Defining an Ace III: Who will rise above the Ace Line in 2016?

If you missed Parts 1 & 2 in this series, here they are: Defining an Ace and Introducing Ace Line Calendar.

As we gear up for the 2016 season, there are some “ace” questions on my mind. Specifically three…

  1. Which starting pitchers can we confidently call an “ace” entering the season?
  2. Which starters below the “ace line” are most likely to break into ace status this season?
  3. Are there any starters who are likely to backslide and lose their ace status in 2016?

If you haven’t used the Ace Line Calendar yet, here’s a refresher on how it works. Find today’s date on the calendar. Click over to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings and compare the values listed there to the ones on the calendar. If the value is higher than the “Obvious Yes” value, then he is obviously an ace. If it’s lower than the “Definite No” value, then he’s definitely not an ace. If it’s in between, then it’s open to some debate.

To further understand it, let’s look at our first question.

Who are the aces entering the 2016 MLB season?

Today is March 30, and the values for that date on the calendar are 486.4 and 474.6. When we embed those values into the current BJO SP Rankings, the rankings look like this…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 596.4
  2. Zack Greinke – 554.6
  3. Max Scherzer – 540.5
  4. Jake Arrieta – 539.4
  5. David Price – 533.0
  6. Madison Bumgarner – 533.0
  7. Chris Sale – 512.1
  8. Corey Kluber – 504.0
  9. Dallas Keuchel – 502.5
  10. Jon Lester – 500.9
  11. Cole Hamels – 499.2
  12. Felix Hernandez – 488.6
    —— Obvious Yes Line – 486.4 ——
  13. Johnny Cueto – 481.6
  14. Jacob deGrom – 476.0
  15. Stephen Strasburg – 475.3
    —— Definite No Line – 474.6 ——
  16. John Lackey – 471.6
  17. Jordan Zimmerman – 465.1
  18. R.A. Dickey – 464.3
  19. Tyson Ross – 463.4
  20. Sonny Gray – 463.0
  21. James Shields – 462.5
  22. Chris Archer – 461.7
  23. Jose Quintana – 461.6
  24. Francisco Liriano – 459.1
  25. Gerrit Cole – 456.1
  26. Lance Lynn – 447.3
  27. Edinson Volquez – 445.0
  28. Julio Teheran – 444.5
  29. Carlos Carrasco – 442.1
  30. Wei-Yin Chen – 442.0

Based on the Ace Lines, your obvious aces entering the 2016 season are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez. There is some hesitation in calling Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg aces, so they’re on the bubble right now, and everyone ranked lower than that is currently on the outside looking in.

Which brings us two question two…

Which current non-aces will reach ace status in 2016?

The obvious answers are Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. All it takes is one good start and they’re back in the club. Who is deeper on the list that we need to be watching for?

The first two names that come to mind are Matt Harvey (437.2) and Adam Wainwright (319.5) . Harvey could be in the mix as early as May or June he already had time to climb the ladder in 2015. Wainwright would have to pitch like Jake Arrieta did last season to come anywhere close to making it, but his name will be on the rise for sure.

Lots of folks are expecting Chris Archer (461.7) to break out in 2016 for the Rays, and I’m no different. I expect him to compete for AL Cy Young. His name will almost certainly be among the other aces by the end of the year. Carlos Carrasco (442.1) is currently behind Corey Kluber in the Indians rotation, but after back to back strong campaigns in 2014 and 2015, he is poised to make it there as well. It’s possible that Justin Verlander (433.0) might get his swagger back after fading significantly in 2014 and most of 2015, and Shelby Miller – the unluckiest pitcher in baseball in 2015 – could turn a corner now with the Diamondbacks, a team that plays solid defense and provides a lot of run support.

Finally, Gerrit Cole (456.1) is entering 2016 with a chip on his shoulder. He thinks he deserves a raise and an extension, and he’s probably right, but the Pirates aren’t budging and they certainly don’t have to. He’s set to make $541,000 in 2016 after going 19-6 with a 2.60 ERA in 2015, and he’s even more motivated this season. His name will almost certainly climb the rankings.

