Luck in baseball is always a tricky thing. A good deal of sabermetric analysis focuses on trying to separate it from skill in an attempt to quantify the latter (or the former, in some esoteric cases). When we make such attempts, though, we should take into account all of the information we can to ensure that we'll arrive at the correct conclusion. The case of Garrett Richards encapsulates my thoughts on the subject pretty well, so I'll use him as an example.
To say the Angels have disappointed recently would tremendously
under oversell what they've accomplished. Despite possessing wunderkind Mike Trout — easily the best player in the league over the past four seasons as well as in each of those years individually — they've made the postseason just once in that span. Admittedly, they've won the seventh-most games in baseball since 2012, but the team has still let Trout go to waste.
It isn't difficult to spot the source of Los Angeles' relative woes: Their pitching staff has continually lagged behind the incredible play of the demigod in center. Jered Weaver's velocity has fallen off a (short) cliff as have his results; the same applies to C.J. Wilson to a lesser degree. Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, Jason Vargas, and other middling starters have come and gone, none of them providing very much in the way of consistency.
Last year, the club thought it had found an ace. Richards' performance to that point — a 116 ERA- and 107 FIP- over 230.0 innings — hadn't turned any heads. That didn't stop him from breaking out in 2014 with an ERA and FIP 28 and 29 percent better than average, respectively. While a freak injury limited him to 168.2 frames, Richards excelled with the time he had. The Angels rode his explosion to October, and they hoped he would be able to carry them there in 2015.
But Richards, like so many out-of-nowhere success stories, lost the magic in year 2. His ERA- inflated to 96, accompanied by a 99 FIP-, across 207.1 innings of work. With his strikeout rate plummeting from a career-best 24.2 percent to a more pedestrian 20.4 percent and his walk rate jumping from 7.5 percent to a new high of 8.8 percent, he didn't stand a chance. Those marks, mixed together with some more long balls — his home-run rate spiked from 0.7 to 2.3 percent — tanked his season and helped keep the Angels out of the playoffs.
We'll begin with those strikeout and walk numbers, about which something seems odd: Richards' plate discipline metrics didn't decline that much, if at all. Per Baseball-Reference, he threw 64.0 percent strikes in 2015, up from 62.9 percent during 2014. Called strikes comprised 27.8 percent of those, a slight downgrade from 29.3 percent the year prior, but a stable swinging-strike rate (18.4 percent last season, 18.7 percent this one) helped to negate that decline. His foul- and in play-strike clips remained about the same, as did his rate of 3-0 counts.
Why do those metrics matter? They account for most of the variation in a pitcher's strikeout and walk rate, as we would probably suspect. Mike Podhorzer and Alex Chamberlain at RotoGraphs have created expected strikeout and walk equations, which generally do an exquisite job of describing their respective statistics.
By the former's appraisal, Richards should have fanned 21.7 percent of the men he saw in 2015. The gap between that and his actual level ranked tenth among ERA title qualifiers:
|9||Rubby De La Rosa||64.5%||23.9%||18.8%||26.8%||18.5%||19.8%||-1.3%|
And the latter feels he should have handed out free passes at a 7.6 percent rate, giving him the fifth-largest actual-expected gap in the majors:
|9||Rubby De La Rosa||64.5%||30.5%||18.5%||3.9%||7.8%||6.9%||0.9%|
So this means the Richards we witnessed in 2015 had the luck dragons going against him, which in turn means we should foresee a return to 2014 form in the future. Right?
I can't dispute the first notion; Richards clearly underperformed his peripherals this season, which will presumably not continue. But he won't necessarily become an ace again because he overperformed them last season. That campaign saw him put up a 24.2 percent strikeout rate and 7.5 percent walk rate, both better than the 23.3 percent expected strikeout rate and 8.7 percent expected walk rate predicted by Podhorzer and Chamberlain. The differences those created made him the 24th- and 9th-luckiest man in the majors, respectively.
Really, this shouldn't surprise anyone. MLB-wide, pitchers threw 64.3 percent strikes this year, a mark that Richards fell short of in both 2014 and 2015. Although his moderately above-average rates of looks and whiffs have helped him strike out a few extra batters, they don't make him the flame-throwing dynamo that he appeared to be last season. The 2015 iteration of Richards punched some people out and generally avoided bases on balls, just not to the extent that the 2014 one did — not because his abilities depreciated, but because he lost his luck.
|2014 Rank||Player||2014 FB Distance||2014 HR/FB%||2015 FB Distance||2015 HR/FB%|
Across the board, we see that the best players in year one played closer to the league average in year two — in other words, they regressed toward the mean.
Some pitchers, such as early-career Weaver, will regularly allow low fly ball distances and low home run-fly ball rates. Those men, however, will almost always gravitate toward fly balls overall. Richards, a ground ball pitcher, most likely doesn't have that ability. While he probably won't allow four-baggers on 12.0 percent of his fly balls going forward, his 2014 output won't recur. As with his strikeouts and walks, we shouldn't think that the good fortune he once enjoyed will stick around.
No matter his state, Richards is still probably the best pitcher on the Angels roster. As new GM Billy Eppler will gladly tell you, he certainly has ace potential. He'll always gain a ton of ground balls and weak contact, which — when paired with a healthy dosage of strikeouts and an allergy to walks — could take him there. It just didn't happen in 2015. As Los Angeles attempts to reward Mike Trout with his second lifetime postseason berth in 2016, Richards may have to dig deeper to a level that will grant him sustained excellence.
. . .