In Defense of Lucky Pitching Numbers

In Defense of Lucky Pitching Numbers

Today, Sam Fels instilled fear in Cubs nation with his BP Wrigleyville article about Jon Lester’s unsustainable 2016 performance and almost-inevitable fall from grace.  However, what Sam failed to recognize is that in this new post-championship world, it’s a lot harder to scare the Cub faithful these days.  Goats? More like GOATs, amirite! Black cats? Bring ‘em on! Bartman? Sure, I love the Simpsons.  Steve Garvey? Eh…still not a fan. 

Anyway, my point is, I ain’t scurred.  I have defense on my side.  With the Cubs’ dandy little glove men sure to be stellar once again behind the staff, I have no reason to believe any slide is coming.

While Fels notes that Lester’s 2016 K/9 (8.7) was down from 2015 (9.1) and his BB/9 (2.3) was up from 2015 (2.1), I feel no panic, as Lester’s 2016 K/9 and BB/9 numbers still bettered his career numbers in both departments (8.4 K/9; 2.9 BB/9).  Steady as she goes. 

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Fels’ claims of unsustainability are bolstered primarily by reliance on Lester’s BABIP and LOB%, both of which were career bests for Lester in 2016.  While a lower than average BABIP and higher than average LOB% are commonly attributed to luck, the Cubs’ defense scoops these norms up cleanly and tosses them right out the window. 

The Cubs’ beast mode defense was unlike anything baseball has seen, certainly since the advent of defensive statistics.  The historically good defense has been documented by numerous writers more talented than myself, and I won’t pretend I can do better

The impact of the defense was evident not just with Lester, but across the entire staff, particularly the starters.  While it’s true that Lester posted a career low BABIP-against of .256 last season, the highest BABIP posted against any of the five starters last year was Jason Hammel's .265:  

Pitcher

2016 BABIP

Career BABIP

Difference

Jon Lester

.256

.297

(.041)

Jake Arrieta

.241

.266

(.025)

Kyle Hendricks

.250

.272

(.022)

John Lackey

.255

.302

(.047)

Jason Hammel

.265

.299

(.034)

            Each starter also put up a higher LOB% than their career norms.  For Lester and Hammel, 2016 represented a career-best:

Pitcher

2016 LOB%

Career LOB%

Jon Lester

84.9%

75.3%

Jake Arrieta

74.9%

71.2%

Kyle Hendricks

81.5%

76.0%

John Lackey

76.2%

73.1%

Jason Hammel

76.0%

71.2%

            It is virtually impossible for all 5 starters to simply have been lucky for the course of a 162-game season.  The Cubs defense lowered the percentage of balls in play that were converted to hits, and they did so at a historic rate.  This was borne out in the fielding independent pitching numbers for the staff.  Each starter outperformed his xFIP by a significant margin:  

Pitcher

2016 ERA

2016 xFIP

Jon Lester

2.44

3.47

Jake Arrieta

3.10

3.68

Kyle Hendricks

2.13

3.59

John Lackey

3.35

3.80

Jason Hammel

3.83

4.34

With David Ross dancing off into the sunset, there will surely be some adjustment period for Lester to get accustomed to working with Willson Contreras, his new catcher.  But, the defense behind Lester and company should remain just as strong, if not stronger, than last year’s version.  While it will be tough to see Dexter Fowler in Cardinal red this year, he posted just 1 Defensive Run Saved in 2016 according to Baseball Info Solutions.  His replacement, Albert Almora, Jr., posted 3 DRS in just 237 innings spanning 41 games.  That translates to nearly 15 DRS over the course of a full season.  Add that to Jason Heyward’s 18 DRS in RF, and the Cubs could play without a left fielder altogether. 

But since they probably will put someone in left, we might as well talk about it.  Some might characterize the addition of Schwarber to the outfield mix as a subtraction to the overall defense.  However, the Cubs weren’t getting a huge defensive contribution from left field in the first place, and swapping Almora for Fowler should more than make up for whatever shortfall Schwarber may bring defensively to the outfield. 

After the loss of Schwarber last April, the Cubs employed an 11-headed monster in LF with Soler, Bryant, Szczur, Contreras, Coghlan, and Zobrist sharing the bulk of the time.  (Let’s not forget the contributions of Travis Wood, Pedro Strop, and Spencer Patton).  Between all of them, the team only managed 4 DRS out of left field.  On its face, that sounds fairly respectable, but it was the second lowest DRS of any position group on the team.  By comparison, Cubs CFs saved the team 8 runs and RFs saved 17. 

In addition, it could be argued that the Cubs posted those historic defensive numbers without their best individual defender playing full time.  Javy Baez posted 16 DRS between 2B, 3B and SS, while also contributing at 1B and in the outfield.  (3rd on the team behind Russell’s 19 and Heyward’s 18).  What makes that feat even more remarkable is that Baez did it in only 971 innings, nearly 300 less than the likes of full timers like Rizzo, Bryant, and Russell.  Team defense is sure to improve if the Cubs can find a way to get Baez on the field more often. 

So while some may be preparing for some inevitable fall for the likes of Lester and maybe the rest of the starting staff, I simply do not see this defense allowing for that type of regression.  I expect similar BABIP and LOB% numbers from the starters this season, and I would expect the starters to once again outperform their FIP and xFIP.

Sam’s article might have had my pre-championship self curled up in a corner covered in sweat.  But in the afterglow, I now stand fortified, resilient, maybe…even…optimistic.  Go Cubs!

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