Can Matt Cain Sustain His Low HR/FB Rate?

Any time a general theory that applies to most people is advanced, people naturally begin to look for the outliers, and they often use the examples at the ends of the spectrum to cast validity on the theory. Or, they just dismiss the theory as not being applicable to that specific case, which may or may not be true. We see this quite a bit with metrics like xFIP and Matt Cain, who has become the poster child for the part of our readership who thinks that stat isn’t worth all that much. For years, Cain’s ERA has been better than his xFIP would suggest, largely because he has sustained one of the lowest HR/FB rates in all of baseball.

The low HR/FB rate was brought up again yesterday in a reasoned post over at PaapFly. As is often stated by the Cain-is-better-than-xFIP-says crowd, the author noted that Cain has thrown 1,100 innings in the big leagues now, and that should be a large enough sample to conclude that this is a legitimate skill that he can carry forward.

Just for fun, I decided to look back at the data that has been collected over the last nine years. We’re starting to get large enough samples now where we can find other pitchers who have had similar stretches of home run prevention for 1,000+ innings, and still have observed performance in seasons after their run of keeping the ball in the park.

Below are 10 pitchers who, from 2002 to 2007, had the lowest HR/FB rates in baseball, who have thrown a similar number of innings to Cain, and have thrown at least 100 total innings in the last three seasons. The first section is their 2002-2007 IP and HR/FB rate, with the second section being their 2008-2010 IP and HR/FB rate.

Pedro Martinez: 981 IP, 8.0% HR/FB – 154 IP, 14.2% HR/FB
Roy Oswalt: 1,272 IP, 8.3% HR/FB – 602 IP, 10.4% HR/RB
John Lackey: 1,162 IP, 8.5% HR/FB – 555 IP, 10.5% HR/FB
CC Sabathia: 1,226 IP, 8.5% HR/FB – 721 IP, 8.2% HR/FB
Brad Penny: 1,041 IP, 8.7% HR/FB – 324 IP, 10.5% HR/FB
Jarrod Washburn: 1,121 IP, 8.7% HR/FB – 330 IP, 9.3% HR/FB
Barry Zito: 1,320 IP, 8.8% HR/FB – 571 IP, 7.9% HR/FB
Miguel Batista: 1,051 IP, 8.8% HR/FB – 269 IP, 11.7% HR/FB
Dontrelle Willis: 1,022 IP, 8.9% HR/FB – 123 IP, 11.5% HR/FB
Kevin Millwood: 1,160 IP, 9.1% HR/FB – 558 IP, 10.6% HR/FB

Group: 11,351 IP, 8.6% HR/FB – 4,202 IP, 9.9% HR/FB

The league average HR/FB rate is usually around 10.6%. As a group, the ten best big time home run suppressors from 2002 to 2007 were only marginally better than average at that same skill from 2008 to 2010. Sabathia and Zito bucked the trend and actually lowered their HR/FB rates over the last three seasons, so it’s certainly possible that Cain could continue to post low HR/FB rates going forward. After all, he does pitch in a pretty good pitcher’s park and his career HR/FB rate is better than any of the pitchers in this sample, so maybe there is something to David Pinto’s theory about how his fastball moves.

You could have made a similar argument about almost everyone on the above list, though, and as a group, they didn’t demonstrate that there was really much of a sustainable skillset there. Just for fun, I also looked at the guys who had the highest HR/FB rates from 2002 to 2007 and had thrown similar numbers of innings in both samples. Their rate dropped from 12.2% in the first period to 11.4% in the second period – still higher than average, and higher than the low HR/FB group, but only by one percentage point, much smaller than the gap between their observed rates from 2002 to 2007.

Is there some skill to allowing long fly outs? Maybe. But if you can identify which pitchers are likely to keep their home run rates low while giving up a lot of fly balls before they actually do it, then you could make a lot of money in player forecasting. History suggests that we can’t simply look at guys with 1,000+ innings of home run prevention and assume they’ll keep chugging along. It just doesn’t work that way.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

168 Responses to “Can Matt Cain Sustain His Low HR/FB Rate?”

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  1. Dan says:

    Good info. One issue I have with your group of pitchers is that they were probably all in their collective primes and then entered a typical decline phase after that. Miguel Batista? Dontrelle Willis? Millwood? Washburn…Martinez…even Oswalt to some degree. These guys are not the same pitchers they were in the 5 year stretch. So how much does their HR/FB rate have to do with their declines and not their law of averages regressing to the norm?

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    • Zach Kolodin says:

      Word.

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    • Kyle says:

      Completely Agree. To that extent include Penny, Zito, and Lackey to pitchers that haven’t been the same as they were from 2002-2007. Not to mention that you are taking data from a much lower sample size after dismissing the larger sample size for not being big enough. Great article though

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      We may also want to consider that the rise in HR/FB rate is the driver in the perception change of the pitcher’s skills, not the other way around. For instance, you note that Oswalt is “not the same” as he was earlier to some degree. From 2008 to 2010, he posted a lower BB/9 and higher K/9 than he did for 2002 to 2007. The only thing that changed was his HR/FB rate.

      Does HR/FB rate get worse as a pitcher ages, or are we assuming that pitchers have gotten worse because their HR/FB rates have gotten worse?

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        A good point, but several of those regressions coincide nicely with injuries or changes in skill set (reduced velocity for example). That group as a whole isn’t passing the smell test for significance.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        It is certainly possible that the drops in HR/FB are the cause of the reduced overall effectiveness of the pitcher, but if the pitcher has sustained a certain rate for 5 years and suddenly “regresses”, it is much more likely that the “regression” is due to a change in the way he pitches than to chance, because the chances of sustaining “luck” through a 5 year sample size are extremely small.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        Okay, so, what would be a group of pitchers that you guys would accept as a reasonable sample? If it’s not pitchers with consistently low HR/FB rates, then what?

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Give it up Dave. What you need to do is just accept the statistically obvious fact that a 5 year sample size for a starting pitcher is large enough that a large variation is highly unlikely to be due to chance.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        You do realize that unlikely events happen all the time, right? Ever met anyone who won the lottery?

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Nope Dave, I haven’t ever met a lottery winner, and it’s highly, highly unlikely that I ever will.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        Dave,

        I think you identified the most reasonable sample. The problem is that it still doesn’t smell right. Either more advanced testing needs to be done with this data set or we need to adjust the specifications of the experiment.

        Until something statistically significant is found, as analysts we should stick to the null hypothesis (Cain does not possess unique skills i.e. HR/FB). Perhaps he already has passed the level of significance, I haven’t been paying special attention to him so I could have easily missed that analysis. If I was to throw a wild guess out there, I’d expect him to be only 1.5-2.5 SD from the norm.

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      • Obo says:

        Wrong, statistical significance gives ZERO information on the magnitude of significance. Suppose Matt Cain has a slight skill in reducing his HR/FB rate (slight as in he is 0.00001% better than average). Then a sample size of 1 billion FB will certainly show Matt Cain has a statistically significant ability to prevent HRs on FBs. His skill is statistically significant and does not play a role in his performance. Big Pharm pulls that crap all the time and it is bad math/bad science.

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      • bcp33bosox says:

        I have literally met 3 lottery winners (that I know of) and two of them are brother and sister and they both won over a million USD seperately and I believe within a few weeks/months of each other.

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      • Steven Ellingson says:

        Obo,

        Agreed. A confidence interval would be a lot better in this case, and in most cases.

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      • JP says:

        So, real quick regression results using data on all qualifying starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title between from 2007 to 2010. Looking at the relationship between HRFB this year and HRFB last year (so using one year of lagged data). This yields 153 usable observations (so not 1 billion, don’t worry).

        lag hrfb +0.1692 significant at 0.05
        controlling for ip, k9, bb9 (adding team effects to get at the home park just swamps the small sample with dummies)

        This suggests that there is a year-to-year correlation between HRFB for pitchers, at least those good enough to qualify for the ERA title.

        As a further check, I split the sample into those with above mean HRFB (> 9.567 in this sample) and those below. The relationship is there for those pitchers with very low HRFB percentages (coefficient is 0.1619 and still significant at 0.05) but not for pitchers closer to the MLB average (coefficient is effectively zero).

        So, based on these data it looks like there is a year-to-year correlation for HRFB, but only for those with exceptionally low HRFB numbers. This is likely due either to (a) home park effects or (b) a skill. This sample is too small to figure that out, plus I have to get back to work.

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      • TomG says:

        You make a good point about whether the fall-off is due to rising HR rate or vice versa. For me the the larger problem is that these pitchers may have had low overall HR rates, but none of them have the consistently low rate that Cain does. If you plot their HR rates year to year you will see a lot of steep slopes up and down, compared to Cain’s flat line. In fact this group was destined for a random future hr% as their low previous hr% were all based on one or two fluke seasons in the period mentioned.

        The other piece is that other than Dontrelle he is by far the youngest pitcher, still coming in to his “peak” years. Dontrelle’s rising HR rate does make an interesting point, do pitchers struggling to find the plate see a sharp increase in HR’s as they groove fastballs?

        In either case I think we can enjoy seeing Matt keep on doing his thing, baseball is all about beating the odds. Between Cain and Torres the Giants have two of the most problematic players to project.

