Sunday, May 3, 2009

Red Sox pitching woes re-examined

OK, so we all know Red Sox starting pitchers haven't fared well this season. As a group, not including Brad Penny's solid outing today, they've got an ERA of 5.80 and are averaging less than 5 2/3 innings an outing.

With that in mind, check out this line and see if this is a guy you'd like to see pitching for the Red Sox in place of what they're throwing out there right now:

* Back-to-back quality starts against division rivals;
* A 33-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 30 innings pitched;
* A BAPIP (batting average on balls put in play) of .383, more than 80 points higher than the league average, a sign that he's had some tough luck and is in line for better days ahead.

Isn't that a guy you'd like to see pitching for the Red Sox?

That pitcher, of course, is Jon Lester.

Lester, right now, has a 5.40 ERA through five starts. Opponents are hitting .305 and slugging .492 against him. He's allowed five home runs this month after allowing just 14 home runs all of last season.

But he, like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury in the early going, just might be the victim of a little bit of bad luck. Consider:

* That .383 batting average on balls in play indicates that Lester has been giving up more than his share of line drives, but it wouldn't be that high if he wasn't dealing with some bad luck, too. The Baltimore Orioles' staff has been hit pretty hard this season (to the tune of a 5.92 ERA), for example, but its combined BAPIP still is just .327.

Things tend to even out over the course of a long season, and Lester is in line to see some ground balls start rolling at infielders instead of between them. A year ago, in fact, Lester had a BAPIP of precisely .300; in his 12 starts the yeare before that, it was .280.

(In case you're wondering: Entering today's start, Brad Penny had a BAPIP of .288 -- a pretty clear sign that bad luck is not exactly the source of all of his early-season woes.)

* Entering this season, Lester had allowed home runs on 6.0 percent of the fly balls opponents had hit. This season, he's allowed home runs on 11.6 percent of the fly balls opponents have hit. This shows, in part, that opponents are hitting the ball harder; a jump that significant, though, isn't likely to sustain itself over the course of the year.

* Lester has always been more of a fly-ball pitcher than a ground-ball pitcher, but he's getting more outs on the ground than in the air -- and at a better ratio this season (1.6) than last season (1.32). His ratio of ground balls to fly balls (0.83) also isn't all that far off last year's pace (0.96).

He's also striking out a far higher percentage of hitters he's facing (25.4 percent; he struck out 17.4 percent of hitters last season) -- and that's not something that's as attributable to luck as a fly ball landing in a gap instead of an outfielder's glove.

(For some context on that: Josh Beckett struck out better than 23 percent of hitters he faced in 2007 and 2008 but is down to 21.1 percent this season. He struck out just 18.2 percent of hitters he faced in his first year with the Red Sox.)

* Lester started last season with an ERA of -- can you guess? -- 5.40 after his first six starts. He had an ERA of 2.82 the rest of the way. So there's that, too.

Red Sox pitchers haven't performed as most of us might have expected. But even though it feels like we've had enough time to evaluate everyone and decide who's great and who's terrible, well, we haven't.


floydiansea said...

You have a graph that doesn't end here, my friend:

Things tend to even out over the course of a long season, and Lester is in line to see some ground balls start rolling at infielders instead of between them. A year ago, in fact, Lester had a

Had a what? ;) Inquiring minds want to know! A hangnail? A Brazilian cocaine farm? An uncle named Buck?

Chris Coletta said...

Good stuff, sir. Time to buy low on Lester.

Just to be a pest: Since the normal HR/FB% is around 11, couldn't we say that Lester got a bit lucky _last_ year in re: keeping balls in the yard? And that, at least on this metric, he's actually regressed back to the mean?

Brian MacPherson said...

Chris: You know what? It was midnight, and I'd been working all day. Give me a break. I'll fix it. (The correct answer is: "... a spelling bee stolen from his house under the cover of darkness."

And Chris: Is the normal ratio around 11? A year ago, it was under 8 for both leagues. So far this year, it's under 8 in the NL and exactly 8 in the AL. (The Orioles, of course, have an 11.3. But they're the Orioles.)

There's definitely some regression to the mean, but 11 percent is really, really high.

Chris Coletta said...

Are we looking at 2 different sets of #s? I'm going by Fangraphs figures.

Brian MacPherson said...

I pretty much live and die with