Last night, veteran hurlers Adam Wainwright and Jon Lester faced off to break the World Series tie. Both pitchers represent a class of starters that fans and analysts colloquially recognize as the best in the game, but both pitchers also used 2013 to recover from difficult 2012 campaigns. Whether recovering from injury, or facing difficult team circumstances, both Wainwright and Lester were below average pitchers last year. This year, both veterans have had two head-to-head meetings to determine the outcome of the World Series.
The improvements of Lester and Wainwright are interesting for several reasons. First, one can use their circumstances to question the extent that injury-recovery or poor clubhouse atmospheres impact MLB performance. I prefer to think of pitchers as professionals that can work through difficulties and use their presence on the mound to escape from life’s issues, but these pitchers’ 2012 campaigns suggest that the opposite could be true. For example, regardless of Wainwright’s physical abilities, 2012 simply might have been a year influenced by his return from Tommy John surgery. The same issue might be raised with the Red Sox collapse in 2011 and dreadful 2012 season; it is difficult to see Lester’s performance either as one of the causes of the poor Boston season, or one of the effects (chances are, it’s a little of both). Secondly, one can use their track records to question the extent that pitching recoveries and improvements can be expected. Obviously, this is a matter of preparing for starts, repeating mechanics, and a host of other elements. One cannot simply say that a pitcher’s track record shows that they will improve; but, one can ask whether a pitcher might have pitched better, worked harder, or prepared better than their numbers showed.
Here is where Lester and Wainwright diverge, and this should be interesting for Brewers fans given Yovani Gallardo‘s transition between 2012 and 2013. Like Lester and Wainwright, Gallardo had a rather dependable track record in his career, only to produce a below average season in 2013 (in this way, his 2013 was like their 2012 campaigns). Wainwright and Lester provide two different types of track records, though, and here we can ask a few different questions about Gallardo’s ability to improve in 2014.
One way to judge pitching performances, outside of the bread-and-butter of runs prevented against average, runs average, ERA, and IP (among other metrics), is Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP creates an index, or ratio, from a pitcher’s strike outs, walks, and home runs allowed, in order to attempt to judge pitchers on elements that impact runs allowed (but are independent from fielders). Here we can create three different narratives, from the general observation that veteran starters like Lester, Wainwright, and Gallardo can sometimes produce below average seasons (and then recover). One basic FIP ratio is: ((13HR + 3BB – 2K) / (IP)):
These basic FIP Ratios reflect the part of the FIP stat that measures K, BB, and HR; I have not added an ERA Constant, or Runs Average Constant, to convert these numbers to an ERA scale. An average FIP, depending on ballpark, might be anywhere from 0.70 to 0.85, depending on how certain parks suppress or encourage HR, K, and BB. Thanks to these ratios, we can see that Wainwright’s 2012 is quite a different beast than Lester’s, and that there might have been more reason to see an improvement from Wainwright than Lester.
From 2009 to present, Wainwright has limited walks and home runs to such a large degree that his impact on runs allowed, in front of an average defense, would be minimal. Basically, he produces the type of strike outs, walks, and home run figures that allow him to help the defense, potentially contribute to their efficiency, and help himself get out of jams. While he was below average in terms of runs allowed in 2012, his FIP was quite good, which suggests that that campaign was an aberration. Certainly enough, he helped support that argument with his 2013 improvements.
Compared to Wainwright, Lester and Gallardo have levels of HR, BB, and K that fluctuate much more frequently (and, in the wrong direction). Gallardo’s walks per nine innings have been as high as 4.6 (in 2009) and as low as 2.6 (in 2011); oddly enough, he has been able to maintain rather consistent performances in terms of runs allowed and innings pitched, despite these fluctuations. In this sense, his 2013 performance is a ‘correction” — a sense that his contribution to walks, homers, and strike outs would eventually hurt his bottom line — but this time, his drop in strike outs was much more extreme than his fluctuation in homers and walks. Lester’s FIP varies for similar reasons, as his strike outs come and go over different years, ultimately allowing him to perform well, save for 2012. Lester’s home runs climbed in 2012, as his strike outs fell, and he corrected both areas of his game in 2013; one needs to ask the same questions about Gallardo.
Ultimately, it should not be surprising that dependable starters fluctuate in performance from year to year. Pitching is as an artful as well as a form of mechanical repetition, and even when one gets the balance right, other elements of the game can fall out of place (as with Wainwright in 2012). Wainwright and Lester provide key lessons that one need not give up on a pitcher after one poor season, but that equation still requires a solid balance of elements.