Ah, to be lucky.
They say it's preferable to being good.
When it comes to Major League Baseball pitchers, it's best to be both.
So let's take a statistical stroll through the land of the lucky—a happy place filled with the starting pitchers who have been fortunate in one way or another so far this season.
You've heard of FIP, yes? That'd be Fielding Independent Pitching, if you haven't. In short, this metric measures how good a pitcher has been based on the factors he can best control—strikeouts, walks and homers—and it's scaled to look like ERA.
The chart to the right lists the 20 starting pitchers who have the biggest disparity between their current ERA and their current FIP.
Put another way, these 20 hurlers are outperforming their peripherals (i.e., pitching better than expected based on the numbers).
Let's take Jeremy Guthrie, for example. As you can see, the Royals right-hander's ERA is 3.49—plenty respectable, even in today's pitching-dominated game. But Guthrie's FIP? Well, that's a not-very-respectable 5.88—worst overall in baseball.
The reason? Well, there are three:
- Guthrie is striking out just 4.9 per nine
- Guthrie is walking 3.0 per nine
- Guthrie is allowing homers on 18.3 percent of his fly balls
Put it all together, and Mr. Guthrie has been one extremely lucky pitcher.
While all of the pitchers in the list are benefiting from some form of good fortune or another, this doesn't mean they're anywhere near as lucky as Guthrie, and it doesn't mean their performances to date are bound to come crashing down.
To figure that out, we'll dig a little deeper and explore some revealing underlying metrics that show who's really gettin' lucky, if you will.
BABIP's full name, as you well know by now, is Batting Average on Balls in Play.
This is a key component to help determine lucky pitchers—those with extremely low BABIPs—since we can compare a hurler's BABIP in a given season against his career number, which is what the chart below shows with regard to the 10 arms who have the lowest BABIPs in baseball.
First, it's worth pointing out that the bottom of the chart indicates the league-average BABIP in 2013 is .292. Typically, this number is in the .295-.300 range, but again, pitchers are ruling the world, so even the league-wide BABIP number is lower than usual.
The third column is the operative one. If a pitcher's 2013 BABIP is well below his career norm, this is marked in red. If it's not egregiously lower, that's yellow. And the green indicates a current BABIP that's not too far off from career BABIP.
The gist here? BABIPs tend to regress to the league average (.292), while taking an individual pitcher's career BABIP into account.
So when you see the BABIPs of Travis Wood (.193 BABIP) and Matt Moore (.197 BABIP) compared to the league average (.292) and their career figures (.262 and .275, respectively), the conclusion is that they've had more than a little luck when batters make contact against them.
No wonder Wood's ERA is 2.24, and Moore's is 2.29.
LOB% stands for Left On Base percentage.
This bad boy puts a percentage on the number of runners a pitcher leaves on the bases. The higher the percentage, the luckier the pitcher: A LOB% of 100 would mean that every runner a pitcher put on base didn't come around to score.
Here are the 10 highest:
The league average this year is 73.1, and any pitcher who strays too far from that is likely to regress.
Since all 10 of the hurlers above are well above the MLB average, the third column—the difference between career LOB% and current LOB%—comes into play.
Similar to the BABIP chart above, red means a very large disparity that is likely to come down, yellow a decent-sized one and green is minor.
Looking at the lone green box, Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners appears to have a knack for preventing baserunners from scoring, as his career LOB% is almost 10 percent north of the 2013 league average.
Of course, he also has an incredible 0.87 WHIP, so he's not letting many runners get on in the first place.
Iwakuma's been lucky compared to all other pitchers, but maybe not as lucky as you might think based on his history (which, admittedly, encompasses only a season-and-a-half in the majors).
This one's short for Home Runs per Fly Ball rate, and it measures how often a fly ball hit against a pitcher goes over the fence.
Luck comes into play here in that a low HR/FB corresponds to good fortune, because fewer flies are flying far (and gone).
Again, the 10:
The MLB average rate at which fly balls turn into home runs is 11.1 percent—basically one out of every nine goes over the fence.
Let's check column No. 3. This time, there's no green box, because no pitcher who's been fortunate in the percentage of homers-to-flies is all that close to their career rates. In other words, all of them are candidates to see a spike in homers allowed.
To put some some context to this in the form of actual numbers, take Jhoulys Chacin. The Rockies righty has given up 43 fly balls this season—and only a single homer.
That obviously won't last, which is why Chacin has been lucky, and why his 4.10 ERA will likely rise.
Who's Been the Luckiest?
Now that we've run through FIP, BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB, which starters have been the luckiest so far?
Among those in the top 20 in FIP-ERA differential:
- Matt Moore also ranks in the top 10 in lowest BABIP and highest LOB%
- Patrick Corbin places in the top 10 in highest LOB% and lowest HR/FB
- Hisashi Iwakuma comes into the top 10 in lowest BABIP and highest LOB%
- Jordan Zimmermann is in the top 10 in lowest BABIP, highest LOB% and lowest HR/FB
A good argument could be made that all four of those arms have had luck on their side as a big part of their hot starts. Whether their inevitable regressions will be slight or more severe remains to be seen, but there's something else to point out about those four.
They've not only been lucky, they've been good.
All statistics from FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.
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