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      • Jason B says:

        “plus I have to get back to work.”

        Now why would you want to go and do a thing like that?!?

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      • Patrick says:

        DrBGiantsfan,

        No, you should give it up. You can’t back up what you’re saying with statistical evidence that’s as strong as what Dave is putting against it – Which isn’t ironclad by any means, but it’s REAL evidence – but you insist it must be true.

        You have a sample size of one pitcher and no explanation for why he’s doing what he does. Yet you INSIST and INSIST it MUST BE THIS WAY.

        Is there ANY statistical examination that, if the result were against, would persuade you that Matt Cain does not have this skill?
        Or he is just unique and we don’t know why?

        And this isn’t even REMOTELY CLOSE to as rare as winning the lottery. Dave found 10 other guys who did it almost as well for the same length of time… And they, on average, didn’t keep it up. Why should we ASSUME that Cain is different?

        The burden of proof is on you to show why Matt Cain is different. Whether or not you realize it, that’s where it lies.

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      • TomG says:

        Patrick, this group did not do it almost as well, and they did in fact continue to be better than average. Statistically Cain’s numbers are much further from the mean, and rather than show that it is chance this study shows there is some predictive value in this result.

        In fact if Cain’s rate rises as much as this group’s did he will still be better than anyone in this group (Except for Pedro) was during the first 5 year period. And significantly better than the group as a whole.

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      • Patrick, clearly you have not read Paapfly’s or Baseball Musing’s articles regarding Cain. Both makes persuasive arguments both to the existence of Cain’s skill and how he is doing it, else you would not have wrote what you wrote.

        In addition, TangoTiger in his blog calcuated that it would take roughly 6-7 seasons worth of results for a starting pitchers to statistically significantly prove that his low BABIP is a skill. Cain is there now. His above average popfly rates is clearly a strong explanation for his apparent ability to prevent home runs on flyballs. His rising fastball gives a baseball explanation to this ability.

        From my perspective, just because Dave cannot find anyone in the past 8 years who matches Cain does not prove that Cain does not have this ability. 8 years is not really that long a time in baseball. As I pointed out above, it takes that long just for a pitcher to exhibit that ability at a statistically significant sample size. And as the other commenter noted, many of the increases were because of age and injury issues.

        For a proper comparison, you need to find comparable pitchers who started their careers around age 20-21, like Cain. Comparing him with players who are in their 30′s for any part of that comparison period is, well, comparing apples with a PC, they are two different items altogether. I’m surprised nobody focused on this yet, though I haven’t read below yet, so maybe later…

        Also, I think the most important point is whether Cain exhibits the ability to reduce his HR/FB, period. Consistency over X number of years is not important, any more than having his BABIP consistent over the same number of years, it is all fluctuations around his mean talent. What is most important is that he has enough “sampling” now to say that he has shown this ability over the years to keep him HR/FB lower than others. It is now up to people to disprove that by explaining away this anomaly.

        Park factors has been disproven – see Paapfly for that and other disproven factors. When you look over the numbers Paapfly put forth, the fact is that Cain has not only kept his HR/FB down, he has pretty consistently been signficantly under. And Musing’s rising fastball analysis provides a strong explanation why this has been happening. Perhaps people can start with showing why they don’t believe Baseball Musing’s analysis is correct.

        And people are also forgetting that it is not just HR/FB that is abnormally low, his BABIP has been as well. Again, he has proven he can do this by doing it over enough years, it is now up to people to show us a perspective that explain that away. Nobody, in my opinion, has yet.

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      • Jason says:

        Point is though that the conclusion you are drawing can’t be made from this data set without controling for natural performance decline. Control for that and it would be a much more compelling article.

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      • Jason says:

        What often surprises me about Fangraphs and the sabremetric community generally is how unscientific it really is. The scientific method starts with observation, then hypothesis, then measurement and testing. The true scientist tries to prove the null of their hypothesis to standard of 99.5% confidence. A true scientist approaches their subject without bias.

        So we have a hypothesis that controling HR/FB ratio isnt a controlable skill, yet we have all these pitchers that are apparently doing it. Rather than conclude that the hypothesis is wrong the conclusion is formed that these pitchers are just lucky?

        This conclusion is all the more indefensible when contrasted with direct observation and qualitative data from experts in the industry that says these players are very good.

        The longer the “matt cain is not that good” meme continues to be perpetuated on this site it only serves to undermine the credibility of your methodology and aproach.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        I agree with Obo above about Big Pharm, but we’re not talking about Big Pharm here. We’re talking about Matt Cain who has beaten the odds by a big margin for 5 years in a row now. A recent article on hardballtimes.com put the odds of Matt Cain’s performance being due to chance in any give year at 12%. That means that the probability of it being due to chance for 5 years in a row is 0.12 to the 5′th power. That, my friends, is an extremely low number!

        Of course it is possible that Matt Cain’s performance over the last 5 years is due to chance, yes there are lottery winners, but the probability that it is not due to chance is approximately 1,000,000 times greater.

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      • Jason B says:

        “Of course it is possible that Matt Cain’s performance over the last 5 years is due to chance, … but the probability that it is not due to chance is approximately 1,000,000 times greater.”

        Made up stat alert! (Although you did manage to work in an “approximately” to help cover a little.) =)

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Jason,

        If you flip a coin once, and it comes up tails, it is likely due to chance because there is a 50% chance one coin flip will come up tails. If you flip it 5 times and it comes up tails 5 times, you start to think this is a bit strange, but yeah, it happens. At some point, if you come up tails every single time long enough, you conclude that you are probably flipping a loaded coin and it’s probably not due to chance at all.

        Now, let’s say you roll and octagonal die and it comes up, say, #1. You don’t have to roll that octagon very many times with every result being #1 to conclude that you probably have a loaded die.

        The point is that if the random probability of Matt Cain’s variance from the mean for a give season is 12%(about 1/8), then after 5 years of reproducing that result, it becomes highly probable that Matt Cain is rolling a loaded die.

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      • Jason says:

        Dr. B,

        Agree – but that conclusion can only be drawn if you already have settled laws of physics. I don’t accept the basic premise that pitchers don’t influence how hard contact is. BABIP is not just luck. HR/FB ratio is not luck. Matt Cain is good.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Jason,

        So we agree! Matt Cain is good! You had me confused there. Maybe I just misunderstood what you were trying to say. Sorry if that was the case.

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      • Jason says:

        Dr. B,

        We definitely agree. What I was trying to say is that the “science” on BAPIP & HR/FB ratio is highly questionable, and its irresponsible to draw conclusions unfavorable to Matt Cain without questioning the science. Particularly when other data points like direct observation and actual historical outcomes support the opposite conclusion.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        there is a balance between “babip is not just luck” and “matt cain is good” and i think that people (especially the two energetic giants fans doing most of the posting) need to remember that.

        also, dave never drew any “unfavorable conclusions”. he doesn’t seem to think cain can keep it up (at least at this level) but he dedicated a full paragraph to showing that cain could do it.

        and jason, i would counter with the opposite. i think it is more irresponsible to use a clear outlier to call into question the integrity of the theories behind babip and hr/fb. it is likely that cain has had some control over these factors, but it is also very likely that he was additionally quite lucky.

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      • Jason says:

        Dutch – I’m not using Matt Cain to call into question the theory. I’m using years of direct observation of the game. Have you ever watched BP at a game? There are a lot of hits. When Joe Blanton (insert any run of the mill 4th starter type) takes the mound there are still a lot of hits but fewer than during BP. When Matt Cain takes the mound their are fewer hits still. Matt Cain is not just luckier than the coach throwing BP or Joe Blanton – he is better.

        It makes no sense to say that a pitcher can control swing & miss %, GB%, but not HR/FB%. They all measure the same thing – how hard is it to make solid contact against this pitcher. Just becuase Matt Cain induces his outs by getting hitters to make weak contact on the lower half of the ball he should be regarded as a lesser pitcher than the ones that get their outs with contact on the top half of the ball?

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Dutchbrowncoat,

        Nobody here is questioning the integrity of the theory. All we are saying is that no theory explains absolutely everything and it is very likely that we have an outlier in Matt Cain. That’s being a lot more faithful to the integrity of sabermetric theory than stubbornly trying to say that statistical outcome with a large sample size that is so improbable it is starting to approach zero probability is, in fact, due to chance.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        @ jason –
        i actually agree with what you just said. you can look for yourself, i have actually said similar elsewhere in the comments. i was commenting directly on your statement:
        “What I was trying to say is that the “science” on BAPIP & HR/FB ratio is highly questionable, and its irresponsible to draw conclusions unfavorable to Matt Cain without questioning the science. ”
        @dr b –
        i did not (and won’t) write off cain as entirely chance. and maybe i am missing something, but i dont see anybody else who has. to me, dave’s conclusion was that cain could keep it up (sabathia, zito, pinto’s theory) but it was not likely he could maintain it. as i said elsewhere, i will freely concede that cain can limit hr/fb by means of location, movement, ‘stuff’, whatever. i would peg him at a true talent level of 8%-9%. but i still think he has gotten lucky – 4-5 seasons of varying 1-2% is far more probable than 4-5 seasons of 3-4% variance. should that luck falter some as dave suggested, that 7% career mark would rise a little.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        DBC,

        You and I have a different interpretation of what Dave is saying in this article. I have yet to see Dave himself say that Cain’s performance over the last 5 years even MIGHT be due to skill.

