Last week, I took a look at some of the luckiest pitchers in baseball and found a surprise or two. These were guys who seemed to be having great seasons on the surface, but digging deeper to the less obvious stats revealed them to be perhaps more lucky than deserving thus far. There were many factors I looked for: uninspiring K/BB ratios, deceivingly low ERA’s, unsustainable BABIP totals, and an absurd amount of runners being stranded on base among the most important. So what if I turn the criteria around and look for pitchers that are getting pounded by the fans and media far more than they actually should be getting pounded by opposing hitters?
The results, as I mentioned last time, come with a caveat. I’m not trying to claim that any pitcher who makes this list is necessarily good; I’m simply trying to locate those who have been somewhat unfortunate and might expect a bounce back in the last two months of the season. Just like I did last time, I’m only going to include qualifying starters in the discussion, as relievers typically don’t handle enough innings for this kind of analysis to work quite as effectively. Now, without further delay, take a look at three starting pitchers who haven’t been as bad as you might have thought!
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
How many Giant fans do you think have taken a plunge off the Golden Gate Bridge thinking that Tiny Tim’s career was over based on the way he was pitching this year? None? Even so, a lot of people around baseball are deeply concerned about the two-time Cy Young winner. In a way, they’re right to be, but certainly not because of his 4-10 record (who cares?) and 5.72 ERA. The smallish righty has experienced a notable dip in velocity according to PITCHf/x, and his control has been going the wrong way for several seasons now, but he’s still been a lot better than the obvious stats suggest. His K/9 rate, for instance, is actually up from a year ago and is back around his normal career total, which is a good sign. Yes, he’s giving up more hits than usual, but part of that could be explained by a .323 BABIP that is 27 points higher than his career mark. He’s also seeing a slightly larger amount of fly balls leave the park (probably not his fault) and an unheard of strand rate of 61.9%. If you remember last week’s post, you might recall that Lincecum’s teammate Ryan Vogelsong has a strand rate that is 23.3% higher. Lincecum’s FIP and xFIP are both around two full runs lower than his ERA; yeah, the guy’s been extremely unlucky. That isn’t to say he’s as good as ever, because he’s by no means performing the way fans should have expected him to in his peak seasons, but it would really be wise to step away from that bridge. There’s still hope for The Freak. By the way, that nickname probably isn’t helping his confidence any.
The former top prospect from Farmington, Missouri may have already worn out his welcome in Baltimore according to some of the recent trade rumors, but that would be a shame. Arrieta has gotten a little better each season since being called up to the majors in 2010, and at just 26, his best years are still in front of him. This year he’s flashing some outstanding peripherals (7.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9) while pitching in a very difficult division. The problem is that he’s 3-9 with a 6.13 ERA. Since you’re reading this article, you know by now that I’m about to tell you he actually deserves much better. Indeed, Arrieta’s strand rate is the lowest of all qualifying starters at 58.2% (you read that right), his BABIP is .324, and his xFIP is almost two and a half runs lower than this ERA. Despite his atrocious looking traditional stats, FanGraphs still values Arrieta at 1.6 WAR on the season. It would be foolish to give up on a young pitcher while his stock is so low when better things could easily be around the corner.
Lester falls into the Tim Lincecum category — ie why is this proven star struggling so badly? And like with Lincecum, there are some alarming trends in the 28-year-old’s numbers. In the prime of his career, it doesn’t seem to make sense that his K/9 rate is dwindling so dramatically, from nearly 10.0 in 2009 to 9.7 in 2010 to 8.6 in 2011, and finally to 7.5 this season. Unlike Lincecum, it doesn’t appear that his velocity is down any noteworthy amount, and his control is actually getting better rather than worse. The end result is that Lester is still a fantastic pitcher, even without the gaudy strikeout totals from previous seasons. He also gets more than his share of ground ball outs, so if he wanted to become a more pitch-to-contact sort, it would probably work out fine for him. This season, opponents are lucking their way into a .332 BABIP against him, and an unusual amount of their fly balls are leaving the park (14.4% in 2012, just 9.9% for his career). These aren’t really things Lester has any say in; if he did, you can bet he’d put a stop to it considering his six-foot-four, 240 pound frame. The two-time All-Star may have a 5.46 ERA so far in 2012, but both his FIP (4.18) and xFIP (3.80) indicate that it won’t be that high for long. If there’s anything wrong with Lester at all, it isn’t much, even if his age-28 season isn’t as dominant as one might have thought it would be a few years ago.