Every year there are pitchers who underwhelm us. Some of it is because of injuries, aging, poor performance or just a combination of the three. Win-loss record and ERA are typically the two metrics cited for the loss of faith, but each are greatly impacted by luck and can vary wildly from year to year. Instead, we can look at struggling pitchers through the lens of their peripherals (strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout to walk ratio) along with Fielding Independent Pitching and Batting Average of Balls In Play.
Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, measures what a player’s ERA should look like this season, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average. The goal here is to focus on the results a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs) as opposed to those he can’t (the defense behind him).
Batting Average of Balls In Play, or BABIP, measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits. If a pitcher lets up an above-average number of balls in play, he’ll have a higher number of base runners and will be more likely to let give up runs.
Here are the league averages for starters over the past few seasons:
Using these, we can find some pitchers that are getting a little unlucky despite their good control and ability to get outs at the plate. Starting with New York Mets’ starter Zack Wheeler.
The 23-year-old right-hander has struggled in his sophomore season. He is 1-3 with a 4.35 ERA and has not given Mets’ fans a lot to be hopeful about. However, his FIP (3.14) and high BABIP (.352) suggest he is pitching better than the more traditional results indicate. His K/9ip is also well above average (8.92).
Perhaps most encouraging is Wheeler giving up fewer flyballs (29.4 percent) than last year (33.3 percent) plus seeing more groundballs (52.3 percent vs. 43.2 percent last season).
Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs
Wood is enjoying the highest strikeout rate of his career, sending down almost nine batters per nine innings pitched. His previous high was established during his rookie debut (7.5 in 2010) and it has not cracked the 7.00 barrier in the past three seasons. Part of the improvement is due to more pitches seeing the strike zone.
Once his BABIP (0.344) regresses closer to the league average, expect Wood to put more wins on his résumé.
Matt Garza, Milwaukee Brewers
Garza is not seeing more pitches hit for line drives this season (23.6 percent) as opposed to last year (23.2 percent) but batters are just crushing the ball: .750 batting average, .730 on-base percentage and 1.028 slugging percentage to go along with a whopping .722 BABIP. Last season league averages (AL and NL combined) were .674/.668/.978 and a .657 BABIP.
Drew Hutchison, Toronto Blue Jays
The 23-year-old, who just returned from Tommy John surgery, has a strikeout percentage (65.5 percent) that is an improvement over his 2012 campaign. Plus, batters have more swing and misses on his strikes (11.2 percent) than they did during his rookie season (8.1 percent in 2012).
When you have a pitcher who can command the strike zone (9.7 K/9 and 3.3 K/BB ratio) they don’t stay at a sub-.500 record for long.
Robbie Erlin, San Deigo Padres
Erlin has a 2-4 record over eight starts but has pitched well: his is just shy of eight strikeouts per nine innings and has a good command of the strike zone. Unfortunately, the Padres don’t give him much support. Among the starters who qualify for the ERA title, just seven get lower run support than Erlin’s 2.3 per game.