        I guess it doesn’t matter though because when Dave went back and corrected his math errors he found a very different result that he has not directly acknowledged yet.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        dr b -

        that is very possible, and is likely because we are approaching this from different angles. you are in a pro cain camp and i am giving dave the benefit of the doubt on all this. but he does say:

        “…it’s certainly possible that Cain could continue to post low HR/FB rates going forward. After all, he does pitch in a pretty good pitcher’s park and his career HR/FB rate is better than any of the pitchers in this sample, so maybe there is something to David Pinto’s theory about how his fastball moves.”
        “Is there some skill to allowing long fly outs? Maybe… History suggests that we can’t simply look at guys with 1,000+ innings of home run prevention and assume they’ll keep chugging along. It just doesn’t work that way.”

        maybe you think i am being too kind to dave, but i think he is just saying that he pegs cain for some regression in the hr/fb area. whether he is regressing towards a rate of 10% or 8.5% is a different question. but as all of the comments picking apart dave’s methods can show you, proving this solidly one way or another is very very difficult to do with the information available to us.

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      • chuckb says:

        obsessivegiantscompulsive —

        you said:

        “just because Dave cannot find anyone in the past 8 years who matches Cain does not prove that Cain does not have this ability.”

        and it’s absolutely right.

        However, just because Dave can’t prove that Cain doesn’t have this ability does not prove that he does either. Dave’s point was that the evidence “proving” Cain’s ability to outpitch his xFIP is wholly insufficient in that it’s not really evidence at all. You cannot say that the lack of evidence disproving something is, in and of itself, prove of that thing. That’s simply faulty logic. His point is that we don’t know and he’s right. The jury’s still out.

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    • Evan Kirkwood says:

      Something else worth note: of the pitchers Dave listed in the article, I would only characterize 3 of them as flyball pitchers: Barry Zito, Jarrod Washburn, and Matt Cain. All of them have sustained low HR/FB rates without regression. The rest were groundballers or roughly even. Maybe their rising HR/FB rates were due to them getting slightly lucky earlier due to a smaller sample (less flyballs than Zito, Wash, and Cain).

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    • Nathaniel Dawson says:

      Dan, within the parameters of the study, it’s going to be hard to find good comparables to Cain that aren’t in their decline years. Cain started pitching regularly in the big leagues at the age of 21. You’re just not going to find a whole lot of other pitchers that have pitched regularly for five seasons and aren’t in their 30′s.

      I’d also wonder how much of a factor home park plays in this. If a pitcher plays in a park that suppresses HR/FB, that would tend to keep his rate lower in the future. If he switched parks, he wouldn’t get that same benefit. We do see what appears to be some regression to the mean with these pitchers, but they are still lower than league rates, so it suggests some degree of ability there. The park they’re in might have a hand in keeping their rates below league norms.

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  2. Zach Kolodin says:

    Dave,
    I think this is an important discussion, and I plan to submit something more detailed on it at some point. But in the meantime, I believe that a problem with your analysis is that pitchers can change a whole lot in 5 years. So by the end of the sample, we’re not necessarily even talking about the same skill sets.
    -Zach

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    • williams .482 says:

      Is that really relevant to Cain, though? The evidence we have in this article suggests that his HR/FB rate will probably decline. Does it matter what the reason for that probably decline is?

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      • williams .482 says:

        “Probable decline,” not “probably decline”

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      • Again, as I pointed out earlier, you are comparing a young pitcher over his 20-26 years with pitchers in their 30′s at the end of their period, so yes, it is very important to know the reason for their decline.

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      • AJS says:

        It does matter if the goal is attempting to forecast pitchers who can control their HR/FB rates, even if it’s only for a portion of their careers.

        If Matt Cain’s HR/FB rate rises when he becomes a “different” pitcher (meaning either injured, less effective or throwing his pitches differently, using a different combination of pitches, or attacking hitters in a different way), that doesn’t mean he didn’t have the skill of keeping HR/FB down in the first place.

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  3. Alex Walsh says:

    Call me a novice but HR/FB doesn’t account for home park, right? I’m not smart enough to know off the top of my head, but is there a shift in home-park home-run rate among these 11 pitchers? Off the top of my (rookie-level) head, interesting that Cain and Zito kept their rates down while pitching in SF.

    Also, should age be considered? Pedro’s 14.2% appears to be the most significant factor pushing the group rate up, and frankly he was getting to be pretty old as far as pro athletes go in 2008.

    I understand that your method here was a cursory examination, but those are just a couple ideas of things that could be impacting results.

    (On second thought, Pedro only threw 154 innings in the 2nd time period… But still, ya know…)

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      Matt Cain’s Home/Away HR splits are even. His home park is not the reason he suppresses HR’s!

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      • Steven Ellingson says:

        His home park definitely has some effect, even if the splits are even.

        Look at it this way. If you just look at road games, we’re only talking about a 500 IP sample or so. So it would be much easier for his HR/FB rate to be due to random variation.

        The other 500 IP are at home, where his HR/FB rate might not be significantly different than the average at his home park.

        I’m not trying to say that the home park is what is causing this. Only that having a pitcher friendly home park should not be disregarded just because his splits are even.

        People are always looking for one reason why something happens. There are a ton of different factors that have all played into Cain’s HR/FB.

        The question isn’t “is it caused by a unique skill, his home park, or random variance?”

        The question is, “how much of it is caused by unique skill, how much by his home park, and how much by random variance?”

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      • Alex Walsh says:

        “The question is, ‘how much of it is caused by unique skill, how much by his home park, and how much by random variance?’”

        Nailed it.

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      • Steven, as the above commented noted about your question, you nailed it.

        What you did not nail is explaining how the home park has affected CAIN’s numbers when his splits show no substantial difference. I get your point, maybe the park is having some effect but it has not been showing up in his numbers because of random fluctuation.

        What you are missing, if you look at Paapfly’s numbers, is that the magnitude of the difference is still not explained by park factors. Bill Jame’s 2011 Handbook says that AT&T has roughly a 10% downward effect overall on HR’s vs. average park. Your point means one of two things: his home park numbers should be even lower, or his road numbers should have been higher, due to random. Obviously, better home numbers would make this argument even more lopsided. Even if you assume that his road numbers are reduced, his numbers are still much lower than league average even if you added on 11% on top of his rates.

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      • Everett says:

        I can tell how valuable of a point this is by the exclamation marks!!!

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      • JH says:

        “Bill Jame’s 2011 Handbook says that AT&T has roughly a 10% downward effect overall on HR’s vs. average park. Your point means one of two things: his home park numbers should be even lower, or his road numbers should have been higher, due to random.”

        Or over a ~500 IP sample, AT&T held a couple balls in that would have gone out in a generic non-pitcher friendly park, regardless of how he performed on the road. I’ve seen Matt Cain taken to the deep warning track several times in AT&T. In many of these instances an identical ball struck with identical force would have left another park (like Chase, Wrigley, the GAB, or obviously Coors).

        His home HR/FB does nothing to disprove that luck is playing a part.

        I’ve flipped heads 5 times in a row before. Hell, the NFC won the Superbowl coin toss 13 times in a row (at odds of 1 in 8,192). 5 years of beating the average is interesting, but definitely not proof of an anomaly. We’ll see how Cain performs in the future. He’s a good pitcher who’s gotten very good results to-date. But nobody can seriously argue that his results on HR/FB isn’t at least something of a flag – maybe not a red flag (he’s still an above-average pitcher even if he had league average HR/FB), but at least yellow. Maybe even orange.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        James,

        I’m pretty sure there have not been 100,000 pitchers in the entire history of baseball. You would need about twice that number to find 2 pitchers with Matt Cain’s degree of variance over 5 years due to chance alone.

        Yes, it is possible, but extremely unlikely.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Oops! Replied in the wrong area. Sorry!

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      • chuckb says:

        and now you’re reducing the sample sizes even further. So now we’re not talking about 1000+ innings, but rather 500+ innings.

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  4. bill says:

    I actually totally agree with the main point of this article, but to some degree the “outlier” people are right (not that Matt Cain necessarily is the outlier). It’s almost by definition that anytime you have an “average” stat, some people will be on the fringes, and most will cluster around the average.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      I was going to post something very similar to this.

      Assuming that HR/FB has no skill involved at all, it would be strange to NOT see someone like Matt Cain. People in general like to use statistical significance backwards. Start by finding something strange, then say, because the p-value is only .01, then there must be a significant effect.

      Dave mentioned the lottery above. This is a perfect example.
      Say Joe Schmoe plays the lottery 10 times, and wins once. So, his lottery rate is 0.1, when the average lottery rate is something like 0.000000001.

      Obviously Joe have a skill in winning the lottery!! Who wants to invest in Joe’s buying lottery ticket business?!

      Just like the fact that it’s not unlikely that SOMEONE will win the lottery, it isn’t unlikely that that SOMEONE will throw 1000 innings with an 8% HR/FB rate.

      That isn’t to say that Cain doesn’t have some skill in preventing HR, just that someone doing what he’s doing isn’t that unlikely, when you look at all the pitchers in the last 9 years or so since we’ve been looking at this stuff.

