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Scott Feldman’s Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a 31-year-old right-hander who spent years toiling as a fifth or sixth starter for the Rangers. But then one year he signed with a new team who thought he could be their ace, and so an ace he became. Or did he?

Scott Feldman is off to a remarkable start. He’s pitched 20.2 innings in three starts, and allowed a grand total of 1 run, and only 7 hits. Of the 7 hits, 6 were singles.

Unfortunately, it’s a little too early to believe fairy tales can come true. Let’s find out why.

First of all: Scott Feldman is not striking guys out. Of the 79 batters he’s faced, he’s struck out just 7, which is the second-lowest K rate of any starting pitcher, behind only Brett Anderson. In fact, Feldman is walking (8) and plunking (5) more guys than he strikes out. That does not inspire confidence.

So what’s his secret? Well, opposing batters hit the ball a lot against Feldman, but they don’t reach base safely. When opponents swing and put the ball in play, their batting average (BABIP) is .119. The league average BABIP is about .300, because when you hit the ball at professional defenders, there’s about a 70% chance they will get you out. Several factors influence this average: pitchers causing weak contact, hitters having natural talents (or lacks thereof), hitters being fast enough to beat throws to first, defenses of varying qualities, and just plain old luck. 

Holding opposing hitters to a .119 BABIP screams “luck.” But there are other things we can check first.

Let’s look at Feldman’s arsenal. Is it different? Yes. For the first three years of his career, Feldman leaned on his fastball; from 2010-13 he replaced the traditional fastball with a sinker and a cutter. So far in 2014 Feldman’s primary pitch has been his curveball, which he throws 37.7% of the time; after that comes the cutter, with his changeup and sinker used very rarely.

Here is a list of the top three curveball throwers in 2013, and what % of their pitches were curvaceous:
1. Jose Fernandez (33.6%)
2. Scott Feldman (27.5%)
3. Adam Wainwright (27.3%)

So is Feldman ditching the sinker and leaning on the curve because that will give him better results? Maybe, but if that’s the case, he should have ditched the cut fastball instead: in 2013 his sinker and curve generated ground balls more than half the time, but many cutters went for line drives, including over half of the doubles and triples he gave up. Unfortunately, that’s not the pitch he replaced. It’s the pitch he kept.

So far this year, Feldman’s efficiency as a ground-ball pitcher has actually taken a hit. But it’s too soon to make sense of the data, or at least too soon for me, because the data is confusing. Maybe Feldman is deliberately trying to generate fewer groundballs, or maybe random things are happening and other teams are hitting the ball everywhere.

Either way, the Astros defense has had to work almost every time a batter steps in against Feldman. And not a single Astro has committed an error while he’s pitching. There are a few good defenders on Houston’s team (Jason Castro, Jose Altuve, Matt Dominguez, and Dexter Fowler). But there are also plenty of not-good defenders. One surprise is that shortstop Jonathan Villar, whom I have seen make some bone-headed plays in the past, has so far reversed course from being a bad defender to a good one. But it’s only been two weeks; time will tell.

Indeed, looking at the fairy-tale start to Scott Feldman’s year, “it’s only been two weeks” is the best explanation. He does not strike batters out; he leads all the MLB in hit-by-pitches; his fastest pitch so far has been exactly 90 mph; and he is relying on a patchy defense which has yet to fail him once. The curveball is pretty good, but no starting pitcher can rely on a curve as a primary pitch. And that .119 BABIP is a fluke. Last year Feldman’s opponents went .258 when they put the ball into play, which put him in the top ten among all pitchers. But even if Feldman has a real skill for making the ball go to his defense, .119 is crazy, and he will soon be dealing with twice as many baserunners.

One of these days, the clock will chime midnight and the balls opponents hit off Feldman will start getting past defenders, dropping into the outfield grass, popping out of gloves, or going over the fence. That’s not bad; that’s normal. When midnight tolls, he won’t turn into a pumpkin. But he will turn back into Scott Feldman.