Of course, the names right around the line could rise or fade slightly, but those are the names I’ll be watching closely.

Any other names you’d expect to become obvious aces in 2016?

Which current aces will fall below the Ace Line in 2016?

Barring a season-altering injury, great pitchers don’t generally implode and turn terrible overnight, so predicting names to drop below the ace line in 2016 is tougher to pick, but there are a few names that could dip in 2016.

Madison Bumgarner has had a terrible spring. Granted, there is absolutely no correlation between Spring Training and regular season stats. Sometimes guys are trying out new pitches, or working on pitching inside or outside, locating pitches. Who knows? Winning isn’t important. It’s the practice that matters. But when the phrase “wasn’t very good” comes straight from the horses mouth, well…you have to wonder. He has lingering foot and ribcage injuries that he claims haven’t been nagging him, but you never know. When there’s smoke…

While we’re talking about the Giants, I’ll throw Johnny Cueto into the mix as well. We saw Cueto struggle with a new team, catcher and ballpark when he joined the Royals in the second half of last season. Developing rapport in Spring Training can only help, but I do wonder which Johnny Beisbol the Giants will see out the gate.

The only other name that gives me any pause is Corey Kluber, but I don’t think that’s founded on anything. His 2015 season was just bad luck. His 9-16 record looks awful, but his 2.97 FIP looks really nice. His 1.054 WHIP was down from 2014 and his K/BB rate was just as strong as well. I expect him to stay among the aces.

But really, everyone listed there belongs, and it’s hard to envision anyone who doesn’t belong among that group. Barring injury, I’d be surprised if any of them dropped below the line.

I’ll be monitoring this list throughout the season.

Is it April 3 yet?!

-apc.

Image cred: Getty Images, accessed via The Sporting News.

Defining an Ace, Part II: Introducing the Ace Line Calendar

Introducing the Ace Line Calendar.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly piecing together a pseudo-objective system for gauging whether or not an MLB starting pitcher is an “ace” or not on any given day. Ace. It’s a subjective term with an extremely loose definition. It’s also a fluid term that changes month to month, year to year.

What I’ve come up with is the Ace Line Calendar. Allow me to introduce you.

By the way, if you haven’t read my first post in this series, I recommend checking it out here.

Why create this system?

First, a story.

On July 26, 2015, the Kansas City Royals acquired Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds for a trio of lefty pitching prospects. Media outlets everywhere declared that the Royals had finally added the ace their team desperately needed. And they were right. According to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings on that day, Johnny Cueto ranked as the 7th best pitcher in all of baseball with a score of 547.1.

Two weeks later on August 10, Cueto dazzled in his first home start at Kauffman Stadium. He threw a complete game shutout, allowing only 4 hits, walking zero and striking out 8. When BJO’s rankings were updated the next day his score had jumped to 556, good for the 5th best pitcher in baseball.

From there, you may remember, it got rocky. Cueto got shelled numerous times during the months of August and September causing him to tumble 38 points to 518.5 by the end of the regular season.

The question of who to start in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Royals would have been obvious just two months prior, but many wondered whether or not the term “ace” still applied to Johnny Cueto. Was Cueto still an ace? Or was he merely a “good” pitcher at this point? Suddenly, instead of surrounding himself with names like Max Scherzer and David Price, he was hanging around the likes of John Lackey and R.A. Dickey. Still good pitchers. But not aces these days.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some system – some quick metric – that could answer that annoyingly subjective terminology for you? I think it would. And even if it didn’t close the book on the discussion, it’d make the conversation that much richer.

So that’s my motivation. And the Ace Line Calendar just happens to be where I ended up.

By the way, the Royals threw Yordano Ventura in Game 1.

Using the Ace Line Calendar

Despite how the ensuing paragraphs appear, this isn’t a very complicated system. Bill James has done the hardest work for me in creating a fluid ranking system to utilize. All I’ve done is compiled it, plotted it and created a spreadsheet out of the numbers the data spit my way.

