Major League Roundup: Law of Regression

We talk about it in baseball every year.  There are 162 games in the Major League Baseball season, and yet people still attempt to draw conclusions after a week or two or three.  Some of those conclusions may actually turn out to be correct.  Most of them will turn out to be wrong.

Remember those 6-1 Baltimore Orioles?  They were white-hot, getting fantastic pitching and winning in spite of their slumbering bats.  Yeah, they’ve lost eight in a row and are now 6-9.  Can’t say we didn’t see that one coming.

How about those 0-6 Tampa Bay Rays?  They didn’t look like they were going to win a game all year, did they?  No Evan Longoria.  Manny Ramirez retires.  Oh yeah, they’ve gone 7-3 since and are almost back to .500.

The baseball season is long and grueling.  There will be many slumps and many hot streaks between now and the end of the season.  The only difference between these and the ones that happen later in the year?  These happened  to occur at the beginning of the season.  But this doesn’t apply to just teams.  There are players who start out red-hot and fade.  There are also players who slump badly and put it together in early summer.  The key is to be able to identify which ones are luck and which ones are for real.  Let’s take a look at a few ways to identify luck (or lack thereof).  It could help you win your fantasy league, or at least bring you back off the ledge if your team is struggling (Red Sox fans, I’m looking at you).

•Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)

“A statistic measuring the percentage of plate appearances ending with a batted ball in play (excluding home runs) for which the batter is credited with a hit. BABIP is commonly used as a red flag in sabermetric analysis, as a consistently high or low BABIP is hard to maintain – much more so for pitchers than hitters. Therefore, BABIP can be used to spot fluky seasons by pitchers (or hitters), as those whose BABIPs are extremely high can often be expected to improve in the following season, and those whose BABIPs are extremely low can often be expected to regress in the following season. A normal BABIP is around .300.”

A brilliant statistic.  In laymen’s terms, if a hitter puts the ball in play 100 times, it should fall for a hit about 30 times.  If that number is significantly lower or higher, there is a good chance that there is some sort of luck (or lack thereof) involved and that rate will normalize in the near future.

Accordingly, we can look for players with high or low BABIP and find ones that we can expect to improve or decline from here:

Buy: Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: His BABIP is .156, so the average is going to rebound.  His BB/K splits are fantastic and he’s hitting at the top of a loaded lineup.

Matt Garza, SP, Cubs: The guy is clearly the victim of some bad luck (.474 BABIP).  His BB/K splits are phenomenal and he hasn’t given up a home run yet.

Sell: Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers: He’s got an unsustainable .510 BABIP right now.  The power/speed combo could be for real, but expect the average to drop a ways.

Alexi Ogando, SP, Rangers: The BABIP is .130 and bound to rise.  He’s not striking out a lot of hitters and he’s giving up a lot of home runs.  Sell high.

•Expected Fielder Independent Pitching (xFIP)

Earned run average (ERA) is the statistic most commonly used to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher.  However ERA has been shown to be unreliable.  Because ERA is very much reliant on what a pitcher’s defense does behind him, it does not paint a true picture of how well a pitcher is actually pitching.  Expected Fielder Independent Pitching (xFIP) has replaced ERA as the new statistic to measure a pitcher’s performance.

There’s no sense getting into the nitty-gritty.  What you need to know is this: xFIP removes defensive variance and concentrates only on the outcomes a pitcher can control by himself (walks, strikeouts, hit batters and home runs).  The better a pitcher’s BB:K ratio and the less home runs he gives up, the better he should be.  Makes sense right?  This statistic paints an excellent picture for us.

So here’s what you want to do: trade for guys who have an ERA much higher than their xFIP.  Eventually, the ERA should normalize and move close to the xFIP.  Conversely, you’ll want to trade guys who have an ERA much lower than their xFIP.

Cole Hamels Starting pitcher Cole Hamels #35 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws the ball during the game against the San Diego Padres on April 17, 2009 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Cole Hamels

Buy: Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies: His xFIP (2.88) is about a run and a half lower than his ERA (4.32).  Go get him.

