Mariano, Hughes, and an Obvious Point

Buster Olney’s profile of Mariano Rivera in The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty paints him as a quiet soul. He never chose that song so closely associated with his reign of excellence, yet he’s just the type who meticulously shaves his face with the precision of an assassin before taking the field, shedding weakness in those salted and peppered whiskers.

If that seems overdramatic, well, it is. Bear in mind, grizzly ol’ Mariano’s job is to throw a ball at speeds in upwards of the mid-90s a few times every other night while holding a polar demeanor. His allure is entirely dependent on the amount of hype and dramatization one applies to the situation. It’s a rough life, for sure, if one that pays well and has lead to a life of luxury and high-end endorsement deals.

That’s not an insult to Rivera. He does his job better than just about anyone ever has. Sometime down the road, perhaps long down the road, someone will do it better, but for now, Mariano is the high water mark. Using him as such when it comes to reliever evaluations is hardly new. Using him as the only thing that matters when it comes to reliever evaluations is silly. However, there is at least one thing to be gained from Rivera’s career, and that’s this: Phil Hughes’ season was of teeth-rotting quality out of the pen last year.

Hughes as reliever posted some incredible numbers. He struck out a little under a dozen per nine innings, had a 1.40 ERA and 1.83 FIP, struck out 65 batters while allowing a total of 43 baserunners, and did all this in 51-and-a-third innings. A respectable single season sample size for a reliever, albeit one small by regression standards. It’s because of that (and something else coming up in a moment) that makes Hughes’ ascent to Firpo Marberry in 1926 status a bit premature.

Ignoring that Hughes is a starter-turned-reliever with a highly capable atlatl on his right side, he’s also looking for his second straight sub-2 FIP season. And it’s just probable. Remember that foolish idea of comparing a reliever’s ability solely to that of Rivera? Yeah, well put on the dunce cap and follow this moron off the cliff.

When the Yankees turned Rivera into a full-time reliever in 1996, he posted a 1.88 FIP in 107 innings as a set-up man. A year later he became the closer and his FIP shot up to 2.96. Rivera has yet to post a FIP under 2.00 despite coming absurdly close in 2008 (2.03). Rivera has posted nine straight seasons with a FIP under 3. His career high for consecutive seasons with a sub 2.5 FIP is a trick question, because he’s never actually accomplished that feat.

That also means he’s never done back-to-back sub-2 FIP seasons. Only three pitchers with at least 40 relief innings have FIP of 2 or lower in back-to-back seasons. And only Rob Dibble has three consecutive seasons. The others are Octavio Dotel and Eric Gagne (the full list resides after the jump). The most insane number is that we’re talking about 20 seasons worth of data and only 32 occurrences.

Yes, FIP likely underrates Rivera. He does things we can’t quantify. Things like limiting contact, mind control, and possessing spice-richened hair follicles. His job is not always boring, but much like bull fighting; entertainment’s apex is reached only when the matador is on the ropes. That’s not a situation Rivera finds himself in often though and wasn’t one Hughes found in 2009. Hughes almost certainly won’t replicate that success in 2010. Pick any reason as to why. At the end of the day, it’s not just because he pitched worse. Even Rivera couldn’t top the odds.

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22 Responses to “Mariano, Hughes, and an Obvious Point”

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  1. Chris says:

    I believe Dibble had 4 straight with 1989 not being included in this table. I also have to wonder if the Dodgers Bullpen has some extra special Kool-Aid with their bullpen having 6 of the last 18 instances in this table.

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  2. petejohn says:

    Great post. If I had been blindfolded I may have confused that prose in the first few paragraphs with that of Joe Posnanski. It’s surprising to me that Mo has so few sub-2 FIP seasons, considering he’s a low-walk, low-HR guy. Regardless, he’s probably the best relief pitcher ever so I doubt he cares too much.

    Hughes was pretty unreal last year. My guess is that he can let his FB play up a little bit out of the pen. His avg. velocity from ’08 to ’09 jumped from 91.2 to 93.7, and was a one win pitch for him last season. He also got roughly one-half of a win out of his cutter, which may very well have been an evolved version of his old slider (you can never tell with classification algorithms). Either way, those two pitches were great for him last year.

    I’m not much of a Yankees fan, but I do appreciate good baseball. Mo is a legend and Hughes is a really talented kid, and I hope the Yanks figure it out as far as what they want to do with Hughes and Joba. Those guys are too talented to live in some no-mans land.

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    • Joe R says:

      I think Mo has enough innings in his career to reflect that his low BABIP is a testament to skill and not luck.
      Of course even he won’t strand over 90% of his baserunners in 2010.

      I’ve always wondered if there’s any particular skill that actually causes some pitchers to routinely outperform their peripherals. Would be an interesting study.

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      • Bill says:

        At what point do we just agree that his pitching style effects BABIP in some way?

        He’s had three seasons of BABIP over .300 in his career, and just by observation his pitching style would tend to depress BABIP. Obviously, most pitchers can’t do this, but then again, most pitchers aren’t as good as Rivera.

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      • Joe R says:

        I already stated that his low career BABIP is most likely attributed to skill rather than luck.

        I just want to know WHAT skill it is that allow pitchers like him seem to have that allows them to, as opposed to pitchers who constantly post higher BABIP’s.

