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MLB’s Biggest Losers Part I: How Bad are Hamels, Blanton, and Jackson?

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels

Jul 9, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels (35) delivers to the plate during the fourth inning against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Nationals 4-2. Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball purists have this perception of keeping things simple in baseball: a good starting pitcher can throw lots of innings, can control his ERA, and puts his team in the best position to win the ballgame. These “traditionalists” will explain the only thing that matters in baseball is winning and winning is everything to a pitcher. That is why this faction believes “winning” pitchers deserve all the kudos and high praise, regardless of peripherals and metrics, and why “losing” pitchers, when evaluated, are labeled as “bad, poor” hurlers. They get accused of lacking talent, skill, intangibles—#TWTW.

But when a pitcher like Cliff Lee, in 2012, goes 6-9 and fails to complete a single a game, these traditionalists are dumbfounded to see that he was still able to pitch in 210+ innings and sport an ERA of 3.16. They usually throw up their hands in the air and bemusedly proclaim, “that’s baseball.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have it that easy. There are people in the baseball world that dig deep into diamond data and attempt to unearth all of baseball’s holy questions with the numbers to back up their argument. So I grabbed my shovel and pickax and got to work as I go on my quest to solve a question that has been bugging me all season long: how bad are baseball’s biggest losers? This all stemmed from a spirited conversation in my fantasy baseball league where a small faction has been pushing to include “pitching losses” as negative points for next season. Since the league’s inception, we’ve never included losses as a statistic as our league’s commissioner was of the school of thought that losses are not necessarily a starting pitcher’s fault. However, the inclusion of losses has been picking up steam which goes into the complete opposite of my affinity towards the sabermetrics’ community’s stance on wins and losses.

So with all of that being said, we take a look at the “worst” nine pitchers in terms of pitching losses and try to gauge how “bad” they really are. We kick things off with the following three pitchers:

BIGGEST LOSERS

The Basics

Player

W

L

INN

K/BB

K/9

BB/9

ERA

WHIP

HR/9

Joe Blanton

2

12

112.1

3.6

7.5

2.1

5.53

1.55

1.84

Cole Hamels

4

11

129.0

3.5

8.2

2.4

4.05

1.22

1.05

Edwin Jackson

6

10

100.1

2.4

7.8

3.2

5.11

1.44

0.81

FANTASY BASEBALL PERSPECTIVE

We start things off with Joe Blanton, baseball’s “losingest” pitcher in the majors. Currently, he’s owned in 13% of fantasy leagues, and has roughly accumulated 152.50 for fantasy points’ leagues. His innings places him in the top 90 and his K/BB is remarkably good as his K/9 is decent and has really shown off his control. Roto-leaguers will point to his atrociously awful ERA and WHIP and leagues that penalize pitchers for home runs allowed must have owners wary of picking him up from waivers despite Blanton’s control.

Cole Hamels is seeing himself and teammate Cliff Lee switch roles in 2013: Lee is off to a great start, while Hamels is becoming the tough-luck loser. What can be wrong with Hamels? Well, outside of losses and sporting an ERA above 4.00 for the first time since 2009, from a fantasy standpoint, you can’t complain much about Hamels. He’s in the top 30 in innings and top 60 in fantasy points, while maintaining a K/9 that is a full strikeout higher than league average while maintaining control of his walks and home runs despite pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark. He is still owned in 97% of fantasy leagues.

Edwin Jackson (24% ownership rate) has the most wins out of this trio, but his K/BB is barely serviceable, crippled by a BB/9 above league average. While fantasy points’ leagues can probably afford to have Jackson at the backend of their rotation (189.50 fantasy points places him in the top 120 pitchers), roto-leaguers have no use for a 5.00+ ERA and out-of-control WHIP. To his credit, he HR/9 is well below league average.

Advanced Stats

Player

K%

BB%

LOB%

ERA-

FIP

SIERA

RS/GS

Joe Blanton

18.2%

5.1%

70.6%

141

4.87

3.85

4.05

Cole Hamels

21.9%

6.3%

70.8%

107

3.70

3.63

3.40

Edwin Jackson

19.5%

8.1%

62.3%

130

3.72

3.83

3.94

SIGNS OF LIFE

As we mentioned in the previous section, all three of these pitchers have, at the very least, decent strikeout numbers, though Blanton falls a tad below league average in K%. We also mentioned that Blanton and Hamels have been displaying great control, but Jackson has been struggling with his walks—again—as his 8.1% walk rate is almost a full percentage higher than league average.

