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Brad Ziegler’s Excellent Adventure

Oakland A’s submariner Brad Ziegler took a rather circuitous route to major league success. Originally a 20th round selection by Philadelphia Phillies in the 2003 amateur entry draft, Ziegler was considered a finesse righty with little shot of ever reaching the major leagues, much less setting records once he got there. After tossing only 6 innings for the Phillies organization in 2003, Ziegler was released. A 23 year-old not considered worthy of a High-A roster spot, Ziegler toiled in the Independent League in 2004 before the Oakland Athletics (who drafted him in 2002 but didn’t sign him) offered him a minor league contract.

Ziegler would slowly work his way up the major league ladder, showing good peripherals (7.44 K/9, 1.84 BB/9) but also displaying the hittability of his ordinary stuff (9.29 H/9). Following a 2006 season in which he performed adequately at AA but was lit up at AAA, Ziegler was approached by A’s management about a career change: they wanted to know if he would drop down and become a submarine-style pitcher. As a 26 year-old with long odds of making it as a conventional hurler, Ziegler accepted the challenge and has posted Nintendo-level numbers ever since:

2007 (AA): 23.2 IP, 1.14 ERA, 4.50 K/BB, 60 GB%
2007 (AAA): 54.2 IP, 2.96 ERA, 3.14 K/BB, 63 GB%

The silly numbers continued at Sacramento in 2008. He posted a microscopic 0.37 ERA in 24.1 IP, generating a grounder 66% of the time. And, upon a promotion to the big leagues, Ziegler would set a major league record for scoreless innings to start a career, passing George McQuillan’s previous mark of 25. Brad’s streak would run all the way up to 39 innings before it was finally broken. In 59.2 major league frames, Ziegler posted a 1.06 ERA while generating grounders at a 64.7% clip. So, will Ziegler’s knuckle-scraping goodness continue in 2009, or is he due to fall back down to earth?

Not to use a cop-out, but the answer is some of both. Ziegler had some legitimately good things going for him, such as the very high rate of worm-killers and a subsequently low home run rate (0.3 per nine innings). However, as you dig a little deeper into his numbers, it becomes apparent that the man who had to fight tooth-and-nail to make it to the majors and suffered a fractured skull in the process was actually quite lucky in 2008.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that a guy posting a 1.06 ERA had some bounces go his way, but Ziegler’s 3.72 FIP ERA was leaps and bounds above his actual ERA. In fact, the difference between his Fielding Independent ERA and actual ERA (2.66 runs) was by far the largest gap among relievers throwing at least 40 innings (ironically, the guy with the second biggest split is fellow submariner and former Athletic Chad Bradford). Ziegler also benefitted from an extremely low BABIP (.246). While the A’s flashed the leather in 2008 (ranking 4th in team Defensive Efficiency) and convert more balls put in play into outs than most clubs, that BABIP figure is still due for some regression to the mean.

Perhaps the biggest reason to expect Ziegler’s ERA to climb quite a bit is his otherworldly strand rate this past season. He left 92.3% of runners on base (!), also the highest mark among relievers with at least 40 IP. To put that number in perspective, relief demi-god Mariano Rivera has a career strand rate of 79.5%. When that extraordinarily high strand rate comes down, his ERA will go up.

Brad Ziegler is an amazing story and a very fun pitcher to watch, but his numbers point to a good deal of regression occurring in 2009. Add in the usual problems that submarine pitchers have with opposite-handed batters (he gave up a .370 OBP to LHP) and his low K rate (4.53), and it becomes clear that Ziegler is more of a solid relief specialist than a closer-in-waiting.