MLB: The flukey-est stats that clearly won’t continue

By Andy Harris, WSOE Sports

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII’m baaaaaaaaaaaack! Yup, after a three-week laziness-driven hiatus, I’m back to the blogging scene to provide my jaded and callous views on the happenings in Major League Baseball.

We’ve already put three weeks in the books, and tons of storylines have emerged. And, as always, “experts” (Howard Bryant) have come forth with ridiculous assertions and predictions and “analysis,” based merely on 1/8.5 (or 2/17!) of the schedule. What these ex-perts (I really don’t know what that means, but I think some of my slower readers may mistake it for wit) fail to realize is that we still have 7.5/8.5 (or 15/17!) of the season left to play. This time last year, Baltimore led the AL East and Arizona looked like the best team since I drafted Pablo Sanchez, Derek Jeter, Pete Wheeler, Sammy Sosa, and Randy Johnson that one time in Backyard Baseball 2003. Neither Baltimore nor Arizona made the playoffs, although my team, the Pink Wombats, did win 43-1.

In other words, you simply can’t read too much into the statistics compiled thus far. It’s one of the most important ideas in the world of statistics. You can’t simply assume that 50% of Asians have the Avian flu because 1 of the 2 you met were sick. Yet baseball analysts all over (read: Steve Phillips) publish articles raving that Crash Davis has “refined his approach” or “re-discovered his swing” and “is making an early case for MVP” because he’s hitting .372 through 51 at-bats, 26 of which came against Mark Hendrickson. Such analysts also avoid interviews with Ichiro Suzuki because there’s a pretty good chance he has the bird flu.

So what my plan is for today (well tonight, it’s like 2:45 AM as I write this) is to list the 10 flukey-est stats that clearly won’t continue, despite Rob Neyer’s arguments otherwise. And, Break!

7.) Jair Jurrjens will make a push for the Cy Young Award. Now, if he makes 25 more starts and his ERA remains below 2, I’d probably vote for him. But he won’t. Look he’s a solid young pitcher, but you’re telling me that he’s better than Johan or Lincecum or Haren? If his ERA stays below 3.5 I’ll consider it a very successful year for him. He’s a middle of the rotation guy who’s numbers are a lot better than they will be come July.

6.) The Toronto Blue Jays will win 106 games. Well, at least that’s what they’re on pace for. Look, I like the Blue Jays. I pull for them every year. They usually have the talent to compete in any other division but don’t have the money to run with Boston or New York, and they don’t have the decade’s-worth of first overall picks to run with the Rays. They’re the perennial underdog that’s so lovable. But they’re not a 100+ win team. They’re not even a 90 win team, and they’re not the best team in the AL East. I know Tampa looks lost and New York’s starters are getting shelled every day and Big Papi can’t hit anymore, but Toronto can’t keep up this pace. Their 2nd best starter is Scott Richmond and Marco Scutaro is batting leadoff. Just make sure you have your bomb shelter stocked with food because the Jays are coming crashing back to Earth. (Gasp!)

5.) Carlos Pena will challenge Barry Bonds single-season home run record. He has 11 thus far through 27 games, which puts him on pace for 66. One hot streak and he could be all over Bonds’ 73. Man, this is better than the summer of ’98. And he doesn’t do steroids! Now get that man some steroids so a clean player can hold the home run title.

4.) Zach Duke’s 2.21 ERA. On the bright side, at least the Pirate’s got 5 good starts out of him. On the not bright (?) side, his statistics indicate that’s he’s overachieving. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play- see end of article for an explanation if you’re not a sabermetrician, you nerd) is far below league average, and since a pitcher has little control over where a ball goes once it’s hit, it’s apparent he’s been lucky. His home run per fly ball rate is way way way below league average (Microsoft Word is screaming at me to delete the repeated words), and there’s no way that continues. Plus he’s striking out like one batter every three games. At some point that’ll even out and his ERA will swell. I know Duke and the entire Pirates rotation has been a nice story, but it really won’t continue. They’re just not that good.

