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Galarraga’s Good Fortune

Who would have thought, entering the 2008 season, that Armando Galarraga would end up being Detroit’s most consistent starting pitcher? With Justin Verlander stranding an unusually low percentage of runners, Jeremy Bonderman (whose career divide between his peripherals and ERA would make Javier Vazquez blush) succumbing to injury, Kenny Rogers (a career-worst 5.22 FIP ERA) looking cooked and Nate Robertson suffering from horrible luck on balls put in play (.343 BABIP), Galarraga was the only starter to post a sub-four ERA for a group that authored a combined 5.03 ERA.

Galarraga had previously been part of a blockbuster deal, as the Washington Nationals shipped him as well outfielders Terrmel Sledge and Brad Wilkerson to the Rangers for Alfonso Soriano in December of 2005. Galarraga’s trade from Texas to the Tigers, however, was much less splashy. Designated for assignment by the pitching-starved Rangers, Galarraga moved to the Motor City for outfielder Michael Hernandez, who went undrafted out of Oklahoma State in 2006. Galarraga was seen as possessing enough talent to help fill in at the back of a big league pitching staff, but he had missed nearly all of the 2002 and 2003 seasons following Tommy John surgery, as well as 2006 while battling a shoulder injury.

While Hernandez failed to impress at High-A and moved on to the Mets organization, Galarraga posted a 3.73 ERA for the Tigers in 28 starts. His 13-7 record was a breath of fresh air for a club that rarely received stellar starting performances. Regardless of what occurs from this point forward, the Tigers received one year of above-average pitching essentially for free. That’s a great deal no matter how you cut it. Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to expect Galarraga’s good fortune to come to an end in 2009.

The 6-4, 180 pounder compiled a superficially impressive ERA, but there was a Grand Canyon-sized gap between his actual ERA and his Fielding Independent ERA (FIP ERA). Galarraga’s FIP ERA was a much less impressive 4.88, over 1.1 runs higher than his actual mark. That dichotomy between his ERA and FIP ERA (-1.15 runs) was the largest in the majors, surpassing Daisuke Matsuzaka (-1.13) and Johan Santana (-0.97). Galarraga didn’t miss that many bats, striking out 6.35 batters per nine innings, and his control was just fair (3.07 BB/9). He was somewhat unlucky in the home run department (his HR/FB% was 13), but even using XFIP from The Hardball Times to adjust for that, his ERA came in at a less shiny 4.59. So, Galarraga struck out just slightly more than the league average, showed ordinary control and gave up his fair share of longballs. How did he manage to outperform his controllable skills by such a large margin?

The answer lies in Galarraga’s BABIP and Strand Rate (LOB%). The soon-to-be 27 year-old posted a minuscule .247 BABIP. Among starting pitchers, only David Bush and Tim Wakefield received more auspicious bounces on balls put in play. Galarraga also stranded runners at a 75.6% clip, above the 70-72% average in that category. When more of those balls put in play fail to reach gloves and his strand rate presumably ticks down, Galarraga’s ERA is going to climb.

As a free-talent acquisition, Armando Galarraga was an excellent value for the Tigers. However, his solid 2008 campaign looks more like a mirage than a harbinger of things to come. Let someone else pick Galarraga and end up disappointed with the results.