The Best at Keeping Batters Off Base
August 3, 2007; Page W3
As top-flight pitching in Major League Baseball becomes an increasingly valuable commodity, the question of which hurlers are the game's best really does become a multimillion-dollar proposition. So what is the best way to find out who the best pitchers are?
BABE'S TOP GUNS
• A look at the major league leaders in BABE (bases per batter) Some standard measuring sticks can come up a little short in this regard. Take win-loss records: Over a season, they can be deceiving, dependent on run support and just plain luck. While earned-run average is more reliable, it can be a bit like judging a batter only by his RBIs and runs scored. WHIP, or walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, has a fatal flaw: Under this method a single counts the same as a home run.
Our favorite metric is simplicity itself: BABE, or bases per batter. BABE begins with a pitcher's total bases allowed (the sum of his hits allowed plus one extra point for each double, two extra for each triple and three extra for each homer). When you add in walks issued and batters hit by a pitch, the sum is Grand Total Bases. Divide GTB by the number of batters a pitcher has faced, and the result is BABE.
The lower that number, the better a pitcher has been at minimizing the number of bases issued to opposing batters. How a pitcher gives up bases (singles, walks or extra-base hits) isn't the point -- what matters is his overall ability to limit batters' productivity. BABE uses the same kind of logic that our overall batting statistic, BOP (bases over plate appearances), uses to pick the most productive players at the plate.
So who leads the BABE list this year? Tops overall is Chris Young of the San Diego Padres. The 6-foot-10 righty (currently on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle) leads the majors with a .330 BABE, meaning that he yields a base, on average, to every third batter. Right behind is his teammate Jake Peavy, at .343. So perhaps some credit should go to Petco Park, one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in the majors, as well as to Padres manager Bud Black, who was the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Angels during their World Series run.
Not Just Environment
But don't be too quick to dismiss the accomplishments of these two young pitchers as products of their environment: Their teammate David Wells has a .526 BABE, 94th among the 100 pitchers who had pitched 100 or more innings as of games of July 29.
In the American League, the BABE list also is topped by two young pitchers, each of whom were crucial pieces in big trades. Dan Haren of the Oakland A's, acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals for Mark Mulder, has posted a .378 BABE. (Underscoring Billy Beane's acumen in identifying promising young pitchers is the fact that A's draft pick Joe Blanton is third in the AL with a .393 BABE.) Behind Mr. Haren is Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox, who's rewarding the faith that General Manager Theo Epstein displayed when he traded two prized prospects to the Florida Marlins for the hard-throwing righty.
One thing that the BABE list shows us is how volatile the pitching side of the game is. The BOP list of top hitters tends to be quite consistent from season-to-season, with such players as Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez keeping their places at the top alongside sleepers such as Carlos Guillen of the Detroit Tigers. But many of the league's top pitchers are pretty far down on the BABE list this season. Last year's National League BABE champ, Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is 14th on this season's list with a .406 mark, two slots behind John Maine of the New York Mets (.402). Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays, the 2003 AL Cy Young winner and last year's AL runner up in BABE, is 18th on this year's list -- behind journeyman Ted Lilly of the Chicago Cubs. And Oliver Perez of the Mets (.421, 23rd), who a year ago was demoted to the minors by the pitching-starved Pittsburgh Pirates, ranks ahead of two-time Cy Young winner, and defending AL BABE leader, Johan Santana (.423, 25th).
BABE also can show general managers -- and for that matter, fantasy players -- that a player's real value may not be in sync with first impressions. For example, with a 3-12 record, Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants would seem to be having a disastrous year. But his BABE is nearly identical to that of teammate Noah Lowry, who's gone 12-7. Giants General Manager Brian Sabean shouldn't fret about his young pitchers, but should be very worried about his high-priced free agent, Barry Zito (.485, 71st on the list).
Another high-profile young pitcher who should have his team -- and fans -- fretting is Felix Hernandez. The Seattle Mariners super prospect looked like an early Cy Young contender after yielding no runs and four hits in his first two starts. Despite coming back from a mid-April injury, he's hardly been untouchable since then, as his BABE (.470, 61st) suggests.
Among those pitchers who were on the trading block earlier this week (and could still be dealt in waiver deals), BABE suggests their current teams may know something that potential suitors don't. After making last year's All-Star team, Jose Contreras of the Chicago White Sox dwells near the BABE basement with a .487 mark, 73rd in the majors. Then there is Mr. Beckett's former Florida teammate, Dontrelle Willis, who once scared batters with his baroque motion and knee-buckling curve. His .508 BABE, 89th in baseball, should only frighten Florida's few fans -- and the Chicago Cubs front office, which reportedly still covets him, having once traded him away as a minor league throw-in. Caveat emptor.
BABE's Top Guns
As the major league leaders in BABE (bases per batter), Chris Young (currently serving a brief stint on the disabled list) and Jake Peavy could make the Padres formidable playoff foes -- if they can sneak past the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, led by Brad Penny. AL BABE standout Josh Beckett will likely pay off for the Red Sox come October.
PLAYER/TEAM GRAND TOTAL BASES BATTERS FACED BABE
C. Young SD 156 473 .330
J. Peavy SD 191 557 .343
T. Hudson ATL 220 613 .359
B. Penny LAD 207 550 .376
D. Haren OAK 227 601 .378
J. Beckett BOS 198 505 .392
J. Blanton OAK 247 629 .393
J. Guthrie BAL 193 488 .395
K. Escobar LAA 209 528 .396
E. Bedard BAL 227 570 .398