As advanced statistics and sabermetrics have become more integrated with the game of baseball, it has become a more widely held belief that pitchers have limited effect on what happens after an opposing batter puts the ball into play. Pitchers can generate ground balls, of course, but they must still rely upon their team’s defense to convert those grounder into outs.
Statistics such as FIP and SIERA attempt to isolate a pitcher’s true performance on the mound. When assessing a pitcher’s skill, however, scouts assess how well a guy can keep the baseball on the ground (or at least inside the ballpark), avoid walks and strike out batters. Thus, it follows that pitchers who are above-average at all three of those important skills will — on average — be more successful than pitchers who struggle with one or more of the three.
It should be noted that the degree to which a pitcher excels at a particular skill can outweigh the fact that he struggles with something else. For example, Justin Verlander will almost certainly win the AL Cy Young Award this season. He didn’t post above-average numbers in all three categories. His 9 K/9 strikeout rate and 2 BB/9 walk rate are so much above-average, however, that they make up for the fact that he only compiled a 40.2% ground-ball percentage.
Pitchers such as Verlander and Clayton Kershaw (also below-average GB%) prohibit this from being a list of “aces,” but make no mistake that the pitchers who compiled above-average numbers in GB%, K/9, and BB/9 are amongst the best pitchers in the game.
Listed below are the pitchers who were above-average in the three categories mentioned before. The pool of pitchers was limited to guys who threw at least 100 innings in 2011. Of the pitchers who did throw at least 100 innings, the average GB% was 44.4%. The average strikeout rate was 6.83 K/9. And the average walk rate was 2.82 BB/9.
This is an impressive list of arms.
Of the thirteen pitchers who qualified, six have won a Cy Young Award. The average FIP for the group is 3.10 — which would rank as 16th-best pitcher in the majors in 2011 — and is just a touch better than Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum.
Putting this into context, if you discovered that your favorite team signed unknown Pitcher X and all you know about him is that he is above-average at generating ground balls, striking batters out and avoiding walks, you can be reasonably certain that your team signed a top-tier pitcher.
Well, a top-tier pitcher … or Jeff Niemann. The right-hander appears to be the ugly duckling of the group. He’s the only pitcher with a FIP above 4.00. So, what gives?
It alludes to the previous discussion about differing degrees of “above-averageness” Niemann barely qualifies in two of the three categories. His ground ball rate is 46.0%, clearing the league average by just over a percent. Furthermore, his strikeout rate is 6.98 K/9, which again is just above the 6.83 K/9 average outlined above.
So, his skill set is roughly league-average. It should come as no surprise, then, that his ERA- was 104 — almost exactly average — on the season. Every statistical sample has outliers, and it appears that Niemann is the outlier of the group.
The list above has one name that is italicized — CC Sabathia. That signifies impending free agency, and the left-hander is expected to opt out of his contract with hopes of securing an even more lucrative deal than he currently possesses. When he does opt out, he will be considered the most talented pitcher on the market.
And, according to his individual skill set on the mound and his inclusion on the above list, he should be.
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