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What the Phillies and Rays Learned About BABIP

As strange as it may sound, Cole Hamels and James Shields have a lot in common. While one earned a championship ring and World Series MVP honors in 2008 and the other did not, both have strongly benefited and suffered from the effect of BABIP. BABIP is a stat that many analysts use to infer how much of a pitcher’s successes and failures are due to factors outside of his control, such as randomness and quality of defense. Generally speaking, the average BABIP is around .300 and tends to regress back to that over longer periods of time. For example, Adam Eaton‘s career average BABIP is only .005 higher than that of Roy Halladay, .298 to .293. Over 1,000 balls in play — Eaton will give up only five more non-home run hits than Halladay.

For Hamels, 2008 was a magical season. At 24 years old, he was the ace of the Phillies’ rotation. His team had broken a lengthy playoff drought the previous year, but were swept out of the NLDS by the Colorado Rockies with surprising speed. If the Phillies were to take the next step, Hamels needed to continue his progression. He logged over 227 innings during the 2008 regular season, finishing with an ERA barely above 3.00. He started the playoffs off in style, tossing eight shut-out innings against the Milwaukee Brewers and finished the post-season with a 1.80 ERA in 35 innings, helping his team win both the first and last games of the World Series against the Rays.

With all of his success in 2008, though, there was reason for pessimism going into 2009. His K/9 had declined from 8.7 in 2007 to 7.8 while his walk and ground ball rates stayed relatively static. Moreover, he benefited significantly from a .259 BABIP. ERA retrodictors such as xFIP and SIERA had him pitching at an ERA level more than a half-run higher, around 3.60.

Hamels spent a lot of time in the off-season on the media circuit, appearing on talk-shows and showing up at many media events to promote his and his team’s enormous success. Who could blame him? Unfortunately, he spent less time than usual getting in baseball shape in the winter, and it manifested in spring training and at the start of the 2009 season. In his first start on April 10, Hamels could not get out of the fourth inning, surrendering seven runs on 11 hits. Most importantly, he struck out only one of 22 batters faced.

While Hamels was not quite that bad over the course of the 2009 season, it certainly got him off on the wrong foot and his inconsistency snowballed. He pitched through the seventh inning only 10 of his 32 starts and did so on back-to-back occasions only three times. Nevertheless, the Phillies reached the World Series for the second consecutive season, but were ushered out by the New York Yankees in six games. Hamels’ post-season was awful compared to his showing in 2008. In four starts, he posted an ugly 7.58 ERA and never got through six innings. After an ugly start in Game Three of the World Series, Hamels was brutally honest with the media, saying, “I can’t wait for it to end. It’s been mentally draining.” Unsurprisingly, that didn’t sit well with Phillies fans, especially not after the Phillies lost in the final round.

In the off-season, Hamels received an enormous amount of criticism, quite surprising given how much praise he was given exactly one year ago. Fans and media accused the young lefty of being soft and for letting his prior success get to his head. The Phillies were in trade talks during the off-season and fans were hoping Hamels could be used to leverage Roy Halladay from the Toronto Blue Jays. Ultimately, the Phillies received Halladay and kept Hamels, but sent Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for a handful of prospects in amounted to two separate trades.

Going into 2010, there was reason for optimism with Hamels, despite the amount of vitriol fans sent in his direction. Performance-wise, 2009 was almost identical to his 2008, but the results couldn’t have been more different. Hamels’ K/9 stayed at 7.8 and his BB/9 at 2.0 while his ground ball rate remained at 40 percent. ERA retrodictors had him in exactly the same spot as in 2008; in fact, his FIP at 3.72 was exactly identical in both years. Unfortunately, Hamels was done in by bad BABIP luck. His 2009 mark of .317 was nearly 60 points higher than in ’08. As a result, Hamels allowed more base runners and stranded fewer of them, finishing with a 4.32 ERA.

Sabermetrically-oriented analysts called for a return to form for Hamels, while Phillies fans dissatisfied with his ’09 performance gave up on him. Hamels took the criticism to heart, spending more time in the off-season keeping himself in baseball shape and even working on a new pitch, a cut fastball. Hamels’ 2010 started off on the wrong foot, finishing April with a 5.28 ERA after five starts. Still, Saberists urged for patience.

As if on cue, Hamels turned the corner, tossing eight innings of one-run ball against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 4. By the end of July, his ERA was under 3.50 and Hamels had taken it to the next level. Not only did Hamels’ BABIP regress (to .289), he improved in two areas: K/9 (9.1) and ground ball rate (45 percent). The cut fastball gave him another wrench in his already-potent fastball-change-curve arsenal. Where, in the previous two seasons, ERA retrodictors had him around 3.60, Hamels finished below 3.30 in 2010.

Most importantly, he showed up in top form for the playoffs, dominating the Cincinnati Reds with a complete game shut-out in Game Three of the NLDS and keeping the San Francisco Giants at bay in Game Three of the NLCS. The Phillies were not able to reach the World Series for the third consecutive year, but fans took solace in the fact that their young ace was back. They happily included him in “four aces” discussions along with Halladay, Lee, and recent acquisition Roy Oswalt.

The Tampa Bay Rays went through something similar with right-hander James Shields. Shields’ 2008 was phenomenal, both in the regular and post-season, but he appeared to take a step back in ’09. Unlike Hamels, though, Shields’ struggles amplified in 2010. He finished with a 5.16 ERA and made one ugly start in the ALDS against the Texas Rangers, allowing four runs and failing to make it out of the fifth inning. The Rays lost the series in five games to the eventual World Series runner-up.

Shields was the blame for many of the team’s woes. As a result of his awful regular season, fans were very unhappy when he got the nod against the Rangers in the ALDS. They had already referred to him as Big Blast James (as opposed to the Big Games James moniker he earned in 2008) and James Yields. One fan was so unhappy with him that she took umbrage with his heritage.

Shields, however, was significantly better, unbeknownst to many people. On a per-nine scale, he averaged nearly 1.5 more strikeouts and ERA retrodictors identified him as a third of a run better than in the previous two seasons and more than a run and a half better than his 2010 regular season ERA. He was undone by a lofty .341 BABIP. If anything, fans should have been quite optimistic about the right-hander, but such is the chasm between performance and results.

Shields has since returned to form. Thus far in 2011, he has increased his K/9 from 8.3 to 8.6 and induced grounders at a slightly higher rate. In 27 starts, he has a 2.96 ERA and a whopping 10 complete games — even challenging the esteemed Halladay and Lee in that regard. His SIERA is an astounding 2.99, telling us that his performance this year is quite real.

Many who entrench themselves firmly in the anti-Sabermetrics camp disregard BABIP because they feel it vastly underrates how much control a pitcher has over his fortune. As Hamels and Shields have illustrated, though, BABIP is actually an excellent tool that can help us more accurately assess a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses. While there are certainly some pitchers that aren’t properly accounted for using BABIP (e.g. Matt Cain), it does its job well for its purpose. If more people take the time to understand and properly use this statistic, the less players like Hamels and Shields are unfairly hounded for events entirely out of their control.