The lowest career batting average on balls in play (BABiP) for a pitcher with 2,000 innings since WWII is Andy Messersmith with .249. So, pursuant to the purpose of this post, I have one question: Is Trevor Cahill the next Andy Messersmith?
To answer this question, let’s first define batting average on balls in play, BABiP. According to The Hardball Times, BABiP is “a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). The exact formula we use is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF)*…”
*H = Hits, HR = Home runs, AB = At bats, K = Strikeouts, SF = Sacrifice flies
In a nutshell, pitchers typically will have a BABiP that hovers around .300, which is league average. A few, a very select few, will continually post BABiP below .300 but they are a rare breed. The pitchers that continually do are typically blessed 1) a very good defense supporting them and 2) a profound ability to produce soft contact, or at least balls put into play that become outs more than their average (non) peers. Tom Glavine (.286 career) was one of these folks – specifically when he was in his prime and getting strikes called six inches off the plate – and Matt Cain has emerged as a possible candidate for such magic as well – his career BABiP is .274 in over 1,000 innings.
When a pitcher has an unusually low BABiP in a season, you can bet that his ERA will be untypically low and his fielding independent pitching (FIP) appreciably higher than his ERA.
Let us also define fielding independent pitching (or FIP), a statistic I somewhat frequently use on my site. FIP (as defined by The Hardball Times (THT) is “a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically – [or in my opinion, mostly] – responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP**, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well [or poorly] his fielders fielded. FIP was invented by Tom Tango.
**BB = Walks, HBP = Hit Batters, IBB = Inentional Walks, HR = Home runs, K = Stikeouts, IP = Innings Pitched
In Layman’s terms: a pitcher is mostly responsible for striking out as many batters as possible, walking as few as possible, and not giving up home runs. When a batter puts the ball in play, the pitcher can do nothing to determine if an out will be recorded, because he may have a bunch of crummy fielders, or he may have a bunch of brilliant fielders. FIP eliminates the element of chance, and is an excellent predictor of what a pitchers future ERA will be, which brings us back to Trevor Cahill.
In 2010, no starting pitcher in the major leagues with a qualifying number of innings finished with a lower BABiP. Cahill’s finished at a remarkable .238. Now Cahill has shown some ability to post below average BABiP’s – his was .276 in 2009 – which makes his career mark .257. That being said, he’s only thrown 375 innings in his career and thus the jury is very much still out. What’s more, Cahill has had the luxury of 1) pitching in a wonderful pitchers park*** as well as 2) having one of the premier infield (and outfield) defenses behind him.
***In addition to having an expansive outfield which limits home runs, Oakland has enormous foul ground real estate which allows the fielders to track down pop ups and foul flies that would otherwise land in the stands in many parks, take AT&T Park for example.
At first base, the A’s have Daric Barton. Barton was considered the best first baseman in baseball this season according to the fielding bible, an award so far more legitimate than the Gold Glove that… well, Jeter won the Gold Glove for AL shortstops yesterday, what’s that tell you?
At second base, the A’s have Mark Ellis. Ellis placed third in the 2010 fielding bible, only behind Chase Utley, making him the American League’s second best second bagger. Ellis is one of the best second baseman’s over the past decade or so, though he much like Utley - who was snubbed again this year - has yet to win the recognized hardware (Gold Glove).
At shortstop, the A’s had Cliff Pennington. Pennington placed seventh in the 2010 fielding bible voting behind a group of stellar candidates including Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus, and Alexei Ramirez.
At third base, the A’s had Kevin Kouzmanoff. Kouzmanoff is famous for his best ever fielding percentage in 2009, which landed his glove in Cooperstown. Well, he finished ninth in the fielding bible voting for 2010, making him a top ten third baseman, defensively, in all of baseball.
Knowing this information is extremely important, because we know that ground balls ultimately become outs more often than any other batted ball, ahead of fly balls and far ahead of line drives. A ground ball will become an out about 50% of the time. What’s more, we know that Cahill is an extreme ground ball pitcher (56% in 2010). Given all of these factors, i.e. his stellar infield defense and ability to induce ground balls in heaps, we can deduce that Trevor Cahill was put into probably the very best position possible to succeed.
The A’s defense ranked fifth in the major leagues in 2010 with a 4.8 UZR (according to Fangraphs), also good for the very best in the American League. Must be nice, Trevor.
So if say, and god forbid, Mark Ellis or Cliff Pennington or Daric Barton or Kevin Kouzmanoff gets hurt next season – or worse, if more than one is unable to play often – it’s reasonable to surmise that Cahill will have a much more difficult time having balls that are put into play converted into outs. And if you couple that with his very un-stellar 5.4 strikeouts per 9 innings, non-great 2.88 walks per 9 innings and decent .87 home runs per 9 innings; well, Houston, we have a problem.
Because of Cahill’s serendipitous .238 BABiP, he finished the season with 18 wins (on a mediocre team with an anemic offense) and a 2.97 ERA. A buddy of mine named Paul, a fervent (and evidently optimistic) A’s fan, decided it would be wise to bet me $20 that Cahill would finish 2011 with a better ERA. Uh-oh. As it turns out, Cahill’s FIP was 4.19. That means that his FIP – and I remind you, FIP is an excellent indicator of future ERA – was 1.22 runs worse than his ERA. So it seems exceedingly unlikely that he’ll even match his ERA, let alone better it. But that’s just a statement without some evidence, so here goes.
From 2001-2009, 25 pitchers with a qualified number of innings had an ERA lower than their FIP by 1 run or more. Let’s look at them and see how well they performed in terms of ERA in the season following.