The Ace Line Calendar is a list of all 365 calendar days. It begins on April 1 and runs through March 31. For every day, it gives two numbers – the first number is the Obvious Yes Line, the second is the Definite No Line. The Obvious Yes Line declares that every starting pitcher with a score higher than that corresponding number is obviously an ace. The Definite No Line declares that anyone with a score below that corresponding number is definitely not an ace. For now, anyone in between is debatable.

Go ahead, pick any date in the last 6 baseball seasons. Okay, June 30, 2014. Or, the day some nobody named Jake Arrieta took a no hitter into the 8th inning at Fenway Park. Good choice.

From there, it’s a two step process:

Step 1: Go to the Ace Line Calendar and look up June 30.

Step 2: Compare the outputs with the BJO Starting Pitcher Rankings for 6/30/14. (You can select any date in the past 6 years on the SPR page.)

The output from the Calendar: 506.8/496.2.

The list for 6/30/14…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 584.4
  2. Felix Hernandez – 557.7
  3. Adam Wainwright – 549.9
  4. Max Scherzer – 548.4
  5. Yu Darvish – 546.3
  6. David Price – 528.2
  7. Jon Lester – 526.4
  8. Cliff Lee – 523.3
  9. Chris Sale – 522.1
  10. Zack Greinke – 521.5
  11. Anibal Sanchez – 521.3
  12. Madison Bumgarner – 521.1
  13. Cole Hamels – 520.8
  14. Jered Weaver – 513.6
  15. Johnny Cueto – 513.1
  16. Justin Verlander – 507.8
    —> YES LINE – 506.8
  17. Kyle Lohse – 497.3
  18. James Shields – 497.0
    —> NO LINE – 496.2
  19. Jordan Zimmerman – 492.1
  20. C.J. Wilson – 491.1

The list goes on, but the takeaway is clear: according to my Calendar system, on June 30, 2014, everyone from Kershaw to Verlander (who came in just over the 506.8 Obvious Yes Line) is obviously an ace, Kyle Lohse and James Shields are questionable, but Jordan Zimmerman, C.J. Wilson and the rest of the list are definitely not aces coming in under the 496.2 Definite No Line.

Aaaaaaand, that’s pretty much it. That’s the “Ace Line.” Works for any day, all year long. Give it a try. See what you think and give me some feedback. It might not be perfect yet, but it feels pretty spot on so far. I’m excited to monitor it as the 2016 MLB season progresses.

How It Works

Okay, so this is where things get more dense, but here’s how I determined those values.

In Defining an Ace, Part I, I sifted through the past 6 MLB seasons (as far back as the BJO system goes), and broke the top pitchers into groups of Obvious Aces, Hesitations and Definite Nos based purely on my gut reaction. The number of individuals in these groups varied slightly each year, but there was a definite correlation in where the break happened between the Aces and Nos. The scores as of February 5 (when I did the initial research) were all somewhere in the 485 to 500 range.

Since the values are fluid throughout the season and offseason, my next goal is to discover a formula (y=ax + b) of best fit for the data, where “y” is the pitcher ranking score, “x” is the date in the calendar year,  “a” is the slope of the line and b is the starting point on the y-axis.

For “ace” caliber pitchers, scores generally rise throughout the season and then taper off consistently with the rest of the league during the offseason. Those who pitch in the postseason can continue to add to their scores. Postseason is included in the rankings, but it needs to be adjusted to a different slope due to the fact that the vast majority of starters are no longer pitching in November and their scores, therefore, are slowly decreasing.

To find this formula, I plotted the scores of the top 50 pitchers from each season on the 1st of every month (4/1/11, 5/1/11, 6/1/11, etc.). I ignored pitcher names entirely, and focused purely on rankings which causes each position on the graph to increase at generally the same rate throughout the season.

For example, in 2015, the 2nd best pitcher in baseball (after Clayton Kershaw) changed 4 times throughout the season. Due to his dominant 2014 postseason, Madison Bumgarner began the season ranked #2. By May 1, Felix Hernandez had passed him. By July 1, Max Scherzer – aided by a near-perfect game in which the only baserunner came when Jose Tabata leaned into a pitch in the 9th inning) – took over, but by September 1, Zack Greinke jumped him and finished the season at #2.

