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Fun With Pitchers’ K and BB Rates and Batted-Ball Profiles

Last week in this space, we attempted to quantify the impact of strikeout and walk rates on hitters’ offensive production. This time around, let’s do the same with starting pitcher performance, and then a dig a little deeper into pitchers’ batted-ball profiles in an attempt to assess the true-talent level suggested by the underlying data.

Our control group will be 12 starting pitchers who have changed clubs this offseason and logged a substantial innings load in 2013. First, let’s separate these pitchers’ Ks and BBs from the batted balls they allowed to isolate the relative contributions of each to overall pitcher performance.

K % BB % BIP AVG BIP SLG BIP RUN BIP R:100 TOT AVG TOT OBP TOT SLG TOT RUN TOT R:100 ACT ERA ERA:100
Colon Bartolo 15.9% 3.9% 0.312 0.436 4.12 84 0.262 0.290 0.367 3.26 84 2.65 68
Feldman Scott 18.2% 7.7% 0.284 0.453 3.86 79 0.230 0.288 0.366 3.23 83 3.86 100
Fister Doug 19.2% 5.3% 0.347 0.470 4.96 101 0.280 0.317 0.379 3.71 96 3.67 95
Haren Dan 22.7% 4.7% 0.340 0.573 5.84 119 0.264 0.296 0.444 3.96 102 4.67 121
Hernandez Roberto 18.5% 6.2% 0.334 0.545 5.46 111 0.270 0.314 0.440 4.19 108 4.89 126
Hudson Tim 18.6% 7.0% 0.302 0.448 4.08 83 0.244 0.295 0.362 3.29 85 3.97 103
Hughes Phil 19.8% 6.9% 0.360 0.606 6.54 134 0.286 0.333 0.482 4.85 125 5.19 134
Kazmir Scott 25.0% 7.3% 0.346 0.556 5.78 118 0.255 0.308 0.410 3.85 99 4.04 104
Lyles Jordan 15.2% 8.0% 0.333 0.527 5.27 108 0.279 0.336 0.442 4.52 117 5.59 144
Nolasco Ricky 20.5% 5.7% 0.318 0.484 4.63 94 0.250 0.292 0.381 3.40 88 3.70 96
Vargas Jason 18.2% 7.7% 0.335 0.517 5.21 106 0.273 0.325 0.421 4.19 108 4.02 104
Volquez Edinson 19.0% 10.3% 0.347 0.553 5.76 118 0.276 0.348 0.440 4.70 121 5.71 148
MLB AVG 19.9% 7.9% 0.323 0.505 4.90 0.253 0.318 0.396 3.87 3.87

The table above lists each pitcher’s K and BB percentage, the AVG and SLG they allowed on all batted balls, and the total AVG/OBP/SLG they allowed to all batters, including the K and BB information. (HBP are not included in overall OBP, and SH and SF are included as outs for purposes of this exercise.) The BIP and total run values are calculated and scaled to MLB-average ERA as follows: the square of ((1.7 * Pitcher OBP + Pitcher SLG)/ (1.7 * MLB OBP + MLB SLG)) * MLB Avg. ERA. The estimated run values excluding and including the K and BB data are scaled to 100 in the sixth and 11th columns above. For comparative purposes, pitchers’ actual ERA and relative actual ERA scaled to MLB average are listed in the two rightmost columns above. None of the above are adjusted for park factors.

The impact of K and BB rate extremes is readily apparent. High K/Low BB guy Dan Haren‘s calculated relative ERA plummets from 119 to 102 once K/BB data is included, while low K/average BB guy Jordan Lyles‘ calculated relative ERA rises from 108 to 117. Comparing the actual ERA vs. the calculated ERA identifies some pitchers who benefited from or were the victims of good or bad sequencing, among other factors, in 2013. Bartolo Colon‘s 3.26 calculated ERA was much higher than his 2.65 actual ERA, while Lyles (4.52 vs. 5.59) and Edinson Volquez (4.70 vs. 5.71) both had actual ERAs over one full run higher than their combined K/BB and batted-ball profiles would suggest. Again, team defense, ballpark, luck, etc., has not yet been taken into consideration. Now let’s dig a little deeper and look at the batted-ball breakdowns for this group of pitchers.