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      • Patrick says:

        Whew. Reason!

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      • Where is the reason?

        The lottery person was lucky in that one ticket.

        Cain has had 6+ season’s worth of equivalent tickets to be measured upon.

        As I noted above, TangoTiger said that 6-7 seasons worth of starting is enough sampling to show that BABIP is statistically significantly lower than other pitchers. I would think that is enough for HR/FB as well.

        Or show me why that is not statistically significant yet, don’t tell me that it isn’t. I want the fancy numbers. :^)

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        where is the reason? a few things i would like to add quick. not disagreeing per se, just some other things to consider.
        - discussing the xfip difference is going to exaggerate things a little because of the park suppressing hr. fip might be better, or maybe an average of fip and xfip. there is still a difference, but it is not as extreme.
        - unless i am counting wrong, cain only has 5 seasons and then a handful of games. 5 seasons is not to be ignored, but there is still room for error or regression. also, the era/fip/xfip splits were much different in his first year or so, not as pronounced as recently
        - tracking things like hr/fb and babip over a few years like this leads to problems of selective sampling. some of the lower tier, injured, or unlucky could very well be excluded because they didn’t last long enough. it is likely that elite pitchers have lower babip or hr/fb than league average, but this effect will be more pronounced in that selective sample.

        personally, i think cain and other pitchers might have abilities that can lead to era being lower than fip/xfip. i just think that the ability contributes only .1-.2 runs of difference with a variety of other factors contributing to the rest.

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      • Larry Yocum says:

        But, are we confusing luck with skill?

        Matt Cain keeping balls in the park can be argued as a skill. The lottery scenario is a poor scenario as it is pure luck.

        Cain would be an “outlier” if we established that everyone gravitated to the league average of 10% HR/FB ratio as people argue with the magical .300 BABIP for pitchers. But, we have seen over time that some pitchers will have a better HR/FB% and it doesn’t gravitate toward a mean. So, therefore it is a skill and not “luck.”

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      • Steven Ellingson says:

        OGC,

        Ok, so instead of the lottery example, lets try flipping coins.

        If 100 people flip 5 coins each, you would expect that 3 of them would get all 5 heads. So, again, this doesn’t mean that those 3 people are better coin flippers than the other people, it’s what you would expect to happen!

        My whole argument is this: If you assume that HR/FB is not a skill, the distribution of HR/FB rates is very close to what you expect. Therefore, we don’t have evidence that it is a skill.

        I believe that there probably is some skill involved in HR/FB rate. I’m just saying that having one strange value (I’m counting all 1100 innings as one value) out of a huge sample of values, is not strange at all! Does that make sense?

        I’m sure Tango is right about 6-7 seasons being statistically significant. The problem is, that if you use an alpha level of 0.05 (this is industry standard) for ANY experiment, and repeat it 100 times, (I’m thinking of each pitcher as a seperate experiment) that you would EXPECT 5 of those experiments to come up as significant, even if there is no trend at all.

        This is the problem with looking at a data set, finding an extreme value, and then saying that it is statistically significant. If you do my coin example, you will ALWAYS find people that have statistically significant coin flipping values.

        The only proper way to use a p-value is to START with a hypothesis (this pitcher is going to supress HRs because of the fastball he throws) and THEN collect, or observe your data. If you came up with your hypothesis after seeing the data, then saying it is statistically significant is meaningless.

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      • Steven Ellingson says:

        Larry,

        You are using circular logic there. In order to “prove” that HR/FB rate is a skill, we need to start with the null hypothesis that it isn’t a skill, and then look for evidence that rejects that hypothesis.

        The whole point of what I’m saying is this:

        There sure may be significant evidence that HR/FB rate is a skill out there, but Cain’s 1100 innings, by themselves, are NOT this evidence.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        larry –

        i agree, there is certainly some skill involved with keeping balls in the park. but this is not an either/or scenario with luck and skill. both are in play, and the question is how important each factor is.

        i don’t know if the research has been done, but to me it is likely that if you grouped pitchers into buckets you would see that the ‘elite’ pitchers have better babips and hr/fb and the ‘scrub pitchers fare worse. the question is how much of a difference there is, and you have to of course remember that there will still be a random spread on either side.

        long story short, i would pin cain’s career hr/fb ‘true talent’ level at say 8-9% and then say that luck, park, etc explain the other 1-2%

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        oops i guess steven responded right as i did. he hits a lot of the same points and i mostly agree with his thoughts there. and thanks for adding the coin example steven.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        This is not the same as flipping a coin because the probability of Matt Cain having a variance in any given year is not 50%. A recent hardballtimes.com article put it at 12%. That’s a lot closer to rolling an octagonal die. If you line up 100 people and have them roll an octagonal die 5 times, you will not get 3 people who all role 1′s or any other single number.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        drb, he is not at all trying to say that matt cain’s variance would be 50%. i think you are misunderstanding him and therefore completely missing his point. he is saying that if you have a large enough sample a few results are bound to come up screwy in a statistically significant sense. going from a coin to an 8 sided die does not change that.

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      • James says:

        “If you line up 100 people and have them roll an octagonal die 5 times, you will not get 3 people who all role 1?s or any other single number.”

        That’s right, but we’re not talking about 100 people. We’re talking about a historically-good HR/FB rate, so we are talking about thousands of people rolling that octagonal die. We would expect someone to eventually roll a 1 six times in a row.

        I personally haven’t watched Cain pitch much or read the other relevant articles so I don’t have an opinion either way, but I do note that Cain’s performance can quite plausibly be explained as a lucky series.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        DBC,

        Oh yes it does change it a lot. If 100 people flip a coin 5 times, you would expect the have 3 of them come up all heads. If you take the 12% from the hardballtimes.com article as being the yearly probability of a pitcher having a variance of Matt Cain’s magnitude, then you would need well over 100, 000 pitchers to find 2 who were able to do that from chance alone.

        There are well over 100 pitchers in baseball. There have probably not been 100,000 pitchers in the entire history of baseball.

        There is, therefore, an extremely low probability that Matt Cain’s performance over the last 5 years is due to chance.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        James,

        Oops answered in the wrong reply area. If you accept the hardballtimes.com article number of 12% for the yearly probability of Matt Cain’s variance from the mean, you would need close to 200, 000 pitchers to find 2 who maintain that for 5 years due to chance alone.

        I’m pretty sure there have not been anywhere near 200, 000 pitchers in the entire history of baseball.

        Yes it could happen, it it extremely unlikely. It is much more likely that Matt Cain has a repeatable skill that enables him to be an outlier.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        @dr b –
        forget the dice thing then, we are discussing different topics i think.

        either way, here is the quote from the THT article
        “The odds that any given pitcher will end up among the top 10 “luckiest” according to BABIP (or one of the other three metrics) in any one year is about 12 percent.”

        here’s the catch – cain hasn’t been in the top ten for five seasons, so the numbers you are throwing around are off. for 06-10 he was ranked 5, 27, 26, 4, 6 for babip and 4,4,6,21,23 for hr/fb among qualified starters. that makes 3 seasons of each out of five, which is about 1/90 odds. and that is far more reasonable than 1/100,000.

        look i agree that he probably has some skill in controlling babip and hr/fb. but i think guys like cameron are probably understating this skill and cain proponents like yourself are overstating it. lets not lose our heads.

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  5. NickH says:

    I agree with commenter Dan – you can also read the data as showing an erosion of the pitchers’ home run prevention abilities over time. I would bet that the test group of pitchers above also showed statistical declines in metrics such as K/BB between the first and second sections of time, which is exactly what you’d expect to see as pitchers age and become less effective.

    Oswalt does seem to fit the article’s hypothesis, though, since he’s been basically the same pitcher 2002-2007 and 2008-2010, except his HR/FB% regressed to league average. If HR/FB% is a controllable skill, Oswalt would have continued to suppress HRs at his ’02 – ’07 rate.

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    • Ooo, break out the BOLD Headlines, Oswalt, a pitcher in his 30-32 year-old seasons showed some decline in his skills!

      And yes, one example totally refutes that Cain might be a different person and pitcher than Oswalt.

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      • Jason B says:

        Regardless of whether Cain’s HR/FB rate is due to pitcher skill (probably some), ballpark (probably some), luck (probably some), or some combination of the three (seems quite likely), I *do* like that the Giants backers come out of the woodworks with their minds made up already to defend their guy at every turn.

        What do you think, Elaine’s occasional boyfriend?

        “Gotta pull for the team, let ‘em know you’re there.” – avowed face/body painter David Puddy

        I remember one of Scott Adams’ musings relating how the most recent scientific studies on the issue indicate that we make up our minds on whatever conclusion we want to reach, THEN go in search of supportive evidence after our mind is made up, rather than examine all evidence with no predisposed conceptions and side with whichever competing theory presents the most compelling factual, logical argument.

        (Not at all implying that’s a trait inherent or unique to Giants homers, Cain defenders, or anyone else; we all do it. Not everyone will admit it though.)

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  6. Kyle says:

    If you look at the pitchers mentioned they were mostly above average pitchers, which would indicate there being an innate skill involved. I think the answer would be that HR/FB is mostly a normalized stat but there seems to be something else involved as well, i.e. ball park factor, pure ability, not just luck.

