JP Howell will begin the season on the DL and will miss at least the first month of the season (we blame Peggy Fleming). And whenever he returns there is no guarantee that he will be 100%. As a result, Joe Maddon will lean even more on Grant Balfour in high-leverage situations.
As we all know The Mad Australian regressed greatly in 2009 from his amazing 2008 campaign. But how bad was he? Is it possible that he was just unlucky?
FreeZorilla over at DRaysBay thinks Balfour was, at least in part, unlucky last season (We recommend that you read the full argument in 3 parts HERE, HERE and HERE). FreeZorilla bases his argument on one key stat, home runs. Specifically, home runs with runners on base.
Here is a table copied from DRaysBay…
Balfour gave up 6 home runs in 67.1 innings. That’s not good. But worse than that is that 5 of the home runs were of the 3-run variety. That is 83.3% of his home runs despite only 18.7% of his plate appearances having 2 runners on base.
Is that unlucky? Or is something else going on?
Disclaimer: I am a scientist. I am trained to doubt everything. If you remember back to your freshman biology class, hypotheses are never proven only falsified. So when faced with a hypothesis, we attempt to disprove it, and if we can’t, then the original hypothesis has been supported. My point is, this is not a knock on FreeZorilla. He makes a compelling argument with solid data. I just want to see if we can dig deeper.
Our first thought is: Maybe Balfour pitches differently with multiple runners on base. In fact FreeZorilla concedes this as a possibility…
Assuming each batter has an equal chance to hit a home run regardless of the base state (this is a bold assumption)
In other words, what if Balfour tightens up with 2 or 3 runners on base? What if he uses his pitches differently? Maybe he is afraid to throw one of his pitches. Or maybe he puts less movement on his pitches. Let’s take a look.
First let’s see if he uses any of his pitches more or less with 2+ runners on base….
As we can see, with 2+ runners on base, he throws his fastball a little less and his slider almost 50% more often. Are hitters sitting on his slider with runners on? 14.4% doesn’t seem like it is often enough to be looking for it. In fact, of the 5 home runs with 2 runners on base, only 1 (20%) came on a slider. The other 4 (80%) were fastballs. Those percentages mimic the frequency of each pitch despite the small sample size.
So his pitch selection looks normal. Now let’s see if he throws the individual pitches any differently. Does he tighten up at all? Does he tire later in innings when runners are more likely to be on base? Or maybe he worries about overthrowing a pitch with runners in scoring position…
Well, nothing going on here. Balfour is still gripping and ripping with runners in scoring position.
Now let’s look at the break of each pitch. Maybe Balfour is worried about throwing wild pitches in these situations…
The only pitch that looks different is the curveball with almost an inch less break. But again, none of the home runs came off a curve ball.
So we haven’t falsified anything to this point. In fact, it looks like Balfour was indeed unlucky in 2009.
But how much of a difference did those 5 home runs make? Let’s go back to the original distribution of home runs and generate an expected distribution. For example, if 50% of the plate appearances came with the bases empty, we would expect 50% of the home runs to be solo shots…
So those 6 home runs should have only accounted for 10 runs, 6 less than he allowed. If we subtract those 6 runs from Balfour’s season total, his ERA goes from 4.81 to 4.02, almost a full run less. Still not great, but much closer to his FIP of 3.77.
So maybe Balfour was not as bad as we thought. Certainly he wasn’t as good as 2008. But that combined with a little bad luck and all of the sudden our perception was that he was absolutely awful. But if some of his bad numbers were just “bad luck,” then there is hope that he will be better in 2010.
Don’t know about you guys, but we feel a little better about the loss of Howell. Not a lot. Let’s not crazy here.