed a total of nine hits and two walks to go along with his 11 strikeouts. He's now 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA and 0.87 WHIP this year.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox -- 12 IP, 1 W, 13 K, 0.75 ERA, 0.25 WHIP

Sale had his first start last week cut short due to a rain delay, but he still gave his owners three shutout innings with four strikeouts. He used the extra rest well, dominating the Padres with a complete game victory in which he allowed one run on two hits while fanning nine.

Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox -- 13 IP, 2 W, 19 K, 2.08 ERA, 1.23 WHIP

Lester's rates last week were a bit higher than we typically see in this space, but the wins and strikeouts more than make up for it. He was merely decent in his first start of the week against the Braves, allowing three runs on eight hits in six innings with seven strikeouts. He shut down the Rays his next time out, however, tossing seven shutout innings and whiffing 12 batters. He now has 95 strikeouts and a 3.15 ERA in 80 innings this season.

Pitchers of the weak

Garrett Richards, Los Angeles Angels -- 2/3 IP, 2 K, 67.50 ERA, 12.00 WHIP

Richards got shelled in his only start last week, allowing five runs on five hits and three walks to the A's. It was the second time in his last three starts that he allowed at least five runs, though the last time he at least made it through seven innings. His ERA jumped to 3.65 from 3.00 after the outing. He still has a strong 64 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings on the season.

Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals -- 5 IP, 1 K, 12.60 ERA, 2.20 WHIP

Miller has been a bit of a disappointment this year, as he has failed to make the leap many expected of him. He allowed seven runs on nine hits and two walks in a loss to the Yankees last week. What's more, he struck out just one batter. In 61 2/3 innings this year, he has just 46 strikeouts against 32 walks.

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals -- 4 1/3 IP, 4 K, 14.54 ERA, 2.08 WHIP

It was inevitable that Wainwright would eventually have a bad start that wasn't against the Cubs (who have roughed him up twice this year) and it finally happened last week. He surrendered seven runs on eight hits and a walk in just 4 1/3 innings in a loss to the Giants. The rare tough day increased his ERA to 2.32 from 1.67. Expect him to bounce back on Tuesday against the Royals.

Chris Archer has struggled with walks this season, already issuing 26 free passes in 63 inning pitched.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

A brief look at Archer's surface stats tells a story of an underachieving pitcher. He has an even 4.00 ERA, up from last year's 3.22, and a 1.43 WHIP driven by a 9.5-percent walk rate. Look beyond that, however, and you'll find a very good pitcher who could be a cheap buy in fantasy leagues. He has a 21.6-percent strikeout rate and a higher-than-average .333 BABIP that bring his FIP all the way down to 3.14, nearly a full run better than last year. He is inducing plenty of weak contact, evidenced by a 50-percent ground-ball rate, 21.2-percent popup rate, and 5.8 percent HR/FB ratio. The free pass has been Archer's nemesis, and he has not been able to extricate himself from trouble once he puts men on base. His strand rate is 72.9 percent, which ranks 57th in the majors. With some better luck on balls in play, which his batted-ball rates suggest will come down the line, Archer's rates would greatly improve. He misses bats and racks up strikeouts, and that alone makes him valuable in fantasy leagues. Go ahead and check in on his current price tag.

Sell: Jason Hammel, Chicago Cubs

Hammel has been a sell recommendation once this season, but there are no rules against doubling down. The 31-year-old righty has been among the best pitchers in baseball this year, putting up a 2.78 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 0.87 WHIP, 1.5 fWAR and 62 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings. There's little doubt Hammel's improved performance is legitimate based on a few factors. First, his command has been much better this year. He has a 5.5-percent walk rate and 22.7-percent strikeout rate. If those numbers held for the entire season they would be the best and second best, respectively, of his career. Second, his slider, which has been an average offering for him in the past, has been very good. He throws it just shy of 30 percent of the time, and hitters have managed just a .146 batting average with a .207 slugging percentage against it, according to Brooks Baseball. The only pitch he throws more often than his slider is his four-seam fastball, displaying just how crucial the effectiveness of his slider has been this year.

And yet, it's hard to imagine Hammel doing this all year. Again, there's a foundation for his breakout, but the 31-year-old pitcher jumping a level is rare. He looks like another great find in the sign-and-flip era for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Chicago, and his fantasy owners should take a similar approach. The Orioles have been rumored to be interested in Hammel, and the Blue Jays are known to covet pitching, as well. If he ends up in the American League, he could see those rates skyrocket.

Hold: Jenrry Mejia, New York Mets

There could be some temptation among fantasy owners to shop the starter-turned-closer Mejia after he has had early success in the ninth inning. Unless you get the price of a top-10 closer, however, do not do it. That's because Mejia will rank with the very best at the position by season's end.

Even when Mejia was starting for the Mets during the first six weeks of the season, he had the stuff and attitude of a closer, namely, a power fastball, a slider with serious bite, and a curveball that gave hitters two different breaking balls to keep in mind. Mejia has gone a perfect 6-for-6 in save opportunities since being converted into the closer, allowing one earned run and 11 hits with 12 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings as a reliever. It's nearly impossible to project save opportunities based on team wins, so that's not really a worthwhile metric when judging the future value of closers. Mejia misses bats and gets a ton of ground balls. Now that he doesn't have to worry about going six or seven innings a night, expect to see his average fastball back in the 94-95 mph range it was a few seasons ago, rather than the 91-92 mph range from earlier this year. This is a top-10 closer for the rest of the season.

Rookie pitcher spotlight

Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners

Tuesday is a very important day for the future of the Seattle Mariners. Walker is scheduled to make his next rehab start as he continues to make his way back from a shoulder injury. The No. 11 prospect according to Baseball America and No. 6 prospect on MLB.com, Walker hasn't thrown an inning this year after hurting the shoulder during spring training. He was originally slated to take the mound for Triple-A Tacoma on Monday, but had his start pushed back a day. The reason? It lines him up to take over the empty spot in Seattle's rotation.

Before Yordano Ventura and Marcus Stroman, Walker was the true rookie sensation entering the 2014 season (for our purposes here, we're not including Masahiro Tanaka). He had a slot in Seattle's rotation locked down, and a pedigree that suggests he can be a frontline starter for a long time. He split 2013 between Tacoma and Double-A Jackson, amassing a 2.93 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 160 strikeouts in 141 1/3 innings. The shoulder injury derailed all that, but he appears to be back on track. While he struggled in his first rehab start with Tacoma -- the third he has made in the minors this year -- the important thing is that his shoulder felt strong. Assuming all goes well Tuesday, he should be activated over the weekend or early next week.

By the numbers

2.8 -- fWAR for Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez, the co-leaders among pitchers. Yu Darvish is just behind with 2.7, while Jon Lester (2.5) and Masahiro Tanaka (2.4) round out the top five.

2.9 -- Walk rate, measured in percentage, for Phil Hughes. His previous career best was 5.6 percent.

24.8 -- The difference, in percentage points, between Masahiro Tanaka's strikeout rate (28.7 percent) and walk rate (3.9 percent). He's every bit as dominant on this side of the Pacific as he was on the other.

2.93 -- Oakland's team ERA, narrowly edging Atlanta's 2.97 for best in the majors. This is the Pitching Report, but it bears mentioning that the A's also lead the majors with 296 runs scored. This is one of the best, if not the very best, team in the league.

58.2 -- Percentage of Nathan Eovaldi's pitches that have been in the strike zone this year, which is tops in the majors. There is such a thing as being in the zone too much. Eovaldi could be better served with more waste pitches in the mix.

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