But when you ignore player names and focus only on the score of the individual ranked #2, the scores look like this:

  • April 1: 536.7
  • May 1: 551.7
  • June 1: 564.0
  • July 1: 584.6
  • August 1: 582.6
  • September 1: 583.2
  • October 1: 583.2
  • November 1: 592.1

The lower down the list you go, the more movement there is between pitchers day-to-day, but the scores end up creating a pretty consistent slope as the season progressed (which is what I’m looking for). But what slope – what ranking – should be used to determine what constitutes an ace?

Well, actually, it can’t be determined that easily because it varies year to year. The number of aces isn’t always consistent. It’s not just the Top 15 pitchers in baseball or the #1 guy on all 30 teams. That’s naive and lazy (which I tackled in my previous post on this topic). It’s fluid, not limited, so the number of aces one year might be 10 but the next year could be 18.

So I went back and looked at my lists of Yeses, Hesitations and Nos and plotted the corresponding individuals’ end-of-year ranking over the entire previous season. So in 2015, I thought Johnny Cueto (ranked #13 to end the season) was definitely an ace, Jacob deGrom (#14) and Stephen Strasburg (#15) caused me to hesitate and consider their cases, but I could quickly say that John Lackey (#16) was not an ace pitcher in 2015.

So I traced the 2015 Yes Line (Cueto, #13) back throughout the season as well as the 2015 No Line (Lackey, #16). I did this for all six seasons BJO has kept the Starting Pitcher Rankings, 2010-2015. Those individuals, if you don’t want to go back and look at the previous post again, were…

  • 2015: Cueto (Yes, #13), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No, #16)
  • 2014: Strasburg (Yes, #14), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No, #19)
  • 2013: Sale (Yes, #15), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2012: Hernandez (Yes, #13), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2011: Shields (Yes, #16), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No, #21)
  • 2010: Lilly (Yes, #15) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No, #20)

When charted out, this is what those values look like. Again, this is not charted by individual, but by ranking. (If you’re on a mobile device, try turning it 90 degrees to better see the chart.)

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

4/1

490.1

475.6

487.2

473.1

481.4

475.5

489.2

479.6

486.5

470.5

487.3

468.7

5/1

488.5

472.0

488.8

480.2

491.2

483.3

498.0

489.6

496.4

476.9

490.3

482.3

6/1

499.4

487.1

504.6

496.2

493.7

491.2

501.2

493.8

495.6

485.4

501.8

495.6

7/1

504.5

499.2

513.1

492.1

503.3

496.8

509.0

499.6

502.2

492.5

513.7

498.3

8/1

511.8

504.7

509.1

503.9

511.1

503.7

509.0

502.5

502.6

498.9

519.1

508.2

9/1

525.5

510.1

511.2

503.5

530.7

514.4

529.8

514.2

524.7

506.6

528.7

515.4

10/1

525.5

510.1

531.0

516.5

523.2

520.2

526.9

523.3

526.2

519.1

531.4

518.2

11/1

518.6

509.1

522.5

510.5

518.0

512.9

528.3

513.3

524.7

512.1

524.3

511.2

Save for a few exceptions, each pair of columns begins roughly in the same place (481-490 high, 475-486 low), increases as the season progresses, reaches its height at the beginning of October before dipping down again during the postseason. If we continue these numbers into the offseason, each one decreases at a constant rate of a quarter point per day.

The one hiccup here is that the slope from April 1 to October 1 is different than from October 1 to November 1 due to postseason play. So we’ll need to find two different slopes.

When we aggregate and plot the 4/1-10/1 values, it generates the following slopes…

  • Obvious Aces… y = 7.0756x + 478.71
  • Definitely Not Aces… y = 7.2952x + 467.21

At first glance, I’m surprised that Nos have a steeper slope (7.29 vs 7.07) than the Yeses. I expected the higher ranking to have a slightly steeper slope, but the opposite is true. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I suppose the starting point is lower so the ending point is higher. Guys at the top are more established while the guys at the bottom of consideration are often up-and-coming names who and a lot further to climb.

