I've written at Beyond the Box Score for more than six months now, and it's been a phenomenal experience overall. The only problem that I've encountered has been repetition — I've found myself writing the same types of pieces over and over again. Whether it's with Stephen Strasburg's bad luck, Dallas Keuchel's grounder/strikeout/walk mix, Johnny Cueto's good luck, Baltimore's left-side defense, Max Scherzer's Opening Day snub, Dylan Bundy's optimistic prospect ranking, Jose Fernandez's comparatively exceptional cutter, Jim Fregosi's unlucky career arc, or Marlon Byrd's awful plate discipline, my strength seems to lie in asking: "[Player/Team X] [is doing/has done/is on pace to do] [weird thing Y]. How common is that?"
Recognizing this, I decided to aggregate all my stray observations about the kooky goings-on of Major League Baseball into one weekly post. Henceforth, the task of "historical tidbit-finder" shall fall upon my willing shoulders. If you've noticed anything that I might want to look into in a future edition, let me know in the comments.
Part I: Really Bad Luck
Our first strange occurrence takes place in Arizona, where a starting pitcher has dramatically under-performed. Brandon McCarthy will hit the free agent market when the 2014 season comes to a close. If he sustains his current performance, it'll be interesting to see the contract he'll receive.
See, McCarthy hasn't exactly posted impressive standard statistics; in fact, with a 5.18 ERA in 92.0 innings, he seems to have pitched quite poorly. As readers of this blog should know, however, only dullards and fascists utilize ERA to evaluate a pitcher. McCarthy's 2.92 xFIP tells a completely different story of his play this year; while that earned run-based statistic comes in at fifth-worst out of 98 qualified starters, its advanced counterpart places eighth-best.
So now comes the question: How common is this level of poor fortune? How many pitchers have put up peripherals this excellent while providing such repugnant results? Since fly balls have played the largest role in McCarthy's ill fate thus far (his HR/FB% currently sits at an astounding 22.7%), we'll look at recent years; and because we like to keep things fair around here, we'll use ERA- and xFIP-.
In the xFIP era (i.e. from 2002 until now), 1,140 pitchers have qualified for the ERA title in a season. Of them, 42 posted ERA-s of 130 or greater, meaning McCarthy's 135 ERA- fits right in. Of these men, the lowest xFIP- by far is McCarthy's, at 77. For that matter, only six had an above-average xFIP:
By that measure, McCarthy's misfortune makes history. On the other side of the coin, the story's the same — among pitchers with a sub-80 xFIP- (of whom there are 205), McCarthy stands out as one of five with an ERA- greater than 100:
*I plan on covering Price's unusual 2014 in next week's edition.
And even among them, his ERA- blows the others out of the water. No matter how you slice it, McCarthy is on pace to do something incredible this year.
ZiPS doesn't do batted ball data, and therefore xFIP, but if it did, I'd think it would project a bit of regression to the mean here. If McCarthy doesn't improve, though, his price could take a hit when he looks for suitors in the offseason (although, according to Dave Cameron, it might not).
Part II: Unrelenting Bad Luck
Next, we travel to the Windy City, where another starter has performed worse than expected for the second straight year. When the Cubs inked Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract following the 2012 season, they thought they would receive the pitcher who posted a respectable 4.03 ERA in 189.2 innings with the Nationals. His 4.98 ERA in the first year of that deal undoubtedly left them with a bit of buyer's remorse.
As with McCarthy, ERA belies Jackson's true talent. In both 2012 and 2013, his FIP (3.85 and 3.79, respectively) represented a significant upgrade from that deceptive statistic. Focusing on the latter year, we see that his FIP was 3% better than the major-league average, while his ERA was 29% worse than the major-league average. How many pitcher seasons, going back to 1920, have featured an average or better FIP along with a 20%-worse-than-average or worse ERA?
Quite a few, relatively speaking — 73. However, Jackson's case stands out for a special reason; look at this table of the pitchers who met the criteria:
Look who's leading the way for 2014! Yes, Jackson has continued to underwhelm for the second consecutive year; as the table shows, only Jack Russell in 1930 and 1931 and Gary Peters in 1968 and 1969 have suffered this much back-to-back.
Of course, ZiPS doesn't think Jackson will keep this up, at least to this extent — its RoS projections see him as a 4.09-ERA , 3.78-FIP pitcher from here on out. At the same time, though, it probably said the same thing about him last year, and look how that turned out.
Part III: Dual Bad Luck
Our last tale comes out of Cleveland, where a hapless hurler has accompanied another, marginally less hapless deity. Ever since he resolved to eschew the four-seam fastball, Corey Kluber has dominated the competition, to the point that Carson Cistulli created a Society in his honor. Or rather, he's dominated by sabermetric standards (career 3.33 FIP); traditional statistics (career 4.02 ERA) don't feel the same way about him.
For this exercise, we'll move from minuses to WAR. FanGraphs has a fancy statistic called FDP-Wins, which is the difference between a pitcher's fWAR (based off FIP) and RA9-WAR (based off runs allowed). It does a pretty good job of indicating how lucky or unlucky a pitcher has been. Kluber has accrued 2.4 RA9-WAR in his four-year career, which underscores a career fWAR of 5.8; subtracting the latter from the former reveals a career FDP-Wins mark of -3.4. That certainly seems like a low number, and it is — since he debuted in 2011, that ranks 13th in the majors.
I decided to take this one step further, by putting that number on a per-180-inning scale, to compare Kluber with other, more durable pitchers. When I completed the strenuous math, I saw that Kluber's career FDP/180 stood at 1.97. That's unique, insofar as only 30 pitchers (listed below) with 300 career innings going back to 1920 can top it; however, instead of focusing solely on Kluber, let's look at another name on this leaderboard:
|Russ Van Atta||-1.1||7.7||-8.8||712.1||-2.22|
Notice anything about that player six spots up from Kluber? He's Zach McAllister, a starting pitcher for...the Indians. That's right, Cleveland has two of the unluckiest starters in history on its current roster; as far as I can tell, none of the other hurlers on this list ever pitched for the same club simultaneously.
This trend is probably less likely to be maintained than the preceding two; nevertheless, Oliver's five-year projections predict bad luck for the foreseeable future for both Kluber and McAllister. The Indians certainly would like to avoid this ignominious distinction; perhaps, if they upgraded that awful defense, they'd see a bit more overperformance.
That's all I have for this week. On the one hand, I could run out of ideas for this piece pretty quickly; on the other hand...
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Thursday, June 19th, 2014.
Ryan Romano is a featured contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.