I’m not exactly sure how Major League Baseball players feel about fame, but you can probably guess what they think about infamy. You want to leave your mark because of your greatness, not because of some asterisk or fluke or memorable gaffe.
Cliff Lee is a fine pitcher. Fine like diamonds, not like, say, a Subaru Justy. He’s been among the elite starting pitchers going on five straight seasons. And he’s is making history this season. But probably not the way he wants to.
I doubt that the recording of the win and reliance on ERA were the genesis of sabermetrics. But a lot of what exists here — both in the statistic and narrative format — is because of a disdain for traditional measures of what supposedly makes a pitcher good.
But allow me to depart from that for a moment, because Lee is accomplishing something that’s rarely seen: He’s been a dominant pitcher without earning many wins this year. It’s not that I like the win any more than anyone else, I just like the significance of the anomaly that we’re seeing.
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Rick Porcello throws a slider. He doesn’t throw it very often, but when he does, the results are typically disastrous. You might be able to work in a not-very-great pitch if everything else you had in your repertoire was overwhelming, but for the ground-balling Porcello, that’s just not the case.
But let me step back a moment. Rick Porcello is having a very Rick Porcello-like season, which, objectively, is just a wee bit better than your average starter. His 4.57 ERA is spot on with his career 4.55, his 3.82 FIP is the lowest of his career, and he’s striking out more batters than he has in his career with a 13.6% strikeout rate. Peachy.
Within the drama of the pennant races and playoff chases exists a more morbid pursuit. Towards the end of the season, I always like to rummage through our vast chasm of data to see if there are players that have a chance to be historically bad in any particular category. Maybe it’s because I typically root for teams that play below .500 baseball, but I have an appreciation for the uniqueness of the ugly.
To that end, I looked at starting pitchers. Specifically, pitchers that had a penchant for allowing home runs. And that turned up Ervin Santana. (honorable mention to Phil Hughes). Suddenly, I have a new outcome to root for.
If you knew exactly what pitch was coming, it would probably be easier to hit. Somehow, Wade Miley is an exception.
Miley’s season has been quite a pleasant surprise for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s amassed 14 wins and a shiny 2.80 ERA, corroborated by a 3.09 FIP. He’s given up fewer hits than innings pitched and he’s been almost as stingy as Cliff Lee with his walks. He’s probably the leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year right now, or at least one of the co-favorites along with Todd Frazier.
And yet, Miley is getting it done by throwing almost 75% fastballs. If they were really special fastballs, that’s one thing – but the league average fastball velocity is 91.1 mph and Miley’s is, yep, 91.1 mph. So how is he finding success throwing average fastballs perpetually in the strike zone?
On Sunday, Jon Lester took the hill as a pitcher who had been beaten up over the last month. In his previous six starts, Jon Lester had an 0-5 record with a 8.73 ERA, allowing a .321/.385/.588 slash line to opposing hitters. He had given up 42 hits in these six starts and almost half of them were for extra bases. The vultures were swarming above Fenway, and many observers were simply waiting for the inevitable announcement that he was hurt. After establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League, Lester was having his worst season as a major league pitcher, and it was only getting uglier as the season wore on.
And then on Sunday, Lester went and struck out 12 Cleveland Indians over six innings pitched. He gave up just three hits, all singles. He likely could have gone deeper in this one, but the Red Sox were already up 14-1 at that point. After weeks of getting beaten around like a Triple-A reject, he was nearly unhittable. Did Lester do anything fundamentally different in this outing, or was this just the old adage of sun on a dogs backside?
I had the opportunity to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers game on Saturday, which saw Chad Billingsley face off with Barry Zito. While I knew Billingsley was having a resurgence of sorts, his stellar outing versus the San Francisco Giants on this day sent me to the Fangraphs leader board where you can see him currently at 2.3 wins above replacement — hanging out with the likes of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Madison Bumgarner. Despite posting just six wins thus far, it turns out that Chad Billingsley is having a rather superb season, and I’m not too sure that many saw it coming after a disappointing 2011.
For his first ten seasons, Ichiro Suzuki frustrated opposing pitchers as much as any other hitter in Major League Baseball. He was impossible to strike out, he could turn ugly slap-hits into singles, and despite (or because of) his disinterest in walking, he would still take a ball off his shoelaces and gap it for a double. He possessed a Rod Carew-like uncanny ability to square up un-hittable pitches coupled with a rock star identity and a rather elegant stoicism. What’s more, Ichiro was putting backsides in seats when the Seattle Mariners sorely needed something to boast about.
From 2001-2010, Ichiro amassed 53 wins above replacement, second only to Barry Bonds for qualified outfielders. He was in every way a superstar. But the decline in the last two seasons has been swift. For the last two seasons, Ichiro has hit a combined .268/.302/.341. Among the 58 qualified outfielders over the last two years, Ichiro is 58th in wOBA at .286 and 58th in wRC+ with 80. Go ahead and look beyond the stat sheet — your eyes can clearly see that he’s lost more than a step on the base paths, and his offensive skills have diminished to a level where he rarely makes much of an offensive contribution anymore.
With due respect to landing a quad, it is believed that one of the hardest things to do in organized professional sports is hit a baseball. Relief pitchers across Major League Baseball are taking that to a new level in 2012.
Since 1961, there have been exactly twelve instances of players registering a strikeout rate above 40%. Five of them are from 2012. While the season is clearly not over yet and we could see declines in strikeout rates, this could be considered the greatest group of relievers, relative to strikeouts, in MLB history.
Back in March, there were still questions about whether Jeff Samardzija could successfully transition into a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. The lanky right-hander served mostly as a long-duty reliever in 2011 and while he found a good deal of success in that role, his considerable talent wasn’t being fully utilized.
His 2012 Spring Training results were good, though not spectacular. He won three of his five appearances, but he also gave up ten earned runs over 20 innings pitched. Most importantly, however, Samardzija only walked one batter to 16 strikeouts. This progress, along with the sizable Spring eggs that both Alberto Cabrera and Travis Wood laid helped manager Dale Sveum and staff to give Samardzija the nod.
And Samardzija did his part to make them look pretty smart. April was a bit of a mixed bag with a couple of stinkers book-ended by a pair of gems, but in May he really settled in, holding batters to just a .218/.282/.380 line. Over his first ten starts, Samardzija had a 3.09 ERA, 9.14 K/9, a 2.67 BB/9 rate, and although he had only five wins, the Cubs had won seven of those ten starts. Samardzija had pitched seven innings or more in five of his ten starts and he was beginning to emerge as a legitimate pitcher to fear in the National League.
I think it was Earl Wilson who said baseball is a nervous breakdown, divided into nine innings, or something to that effect. I imagine the Atlanta Braves are starting to relate to that sentiment.
On May 20, the Braves beat the Tampa Bay Rays 5-3 in rather classic Braves style — with a win, a hold and a save from Tommy Hanson, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. They were 25-15 and stood atop the National League East by a game-and-a-half and appeared to be a serious playoff contender — if not the likely NL East champs. Since then, they’ve gone 9-16, they’re 4.5 games back of the Washington Nationals and they’re fighting to stay in contention for a wild card spot.