In 2001, Jason Johnson finished with an ERA of 4.09 and a FIP of 5.12. The following season his ERA went to 4.59 in 131 innings. Tom Glavine finished with an ERA of 3.57 and a FIP of 4.77. The following season his ERA actually went down to 2.96 in 224 innings. He’s our first exception. Tom Glavine, as I mentioned before, was a career beater of BABiP. In the season following his +1 or more FIP, Glavine reduced his HR per 9 innings rate and essentially repeated his BABiP, which helps to explain his better ERA in 2002. Joe Mays recorded a 3.16 ERA and a FIP of 4.27. The following season his ERA shot to 4.38 in 95 innings.
In 2002, Tom Glavine recorded a 2.96 ERA and a 4.20 FIP. The following season his ERA shot to 4.52 in 183 innings. It seems the law of averages brought him back to earth, as his BABiP was a very normal .297. Kirk Rueter recorded a 3.23 ERA with a 4.43 FIP. The following season his ERA shot to 4.53 in 147 innings. Elmer Dessens finished with a 3.03 ERA and a 4.61 FIP. The following season his ERA jumped to 5.07 in 175 innings. Barry Zito had a 2.75 ERA and a 3.87 FIP. The next season he finished with a 3.30 ERA in 231 innings. Also in 2002, Damian Moss had a 3.42 ERA and 4.77 FIP. He finished 2003 with a 5.16 ERA in 165 innings.
In 2003, Kip Wells had a 3.28 ERA and a 4.38 FIP. He pitched 138 innings in 2004 with a 4.45 ERA. Hideo Nomo had a nice ERA of 3.09 but a worse 4.20 FIP. He threw just 84 innings the following season and finished with a disgusting 8.25 ERA. Ryan Franklin pitched to a 3.57 ERA and a 5.17 FIP – a huge delta – and unsurprisingly his ERA rocketed to 4.90 the following season.
In 2004, Jose Lima finished with a medicore 4.07 ERA but a 5.09 FIP. He threw 168 more innings in 2005 but his ERA raced to 6.99. Al Leiter also pitched to a nice 3.21 ERA, but had that pesky FIP at 4.76. He would throw another 142 innings the following season but the ERA would nearly double to 6.13. Ouch.
In 2005, Jarrod Washburn finished with a 3.20 ERA and a 4.35 FIP. His 2006 wouldn’t go nearly as well as he added enough runs to run his 2006 total to the tune of a 4.67 ERA in 187 innings. Bruce Chen miraculously recorded a 3.83 ERA (but 4.94 FIP). He tossed 98 innings the following season and must have delighted with his 6.93 ERA. Roger Clemens, as good as he was, had a 1.87 ERA and 2.87 FIP, but I guess it wasn’t sustainable as his ERA went to a still great 2.30 the following season in just 113 innings.
In 2006, Barry Zito again beat the FIP (4.89) with a 3.83 ERA, but the following season it jumped to 4.53 in 196 glorious innings for his new team the San Francisco Giants, immediately endearing himself to the fans with his $126 million dollar contract and wonderful results. Chris Young had a 3.46 ERA and a 4.60 FIP, but is our second exception as he threw 173 innings in 2007 and bettered his ERA to 3.12. In his case, he was still playing in the wonderful pitchers park of Petco, and furthermore, he somehow cut his home run rate nearly into a third, going from 1.41 in 2006 to just .52 in 2007. His xFIP (a measure that does the same thing as FIP except it pushes a pitchers HR rate more towards league average – which I’ve covered before and will mention again – was a huge 4.60 when compared to his ERA. And his ERA did indeed rise to 3.96 in 2008 when his HR rate returned to normal levels.
In 2008, Daisuke Matsuzaka had a great 2.90 ERA but a very average 4.03 FIP. In just 59 unsuccessful innings following that campaign, Dice-K ran his ERA to 5.76. Armando Glarraga – Mr. Imperfect Game himself – had a 3.73 ERA and a 4.88 FIP. He too came back to earth with a 5.64 ERA in 143 innings the next season.
In 2009, Kevin Millwood showed some promise with a 3.67 ERA but had a 4.80 FIP. His luck ran out the following season with a 5.10 ERA. Jair Jurrjens pitched well and to a 2.60 ERA and 3.68 FIP, but plummeted to 4.64 ERA in 116 innings this season. J.A. Happ was a Rookie of the Year candidate because of his 2.93 ERA in 166 innings with a 4.33 FIP. But, and most people saw this coming, he finished with a still pretty good 3.40 ERA in 2010 but pitched just 87 innings. Finally, Matt Cain – who, as I mentioned, is a candidate as one of those pitchers that can actually beat FIP continually – had a 2.89 ERA and a 3.89 FIP, but wasn’t able to match it in 2010 as his ERA moved up to 3.14 in 217 innings.
To summarize, of the just 25 pitchers in the past 9 years to have an ERA 1 run or more better than their FIP in the same season, 23 of 25 came back the following season with a worse (if not far worse) ERA. Of the two exceptions, Young and Glavine, one was able to do it by chopping his HR rate into a third with the help of the unfriendliest HR yard in baseball, and the other was a perennial beater of FIP who also lowered his HR rate and BABiP – though only by a point with the latter. On average – and granted this is not weighted by innings – their ERA was 1.5 runs higher the following season, which is an enormous difference.
Will Trevor Cahill have a 2.96 ERA or better in 2011? Maybe. But the smart money is that he won’t, and it’s more likely he won’t even approach such a brilliant ERA. I think my $20 is safe. I think it’s also pretty safe to say: in terms of Trevor Cahill, Andy Messersmith he is not