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      • Rick says:

        I’ve been wondering the same thing in the opposite direction (underperforming periphs). It came up when I was thinking about the Vasquez deal. I wonder if the ability to avoid clustering baserunners is a repeatable skill (or if clustering them is a “repeatable flaw”).

        Maybe some pitchers deal better psychologically with runners on base, which causes them to better repeat their mechanics in high leverage situations versus others who melt down and throw more bad pitches? Don’t beat me up, I’m just thinking out loud here. Is there any work on runner clustering out there?

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      • Steve says:

        I would think the explanation for Mo lies in the movement on his cutter. How many bats has he sawed off over the last decade? When he’s not striking hitters out, he’s inducing weak groundballs to the 2Bman and weak comebacker to the pitcher. FIP will treat these easily fieldable balls the same as a hard hit grounder through the infield and will attribute a part of his success to “luck”. Doesn’t mean FIP is broken, just means it’s not perfect when applying the formula to outliers. And Mo is an outlier.

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      • JimNY says:

        Yeah, watching Mariano pitch (and I’ve seen him pitch in hundreds of games), it’s not a mystery why his BABIP is always consistently lower than you’d expect. The motion on his cutter never allows lefties to get the fat part of the bat on the ball, and that results in lots and lots of very weak, easily playable grounders. Check his RF/9, which over his career is about 80% higher than league average, because he induces tons of weak grounds back to the pitcher.

        I know it’s not popular around here to talk about what a player looks like rather than the numbers, but this is really one of those examples of a “statistical anomoly” being completely obvious when you actually watch the games.

        Also, to a lesser extent, he induces a lot more easy popups from right handed batters than you’d regularly expect, because a lot of righties swing for a cutter away when Mo actually throws them a four seamer up and in (which he almost never throws to lefties). It’s pretty easy to know that the BABIP on balls hit on the handle of the bat is going to be lower than those hit on the meat of the bat.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Rick, I don’t have anything more than vague suppositions to back this up, but I wonder if someone like Vazquez simply loses more when he goes to the stretch than most pitchers, thus causing his baserunners to “clump,” as you put it.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        @Rick, Kevin, re Vasquez:

        You can see clearly that he’s pitched worse with runners on base for his career. A friend told me a few months ago that Braves coaches identified some kind of problem working from the stretch and were able to correct it. The runners on-bases empty split is not nearly so pronounced in 2009, but that’s a small sample size, of course, in a year where he was just flat-out great. So we’ll see if that continues.

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      • Kevin S. says:

        Thanks Al. I knew he performed worse wtih RISP, I meant I was unsure if there was something mechanical causing it, as opposed to him not having the mental fortitude to handle a guy on first or whatever other tripe you typically hear. From what you’ve said, it sounds like I was right about that, and I’m kind of pumped that it’s apparently been corrected.

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      • Rick says:

        Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply “mental toughness” was the only reason something like that could happen – that’s why I tried to tie it into something that would manifest itself physically in worse pitching. It could be mechanical issues or heck, it could even be as simple as a guy tipping pitches from the stretch.

        I know that the largely accepted idea is that stranding runners isn’t a repeatable skill. Yet the Javy experience seems to tell us that FAILING to strand runners may in fact be more than simple bad luck. Probably a self-evident point, but it helps resolve his tendency to under-perform relative to his peripherals.

        As a Yanks fan, I hope last year means he’s fixed.

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  3. The A Team says:

    Atlatl? Thankfully I know the word from a 5th grade project on Indians. I don’t even remember which tribe, but atlatl stuck with me because it’s such a weird word…how many people knew it was a type of spear thrower and how many had to look it up?

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    • Everett says:

      Count me in the looking it up category.

      As an aside, Mariano became one of my favorite people in baseball a few years when my buddy and I were on a long baseball roadtrip up the west coast. We were in Anaheim for 3 against the Yankees, and showed up early for a game. Mariano spent probably 45 minutes talking with a group of fans, signing autographs, and playing around with them (fielding balls in BP, and making fans “earn” them). I was very impressed.

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    • Sandy Kazmir says:

      I remembered it from reading about some county that had passed it as a suitable weapon to hunt deer, thus giving hunters an extra meat sack provided they could use the thing.

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    • B N says:

      Remember it? I never leave home without it!

      Interesting though. I remember it from my 5th grade project on Native Americans, not Indians. I guess that was some parallel development there. ;)

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    • Different Chris says:

      I assumed it was a Jermaine Dupri-inspired typo.

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  4. Richie Abernathy says:

    40 innings is the minimum? Eh, I’m not overly impressed. Especially when you compare those to Mariano’s sub-2 FIP season of 107(!) innings.

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  5. Rob says:

    Gagne’s 2003 0.86 (!!) FIP stands out among these standouts like a sore thumb.

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  6. huh says:

    dotel never had a fip under 2.00. and especially not in 2000:

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    • ewanbrown says:

      I think it may have been just based on his work out of the pen.

      In 2000 in 34 relief innings he had a 49/19 K/BB and gave up 6 HR.

      In 2001 in 84 relief innings he had a 128/33 K/BB and only gave up 3 HR.

      God knows how they returned the same FIP figure seeing as the K/9, BB/9 & HR/9 were all much better in 2001

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