Tigers' Scherzer just another figure filbert

July, 9, 2010
Hey, Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke aren't the only pitchers who look at non-traditional statistics on their laptops in the clubhouse. Max Scherzer might have an ugly ERA, but at least he's paying attention. Steve Kornacki:

What fans might not realize is he's one of the few pitchers in the game who utilizes advanced metrics to evaluate his results during the course of the season, but still focuses on scouting reports for game plans.

Scherzer, who studied business finance at the University of Missouri before the Arizona Diamondbacks made him their first-round pick in 2006, scored a 35 out of a possible 36 in math on the ACT.

Statistical application comes naturally to him, and he uses advanced metrics to study his performances.

"I got interested in it through my brother, Alex, who was a very, very bright business economics major at Missouri," Scherzer said. "He was in a top-tier statistics class and came upon advanced metrics in baseball.

"Before a game two years ago, he said, 'You are due to give up home runs.' Then, I gave up two home runs and he told me, 'I told you.' I asked, 'What do you know that I don't?' "

Scherzer learned it appears pitchers can only control home runs, walks, strikeouts and hit batters. And a high number of fly balls relate directly to increases in home runs allowed.

"There is a high correlation between this number (a formula using those factors and dividing by innings pitched) and your ERA," Scherzer said.


Using the batting average for balls in play (BABIP) statistic also has aided him.

"It comes back to accepting inherent failure," Scherzer said. "When a soft liner to right field dropped for a hit in Atlanta, instead of getting frustrated by it, I let it go. It's about moving forward.

"I think it is important for me to reach long-term goals I set with these statistics, but it is way more important for me to compete every time I take the mound and give our team a chance to win. As long as I execute every pitch, both of these goals will happen."

I snipped the real meat of the piece, in which Scherzer says the only thing he finds particularly useful is PITCHf/x, which is more raw data than sabermetrics, per se. At its heart, that data is simply the modern version of pitch-charting, which has been used by pitchers and coaches for many decades (if haphazardly).

I kept the sensible part at the end about BABiP because it's the perfect lead-in to this letter from Brian, in St. Louis ...
Maybe you can explain the seemingly mindless association of BABiP and luck. To me a low BABiP is indicative of a pitcher that puts the ball where he wants it and gets a weakly hit grounder or popup, not that he's just been lucky. Alternatively a high BABiP shows that the pitcher is throwing meatballs that are getting hit hard.I know there is no real way to quantify the difference, but the low = lucky, high = unlucky approach is silly to me.
Greg Maddux and Mike Morgan both pitched in the majors for a long time. Maddux, in his long career, gave up a .286 batting average on balls in play. Mike Morgan, in his long career, gave up a .295 batting average on balls in play.

That nine-point difference is significant, given how many innings each of them pitched, and does help explain why Maddux is heading for the Hall of Fame and Morgan went 141-186. But it helps just a little, don't you think?

Pedro Martinez's career BABiP is .282, even lower than Maddux's. On the other hand, Randy Johnson's is .295, exactly the same as Morgan's.

Yes, great pitchers tend to have lower BABiPs than accomplished journeymen like Mike Morgan ... but it's not a strong tendency, which suggests that other things -- most particularly, the ability to control the strike zone -- tell us more about a pitcher's underlying skills.

Which is really the point. If BABiP is really about a pitcher's ability to "put the ball where he wants it and get a weakly hit grounder or popup," wouldn't you expect that ability to show up from one year to the next, like any other fundamental ability?

Well, it doesn't. Not at the extremes, anyway.

In 2008, David Bush led the majors with a .245 BABiP. At the time, I would have chalked that up to a fantastic run of luck. I don't want to read your mind, but I will guess that you would have chalked that up to something else. You might have been right. But should we really have been surprised when, just one season later, Bush gave up a .324 BABiP? Should we be surprised that he's given up a .298 BABiP in 2010.

Also in 2008, Armando Galarraga went 13-7 with a 3.73 ERA. At the time, I had the temerity to point out that he'd been absurdly lucky on balls in play, giving up a .247 BABiP. Well, maybe he just forgot to put the ball where he wants it in 2009, but somehow his BABiP jumped to (a perfectly normal) .302 and his ERA jumped to 5.64.

Maybe you still don't believe in luck. That's fine. I have my belief system, and you have yours. But I can tell you, with metaphysical certitude, that if you bet on pitchers with sub-.280 BABiPs allowed to do it again next year, you'll lose almost every time. Because almost anything lower than .280 (or higher than .320) can easily be dismissed when discussing a pitcher's skills.



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