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"Controlling the game" and the Cleveland pitching staff

Just how much credit does Cleveland's pitching deserve so far in 2013?

"Controlling the game" and the Cleveland pitching staff
Justin Masterson (Photo:
May 19, 2013
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I was listening to the Tribe game on Saturday while driving home when Zach McAllister pitched into a jam in the third inning.  McAllister ‘got out of the jam’ when Jesus Montero, the runner on first, was picked off by Yan Gomes and then Endy Chavez and Dustin Ackley flew out, after which Hamilton praised McAllister on “doing a great job of getting out of the jam.” 

Now, before I continue, I want to say I am NOT attempting to belittle the pitcher’s effort during baseball games or saying they are not at all responsible for their performance.  However, I took some issue with Hamilton’s comment, not because Zach didn’t get out of the jam, but because I feel McAllister is far from solely responsible for completely ending the inning.  Firstly, Gomes picked off Montero, not McAllister.  Secondly, yes McAllister ‘induced’ Chavez and Ackley to fly out, but Michael Bourn and Mike Aviles made the catches. 

Now, my understanding of the traditional school of thought on getting in and out of jams is the pitcher induces batters to fly out, ground out or pop out.  Although this is partially true, how well the pitcher throws the ball directly affects how well the batter hits the ball, it is still up to the fielders to make the play.  If the traditional school of thought is true, McAllister was thinking whilst pitching “OK, I’m gonna throw the ball to the outside and get this guy to fly out to Bourn in center.” 

Now, maybe he is; I can’t read Zach’s mind, but it seems to me it is more likely Zach was trying to ensure Chavez and Ackley did not make any contact on the baseball, thus eliminating any chance they could have gotten a hit.  Consider the following scenario: McAllister ‘induces’ Chavez to pop the ball into center, just as he did in the game, however Bourn was playing Chavez differently and the ball falls for a hit, or (less likely) Bourn misplays the ball.  In both scenarios McAllister induces the same fly ball, but with different results; and instead of discussing McAllister’s masterful work on getting out of the inning, he is either ‘unlucky’ or ‘couldn’t get out of the jam.’ 

However, consider the third scenario: McAllister strikes out Chavez and Ackley, the ball never comes into play and the chances of them reaching base safely drops considerably.  

Now considering the above scenario we can logically conclude the best result for a pitcher is to strike the batter out, thus eliminating the opportunity for a batter to reach base.  Coincidentally, the two things the pitcher has most control of are striking batters out and walking them.  If we extend this logic, we can then assume the BEST pitchers are those which strike batters out at the highest rates, and walk batters at the lowest rates. 

So how do Tribe pitchers fare in these two categories?  According to Baseball-Reference*, Tribe pitchers have 8.5 SO/9 and 3.7 BB/9. This year the league average for walks is 3.2 BB/9 and strikeouts 7.8 SO/9; so the Tribe walks roughly a half a batter more per game, but also strike out a little more than half a batter per game.  To put this in context, only Houston and Toronto (4.1 and 3.9) have walked more batters per game than the Indians (Boston is about the same with 3.7) indicating the Tribe has done a poor job of limiting the free passes this year, compared to our competition. 

*I don’t know about the rest of you, but I LOVE baseball-reference.  All the stats you could ever ask for in one handy place. 

However, the Indians also are above average in striking batters out, only Boston, Detroit and Tampa Bay are better than the Tribe in striking batters out, on a per nine inning basis (9.6 SO/9, 9.8 SO/9 and 8.7 SO/9 respectively). 

What does this say about the Tribe’s pitching staff?  I think it means the Tribe’s pitchers have roughly average talent, concerning the league.  Looking at the staff individually, most of the Tribe’s best performing pitchers are doing well limiting walks, with Ubaldo and Vinnie Pestano standing out at 4.1 BB/9 and 5.0 BB/9 respectively.  I think we may see some regression to the mean, as the Tribe is tied with the Chicago White Sox, Detroit and Texas for the lowest hits per 9 innings, at 7.9/9; the team’s aggregate BABIP against is .278 which is lowest in the league (league average is .296 against). 

The low BABIP could indicate the Tribe’s defense is vastly superior to the leagues, and thus improving the Tribe’s pitchers overall numbers, or it could indicate Tribe pitchers have been lucky thus far this season and they are in for regression towards the mean. 

This season has been exciting in every facet of the game, and I see plenty of reasons for excitement for the future.  However, I am somewhat concerned Tribe pitchers may have caught many breaks in the early going.  I hope I’m wrong. I REALLY hope I’m wrong.  Baseball is an incredibly complicated game and it is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for results.  Personally, I’m hoping the Tribe defense continues its fine work and the pitchers stay hot.

User Comments

May 19, 2013 - 5:01 PM EDT
While I agree that we will very likely see some regression going forward, it might be less than what we'd expect. Over the last two weeks, our team BABIP is up to .293, essentially putting our pitchers right in the middle of the pack as far as luck on balls in play. There is reason to believe that our staff could hold a below average BABIP all season. We have the 6th-highest fly ball rate in baseball, and our outfielders have the 5th-best UZR/150 in baseball, which should only improve with Bourn back in the lineup everyday.

Yes, the high fly ball rate will lead to more homeruns, but you could actually argue that we've been unfortunate on fly balls this year, as over 13% of them have gone for homeruns, the 4th-highest mark in baseball. That's an area where we could see some regression in a good way.

It's pretty clear right now that we have a strike out/fly ball staff, which isn't a bad formula when you combine that with one of the best defensive outfields in baseball.

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