March 12, 2014
Five to Watch
American League Starting Pitchers
As we learned in the NL iteration of this exercise, BABIP affects bad and good pitchers alike, but that doesn’t mean it is pure luck. Team defense, ground-ball rates and the ability to miss bats all factor in to a pitcher’s likelihood of retaining a low BABIP, decreasing a high BABIP or just producing consistent a consistent BABIP year-to-year.
Below are the top five BABIP affected pitchers in the American League from 2013. While one has since been sent to the National League, there’s reason to believe that four of the five have the ability to be better this year than they were last year. Then there’s Joe Saunders.
Bud Norris - Baltimore Orioles
In the world of high BABIPs, Norris 40.2 percent ground-ball rate is positively anemic. Combine the low GB% with a league-average line-drive rate (and a steady one as well), and you have a recipe for a significantly lower BABIP going forward.
It remains a distinct possibility that Norris ends up in the back end of the Orioles bullpen at this point, but even there, he’ll have value. His 19 percent strikeout rate in 2013 was the lowest of his career, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to miss more bats. Bullpen or not, Norris seems a good bet to experience better luck in 2014 and thus be a reasonable option for owners in deeper fantasy leagues.
Joe Saunders - Texas Rangers
The one thing in Saunders’ favor might even be BABIP. His .332 BABIP from 2013 was the highest of his career and a full 35 points above his career average .297. This elevated number though may correlate with his career high ground ball percentage, which checked in at 51.2 percent, his career high by a wide margin (3.4 percentage points). This was amplified by Saunder’s almost complete inability to miss bats as evidenced by his 13.1 percent strikeout rate. With so many balls in play, and on the ground (plus another 21.7 percent as line drives), it’s no wonder that Saunders was only a tick off the major-league lead in BABIP.
Home runs don’t count toward BABIP, but it’s worth noting that while hitters struggled to hit the ball in the air versus Saunders, when they did, it went a long way, with his HR/FB rate sitting at 14.5 percent. While he used to be an option in deeper leagues, at least at his home park, signing with Texas has removed even that scarce opportunity to use him, especially since it doesn’t seem his “luck” is going to get any better.
Doug Fister - Washington Nationals (formerly Detroit Tigers)
Fister complies with the high ground ball percentage that we’ve come to expect from high BABIPers, but he makes up for that in regards to ERA by being incredibly stingy with walks, as well as recently turning himself into a close to league average pitcher in terms of strikeout rate. The best predictor of whether he was suffering from mere luck comes in the form of his career BABIP, which is .298, only two points above the 2013 league average.
Fister’s move to the NL should help him overall, as should playing in front of a defense that doesn’t include Miguel Cabrera at the hot corner. Jose Iglesias’ arrival was obviously a boon, but the Tigers infield defense was porous to say the least, especially for a ground-ball fiend like Fister. He should find more success, judging by his history as well as a transition to a better defense and more pitcher-friendly league.
Rick Porcello - Detroit Tigers
As with Fister, all those grounders in a range-challenged infield is going to cause something of a high BABIP as Porcello’s .315 figure from 2013 was only three points above his career average and actually a 29-point drop from 2012. The big question for Porcello of course is whether this new and improved strikeout rate is repeatable. Of course it’s impossible to say but there is reason to believe that it might be, thanks to a change in his pitch usage. Porcello reduced his usage of his slider, a bad pitch by all accounts, in 2013, opting instead to challenge same-side hitters with his changeup. The results were clearly positive, and if he can continue this process in 2014, there’s every reason to expect another season like 2013, BABIP and all.
Justin Verlander - Detroit Tigers
Verlander posted a .319 BABIP in 2009, but rebounded to produce three straight years well under .300. While it’s not fair to expect that of him now given the additional years and mileage on his arm, it’s not unreasonable to expect a return towards the league average, which would make an already valuable Verlander even more so. Like Norris above, Verlander is not an extreme ground ball-pitcher, as he produced more fly balls than ground balls in 2013, making it all the more likely we see a return to his low-BABIP ways come 2014.
Not that one needs convincing to draft a stud like Verlander, but if there were qualms about his ability to rebound, producing another top-five AL BABIP shouldn’t be a part of them.