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  7. AK707 says:

    The others are right this is a joke, to compare 2002-2007 Bautista, Willis, Washburn, Lackey, Martinez with their 2008-2010 selves is ludicrous. No-freaking-duh they posted higher home run rates when they are all shells of their previous selves. When Cain’s pitches stop looking pretty and he gives up home runs, it won’t be because of regression to the mean – he will just be less effective.

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  8. test says:

    I wonder what will “average out” first – his ERA beating his FIP/xFIP, or his record (57-62) underperforming his ERA (126 ERA+). Both differences are kind of astounding to have lasted this long. Yes, W-L records depend on offense, but it’s pretty difficult. There have been only 4 guys, including Cain, to have an ERA+ over 120, make 100 starts, and have a losing record (Jim Scott in the deadball era managed it over 1892 IP)

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    • Yes, it is Cain’s fault that his team was not a good enough offense to win with his good pitching, we all know how Wins is a perfect indication of how good a pitcher is, all his stats are just illusions because he just don’t know how to win.

      Gosh I’m tired of this tired line of reasoning from Giants fans “Cain can’t win so therefore he’s not a good pitcher”. Looked pretty good during the playoffs, no? How’s that type of winning work for you?

      As Paapfly noted, I wonder how Sandy Koufax would have been treated during his glory years. “He is going to regress, look at his BB/9 rates previously!” “He’s a flyball pitcher, no way he’s that good!” “He’s benefiting from his pitcher’s park”

      I would also add in Babe Ruth, how would his HR hitting been treated?

      People forget that just because it is not in the numbers as we currently understand them does not mean that skilled pitchers whose skills cannot be explained statistically do not exist. Just like how DIPS assumed no pitcher can control BABIP then later Tom Tippett showed that there were pitchers who could, once he expanded the study to the history of baseball and not just a few years.

      I understand that this skill needs to be proven but after 6 years, BABIP is proven, so the shoe is now on the other foot and now it is up to the naysayers to prove that he is not skilled. I have seen no such explanation yet.

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        i think you exaggerate things in your discussion. it seems that there are two camps on the issue. one that dips is perfect and luck explains any outliers and the other that some pitchers have innate skill. it is far more reasonable to assume that the answer is likely somewhere in the middle. it is very possible that down the road we will figure out why cain and others have splits like these, but it does not seem possible that the difference is worth a full run or two of difference.

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      • fredsbank says:

        no, the debate here is some people think that matt cain has a skill at limiting HRFB and some people dont.

        the issue is quite simple, either pitchers have skills or they dont, and since not every pitcher has the exact same stats all of the time through the entire history of baseball, why is it unreasonable to assume that maybe, just MAYBE, matt cain can do something that you cant put a number on yet? people here, dave amongst them, are so arrogant to think that they have perfected baseball knowledge and no one else is right about anything.

        if matt cain can’t suppress HRFB, then sinkerballs cant exist either, right? because if the logic behind that thought goes one way then it has to go that way, too

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      • fredsbank says:

        the babe ruth example is quite literally a perfect analogy, and one for which none of the “cain can’t” crowd have a counter

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  9. Jeremy says:

    I think that most of these can be explained away by age/decline (Pedro, Batista, Willis, Penny) and/or home park/league change (Penny, Oswalt, Lackey, Millwood. I’m not saying for sure that HR/FB is a skill, but I don’t believe that these examples show anything to disprove it. Comparing Pedro in 2002 to Pedro in 2008-2010 is ridiculous. The pitchers that did maintain their skills and stayed in similar parks, (CC, Zito) maintained similar fly ball rates.

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  10. adohaj says:

    Pitcher age says whats up

    declining fastball=more long flyouts are HR

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    • Kyle says:

      Well faster in does equal faster out, so maybe what you mean to say is that declining fastball means easier to hit balls that become HRs?

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  11. Barkey Walker says:

    you drifted a little here. You started out talking about xFIP vs ERA and then went on to HR/FB. Did these other pitchers consistently out perform their xFIP?

    The other problem with this is that Cain has a consistent HR/FB, other pitchers in this group are all over the map. This about how different a pitcher Pedro Martinez was through this time. The pitches he threw changed, the park changed, the speed changed…

    The more interesting question is, for pitchers who could keep the same mix of pitches, velocity, how did it work out? Then, might Cain keep his velocity?

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  12. Dave Cameron says:

    From 2008 to 2010, the correlation between a starter’s fastball velocity and his HR/FB rate was -0.13. This essentially means that, as velocity goes up, so does HR/FB rate, albeit ever so slightly. A .13 correlation, either positive or negative, means there is little relationship between the two variables.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      There is a lot more to fastballs than just velocity. There is also location and pitch movement. When you observe a pitcher consistently for 5 years inducing weak flyballs with a fastball up in the zone, you conclude that there might be something to the idea of late movement making hitters consistently contact the bottom half of the ball with the bat.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        I’m not the one who brought up velocity. I was simply pointing out that there isn’t much evidence that a decrease in velocity will lead to an increase in home run rate.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        In Matt Cain’s case, while his HR/FB rate is likely due more to pitch movement and location, and he has sustained that success through a small drop in velocity, there will probably come a point where a further velocity drop will impact pitch movement and some of those popups will start flying out of the park. In other words, you can’t completely separate pitch movement from velocity.

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  13. DrBGiantsfan says:

    I don’t recall anyone saying that xFIP “isn’t worth all that much.” Almost every Matt Cain defense I’ve read subscribes more to the idea that he is an outlier.

    If you have watched a lot of his games over the last 5 years, it’s really not at all hard to figure out why he is an outlier. The man has a freakish ability to induce pop ups. These BIP’s generally carry only to the IF or shallow OF. They have no chance of carrying out of the park, are easy outs and runners on base have no chance to move up. To put it into statistical language, these BIP’s suppress HR/FB rate, suppress BABIP and suppress LOB%.

    Isn’t it wonderful when things you observe on the field make statistical anomalies perfectly understandable?

    There was an article over on hardballtimes.com pointing out that for any given season, there is a 12% chance that Matt Cain’s variance from the mean is due to luck. The chances of that same luck holding out for 5 consecutive years is 0.12 to the 5′th power, an extremely small number, which essentially disproves the notion that his sample size is still too small.

    There will come a time when Matt Cain’s velocity drops or his fastball loses movement and all of his numbers will regress. It won’t be too surprising that the first thing to go might be his ability to induce weak FB contact. I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of “I told you so’s” when that happens. His performance over the last 5 years is almost certainly not due to luck!

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    • Obo says:

      Someone correct me if I’m wrong but I think popups are not counted as fly balls.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Popups can be separated, but are generally counted as flyballs. If you take popups out of the equation for Matt Cain, his HR/FB ratio does rise slightly, but is still very good. What’s missing there is that a lot of his “pop ups” carry to the shallow OF and are thus counted as OF flies.

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      • Obo says:

        I just looked in Fangraphs new Glossary to see if they define FB. They don’t. The definitions of the stats used here are great, but I would also like to see a definition for each piece of data used to calculate each stat. It might feel silly to publish the definition of a HR but I will never knock someone on being too complete. Fangraphs, what is the definition of fly ball!?

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  14. DrBGiantsfan says:

    One more thing: Matt Cain’s Home/Away HR splits are even. His home park is not the reason he has a low HR/FB ratio!

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  15. Obo says:

    I would love to see the graph for each of these 10 pitchers with HR/FB on the y-axis and IP on the x-axis.

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  16. Sky says:

    Would be nice to see how their SO and BB rates changed, too. It could be that HR/FB held on *better* than the others, thanks to the type of pitchers we happen to have here.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      HR suppressors, 2002-2007:

      BB/9: 2.77
      K/9: 6.84
      GB%: 43.1%

      Same group, 2008-2010

      BB/9: 3.77
      K/9: 6.44
      GB%: 43.0%

      The big jump in walks is almost all due to Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Batista. Before anyone decides that the increase in BB/9 is evidence of these pitchers losing whatever skill they had in the previous six years, Barry Zito’s walk rate got worse during the last three years, and his HR/FB rate went down.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Isn’t it interesting that the Giants seem to have a lot of flyball pitchers, yet are one of the stingiest staffs for allowing HR’s? I have a theory about that too, although I can’t prove it beyond my watching hundreds of Giants games on TV and in person. I believe that the Giants have an organizational philosophy of risk aversion to HR’s. It’s no accident that they also have one of the higher BB/9′s too.

        Let’s take a situation where a pitcher gives up a single then a walk then goes 3-1 on the next batter in a key situation. If you or I were the pitching coach we’d probably go steaming out to the mound and say something like, “just throw strikes, dammit!” Well, I’m guessing that when Dave Righetti goes out there he says something more along the lines of “remember you still have an open base. You don’t have to give into this guy. Make him hit your pitch! If he walks, you’ll get the next guy. Just don’t groove one here!”

        I believe the Giants would rather give up a few more walks than give into the hitters and risk HR’s by throwing it down the pipe. Most teams probably do that to some extent, but I believe that Giants are more extreme in it than most.