When we do the same for the 10/1-11/1 values, we get…

  • Obvious Aces… y = -4.6333x + 532
  • Definitely Not Aces… -6.3833x + 524.28

The disparity of slopes here (-6.38 vs -4.63) appears much more drastic, and for two reasons. First, the regular season formulas above are considering 6 times the data that the postseason stats are, so the outputs are much less extreme. Second, simply put, true aces shine in the postseason while non-aces don’t.

And now that we have slopes for the entire year, we can simply “plug and chug” (as my high school algebra teachers used to say) for each date. Which yields a complete calendar of dates starting on April 1 and ending on March 31. All that’s left to do is copy/paste the results into a Google spreadsheet and share it here.

Now, none of this is perfect, and there are probably a dozen different reasons why this is off. A couple things I’m already aware of…

  1. Opening Day is not always April 1, the postseason doesn’t always begin October 1. I recognize that the better way to construct this would be around a 162 game schedule and have it begin and end exactly when the season does. Maybe if this beta version amounts to anything I can tweak it to be even more accurate?
  2. This whole thing is pretty arbitrary. Who knows how much things would change if I moved one spot up or down in the SPR data here or there. But one thing I know is the more data you average, the less variance there is over one tiny change in input. Or what if I’d chosen the 15th instead of the 1st of each month? How would the data adjust? I actually don’t think very much.
  3. What about Leap Year?! Well, I both skipped it and didn’t. I actually calculated February to be 28.25 days so I wouldn’t have to make adjustments for a 366th day. So, just read Feb 28. Or wait it out and check in March for all I care. You do you.
  4. There’s some level of error, I’m sure. And if I broke it down and plotted every single day before rather than just every 30 days, a line of best fit would be immediately more accurate. But cmon, let’s be realistic with my time here. The only place that might be necessary is between 10/1 and 11/1. More data would help there.

Besides, ultimately this is just my opinion on what makes a guy an “ace” – your threshold might be much more conservative or liberal than mine. But now that you know how I did it, you can go make your own ALC if you want. But just so everyone knows, this is the original.

-apc.

Photo cred: MLB.com accessed here.

The Royals are 88-63: Get your champagne ready…

The magic number is two. It could happen tonight.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if Johnny Cueto went out tonight and pitched lights out, clinching the Royals’ first ever AL Central division championship? Of course, we also need Minnesota to lose to Cleveland, but I was looking at the Indians’ lines against Twins’ starter Kyle Gibson, and check out these beauties…

Screenshot 2015-09-24 13.01.35

This is from ESPN’s stats page. Mike Aviles 4-6. Yan Gomes 5-9 with 2 HR. Michael Brantley (who, unfortunately, is injured) 4-11. Jason Kipnis is 2-6. Santana only has 1 hit but it was a 2-run HR. As a team they bat .344/.438/.557. No member of the Tribe who has faced Kyle Gibson is hitless against him. So, what I’m saying here is that I like our chances of clinching tonight.

The Johnny-Salvy Pairing

Throw in the fact that the Royals seem to have finally discovered the source of Cueto’s struggles and one could foresee the Royals popping corks in their home dugout about 8 hours from now.

This Johnny Cueto/Salvador Perez dynamic is really interesting to me. Andy McCullough wrote a fascinating piece following Cueto’s last start against Cleveland on how Salvy’s setup behind the plate wasn’t comfortable for his new ace. You can read that article here.

It makes sense. The 3-time All-Star catcher and soul of the team has his way of doing things. The new guy staff ace rental has his way. No one wants to butt heads. They both want to give the other the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn’t working. Finally, Cueto spoke up. We’ll see how things shake out over the next few starts.

Some folks – primarily on Twitter, so let’s not take it all too seriously – have suggested that Cueto pitch to the smaller, lower to the ground Drew Butera down the stretch. That, in the opinion of this fan blogger, would be pretty idiotic. Why would we ever want to get Cueto used to a catcher whose only purpose on the postseason roster will to be a backup catcher in case of injury? We don’t want Butera even touching a bat in a postseason game. No no no. You spend the next two weeks getting Cueto and Salvy on the same page so our best team takes the field in October. Come on, people.

