The Year of the Soft Tossing Lefty

It’s no secret that offense in baseball is down across the game, as the days of guys launching 60 home runs in a season seems to be a thing of the past. The modern game more closely resembles the brand of baseball played in the late 1980s, and once again, four runs is enough to get you a win on most nights. We’re going on year three of the Year of the Pitcher, so at this point, it’s time just retire the moniker and note that the game has changed.

Despite the fact that most of the focus has been on the downturn in home runs, however, that’s actually just a small part of the downturn in offense over the last decade. The drop in home run rate has coincided with a continued increase in strikeout rate and, perhaps more importantly, a continued decline on the rate at which batters get hits when they put the ball in play.

In 2007, the league BABIP was .299, the second highest season total in the last 100 years – the only time it had ever cracked .300 was 1930. While home run rates began declining in the earlier part of the decade, the league was still offense-oriented due to the amount of hits that were falling in when batters did make contact. However, league BABIP has declined in each year since 2007:

2007: .299
2008: .296
2009: .295
2010: .293
2011: .291
2012: .288

An 11 point drop in league BABIP might not sound like a big deal, but considering the amount of plays in a baseball season, it adds up fast. For instance, if league BABIP in 2007 had been .288 instead of .299, the difference would have been 1,470 hits over the course of the season. Even small changes in league BABIP can have a significant impact on run scoring.

And, with the league shifting back towards an environment where pitching to contact is rewarded with outs more frequently, there’s one group of pitchers that are reaping the rewards more than others – soft-tossing lefties.

Over the last three years, there have been eight left-handed starters who have consistently pitched with a fastball that averages below 88.0 MPH or below – Mark Buehrle, Chris Capuano, Bruce Chen, Ted Lilly, Paul Maholm, Jamie Moyer, Jason Vargas, and Barry Zito. There are other slow pitch southpaws floating around the league, but these eight are the ones who have been regular members of starting rotations over the last four years. As a group, those eight threw over 1,000 innings in each year from 2009-2011, and they’ve already thrown 375 innings this year.

Their overall results in the core pitching categories have been remarkably consistent in each year:

2009: 6.9% BB%, 15.4% K%, 41.3% GB%
2010: 7.0% BB%, 15.2% K%, 40.1% GB%
2011: 6.7% BB%, 16.2% K%, 40.4% GB%
2012: 7.1% BB%, 15.8% K%, 43.2% GB%

They get just over twice as many strikeouts as walks, but they’re mostly contact pitchers and succeed by throwing strikes, hoping that their defense converts those balls in play into outs. Only now, their hopes are being answered more often than before. After posting a .293 BABIP as a group in 2009, it fell to .284 in each of the last two seasons, and is down to an unconscionably low .252 so far in 2012. In fact, Lilly (.196, lowest in the league), Vargas, Zito, and Maholm are all in the top 10 in batting average on balls in play to begin the 2012 season, while Capuano comes in at #12. 41.7 percent of the dozen lowest BABIPs so far this year belong to left-handers who throw about as hard as a high-school kid.

All these in play outs are helping these eight pitchers post strong results for their respective teams. Their overall ERA is just 3.29, so their composite run prevention puts them in the company of guys like Roy Halladay (3.22 ERA) so far this year. They won’t keep preventing hits on balls in play at the rate they are now, but they are the pitchers who stand to benefit the most from the changing environment of baseball.

Since these guys rarely issue walks, the only way for opposing hitters to mount a rally is to string together a couple of hits and then hope for a home run. However, with fewer batters getting singles and doubles, the home runs they allow don’t do as much harm as they did in previous years. Between them, these eight pitchers have allowed 40 home runs, but 25 of those have been solo homers. Not only does the reduction in hits on balls in play lead to fewer rallies, it leads to fewer runs scoring when one of those 88 MPH fastballs catches too much of the plate and sails over the fence.

The characteristics of baseball in this day and age offers a larger benefit for pitch-to-contact flyball starters than for any other type of pitcher, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that young pitchers such as Tommy Milone are enjoying some early success. While Milone wasn’t a highly thought of prospect due to his lack of velocity, don’t be surprised if more teams start placing a higher value on pitchers like Milone, as their stuff simply plays better in today’s game than it did 10 years ago.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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