St. Louis Cardinals fans are pretty discouraged right now with the performance of the Cardinals’ bullpen. With the exception of newly crowned closer Edward Mujica, the entire bullpen has struggled. The most baffling of all is the performance of Mitchell Boggs, a lights out 8th inning guy just last season. With an ERA of 12.66, and a FIP of 5.71, Boggs is the epitome of struggling. But, say I, there is cause for hope. All is not as it seems in Cardinal land.
One of the things that many casual fans misunderstand is that not all hits and runs are alike. And because they are not all alike, the fault for their happening does not always lie at the feet of the pitcher. There are many variables that go into whether a hit or a run occurs. Certainly a bad pitch thrown by the pitcher is one of the causes. If a pitcher throws a pitch down the middle of the plate, chances are it is going to get hit, and hit hard. However, sometimes a pitcher can throw a good pitch and it gets hit. Some hitters have a knack for hitting the inside pitch, or the outside pitch, or the low pitch. If that hitter’s tendency is known, it’s best not to throw that pitch there. Again, this can be the fault of the pitcher if the pitch selection is poor or the pitch misses location. But, often a ball gets hit because the hitter gets lucky, either making contact on a pitch they don’t normally hit, or a ball landing in a spot where no defender can get to it. A hitter’s speed also comes into play. Weakly hit balls can turn into hits if the hitter can run fast. Defenders with poor range will affect how often a ball in play becomes a hit. Weather can also be a factor. Temperature and humidity can affect how a pitched or hit ball behaves.
My point is this; every time a hit or a run occurs, it is not always the pitcher’s fault. Blaming the pitcher every time a ball is hit or a run is scored is overly simplistic and just plain wrong. Modern statistical analysis has developed ways to measure when a bad outcome is likely the fault of the pitcher and when it is not. There are only so many things a pitcher can control. He can control what pitch he throws, how he throws it, and where it goes over the plate. If a pitch is hit to a pitcher, he can control how he fields it. The pitcher cannot control how his defenders field a ball, where the ball goes once it leaves the bat, how fast a hitter runs, or the weather. Statistics exist which factor out the out of the pitcher’s control aspects. One is FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) which is like ERA but eliminates the results of a defender’s actions on a ball in play. Another is BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play). BABIP measures how many of a pitcher’s pitches falls for hits. Unlike FIP, variables like defense are factored in. Luck (balls going in places where no defender can get to it or weakly hit balls, for example) is also a factor. A pitcher’s skill level is also a factor, so the pitcher is not completely exonerated. It should be noted that home runs are not included in BABIP because they are not considered a ball in play. They are included in FIP. Thus, home runs are the exception to the idea that a pitcher cannot control where a ball goes. Balls hit out of the park are counted against the pitcher at all times. An average BABIP for pitchers is around .300. Lower BABIPS can mean good defense, luck, etc., and higher BABIPs just the opposite.
Now using these stats, let’s look at the bullpen. As a group, the bullpen’s BABIP is .346. This number does not reflect the numbers from today’s game so it is likely higher than that. Higher than average BABIP likely indicates some poor defense and bad luck. In comparison, the BABIP of the starting rotation is .286. Mitchell Boggs, the biggest struggler of the bunch, has a BABIP of .410. Boggs’ FIP is 5.71, which is not good, so that indicates to me at least that his pitching is still a part of the problem, but that BABIP suggests luck is also a factor. How much is luck and how much is skill I cannot say. However, over time a pitcher’s BABIP tends to regress back to his career BABIP rate, which in Boggs’ case is .304. That is why I say there is hope. As Boggs’ BABIP regresses, that FIP will likely come down and so will the ERA. Boggs has the skill, his ERA and FIP in 2012 were 2.21 and 3.42. It is possible, and in fact likely that he will get back to there or close to it.
As for the rest of the bullpen, those with high BABIPs include Trevor Rosenthal, Marc Rzepczynski, and Joe Kelly. Mujica, Salas, and Choate all have normal or low BABIPs. FIPS are high for Boggs, Kelly, Rzep, and Salas. What all this means is that it is likely the poor performance of the bullpen is not permanent. That is no consolation now when games are being lost, but it does mean that wholesale changes to the bullpen right now are not warranted. Minor tweaks could do the job.
So take heart, Cardinals fans, all is not lost for playoff hopes. It will get better over time. How much time remains to be seen. Let’s hope it is not much.