In recent times, pitchers generally been rewarded for three performance skills: strikeout rate, walk rate and ground-ball percentage. The influence of the BABIP Gods has largely been ignored or discounted.
Blaine Boyer has pitched in parts of 10 major-league seasons. He’s never earned more than $1 million in a given year for his efforts.
He had the lowest strikeout percentage – 9.2 % – in all of baseball last season. He’s just one of two pitchers to throw at least 50 innings last season and strike out fewer than 10% of batters faced. Zach Neal was the other culprit.
Since 2014, Boyer has the eighth-lowest strikeout percentage in baseball (12.4%). He’s not an elite ground-ball pitcher. And while he limits walks, he’s not an elite command-and-control artist. His fastball velocity, and modest strikeout rates, have declined three straight seasons. He’s 35. It’s not the most glowing free-agent resume.
But since 2014, he owns a 3.31 ERA – and 3.73 FIP – despite striking out just 88 batters in 171 innings.
Boyer is interesting because he’s a pitcher of extremes. When taking into account exit velocity and pitches barreled, no pitcher induced weaker contact last season. And no pitcher missed fewer bats.
If Boyer’s agent were looking for a gift to help shop his client, it arrived Thursday when MLB.com released a list of its top-five Statcast stunners from 2016. Wrote Andrew Simon for MLB.com:
Out of 265 pitchers who had at least 150 balls put in play against them, Boyer allowed the lowest rate of barrels (1.0 percent), on the strength of an average 86.2 mph exit velocity that ranked 11th.
That avoidance of solid contact is how a pitcher with a fastball averaging less than 93 mph and with MLB’s lowest strikeout rate (minimum 40 innings) managed to survive in the big leagues. Boyer posted a 3.95 ERA across 66 innings, with only 26 Ks.
Want to see some weak contact?
How about 42 mph off the bat of Starling Marte?
Boyer produced 26 balls in play that left opponents’ bats at 70 mph or less last season.
Of the seven pitchers who have posted lower strikeout percentages than Blaine since 2014, and who have thrown at least 100 innings, each posted a 4.29 ERA or greater – nearly a full run more than Boyer’s mark. While these are still relatively small samples, as that group includes relief pitchers, all seven pitchers’ FIPs were greater than Boyer’s. From a results-based perspective, the most similar pitcher to Blaine in the top 10 was Mark Buehrle, owner of the ninth-lowest strikeout percentage (12.5%) since 2014. Buehrle has long has been lauded for his guile and ability to perform despite bat-missing stuff. Buehrle was the only other pitcher in the group with a sub-4 ERA.
The heart of the matter is this: how much control did Boyer have over the weak contact he induced last season?
It’s clear that batters exert considerable control over their exit velocities. Giancarlo Stanton is loud proof of that. It’s less clear how much control pitchers have, though they certainly have less control. But how much less control? FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards studied the relationship earlier this week.
Edwards’ findings support the prevailing view: while there appears to be some relationship between a pitcher and the quality of contact he allows, it’s certainly not strong when compared hitters. And the industry is still working with only two years of Statcast data.
A season earlier — in 2015, the first year of Statcast data in all MLB parks — Boyer also produced a weak average exit velocity, 87.8 mph, but was ranked 78th – compared to 11th in 2016 – out of pitchers who had at least 150 balls put in play. His barrel percentage was 4.5%, ranking 178th. That’s quite a bit of variability.
He’s also evolved from throwing a four-seam fastball as his primary pitch to a two-seamer, throwing the sinker 39.9% of the time last year. Statcast data shows that the pitch has above-average spin and produced below-average exit velocity:
Over last two seasons he’s made this unlikely formula for success work.
Boyer posted a 2.49 ERA (4.00 FIP) with he Twins in 2015, with a similarly lowly strikeout percentage (12.3%) in 65 innings. In 2016, Boyer posted a solid but unspectacular 3.95 ERA and 3.96 FIP thanks to the weakest contact generated in the sport.
How much was luck based? How much was skill based? How much is tied to a trait like deception, which is difficult to quantify? Is a team willing to bet a guaranteed contract on the skill set in 2017?
He’s not a perfect test case: as noted, he’s 35 and his fastball has declined from an average of 93 mph in 2014 to 91.4 mph last season.
Boyer isn’t a bet to break the bank. He pitched last season on a one-year, $1 million contract. We’re waiting to learn just what kind of contract he will agree to this offseason, we’re waiting to learn if there’s a major-league contract to be had for Boyer.
But before Statcast’s arrival, Boyer might have been in trouble. Now perhaps he’s an interesting test case. Is there any team willing to buy into Boyer’s magic act?