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      • Obo says:

        I think it was Fangraphs that posted on that recently, DrBGiantsfan. It is the reason more of Tom Glavine’s HR allowed were solo shots than is typical. Unfortunately, this strongly correlates for pitchers with low walk rates and does not apply for Giants pitchers of the Cain, Zito, Sanchez ilk.

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      • Obo says:

        It was baseball prospectus: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=12793

        There are a list of 6 items at the bottom that will interest you DrBGiantsfan.

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      • Sky says:

        Thanks, Dave. So what if you remove those two guys from the study. Maybe HR/FB goes up 1.5 %-pts? Cain’s at a career 7.0% HR/FB, so going forward (including aging, and multi-year uncertainty) we’d expect a 8.5 HR/FB rate? I think that’s totally fair. And pro-Cainers would probably be ok with that. Heck it’s closer to his actual rate than what xFIP would imply.

        In the Matt Swartz article linked below, if you have lots of historical innings pitched, something like 60% FIP / 40% xFIP is going to be most accurate (warning, large error bars). Which would probably spit out something like 8.5% HR/FB for Cain.

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      • Dave Cameron says:

        My broken anchors screwed up these numbers too. The 2002-2007 numbers are right. The 2008-2010 numbers should be:

        BB/9: 3.18
        K/9: 6.72
        GB%: 43.2%

        If you take Batista and Willis out of the equation, the rates go to 2.85 BB/9 and 6.79 K/9. Essentially, the other eight guys showed no real decline in skills. Willis and Batista just fell apart.

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      • Jono411 says:

        @Sky: that probably seems like the best bet. from the sample of outliers in the article, it looks like the HR/FB rates regressed about halfway back to league average for those pitchers with approx 1000 innings of a really high or low one. therefore, i’d probably set the over/under for the rest of cain’s career somewhere in the 8.5-9 range right now – a lot better than league average, but a lot worse than what we’ve observed so far.

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      • DrB, here is further evidence that you can use in the future in this line of reasoning you have here.

        Back around mid-2000′s (maybe 2004-5), Rob Neyer decided to examine Kirk Rueter vs. some fat Detroit pitcher (starts with C, so I’m guessing Cornejo) who also didn’t strike out a lot but walked too many. What he found was that Kirk adjusted his strategy based on the base-runner situation. When nobody was on base, his walk rate was low relatively but HR rate was higher (relatively speaking). But once a runner got on base, Rueter’s walk rate rose a lot, but his HR rate was much reduced, which speaks to your theory about how the Giants approach hitters, trying to reduce the risk of HR once runners are on base. I can try to dig up the link, if you want, just leave comment on my blog.

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      • Larry Yocum says:

        @DrB

        I don’t think it was a philosophy. I think they have gotten lucky with the arms they drafted. They wanted big K arms. I think that was the philosophy. There is no way of knowing how talented these guys would be out of college or HS though.

        I think Brian Wilson uses the open base. The unique thing about Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Bumgarner though is that they can throw the 3-1 pitch down the middle and still get a swing through strike or a popup, even in a favorable count. Their stuff is that nasty. Most major league pitchers can’t. I still bet Righetti gets steamed when they are walking guys left and right. We have seen this over the years with Sanchez. They have had a quick hook with him in games where he is walking too many.

        The other thing that might be the “philosophy” part is that these guys rank amongst the league leaders in K/9% with Lincecum and Sanchez both being top 10. They don’t get rattled with guys on because they can just strike the next batter out. I don’t think they can consiously prevent HRs though.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        LY,

        Matt Cain used to pump fastballs down the pipe almost endlessly and batters just kept fouling them off. It was a problem because it kept running up his pitch counts. He doesn’t do that so much any more which is a big reason for his greater success and more W’s in the last 2 years.

        Based on my own observations of hundreds of Giants games, I continue to believe that they teach their pitchers to avoid pitches that are likely to get bombed out of the park.

        Just this last year, Brian Wilson came into a game with a 2 run lead, nibbled around with the first batter and ultimately walked him. When asked about it after the game, he said he was trying to not give up a long ball. Yes, that is poor strategy with a 2 run lead and the bases empty, but it just goes to show how deeply ingrained the HR aversion is in that organization.

        Scouting and drafting high velocity pitchers is different that what they teach them once they are in the system.

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  17. Uday says:

    Just a question on your math. How did you get the post-prevention years HR / FB% at 10.4%? I’m getting 9.9% doing a weighted average on IP. And I got the same number you got during the prevention years.

    At 9.9%, I think we can say that as a group they are still better than average, and that perhaps the reason it went up is skill decline / regression. However the fact that they are still better than average kind of refutes the theory that it wasn’t a sustainable skill. Not sure what the standard deviation of this type of thing is, but it may be statistically significant

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    • P says:

      I had the same question…without weighting by innings pitched, Pedro’s measly 154 innings have way more pull than they should.

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    • Sky says:

      Yep, I get the same thing with a weighted average. So it’s an increase of 1.2 %pts. That implies an 8.2% HR/FB from Cain going forward.

      Dave, I think you’ve convinced me that 1000 IP is enough to trust a pitcher’s HR/FB rate, with a bit of regression (naturally).

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I did a weighted average using the sumproduct function. I’ll re-run the numbers just to double check.

      Argh. Looks like I had a broken anchor in the /sum part of the equation, which resulted in the weighting not working, but the formula still kicking out a result. I’ll update the post. Nice catch.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      So if Dave had done his math correctly, he basically would have proven something 180 degrees opposite of what he claims he proved here.

      For most of those pitchers in his list, HR/FB is a sustainable skill making it likely that Matt Cain will also sustain his, especially since Cain has been much better at it up to this point.

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  18. Pierre says:

    The discussion here is really about whether FIP and xFIP are literally and univerally accurate measures of the pitchers’ ability, or merely very insightful. I suspect it’s the latter, but I don’t think it’s a vary important distinction (except to Matt Cain, of course).

    some questions for Dave (or anyone else who’s more FIP-savvy than I):
    -Didn’t Palmer and Glavine out-perform their FIPs pretty substantially? I know Palmer’s defenses were great, but the gap between his ERA abd FIP is huge…
    -is FIP’s validity limited to MLBers? That is, maybe guys who don’t make it have really high LD%s, and so part of the reason they don’t make it is that they under-perform their FIPs. And if so, might the converse be true for the very best MLBers?
    -Is it possible that the relative importance of the FIP components is different for really good pitchers? That is, for example, if your K/BB is already really good, run prevention is all about limiting HR, and therefore the HR-related terms would need to be weighted more heavily.
    -Is it possible (or true) that “bearing down” (as reflected, I guess, by high strand rates) was something real back in the days guys were pitching 9 iniings every 4th day?

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    • Sky says:

      Is there really anybody capable of a rational discussion that thinks FIP and xFIP (or anything) is a universally accurate” measure of a pitcher’s ability?

      The Cain debate has been going on for a few years. The conclusions we draw about him should change given an extra three years of data. If Dave were to create a sample of pitchers with low HR/FB rates with 400-500 innings, I would bet they would regress a lot more than the current sample. Would there be anything separating those players from Matt Cain circa 2008? More information means you can be more sure of what you’re seeing.

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      • Solidarity says:

        I see ostensibly rational people take a rather inflexible stance when it comes to regression. BABIP is .300, strand rate is 72%, HR/FB is around 10%, pitchers who do not conform to their FIP/xFIP are not who their production makes them out to be.

        I honestly think many people give too much loyalty to the predictive power of these metrics, and wield them in a vacuum rather than weighing them against actual outcomes. Which is awful, because if that’s the case, then why bother to watch the games in the first place?

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      • dutchbrowncoat says:

        i am not sure if work has been done on this, but it seems to be that if you separated pitchers into buckets you would see that these values will vary some based on skill level. maybe a 290/75%/8% for elite pitchers and 310/65%/12% for poor pitchers. i dont know.

        if i were to go pitch in the major leagues tomorrow i dont think i would have a prayer of maintaining a 300 babip. along the same lines, i think it is foolish to assume that the true elite pitchers cant beat that. but to me it is also foolish to assume that (even with a few years of the skill) a lower babip or hr/fb is entirely skill related.

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      • fredsbank says:

        DBC,
        no one is saying its ENTIRELY skill related, but you CANNOT say that there MIGHT NOT be SOME skill in it, which is what the “cain can’t” crowd are going for

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    • AJS says:

      You’re exactly right – FIP validity only truly holds for MLBers, just like our assumptions about BABIP. As one poster said above, there’s no way the average guy off the street could go out on the mound and have a .300 BABIP.

      A stats guy in an MLB front office once explained it to me this way, using the example of the relationship of SAT scores and college GPA:

      He said evidence has shown there’s no correlation between how well a student who gets into a top college does on the SAT and their GPA; that is, there’s no appreciable difference in grades between those who got 1200 on their SAT and 1600 (using the old scoring system). That’s because you’ve already limited your sample to a pretty small group.

      However, if you took the entire universe of high school students and let them all into college, so that you’re looking at a group whose SAT scores range between 400 and 1600, you will see a correlation.

      Likewise, if you were to look at every person who has ever thrown a baseball in a competitive game, you would see many pitchers who lack the ability to keep their BABIP around .300. However, those guys wash out and never make it to MLB. Because the MLB universe is so small, and the players in it are the best in the world, the distinction vanishes.

