Statistical Standouts: The Elite Category of Pitchers

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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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).


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JD
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JD
4 years 8 months ago

So you’re saying Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia are good pitchers?

adohaj
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adohaj
4 years 8 months ago

He is also saying Jon Niese is a good pitcher

Hmmmm
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Hmmmm
4 years 8 months ago

The numbers bear that out.

GiantHusker
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GiantHusker
4 years 8 months ago

Obviously, you didn’t check with Dave Cameron before publishing this article. You’ve disproved his insistence that Madison Bumgarner is not an expecially good pitcher.

Worry
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Worry
4 years 8 months ago

Bumgarner IS an especially good pitcher. Especially when you consider his age.

Roberto
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Roberto
4 years 8 months ago

Jordan Zimmermann’s FIP was 3.16, his K/9 was 6.92 and his BB/9 was 1.73. Only his GB rate, 39.7, didn’t quite make the cut. How do you see him?

Will H.
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Will H.
4 years 8 months ago

I’m thrilled I have him as a 17th, 15th, and 13th round keeper over the next three seasons, so I’m feeling you…

Mike
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Mike
4 years 8 months ago

Considerin his age and contract status I would venture that Bumgarner is the most valuable asset on that list.

OrgoneDonor
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OrgoneDonor
4 years 8 months ago

in this line.

I think in terms of ‘pure trade value,’ Madison Bumgarner and Mike Stanton are the two single most valuable trading assets in the MLB. Both turn(ed) 22 this year, and both are among the very best in baseball at what they do. I don’t think there is another single player in baseball, except each other, that I think any GM would trade Stanton or Madbum for staight-up.

More important to their value is that they are both under team control for five more years at below-market cost, and because of their age, have the potential to be perennial all-stars if they maintain their current talent level, MVP/Cy-Young winners if they follow a normal development curve.

Let’s be serious here: if either of these guys were putting up the numbers they have been putting up at the MLB level in AA at their current age, they would be league-wide Top 10 prospects. Madbum and Stanton are freaks.

Phantom Stranger
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Phantom Stranger
4 years 8 months ago

Except Kershaw himself, who is just a bit older than those two and has already established himself as one of the three or four best pitchers in MLB. A team like the Yankees would much rather trade for Kershaw than Bumgarner.

Will H.
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Will H.
4 years 8 months ago

Um, Strasburg???

Anon
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Anon
4 years 8 months ago

After reading the first paragraph, I expected some info on pitchers who sustain a BABIP outside of a normal range and data for why/how. What I got was: Jeff Niemann is average, and these other guys are good.

Summary: If a pitcher is better than average in Ks, BBs, and ground balls, that pitcher will be good.

Groundbreaking work!

JD
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JD
4 years 8 months ago

Well, you get what you pay for.

A sabermetrician in an MLB office are paid like garbage (under 35K according to Passan) let alone a freelance writer for a niche baseball site with 50 writers at their disposal.

Wergo
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Wergo
4 years 8 months ago

I’d be interested in seeing the group of pitchers who are all below average (for all pitchers with 100 IP) in these 3 areas.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 8 months ago

Bumgarner had 3-4 outings last year when he absolutely got lit up. (I think he gave up 8 consecutive hits and seven runs in 1/3 of an inning against the Twins) Subtract that one outing alone and he was outstanding. He’s so young that he has time to get consistent with his stuff.

JD
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JD
4 years 8 months ago

you can safely say that about every elite pitcher bud. they all have 3-4 bad ones every year.

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