3.) Nick Swisher probably isn’t as good as Albert Pooholes. And yet his OBP and slugging percentages are crazy close. Like, seriously it’s crazy. Swisher isn’t nearly as good as Pooholes. One is an average first baseman, and the other is one of the absolute best players of all time. But if somebody told you that and gave you their 2009 statistics without their names attached, you could only guess which one was the 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. And then you’d say Swisher and everyone would laugh at you, fool.

2.) Russell Branyan will win the AL MVP. Book it. He’s hitting .321, slugging .667, with 7 home runs in 78 at-bats. The lifetime bench player suddenly found himself thrust into the starting lineup for Seattle, and he’s certainly made the most of it. Clearly this isn’t random sampling variability and his numbers obviously will never regress. After all, Buster Olney of ESPN says that the reason the man was struggling was his lack of at-bats. Look Buster, I (don’t) respect your opinion, but there’s a reason he wasn’t getting at bats. He wasn’t good! He did one thing well: bash homers. He was Mark McGwire light. So…he doesn’t do roids. He’ll hit .220 with 30 Home runs and finish 59th in MVP voting…but 4th in Cy Young voting for all the strikeouts he provided Zach Greinke.

And our winner for the most flukey player of the 2009 season is…
1.) Alberto Collapso! (who?) Again, that’s Alberto Collapso. Ring a bell? Didn’t think so. AC is hitting .378 through 24 games. Here’s the secret, Steve Phillips: He’s riding a crazy wave of luck. His BABIP is an unsustainable .427. In other words, everything he hits right now is falling in the gaps. Eventually that will regress to normal levels and his average will Collapso! Tell me you saw that coming! I dare you! Congrats to the Collpaso family, they should be proud of their deceptively average kin.

Well I originally intended for this to be a Top-10 list, but I got sick off looking at numbers so I called it a post at 7. So…yeah. At least it’s free so you can’t say you feel gypped. I’ll be back next week, but I don’t know (IDK, if you will) what I’ll be doing.
Check it out for a surprise!

And now, our stat of the week. BABIP. Batting average on balls in play. In other words, this stat is a compilation of the percentage of balls that a batter hits into play that drop for a base hit. If he has one at bat and lines one straight at the 3rd basemen for an out, his BABIP would be zero. If he strikes out during that one at-bat his BABIP is undefined (or something) because he didn’t put the ball into play, but his overall batting average would be zero. Sucker. This is a great stat to use to tell if a batter has been lucky or unlucky. Every batter’s career BABIP will vary based on their skills. Manny Ramirez’s career BABIP is .345, because he’s really good. Mario Mendoza’s career BABIP was .254, something you’d expect from the man who established the Mendoza line. When a batter’s BABIP is far above or below their career norms you can assume they’ve had a great degree of luck, good or bad. The thing with baseball is that a ton of luck is involved. Player A can be locked in, smashing line drives left and right. But if they’re all right at fielders they’ll have nothing to show for it. Player B can be Mario Mendoza, but if all of his pop flies and weak grounders manage to find a hole he’ll look like Tony Gwynn.

By the same token, pitchers are greatly affected by BABIP as well. Unlike batters, pitchers surprisingly have very little control of their BABIP. Pitchers can control 4 things: strikeouts, home runs, walks, and batters hit. Beyond that there is a great deal of luck. The average BABIP for all pitchers is roughly .300, and any deviation from that generally signifies some degree of luck. Ian Snell has a lower ERA than Johan Santana? Check their BABIPs. Now some pitchers, such as Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb, can induce a lot of weak batted balls via their sinkers, which deflates their BABIPs. But beyond that, a pitcher’s BABIP is largely luck. As a result, fluke starts like that of Zach Duke occur every year.

Contact Information:
Andy Harris
WSOE Sports
aharris20@elon.edu

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