Holland out. Wade in. Finally.

Ned Yost announced yesterday prior to the Royals 4-3 walks win over the Mariners that Greg Holland is out as the Royals closer and Wade Davis is in. Kelvin Herrera slides back an inning and takes over Wade’s 8th inning duties. Ryan Madson slides into the 7th to take over for Herrera. The 6th inning will be a mix/match situation, but I’m hoping Danny Duffy wants the job.

You have to wonder what took the Royals so long to make this move. It’s been very clear for more than a year that the best man in the Royals bullpen was Wade Davis. In fact, Davis has been so historically good that he may have the greatest two-year stretch by any reliever in the history of baseball. Why isn’t your best man pitching your most important inning? It could even be argued that Greg Holland wasn’t even the second best closer on the team. Herrera has been dominant as well. Yet there he was. He’s supposedly been dealing with elbow issues sin the All-Star break. His velocity is down. His control is miserable. He occasionally shows glimpses of his former self, but when a guy can’t command a fastball, he has no business being a closer.

With Holland being a free agent at year’s end, we’ve certainly seen the last of Greg Holland as a closer.

UPDATE: About two hours after this post the Royals announced that Holland has a significant UCL tear and will be shut down for the season. Supposedly he’s had the year since LAST AUGUST and has been pitching through pain. Crazy.

This Royals team isn’t messing around.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the Royals aren’t messing around this year. In the past, the Royals would’ve stuck with guys like Alcides Escobar leading off or Greg Holland closing or Danny Duffy getting more work in the rotation for the future. Not this year. This is 2015 and this – despite what the 2012 slogan maintained – is our time.

The Royals best 6 OBP guys are hitting 1 through 6 in the lineup. The Royals best bullpen arm is closing. Their second best is pitching the 8th. The Royals see that Kris Medlen is pitching much better than Danny Duffy and make the move early to prepare for the postseason. Even if that means Jeremy Guthrie has to get shelled a start or two, that’s okay, because Duffy needs to get used to the bullpen. The Royals aren’t afraid to bench their overpaid second baseman, Omar Infante (who is now going to be out a couple weeks with an oblique injury), or threaten to bench their underperforming and now bearded right fielder, Alex Rios, who has shockingly been our best hitter over the past month.

This team finally gets it. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “finally” – I think Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have always gotten it, but they’re not playing for next year anymore. They’re finally playing for right now, and they’re making all the right moves to prepare us for the ALDS and hopefully beyond.

-apc.

Johnny Cueto’s BABIP

Let’s talk about Johnny Cueto.

The Royals gave up three left-handed pitching prospects for a couple months worth of Johnny Beisbol. In his first few starts, Cueto didn’t disappoint. In his first start at Kauffman Stadium, he threw a complete game shutout – a feat that hadn’t been done by a Royals starter all year. Since then, it’s been mostly downhill.
Going into Sunday, in his last 4 starts his ERA is a burgeoning 9.45. The Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers and White Sox have each shelled Cueto. It’s an anomaly in his career, and it’s easy to brush off and preach “sample size,” but at a certain point it still gets a bit unnerving.

Here’s something pretty interesting I’m taking a look at: 

For those unfamiliar with BABIP, it stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play and measures the average of non-homerun balls put in play that end up as hits. So if a guy goes 3-5 with a homer, strikeout, and a ground out, his BABIP is .667: the homer and strikeout don’t come into play, so of balls put in play, he went 2 for 3. Makes sense, yeah?

This metric depends on three variables: talent, defense and luck

Batters have more control over their talent on BABIP than pitchers do. Hitters can attempt to “hit it where they ain’t” – they can place their hits somewhat. Pitchers have a limited ability to really control where the ball goes off the bat. They can pitch down in the zone to induce ground balls, and they can throw on the outer half to coax the hitter to take it the opposite way, but they ultimately can’t determine the hitter’s bat speed to know what direction that ball will go. It’s much more determinant on the other two metrics: defense and luck.

So when measuring pitchers, BABIP can give a great understanding of how a pitcher is being aided or hurt by good/bad defense or good/bad luck. Better hitters have higher BABIP. Better pitchers have lower BABIP. League average is around .300 for both. Cueto’s career BABIP against is .274.

