When we see that a team has used 10 different starting pitchers at this point in the season, it usually raises a red flag. A team will, under most circumstances, break camp with its five best pitchers in the rotation. Using starters beyond those five signals injury or ineffectiveness, since the team must employ pitchers who didn’t make the initial cut. To have used seven starters by this point is one thing. To use 10, well, there must be some problems in the rotation. Yet this isn’t the case with the Texas Rangers. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced them to use 10 starting pitchers, but they rank third in the AL in ERA at 3.80. They also have the largest discrepancy between their ERA and FIP.
Much of that discrepancy comes from 23-year-old Tommy Hunter. He has been quite effective since his recall in June — as Andy at the Baseball-Referecnce blog notes, he has won eight straight decisions this season. His 2.31 ERA is best among AL pitchers with at least 60 IP. But we know the perils of basing analysis on wins and ERA. Good pitchers can slump and poor pitchers can streak, leaving us with a set of skewed numbers that will change in short order. This appears to be the case with Hunter. He’s not bad, really, but he’s currently pitching well above his head.
Hunter is currently experiencing one of the greatest combinations for pitcher performance: low BABIP and high strand rate. Since he has kept his strikeout and walk rates low he allows many balls in play — of the 251 batters he has faced 194 have hit the ball into fair play. Yet only 44 of those 194 have fallen in for hits, leaving him with a .234 BABIP, second lowest among AL pitchers with 60 IP. When those runners do reach base, they tend to stay there. Hunter has allowed 44 non-homer hits, has hit three, and has walked 15. Of those baserunners, 86.2 have been stranded on the base paths. This, too, is the highest mark in the AL.
The trend of stranding baserunners has come recently. In July it has been downright insane, as he has allowed 21 non-homer hits, has hit one, and has walked seven, yet has stranded 97.7 percent of those base runners. This might look a bit strange, since he has allowed six home runs this month, or one to every roughly 22 batters he’s faced. But five of those home runs have come with no men on base. The only other was his latest serving, a two-run homer to Hideki Matsui on Sunday.
In June his strand rate, 76.7 percent, was far closer to league average. Yet that month, despite pitching 27 innings at his home ballpark, he allowed just one homer. That, too, was a solo shot, coming during his complete-game season debut against the Rays. His HR/FB ratio that month was 2.8 percent. It is no surprise, then, that despite low strikeout totals he exited June with a 2.15 ERA.
This isn’t to say that Hunter is doomed to a steep and depressing decline. He does have something working for him. After his debut on June 5 Dave Allen wrote about Hunter’s high curveballs. That might seem like more of a burden, since it’s easy to associate high curves with hanging curves. Yet as Derek Carty found, high curves can be even more effective than their low counterparts. It can, perhaps, aid pitchers in inducing poor contact. Since high curves will presumably hit in the air, that can also bring down a pitcher’s expected HR/FB ratio. So while Hunter is certainly due a regression of some sorts, he very well might not see his ERA climb all the way to the level of his FIP, 4.41, or his xFIP, 4.81.
Hunter’s performance to date has helped the Rangers maintain their considerable lead in the AL West. They have faced some problems in the rotation, with injuries to Rich Harden, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison, and ineffectiveness from Scott Feldman. Cliff Lee has come to the rescue, and so has Tommy Hunter. Even if he experiences declining numbers starting on Saturday, he’ll have made a big contribution to the 2010 Rangers and their quest for the AL West crown.