NLCS Game 4: Blanton, Bumgarner, Spitting Images

This preview contains a hard-hitting poll. Just, FYI.

Philadelphia at San Francisco | Game Four, NLCS | 7:57pm ET
Starting Pitchers
Phillies: Joe Blanton
175.2 IP, 6.87 K/9, 2.20 BB/9, .331 BABIP, 41.9% GB, 12.2% HR/FB, 4.06 xFIP, 1.9 WAR

Giants: Madison Bumgarner
111.0 IP, 6.97 K/9, 2.11 BB/9, .322 BABIP, 45.1% GB, 8.1% HR/FB, 4.03 xFIP, 2.0 WAR

While I typically attempt, at all costs, to avoid learning, it occurs to me that, looking at Blanton’s and Bumgarner’s season lines in relief, one is absolutely forced to comprehend the baleful effects of the Fly Ball on a pitcher’s fortunes. For, while Blanton struck out and walked batters at a rate almost identical to Bumgarner — and conceded fly balls on 38.7% of balls in play, versus Bumgarner’s rate of 38.0% — he ended the season with an ERA exactly 1.82 points higher than Bumgarner (4.82 versus 3.00).

Indeed, the only real difference between these pitchers — besides their handedness and respective waistlines — is what happened to the balls once they got in the air. For Bumgarner, about eight percent of them became home runs; Blanton conceded that many, plus half again.

To what do we owe this difference? Well, we can’t ignore the pitchers’ respective ballparks. Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank certainly has a reputation for allowing dongers, while the Giants’ home park is, anecdotally speaking, known as either average or slightly below in this regard. Still, per Dan Turkenkopf’s four-year weighted HR/FB park factors, Citizens Bank Park actually supresses homers, producing a park factor of 94. San Francisco’s AT&T Park, on the other hand, has a 95*.

*Note: numbers are for 2006-09.

Another thing to consider is the type of balls that are being hit in the air. For, while grounders are relatively easy to classify, the difference between a fly ball and line drive is slightly more mysterious. (As I’ve almost definitely mentioned in these pages, we members of Team FanGraphs who were lucky enough to attend spring training had endless hours of fun attempting to identify batted-ball types).

In fact, we do see that Bumgarner induced more grounders per batted-ball than Blanton. It follows, of course, that Blanton allowed more balls in the air. How many? Well, in his 175.2 IP, Blanton conceded 221 fly balls and 111 line drives, for a total of 332 balls in air (BIA), or approximately 17 for every nine innings. Bumgarner, on the other hand, allowed 135 flies and 60 line drives, for a total of 195 BIA, or 15.8 every nine innings.

Does that make things any different? Sort of, but not by much. Blanton, with his 27 homers-allowed, still allowed a home run on 8.1% of his BIA; for Bumgarner that number was only 5.6%.

Ultimately, we’re forced to concede that Blanton’s relative susceptibility to the home run is inexplicable. It could be the home park; it could be the types of batted-balls he’s allowing; it could be random variation. It’s very likely, all three things, plus some other factors beyond these that we (read: I, Carson Cistulli) are failing to consider.

The notable thing, so far as this game is concerned, is how similar these pitchers have performed and how different have been their results. Do we regard Bumgarner as “better” because he’s managed to suppress about five home runs that Blanton would’ve allowed in the same numbers of innings? Do we regard Blanton as “worse” because those same fly balls have left the park on his watch? Were you a manager, who would you rather have pitch for you tonight? From what we know, the answer should be “either,” but I don’t know if that’s the case.

How’s about we find out, huh? Below, reader, you’ll find a poll whose question essentially amounts to a Zen koan. Bring it.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Just a note: Bumgarner has given up 5 HRs in 45 innings at home, and only 6 in 66 innings on the road. So the AT&T advantage might not be as drastic for him as it seems


He also gave of 3 of those 5 HR’s in one terrible game against the Reds. You obviously can’t take those back, but his HR/IP at home is a little inflated from that game.