Sell: Gio Gonzalez, SP, A’s: His xFIP (4.64) is more than four runs higher than his ERA (0.47).  He’s a good pitcher, but he’s seriously out-pitching his peripheral stats right now.

Here’ some more baseball bullets from the past week or so:

Another baseball-related pet peeve of mine: errors being called hits.  I was watching the Nats/Marlins game a week from this past Thursday and there were at least three clear errors that were called hits by the official scorer.  If the ball hits player’s glove and there’s a reasonable expectation of him making the play, it’s an error.  Just because it’s not an easy play, doesnt’ make it an error.  I think scorers tend to think, “Well everyone wins.  The defender doesn’t get an error and the hitter gets a hit.”  Yeah, except for the pitcher who gets earned runs tacked onto his ERA that should never have scored.  This happens far too much in today’s game.

For the most part, Tony Reagins stint as General Manager of the Angels has been a good one.  That’s why I was so surprised when he made the bonehead move of the offseason by trading for OF Vernon Wells.  While no one could have expected Wells to be this bad at the plate (.169/.217/.231), the guy was clearly in decline and not the player he once was.

  Vernon Wells #10 The Los Angeles Angels Of Anaheim Tosses His Helmet To First Base Coach Alfredo Griffin (not

This is of course not even taking into account his albatross contract.  Wells is owed $86 million over the next four years!  Granted the Blue Jays chipped in $5 million for this year, but that is a ton of money for a player who probably won’t be that much better than league average.  The Jays would have been happy to unload him for a pack of chewing gum. 

Props to Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos for pulling this deal off.  He’s made some big strides in turning around that organization since taking over.

 What’s up with the AL Central?  With Cleveland out in front, the Royals nipping at their heels, and the White Sox, Tigers and Twins all having assorted problems, this division is pretty much the complete opposite of what everyone predicted.  So who’s for real and who’s not?

Between the Indians and the Royals, I would say Cleveland has a better chance of hanging in there this season.  The rotation has some solid pieces in Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco.  However, the lineup is what I’m really excited about.  They are absolutely legit 1 through 9, and the return of CF Grady Sizemore could take them from good to great.

That’s not to say the Royals aren’t on the right track.  There’s certainly reasons for optimism.  DH Billy Butler continues to be one of the best hitters that no one knows about and LF Alex Gordon finally looks like he could be a useful player.  However, most of the players that are going to bring the Royals back to prominence are still in the minors.  The system is stacked with pitching and bats, but they won’t be in the majors until late 2011 or 2012.  Keep the faith Kansas City, things are looking up.

  Mike Aviles #13, Billy Butler #16 And Jeff Francoeur #21 Of The Kansas City Royals Celebrate

I still think the White Sox win this division.  Their two biggest problems so far, the bullpen and defense, should normalize as the season progresses.  The Twins and Tigers on the other hand have bigger problems.  Minnesota is again without C Joe Mauer, 1B Justin Morneau looks like he should be at Double-A and SP Francisco Liriano couldn’t hit the ocean from a sailboat right now.  Detroit is predictably struggling with depth, both in the lineup and rotation.  If these teams continue to struggle, look for at least one of the Cleveland/Kansas City duo to hang in the race for most of the season a la San Diego in 2010.

The Rockies are good.  Really good.  As I predicted before the season, it looks like only injuries can hold this team back.  So far they have absorbed an injury to ace SP Ubaldo Jimenez (thumb), but they will need him back if they want to maintain this level of dominance.  If he can return healthy, this team could give Philadelphia a run for best team in the National League.

It’s easy to forget they started using that humidor to suppress home runs at Coors Field, because this team can absolutely mash.  There might not be a better 3/4 combo in baseball than SS Troy Tulowitzki and OF Carlos Gonzalez and 1B Todd Helton looks like he’s once again found the fountain of youth.  They’ve also gotten nice contributions so far from smaller names like OF Dexter Fowler, OF Seth Smith and IF Jonathan Herrera.  Again, if they stay healthy, watch out!

Stay tuned!  Plenty more hardball coming!

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