Atlanta Braves’ starter Atlanta Braves’ starter

Brandon Beachy: MLB’s ERA Leader

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Atlanta Braves’ starter Brandon Beachy currently sits atop the MLB ERA leader board.  This fact will most likely has been surprising some followers of the game.  Beachy is a former third baseman, who went undrafted; which is nearly unheard of in baseball.  He had only 28 career starts coming into this season, a fair reason for why most casual fans had never heard of the right-hander until he jumped atop the MLB leader board, with a 1.33 ERA, this season. Last season, he led all starters (with min. 140 IP) in strikeouts per nine innings (10.74).  The combination of that incredible K-rate and Bill James’ 2012 projections led me to write a somewhat serious, yet somewhat tongue and cheek piece about how Beachy could win the 2012 NL Cy Young, this off-season. That piece concluded with a prediction that although in my opinion Beachy would not compete for the Cy Young, he would, however, be Atlanta’s best starter, in 2012, and into the indefinite future.

Thus far, Beachy has been baseball’s best starter, in terms of ERA.  But he has also been Atlanta’s best starter, not only in terms of ERA, but also based on every major calculation of WAR (1.5 fWAR, 1.9 bWAR, 0.9 pWAR). Also, because Beachy is so young he is only making $495,000 (just 0.53% of the Braves’ total payroll) this season.  He has been their team’s most valuable player, by far, when using a WAR/$ analysis based on any calculation of Wins Above Replacement.  Beachy has been very good this season, and he’s been even more valuable, but he has done it without his crazy 2011 strikeout numbers, which is a major cause for concern, and I’m not sure whether or not he can sustain this success.

Beachy’s current K-rate is four strikeouts below his 2011 rate (10.74 to 6.5).  This drop in K’s can be almost directly attributed to hitters laying off pitches that Beachy throws out of the zone.  His overall swinging strike percentage has fallen from 11.8% to 7%, but the real problem for Beachy has been on pitches that haven’t crossed the plate.  His out of zone swing% in 2011 was well above league average, sitting at 34.2%, now his o-zone swing% is below average (26.7%).  Hitters are also making more contact on those o-zone pitches, only making contact outside the zone 58.8% of the time in 2011, versus his 72.1% 2012 contact rate.  Less “bad” swings on pitches that should be balls have led to lower strikeout numbers for Beachy.

Despite Beachy’s serious decline in strikeout numbers he has shown improvement in other areas of his game. His walks are down (2.92 BB/9 to 2.33) and his ground ball rate (33.8% to 43.1%) has improved a good deal.  The groundball increase has helped Beachy reduce the amount of home runs he’s given up, because he’s giving up less fly balls; his HR/9 in 2011 was over one (1.02), but is down to 0.17 this season.  Beachy’s reduction of walks and home runs has allowed his FIP (2.54) to stay very low (sixth-best in baseball), despite the lack of strikeouts.

The main issue I have with Beachy’s hot start is that his xFIP and SIERA, which are better DIPS measures of pitching performance than FIP, are significantly higher than his ERA.  Beachy’s ERA may rank first in baseball, but his xFIP (3.83) ranks 58th, and his SIERA (3.86) ranks 62nd.  His 2.5 difference between xFIP and ERA is the second largest gap currently among qualified starters, behind only Ted Lilly. The reasons for this gap are Beachy’s incredibly low, and in all likelihood lucky, BABIP and HR/FB%.

Beachy’s BABIP (.214) is well below the league average (.288) and even farther below his team’s average (.300).  While there’s a chance Beachy is inducing weaker contact, this season, as more hitters are putting his out of zone pitches in play, that small increase in o-zone contact does not result in a massive reduction in BABIP.  His BABIP is due to regress back towards those averages and his HR/FB% will normalize, as well.  Beachy may be allowing less fly balls this season, but only 1.7% of the fly balls he’s given up have left the park, that type of success is out of this world and completely unsustainable.

When Beachy’s BABIP and HR/FB% inevitably begin to rise, his ERA will move in the same direction, and become much closer to his xFIP and SIERA… unless it doesn’t. Beachy’s strikeouts could magically return, which would throw a wrench into this entire analysis, and in all likelihood lead to Beachy’s ERA staying well below three, but only time will tell.  That’s what makes this game interesting, Beachy is a pitcher who came out of nowhere, and as this season goes on it will be fun to watch not only how his ERA fluctuates, but also whether or not his strikeout ability that wowed baseball’s followers in 2011, returns.

All statistics come courtesy of Fangraphs.

To see more of Glenn’s writing follow him on twitter @Baseballs_econ or check out his work over at Beyond the Boxscore.