POP % REL POP # PCT POP FLY % REL FLY # PCT FLY LD % REL LD # PCT LD GB % REL GB # PCT GB
Colon Bartolo 9.0% 115 70 30.3% 107 73 22.0% 103 70 38.6% 91 20
Feldman Scott 6.8% 86 27 24.8% 88 14 21.4% 101 51 47.0% 110 86
Fister Doug 6.1% 78 17 22.0% 78 4 20.4% 96 30 51.5% 121 96
Haren Dan 8.5% 109 78 36.9% 131 99 21.0% 98 27 33.6% 79 6
Hernandez Roberto 3.3% 42 1 24.8% 88 14 21.6% 101 55 50.3% 118 94
Hudson Tim 7.8% 98 58 19.9% 70 1 19.4% 92 10 53.0% 124 98
Hughes Phil 8.9% 114 69 39.3% 139 99 21.4% 101 55 30.4% 71 1
Kazmir Scott 8.7% 111 68 30.1% 106 70 23.0% 108 93 38.3% 90 16
Lyles Jordan 6.0% 76 14 25.4% 90 20 22.0% 103 68 46.7% 109 85
Nolasco Ricky 6.8% 87 45 29.4% 104 78 22.3% 105 59 41.6% 98 27
Vargas Jason 8.3% 107 58 32.1% 114 91 20.7% 97 35 38.9% 91 24
Volquez Edinson 5.5% 70 15 26.4% 93 41 23.9% 112 85 44.2% 104 52
MLB AVG 7.8% 28.3% 21.3% 42.6%

Each pitcher’s balls in play allowed are broken down by type above, and are expressed relative to MLB average (scaled to 100), and as a percentile rank among 2013 regular major league starting pitchers. Interestingly, this particular group of starters includes some batted ball extremes — Phil Hughes and Dan Haren are in the 99th percentile with regard to flyball contact, and Tim Hudson is in the 1st percentile, with fellow groundball guy Roberto Hernandez‘ profile almost as extreme as Hudson’s. Individual popup, flyball and groundball percentages tend to correlate quite well from year to year, while line-drive rates are more random.

Now, let’s combine the frequency data above with the production allowed by these pitchers within the three major batted-ball categories to get a better feel for what makes each of these pitchers tick. (Virtually all popups are outs — no need to devote more space to the fourth major batted-ball type at this time.)

 

FLY AVG FLY SLG R FLY PRD ADJ FLY LD AVG LD SLG R LD PRD ADJ LD GB AVG GB SLG R GB PRD ADJ GB ALL AVG ALL SLG R ALL PRD ADJ ALL TRU ERA
Colon Bartolo 0.223 0.531 55 70 0.615 0.746 82 103 0.289 0.303 145 122 0.312 0.436 84 94 3.62
Feldman Scott 0.333 0.818 127 99 0.640 0.877 99 99 0.152 0.160 40 79 0.284 0.453 79 86 3.46
Fister Doug 0.292 0.679 92 82 0.630 0.724 82 102 0.283 0.305 142 117 0.347 0.470 101 97 3.58
Haren Dan 0.296 0.804 114 104 0.647 0.843 96 99 0.307 0.344 172 120 0.340 0.573 119 108 3.62
Hernandez Roberto 0.351 1.000 170 139 0.646 0.879 100 109 0.216 0.229 82 95 0.334 0.545 111 113 4.22
Hudson Tim 0.286 0.779 107 111 0.587 0.773 80 96 0.239 0.249 99 100 0.302 0.448 83 88 3.46
Hughes Phil 0.267 0.733 94 97 0.688 0.896 109 102 0.338 0.368 204 139 0.360 0.606 134 122 4.48
Kazmir Scott 0.341 0.811 129 128 0.693 0.931 113 96 0.244 0.286 113 125 0.346 0.556 118 113 3.72
Lyles Jordan 0.286 0.798 110 136 0.660 0.903 105 99 0.251 0.265 110 84 0.333 0.527 108 105 4.43
Nolasco Ricky 0.282 0.667 87 92 0.682 0.902 108 109 0.211 0.228 79 108 0.318 0.484 94 104 3.70
Vargas Jason 0.322 0.776 117 92 0.641 0.793 90 103 0.272 0.295 132 108 0.335 0.517 106 95 3.81
Volquez Edinson 0.396 0.964 178 88 0.595 0.833 87 102 0.253 0.275 114 80 0.347 0.553 118 90 3.77
MLB AVG 0.284 0.743 0.657 0.863 0.237 0.257 0.323 0.505

