Every season there are a number of players who receive a ton of credit for having an outstanding year they aren’t actually having. I get that deciding what constitutes luck is sometimes a debatable and arbitrary process, but there are certain statistical situations that basically scream for a player to regress in a horrific way. For this post, I’m taking a look at a few pitchers that are having plus seasons on the surface, but could easily have seen worse (perhaps even disastrous) results instead. I chose pitchers because of the abundance of peripherals we have to examine; there is a good deal of work to be done when it comes to the general public in properly evaluating pitcher value, and perception is quite frequently wrong. For the sake of getting as much data as possible, I limited the candidates to starters for the time being.
Here are a few guys you may have heard were having great seasons, but really aren’t. A caveat: just because someone who pitches for your favorite team is on this list does not mean I’m insulting the pitcher. He may in fact be a quality starting pitcher; I’m merely suggesting that his 2012 numbers may be a little misleading to this point.
Ryan Dempster, Chicago Cubs
Dempster has had a good run in the Cubs starting rotation these past several years. And don’t get me wrong: there’s no doubt he’s done a lot of things well this season. Many fans may be inclined to put Dempster in the least lucky pitchers category due to the fact that he has a 1.86 ERA and only five wins on the year. Yeah, that sucks, admittedly. After all, one largely useless pitching stat might as well go ahead and help out the other largely useless pitching stat. In a normal year, Dempster would probably have more than five wins for his efforts, but he would also have a higher ERA as well. The 35-year-old has done a great job of improving his control later in his career, and he remains capable of picking up a fair amount of strikeouts, so it isn’t all bad. His xFIP of 3.13 still points to him having a very nice season, too, so when I say he’s been one of the luckiest pitchers in baseball, I don’t mean to say it’s all been luck. I just think there’s enough of a discrepancy in his peripherals to indicate this year could be much, much different for him. You know, if he wasn’t stranding a league leading 85.5% of his runners or sporting a .242 BABIP. He’s also seen an unwarranted drop in home runs allowed despite getting fewer outs on the ground than he has since 2002. Like I said, Dempster’s had a great year, but it wouldn’t be shocking if that ERA took a big hit before the season’s end. Ironically, he’ll probably end up winning a higher percentage of his remaining starts in the process of regressing. That’s another reason why wins mean nothing, or at least mostly nothing.
Vogelsong is a great story. After being drafted in the fifth round by the Giants in 1998, he was soon shipped off to Pittsburgh as part of the deal that brought Jason Schmidt to the Bay Area. Despite absurd K/9 rates that indicated he was capable of utter dominance in the minors, especially before he reached Double-A, Vogelsong had a very unseemly start to his major league career when he finally got a chance to pitch regularly at the game’s highest level. After the 2006 season he had logged 315 innings in his career, and the accompanying stats were not pleasant: a 5.86 ERA, a 1.59 WHIP, a somewhat pedestrian 6.2 K/9 rate, and a 4.4 BB/9 rate. After several years away from the game that included a stint in Japan, Vogelsong returned to the majors last season and was a completely different pitcher — a good one. He’s already thrown nearly as many innings since his return as he had in his career before that point, and the numbers are much better. It’s easy to be happy for Vogelsong considering his newfound success, but part of it appears to be luck this season. Take, for instance, his .249 BABIP. It was .280 a season ago, and it’s .288 for his career; that number is bound to rise. He’s also stranding 85.1% of his runners, an astronomical rate that is absolutely not sustainable, even more than the BABIP. His control is solid, but he still doesn’t miss as many bats as a premium starter should (6.5 K/9). Oh yes, and his ERA (2.31) is well off the mark of his FIP (3.73) and xFIP (4.40), and there’s really no better indicator of luck than an ERA that’s two runs below a more advanced pitching metric. Vogelsong is a capable starting pitcher to be sure, and he deserves credit for rebuilding his career, but you might be tempted to overvalue him based on a solid 7-4 record with that 2.31 ERA. Don’t be deceived.
Uh oh, now I’m really picking on a big name. Weaver has been an All-Star three seasons in a row, a top finalist for the Cy Young Award the past two seasons, and is still just 29. Let me also state for the record that I always liked the guy and considered his reputation to be rightly earned. That’s all changed this season. First of all, what’s going on with Weaver’s K/9 rate? It peaked at 9.3 in 2010, dropped to 7.6 a year ago, and now stands at 6.7 this season, the second lowest total of his career. It appears at this point that the 2010 results were a complete anomaly, but if I were an Angel fan I would have hoped it was a sign of things to come for a still improving top flight starter. Apparently that wasn’t the case, and now it continues to get worse. PITCH/fx does indicate a slight drop in velocity (88.3 MPH) on his fastball this season, although he was throwing almost this slowly back in 2009 and got it back up the next few years. It’s back down in 2012, and so are his K/9 rates. I can’t profess to know why these things are fluctuating so much with Weaver, but the fact remains his results this year are not coming the same way. He has the lowest BABIP of any qualifying starter in baseball (.233), and he’s continuing his usual trend of escaping jams at a high rate (79.7% of runners stranded this year, an even 77.0% for his career; both are very high). On the plus side, his control is as good as ever, so maybe he’s making an effort to pitch more to contact and forget about missing bats, but the fact remains that his 11-1 record and 2.26 ERA are going to put in consideration for a Cy Young award if he keeps it up, and there are other pitchers far more deserving, pitchers that have a lower xFIP than 3.95 for instance. Weaver’s a good pitcher, even a great one, but he’s not having the best season of his career at all; in fact, he’s taken quite a step down from his last two campaigns.