      What this doesn’t answer, however, is the question about whether the “best of the best” display some additional skill. And I could see using this theory to posit interpretations on both sides of the issue.

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  19. bcp33bosox says:

    Cool article and cool debate…I love this stuff!

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  20. Pierre says:

    sky- I may have phrased it awkwardly, but isn’t that the reason we’re interested in Cain? I.e., is there such a thing as an exception to the “rule” that pitchers can’t control their H/BIP or HR/FB?

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    • Sky says:

      Well, I wouldn’t call it a rule, which I suppose proves your point. It’s a pretty darn good rule given a season for a starter or a couple for a reliever. Beyond that, we need to start hedging our bets, or create better tools.

      Cain appears to be a guy at the far end of the spectrum for the HR/FB skill. To me that leaves a few interesting questions.

      1. Exactly how far is the end of the spectrum from the middle?
      2. How sure are we that Cain is at that end?
      3. Was there a way to know in 2008 that his HR/FB numbers were reflective of his talent and not more of a fluke? Or did we need to watch him do it three more years to know that?

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  21. good debate, but i agree with the commenters who bring up the difficulty with using those time periods

    That being said, dave’s right about S#@! happening, it’ll happen in any sample size. so i don’t really know who I would suggest as more apt comparisons. But wouldn’t we all agree Cain is at a different stage in his development than, say, Millwood? I could be wrong in that assumption, but that was one guy that seemed wrong to me, well, him and Bautista who, I’m sorry I know he’s a former SEA great, I think is complete garbage.

    regardless of the comparison being off or not, this is a great piece and certainly a very interesting discussion point

    keep up the hard work Dave

    -w

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  22. Will Hatheway says:

    Cain’s fastball is his only big weapon, unlike, say, CC or Pedro, and in article I recently did over at THThttp://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/article/matt-cain-sacrifices-goats/ , I didn’t find a single correlation between a “plus” FB and “luck” defiance … certain combos compared to certain metrics (esp. LOB%) are another story, but I really can’t find anything to “explain” Cain’s apparent luck.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      Maybe Matt Cain has a pretty darn good fastball?

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    • Larry Yocum says:

      Cain’s fastball is unique. I think it is unfair to say that he doesn’t have other weapons though. He is a true 4-pitch guy now. He is the one that taught Lincecum that tight slider that he used on the Braves in the 14 K performance.

      BTW- another guy to look at that suppresses HRs and doesn’t have quite the fastball Cain does is Dallas Braden.

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  23. Tedfordfan says:

    Dave,

    Very much an amateur, but was wondering — I don’t know if this is relevant, but is there any correlation between HR% and IFFB%? Because in the case of Cain, that would seem to be the obvious argument for a skill to keep his HR% (and BABIP) so low — he gets a ton of weak fly balls. Which, of course, then begs the question — is IFFB% itself a repeatable skill?

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  24. Nate says:

    Given that we saw him summon a wall during the WS to keep his ERA at 0.00 for the postseason, it’s safe to say that Matt Cain possesses a skill that most pitchers do not.

    And the basic stats we have only identify skills that are possessed by most pitchers. Skills that only a few pitchers have, won’t be present there.

    Now, maybe hitF/X will shed new light by being able to spread the data into a continuum, instead of the pop up/fly ball/line drive buckets that we have now.

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  25. I am so surprised that nobody really got into it yet, but this article is comparing many pitchers who were in their 30′s when their decline kicked in – news flash there – with Matt Cain, who just finished his 26 YO season.

    And we know how representative the years 2002-2010 is of baseball history of a skill that requires around that long just for the skill to statistically significantly prove itself, as in, not long enough. Else I could say that a Sandy Koufax type of player couldn’t possibly exist at any point in history because there was nobody like him during 2002-2010 time period, or even if you look at 1961-1966, he was one of a kind.

    I understand that the burden of proof is then to show that such a player is the exception to the rule. I think the information regarding years played resulting in a large enough sample size (TangoTiger), splits (Paapfly), and baseball abilities (Baseball Musing and DrB) is pretty good proof, on an overall basis, tying all together.

    It is now up to the doubters to show that, in particular, he has not played enough years to show this (and maybe he hasn’t, I haven’t seen any one reputable disprove this yet), and I remain unconvinced by the people talking about park factors and splits, they say that this exists, but neglect to get into the numbers which show that Cain is not just lower, but very much lower, even lower than what park factors suggest is the factor.

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    • Jono411 says:

      ok, so where would you put the over/under for cain’s hr/fb rate over the rest of the career? the numbers in this article suggest to me that somewhere around 8.5 would be a fair over/under (mlb average around 10.5, cain’s career rate around 7), but it sounds like you think it should basically be 7?

      (also, check out what tango just posted in response to this article: http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/article/the_hr_per_fb_skill/)

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        Barring injury, or some other deterioration in the quality of his stuff, there is no reason why Matt Cain cannot maintain whatever his career average has been over the last 5 years for at least another 5 years at which point he will be what, 32 years old? That’s when I would expect to start seeing some deterioration in his physical skills not related to injury.

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      • Jono411 says:

        yea but you can’t just say “barring injury, or some other deterioration in the quality of his stuff”, because there’s a good chance one of those things happen, so we need to take that into account when making a projection.

        the question is: what is our best guess of his hr/fb rate next year/the next five years/rest of his career/etc. i’m saying right now, if i had to make a guess, i’d put it at 8.5%. what would you put it at?

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      • WilsonC says:

        If the question we’re trying to answer is how much of his HR/FB rate is skill and how much is chance, not only can we say “barring injury”, we must say it. Obviously any player can see a decline in his skill set due to injury, and that needs to be taken into account when projecting performance, but that’s not really what the article’s about. The question being addressed here isn’t whether a player’s skill in limiting HR can decline as other skills can, the question is whether it’s a skill at all, and if so, how long does it take to get a read on that skill.

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      • Jono411 says:

        is it “how much of HR/FB rate is skill”, or “how much of HR/FB rate is repeatable skill” (ie true talent/what you’d expect in the future)?

        i don’t find the first question interesting, because it’s only useful for looking back, not for making projections. to answer the second question you need to include the possibility of injury/losing stuff/losing mechanics/league adjusting to the player/etc.

        i think it really comes down to whether you want to lump in “unrepeatable skill” with “luck”. if you want to look back, the answer is no, if you want to look forwards, the answer is yes.

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      • AJS says:

        That’s not the important question. I don’t care if Cain’s HR/FB rate goes up to 20% for the next five years – pitchers change as they mature/age. The question is: Is there something Matt Cain has done for these five years that is either a) repeatable, if taught properly to the right kind of pitcher at the right time or b) scoutable/projectable, so that we can look for this type of pitcher in the future.

        If a team was able to find evidence that having a pitcher in his early-to-mid-20s perform a certain action would lead to a lower HR/FB rate, but that as the pitcher aged this action was no longer repeatable, wouldn’t this be a huge advantage to the team to a) have the pitcher during the time he was able to perform this action to his advantage and b) be able to trade the pitcher at the point you knew the action was no longer repeatable?

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      • WilsonC says:

        It doesn’t matter what skill you’re looking at, injury can impact it negatively.

        However, we can’t even really incorporate the impact of injury risk into a projection unless we have some ability to look at true talent, which is the point of this article.

        If the answer to the question posed in the article is that there’s no data to suggest any pitcher can control his HR/FB rate, then regardless of injury risk you’d just project it to about league average and decline would become irrelevant.

        Essentially, we need to know how to separate the unpredictable factors like injury and decline from the equation before we can know how to adjust for them, otherwise we’re looking at a less complete picture.

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      • Jono411 says:

        WilsonC, AJS: the answer seems to be that after around 1000 innings, you want to regress a pitcher’s observed HR/FB approx halfway to league average. that’s our best guess for what cain’s talent is. as for why that’s his likely talent level, i have no clue. it could be pitch sequencing, movement, location, changing velocity, etc. and the only way i can think of that would let us determine that is if we had a large sample of true talent low hr/fb pitchers and discovered that they all had something in common.

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  26. WilsonC says:

    Dave,

    Looking at your numbers, there are only three of the pitchers who posted HR/FB% worse than the league average: Pedro Martinez, Miguel Batista, and Dontrelle Willis. During that stretch, Pedro suffered major injury problems, and both Willis and Batista saw significant declines in their BB% numbers. In all three cases, we’re looking at guys who had clear and significant changes in performance outside of HR% between the two periods.

    In all other cases, the guys performed either around the league average or noticeably better. While there’s a question of degree, Every pitcher other than some of those who were clearly very different pitchers over the two stretches fell between 7.9 and 10.6. It’s not enough data to be conclusive, but it does suggest at least some level of control.

    As well, wouldn’t you expect to see a significant decline if you took the best in the game at any skill over a stretch and looked at the next few years? If guys are already the best at something, there often little room for improvement, whereas injury or age can cause even a great player to decline in a hurry.

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  27. fredsbank says:

    Gee Dave, I didn’t realize that “Can Matt Cain Sustain His Low HR/FB rate” was internet for “I’m right because I think I’m right and no one else is ever right”

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  28. Matthew Cornwell says:

    Glavine’s HR/FB rate was slightly lower to significantly lower than league average every full season of his career but his second.