The third, seventh, 11th and 15th columns above represent the relative run value for batted-ball type compared to the MLB average, scaled to 100. The fourth, eighth, 12th and 16th columns include estimated adjustments for team defense, ballpark, luck, etc..

Some really interesting stuff here — let’s look at a highlight or two for each pitcher. Bartolo Colon relies on popups and relatively weak flyball contact, but was helped a bit in 2014 by his home park and outfield defense. Scott Feldman induced lots of grounders, and held opponents to a ridiculously low level of production on them, though some regression should be expected in that area in 2014. Doug Fister also allowed tons of grounders, but yielded higher than MLB average production on those grounders, due at least in part to the Tigers’ limited infield defense. Dan Haren allowed a ton of flyballs and relatively authoritative contact across the board, but was kept afloat by his strong K and BB rates. Roberto Hernandez allowed a ton of grounders, with a relatively low production level, but the fly balls he did allow were hit with significant authority.

Tim Hudson is quite interesting — he obviously is an extreme groundball guy, but the league got average production on those groundballs in 2013. His popup rate, however, has become quite high for a groundballer, offering him another efficient way to retire hitters. Phil Hughes possesses a fairly unique portfolio, in a not-so-positive way. He allowed tons of flyballs, but managed the production on them quite well last season. However, he allowed well more than league-average production on the relatively few groundballs he allowed. That combination is not a likely pathway to long-term success.

Scott Kazmir‘s comeback season had a couple of blemishes — he yielded a very high line-drive rate, and well more than league-average damage on the flyballs he allowed. The LDs should regress; not so sure about the flyball damage. On the plus side, Jordan Lyles has a strong groundball tendency, and once adjusted for team defense, allowed below-league-average production on them. On the negative, his K rate was dangerously low, and he allowed very authoritative flyball contact, a no-no in Colorado, his new home. Ricky Nolasco is what he is — a pitcher who lacks material flaws. He controlled flyball contact quite well in 2013, and his solid K and BB rates offer a baseline for success. Jason Vargas has become quite a success story, relatively speaking. A fringe big leaguer not that long ago, he dialed down his significant tendency to allow authoritative flyball contact a bit in 2013, and now moves to an even more flyball-forgiving environment in Kansas City in 2014.

And let’s finish with Edinson Volquez, potentially the best bargain free-agent signing thus far this offseason. A) His extremely high 2013 line-drive rate should regress going forward, and B) the outlandishly high level of production he allowed on flyballs in 2013 was simply not real — and he’s headed to a forgiving home park with a stellar outfield defense in 2014. His ERA should drop by two full points in 2014, even without major improvements in control.

Breaking down the whole into its components can yield some very interesting insights into starting pitcher performance. Plus, this is just the entry point for analysis. Incorporating traditional scouting concepts to help determine why the above pitchers are missing more or less bats, or yielding different batted-ball mixes or levels of production within batted-ball groups can take such analyses to the next level. Next time, we’ll take some of the concepts discussed today and apply them to a few hurlers who remain on the free-agent market, at least for a couple more days, until the Tanaka Embargo ends.