MLB Pitchers 2013: Where’s the Luck?

luck

If it wasn’t for bad luck/I wouldn’t have no luck at all- B.B. King
(Thearon W. Henderson- Getty Images)

Luck is a prominent facet of baseball, especially when you play 162 games. This game is a lot like playing black jack–you can count cards to give yourself a (statistical) advantage, but the luck of the draw simply cannot be predicted.

Pitchers shoulder a lot of blame thanks to the bloated importance baseball puts on ERA. While it isn’t a total throw-away stat, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what a pitcher is. ERA is just as much ‘how many runs get scored’ as ‘how many runs does a pitcher let score’ when a pitcher takes the mound.

Sometimes pitchers get stuck dealing with a hot-hitting lineup, or end up facing higher-level teams more regularly. It makes their job harder than others, which is why elite pitchers–those that can handle any lineup–are so coveted. You don’t typically have to worry about ace-level starters–luck isn’t as much of a factor with them because they are able to control a game with pitches that dominate hitters.

Others aren’t so lucky and have to rely on the concept of luck and hope that chance is on their side.

Below are the nine highest BABIPs for starting pitchers–keep in mind the league average BABIP is right around .300:

PITCHER BABIP ERA SIERA Diff
Vance Worley .405 7.15 4.59 2.56
Joe Blanton .387 6.46 4.24 2.22
Wade Davis .386 5.86 4.51 1.35
Ryan Vogelsong .367 7.78 4.03 3.75
Brandon McCarthy .365 5.63 3.96 1.67
Jarrod Parker .341 6.86 5.04 1.82
David Price .338 4.78 3.43 1.35
Mike Leake .336 4.32 4.16 0.16
Bud Norris .335 4.32 4.72 -0.4

Right off the bat, you’ll notice the list consists of both mediocre (Worley, Blanton, Leake) and star-level (Price, Vogelsong) pitchers–luck is indiscriminate over almost every type of pitcher.

Of the pitchers on this chart, Vogelsong may be having the worst overall luck in 2013. He’s a career .259 BABIP pitcher and has been averaging a mid-three ERA the last few seasons with the San Francisco Giants. However, Vogelsong wasn’t anywhere as successful with the Pittsburgh Pirates and his current numbers are more in line with his earlier career.

At this point, its tough to say what Vogelsong is–other than he’s had some bad breaks during his rotation turns.

Price is an interesting case, given he’s fresh off his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2012. His BABIP isn’t crazy-high, teams are hitting .286 off him and he’s got one of the better defenses in baseball to back him up. His line drive rate is normal but 50% of contact results in ground balls. His strikeout rate is a tick below his normal amount and his HR/FB rate is well above normal.

What can you really say other than hitters are making hard contact and happen to be finding the holes against him right now?

Things that are going to happen and the true measure of a pitcher is how well they are able to overcome the negative randomness that occur through the season–hitters too.

And just for the heck of it–since I produced a bad-luck list–I also did a ‘lucky’ list. The same logic I presented above can be applied here as well:

PITCHER BABIP ERA SIERA Diff
Travis Wood .186 2.03 4.45 -2.42
Matt Harvey .190 1.44 2.79 -1.35
Matt Moore .196 2.14 4.23 -2.09
Hisashi Iwakuma .198 1.74 2.91 -1.17
Jeff Locke .214 2.95 5.2 -2.25
Scott Feldman .218 2.53 4.23 -1.7
Jason Marquis .223 3.48 4.75 -1.27
Clayton Kershaw .224 1.62 3.21 -1.59
Jordan Zimmerman .230 1.69 3.65 -1.96

You’ll see the same matrix of good and bad pitchers here as well, proving that luck can play just as an important role in this game as skill (obviously skill is paramount and I’m not about to say scouts need to start evaluating the ‘luck’ factor).