Uncharacteristically, Cueto’s last four games have all had a BABIP over .375. Here’s the list of games in the last three years of Cueto’s career where he posted a .375 BABIP or above.

  • 7/31/15 – KC @ TOR: .412
  • 8/20/14 – CIN @ STL: .412
  • 7/20/14 – CIN @ NYY: .417
  • 6/11/14 – CIN vs LAD: .375
  • 6/21/13 – CIN @ ARI: .500
  • 9/15/12 – CIN @ MIA: .444
  • 9/9/12 – CIN vs HOU: .615

It’s happened 5 times since Cueto joined Royals. To find the previous 5 times you’ve got to scroll his game log all the way back to September 2012 (I chose to omit 6/26/13 since he left with an injury after only 1.0 innings). So, in the number of times he’s posted a .375+ BABIP in the past three years…

  • September 2012 – July 2015: 5 times
  • August 2015 – September 2015: 5 times

To recap: five times over 34 months. And five times over 2 months.

In 221 career starts it’s only happened 40 times, but 1/8 of those have occurred in the past month. What is going on here? What would cause such an insane change in numbers in such a short amount of time?

At first glance, it makes no sense at all. One would assume when an All-Star caliber pitcher joins the team with the best defense in baseball, his BABIP would improve, not get worse. Right? Then what’s going on here?

The easiest solution here is to chalk it up to crummy luck. It’s also the laziest solution, so I’m wary to say that’s the problem. Cueto would have to be insanely unlucky to offset the benefit of the Royals defense. Besides, doesn’t it seem a bit too coincidental that the moment he changes teams, leagues and ballparks this spike occurs?

Perhaps the Royals defense hasn’t been as strong as usual. Alex Gordon has been out, and Ben Zobrist has been stepping in for he and Omar Infante lately. Zobrist is good, but he’s not as solid defensively as Omar and Alex. Throw in Jonny Gomes and Paulo Orlando, and the defense isn’t quite what it usually is. In Cueto’s last start, Christian Colon played 2B and Kendrys Morales played 1B. Three runs scored on grounders through the infield.

But as a whole, Cueto hasn’t given up groundball hits. It’s mostly been the result of medium to hard hit liners to the outfield. Nothing much the outfield can do about those. Besides, Jonny Gomes hasn’t even played while Cueto has been pitching. To me, it has very little, if anything, to do with the defense.

Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs came up with a three-part solution last week: Cueto’s faced tougher competition over the past few starts in the AL, he no longer gets to face pitchers since leaving the NL, and he’s simply made a few mistake pitches in the zone.

But Fangraphs doesn’t mention BABIP, and I think it creates a better framework in this instance. Fangraphs splits up his batting average against (BAA) over his entire career and found that this spike is right in line with others he’s had in the past. But this BABIP spike is unprecedented. He has never ever had a BABIP spike like this. It can’t just be chalked up to another peak on a chart. This is different.

Which brings me to the real question: Is it a major problem? Or is it just a freaky anomaly? With our defense, we have to assume this is just bad luck, right? It feels lazy, but it’s the only thing I can figure that would cause such a spike.

But what about talent? The one thing I’ll add in that regard is this: Johnny’s slider has been an issue lately. It’s never been his best pitch – he throws a fastball or cutter about 71% of the time and a slider only 8% – but since he came to KC, his slider has been consistently negative in value. The reason: he’s throwing it just a tick too fast, leaving it out over the plate. It’s the pitch that has consistently burned him. 

All this to say, I think there are tweaks that Cueto can make to become more effective, but overall, this streak of poor starts is strangely unlucky. Seems like a cop out, but his BABIP is so skewed it has to be the truth, honestly. Heck, maybe this is a good thing. Law of Averages would suggest that he’s due to have some good luck around the corner. 

Clean up that slider Johnny, and keep relying on your defense and you’ll be fine.

And fans – keep calm and Cueto on. 

-apc.

Photo cred: mlive.com accessed here. (Highly recommend clicking over if only to laugh at the headline.)