Posted By Jeff Fletcher on June 15, 2010 10:28 am
If you’ve paid close attention to the Giants this year, they have proven my point about why Tim Lincecum should not have won the Cy Young last year.
Yes, you read that correctly.
You’ll have to hang with me for a rather lengthy explanation, but the short version is this: One of the reasons that Lincecum edged Chris Carpenter, despite the fact that Carpenter was better at preventing runs and just as good at getting outs, is the fact that the modern stat people said Lincecum’s strikeouts were more indicative of good pitching than Carpenter’s groundouts. The thinking is that a pitcher does all of the work when he gets a strikeout, but when a batter puts a ball in play, the pitcher is at the mercy of luck and the quality of his defense.
I buy the former, but not the latter. Not at all. And if you look at what this year’s Giants have done defensively, you’ll see why.
Here’s the stat that sparked all of this: The Giants are leading the NL, and are second in the majors, in defensive efficiency (.718). What that means is that 71.8 percent of the balls in play against the Giants are converted into outs. Teams that rank high in defensive efficiency, theoretically, have good defensive players.
As the thinking goes, it’s the quality of the defense, not the quality of the pitching, that determines how many outs you’ll get on balls in play. That’s why a pitcher’s opposing batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is often used as a measure of how lucky the pitcher has been. Since the pitcher, as the theory goes, has no control over this.
The Giants pitchers have just been lucky this year that they have such a good defense behind them.
Uh, yeah. Does that make sense to any of you? Sure doesn’t make sense to me.
We can argue about just how good the Giants defense really is, but I don’t think even the most fervent Giants fan can make the case that the Giants defense is the best in the league. By reputation and the old eyeball evaluation, they are pretty close to the worst. I’m willing to say the eyeballs are inaccurate and they’ve been underrated, so, with a nod to these numbers, I’ll move them up to average. But best in the league? No way.
So the conclusion that leads me to is that the Giants defense has benefited from the quality of the pitching. In other words, the pitchers have been so good that they have caused opponents to hit the ball softly, into easy outs that even the Giants pedestrian defenders can handle with a high rate of success.
Lo and behold, if you look over at Baseball Prospectus, where they track opponents line-drive percentage, it shows that the Giants are second best in the majors at preventing line drives.
The art of pitching is not just about throwing pitches that hitters miss. It’s about throwing pitches that hitters hit softly. I just wrote a whole big story on the changeup, and how it’s become the “great equalizer” for pitchers looking for a way to induce soft contact. The same goes for the sinker. And the cutter. These are pitches that the pitcher wants the hitter to put in play, to get an easy out. An easy out.
Which brings me back to Chris Carpenter.
Last year Carpenter’s ERA (2.24) was lower than Lincecum’s (2.48). Carpenter’s opponents OBP (.272) was virtually the same as Lincecum (.271). So in terms of preventing runs and getting outs, Carpenter was better. Not tons better, but better.
(Lincecum did pitch more innings than Carpenter, which was the basis for some of his support, but I dismissed that then because Carpenter still pitched plenty of innings for his ratio stats to be significant. My case was that the Cy Young is about who pitched better, not who pitched more. In any case, that’s a separate issue from what I’m talking about today.)
Where Lincecum had an edge on Carpenter was in getting strikeouts. Lincecum struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings and Carpenter only 6.7. Carpenter still got outs just as effectively as Lincecum, but people didn’t want to give him credit because his fielders were doing some of the work for him.
I disagreed then, and I disagree even more now. As the Giants pitchers have shown this year, a good pitcher gets outs, period. Whether they are strikeouts or groundouts doesn’t matter. Either way, it takes skill to get a big league hitter to make an out. Even if you don’t strike him out.