    BR uses line-drives as part of the equation, but with a league average of 7.6 HR/FB, Glavine averaged:

    5.7 7.8 6.5 5.5 1.7 4.4 4.4 3.5 4.5 6.7 4.1 5.2 6.9 7.3 6.3 7.4 6.3 7.0

    Anybody want to argue that nothing is happening here outside of luck?

    Haven’t regression studies been done already that determine how many FB’s are needed for HR/FB rates to become meaningful in terms of identifying skill?

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    • Larry Yocum says:

      Excellent post.

      Too bad Fangraphs doesn’t have the HR/FB% data prior to 2002.

      1992 was amazing. Only 6 HR’s allowed in 225 IP for Glavine. That is just sick. Obviously he was probably lucky there, but he had a huge run of suppressing HRs until it rose slightly later in his career (steroid era or age?).

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  29. Clayton Kershaw says:

    Hello

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  30. Kellin says:

    No one in here has mentioned relievers as being excluded from the set, if you included relievers Rivera has 1150 IP over a 15 year period and shows rates of .261 BABIP and 6.3 % HR/FB. I know that his overall stats are limited due to the nature of his career, but that seems like a long enough period of excellence to at least say that Mariano (the supreme being that he is) in the role that HE plays exerts some influence over those statistics.

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  31. Clayton Kershaw says:

    Matt Cain is old news, I’m the new stud at limiting HR and maintaining a low BABIP. Come see me in 3 years.

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  32. Jim says:

    Even if you ignore xFIP, Cain is a mediocre pitcher. His career high in WAR is 4.0. He pitches in the National League. In a division that has been offensively weak over the course of his career.

    Don’t get me wrong, he would make a nice 3rd starter on a contending AL team.

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  33. Jim says:

    What do you guys wanna debate next, is Erick Aybar just okay or pretty good?

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  34. Matthew Cornwell says:

    Tom Tango and others have already shown that BABIP, HR/FB, and LOB% skill can start to be found at a certain number of BFs. There is no need to wonder if any skill exists. We know some skill exists – the question is: how much and when can we find it. Cain is nearing that point for his HR/FB – at least where we can start regressing his HR/FB rate to the league mean. Just not all the way.

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  35. Jason Hammel says:

    Would anyone trade Matt Cain for me straight up?

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  36. Jeff K says:

    I appreciate DC replying to some comments and adding some logic to the crazy stew. I don’t like to see someone who has worked as hard as he has and analyzed so many angles take crap from someone who just came up with a brilliant idea/opinion. But that’s just how it is sometimes.

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  37. My echo and bunnymen says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but the stats passed the smell test for me. Whether or not the individuals listed hit their primes or not, Cain will have to pass his prime (whether he’s hit it or not, more likely not). So he’s had good luck, to a GM this list is only saying be more wary of Cain and not reproducing his “skills” than say a Halladay. That’s all. I don’t understand all the fuss.

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    • TomG says:

      Well I looked at the data and:

      There are only 3 pitchers who’s average after the initial period was outside the range of their rates for the initial five seasons, and those were three of the four oldest pitchers.

      There were only three pitchers who were below average every year for the five years, and two of those had their rate GO DOWN in the subsequent 3 years.

      Those two were also two of the five pitchers who were under thirty at the end of the initial five years.

      To summarize, 100% of the pitchers who were below average in their HR/FB rate for each of five consecutive years before they turned thirty saw their HR/FB rate go down in the subsequent three years.

      I’d say that looks like a skill to me…and looks good for Matt Cain.

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  38. Matthew Cornwell says:

    Right – I don’t think we are all too far off from each other. Cain has had enough flyballs that it appears he has some real HR/FB skill going for him. But he does not have near enough to determine if the HR supression is moslty him or mostly luck. As Cain continues to pile up FB’s, we will get a better feel of the luck vs. amount of skill breakdown. For now, we can regress his HR/FB rate towards the league mean to get a solid HR/FB prediction going forward. Sample size and regression, smaple size and regression…

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  39. Smotheredinhugs says:

    A quick question.

    If we give credence to Dave Pinto’s theory on Matt Cains fastball, that it’s “heavy” quality lends to a hitters inability to stay on top and results in shorter fly balls, aren’t we opening Pandora’s box? If one pitch type tends to result in a soft fly ball isn’t it plausible that other pitches, like a Tim Lincecum’s 2-seamer tends to result in a higher rate of line drives? Doesn’t this fly in the face of DIPS theory? Don’t get me wrong – sometimes revolutions are necessary.

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    • Nate says:

      DIPS can only make the statement that most pitchers possess the walk skill, the strikeout skill and the groundball skill and that all other skills are not possessed by most pitchers.

      For any hypothetical skill that is only possessed by a small minority of pitchers, DIPS can’t tell you which have the skill and which have the performance due to luck.

      And to reiterate, this is all under the caveat of as known from the data we have available. This was demonstrated starkly in Buster Olney’s column today where he dropped some data from Trackman showing the fantastic correlation between curveball rotational speed and offensive production. If full coverage of this data ever becomes publicly available, it could easily elucidate a number of more skills that pitchers possess.

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  40. Matthew Cornwell says:

    Here is an earlier thread from “insidethebook” that shows in detail how many flyballs are needed to begin regression and how that number was reached:

    http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/pre_introducing_batted_ball_fip_part_2/

    The most important part, in my opinion, was the fact that HR/FB standard deviation (from the 318 qualifying pitchers with 600+ flyballs from 2002-2009) from their z-scores was 1.35, where 1.00 is expected if everything were random.

    The question “does HR/FB skill exist?” has already been answered. The answer is “yes” – it is just much smaller and harder to weed out than K’s or BB’s ,etc.

    Talk about de ja vu. We just went through this same thing with BABIP – somebody said it doesn’t exist, and we spent the next eight years showing that it does exist, just #.1 not nearly as much as we thought 15 years ago, #2. not enough to isolate without many seasons worth of data, and #3. not nearly as much as with some other run prevention tools (such as Ks and BBs). Same story, different stat. Must we go through this again

    Here is what I suggest – when evaluating players who have very long careers (10+ seasons), use RA (rWAR) since we have enough sample size to credit the pitcher for BABIP and HR/FB. For pitchers who have played fewer than 5-6 years, use FIP (FG WAR) as we can assume that most variance from the mean in HR/FB and BABIP is luck driven. For those inbetween 5-10 seasons, split the difference.

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  41. miffleball says:

    from 2005-2010, 8 pitchers have had HR/FB% of 9.0% or less while pitching at least 1000 innings. All of them have ERAs that outperform their xFIP (anywhere from Cain’s 0.97 runs less to Peavy’s 0.21 runs less). Yet the only one brought up is Cain. How much of that has to do with the fact that the others are Lee, Verlander, Lackey, Johan, CC, Peavy, Oswalt, Zito and Zambrano, most of whom are widely accepted as top pitchers in the league? After all, no one said that the Lee contract this year, or the CC contract when it was signed were awful because they were really outperforming their peripherals by half a run and should be expected to regress during their contract? I just wonder if Cain is young, hasn’t won a lot of games (which really shouldn’t count according to this site, but somehow still has to, somewhere in everyone’s mind) or received in season or post-season awards (all star, cy young, etc.), making him an easy target for an ‘outlier’ who will regress?

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  42. Matthew Cornwell says:

    This isn’t the first time a pitcher was singled out – first it was Tom Glavine and his unique collection of FIP-contradicting skills. Glavine’s case was so unique that the community ultimately conceded that he is the exception to the rule…well, the exception to about every rule. You never hear anyone question his secondary run prevention tools anymore. Then came Barry Zito and his BABIP, etc. As expected, his BIP skills did regress after more seasons and after moving parks and changing defenses. Then came Wang…and boy was the sabermetric community right about his iminent crash. Now it is Cain. Will he be Tom Glavine or Wang? Only time (and an increase in sample size) will tell. But same conversation – just a new pitcher and or skill (BABIP vs. HR/FB vs. LOB%) every couple of years. Cut and paste “Wang” with “Cain” and “BABIP” with “HR/FB”.

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  43. Matt C. says:

    if any of you watched Game 2 of the World Series you’d know secret to my HR/FB success.

    The force(field) is with me!

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  44. Nick says:

    Funny how Dr. B and OGC spent more time in analyzing Matt cain in the comments section than the so-called Mr. Know-it-all Dave Cameron did in his blog item.

    How the sabers moan and cry when a player doesn’t fit their dumbass agendas on what is supposedly luck and what isn’t.

    5 YEAR SAMPLE SIZE. Get the eff over it, clowns.

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  45. Dave says:

    Hey I found this website that had a great article regarding this topic…
    http://rotosaurus.blogspot.com/2011/02/consistently-beating-projections-and.html

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  46. Hmmm says:

    halfway thru the season now and Cain has further dropped his HR/FB rate to 5.3% and HR/9 to .56

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  47. I’ve been thinking the exact same factor myself recently. Glad to see someone on the same wavelength! Nice article.

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  48. iphone says:

    I am working on consolodating my online brand and identity. How to i set my blog up to receive the comments i post on others blogs or the questions I answer on Yahoo Answers or Linked in Q&A? . . What do I have to do when i comment or answer on others sites to ensure it improves my SEO?.

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