Left on Base Percentage (LOB%) explains a pitcher’s ERA. League average is about 72% and the theory is that the higher the percentage, along with a pitcher’s ability to strike out hitters, the more control a pitcher has in controlling his ERA. All three pitchers are below that 72% goal and all of them have seen their ERAs go above 4.00 despite posting decent strikeout rates.

ERA- makes its return in our evaluation of pitchers and currently, league average is at 104, though the theory is that anything above 100 is bad. Regardless, all of these pitchers, by definition, have been worst than league average.

League average for FIP so far this season is at 4.03 so it’s encouraging to see Hamels and Jackson well below league average as they are capable of having more control of their pitching starts. Blanton, of course, hurts himself immensely because of the long ball.

League average for SIERA is at 4.05, so it’s encouraging to see that they all three pitchers are capable of pitching better (and perhaps post better numbers) than their basic numbers have shown. And as you can see from that last column–run support per games started–perhaps a change in luck can help these pitchers “earn” more wins.

Batted Balls

Player

BABIP

GB/FB

LD%

GB%

FB%

IF/FB

HR/FB

Joe Blanton

0.343

1.32

22.4%

44.2%

33.4%

7.1%

18.1%

Cole Hamels

0.298

1.13

21.5%

41.6%

37.0%

14.7%

11.0%

Edwin Jackson

0.320

1.92

20.3%

52.4%

27.3%

4.7%

10.6%

LUCK VS SKILL

This year’s league average GB/FB is at 1.32 though, traditionally, anything above 1.00 indicates a ground ball pitcher. Either way, Blanton has been incapable of inducing ground balls in high volume and because of this fact, plus a higher than league average line-drive rate, has resulted in an alarming HR/FB that is 1.5 times higher than league average.

Like Blanton, Hamels has not induced high amounts of ground balls and his fly ball percentage is not high enough where he can have a better handle of the long ball, but to he’s doing a good job inducing pop-ups and that has helped him maintain his HR/FB at league average.

Jackson is the only pitcher that can consider himself a ground ball pitcher as his 52.4% is encouraging to see and has helped him get a better grip of his line-drive rate. His HR/FB of 10.6% is still a bit high, although league average is at 11.3%.

League average for BABIP is at .294 in 2013 and all three pitchers are above that threshold. On the bright side, it suggests that they’re on par with their FIP and SIERA figures that suggest improvements in ERA and production.

Plate Discipline %

Player

O-Swing

Z-Swing

Swing

O-Contact

Z-Contact

Contact

Zone

S-Strike

Joe Blanton

34.9%

64.8%

48.4%

66.3%

87.3%

79.0%

45.0%

9.7%

Cole Hamels

37.8%

70.7%

51.9%

63.1%

84.9%

75.8%

42.8%

12.0%

Edwin Jackson

29.2%

67.4%

46.2%

56.9%

89.9%

78.4%

44.6%

9.5%

NO OUTLYING NUMBERS HERE

Surprisingly enough, all three pitchers are below league average in terms of Contact%. It’s not by much, but it’s a good sign in seeing their BABIP continue to drop.

Hitters still make plenty of contact in the strike zone (Z-Contact%) against Edwin Jackson, but makes up for it by having low contact rates when hitters make contact outside the strike zone (O-Contact%). Ultimately, the fact that Jackson’s control has been a problem for him has affected his O-Swing% as hitters know, too well, that they can wait for a better pitch in the strike zone. Still, Jackson’s S-Strike% is above average.

Even though Jackson and Blanton do a good job in pitching within the strike zone, they do not create the S-Strike rate that Hamels produces. Hamels does a good job in inducing plenty of swings outside the strike zone and hitters have a hard time making solid contact with his pitches out of the zone. Hamels actually does a tremendous jobs in making hitters swing at his pitches as it results in swings-and-misses (12.0% S-Strike%) or hitters make easy outs to help Hamels get out of innings (again, Hamels owns a BABIP of .298).

Blanton is a mysterious case as nothing in his plate discipline numbers indicate any extraordinary patterns. His percentages are pretty in line with league averages, further bringing to light his decent strike out rates and incredible control.

CONCLUSION

If Joe Blanton can limit his home runs, he definitely possesses the skill to be a useful pitcher in fantasy baseball. One of the problems is that he has not been forcing batters to hit ground balls in high volumes, therefore his BABIP continues to be above league average and his fly balls continue to go into the stands.

Cole Hamels deserves a lot better this season, but the numbers describe a pitcher that can be dominant in the majors. His home run rates border on the cautious side, but that is to be expected pitching in a band box for a lot of his games. Still, he does a fantastic job limiting the long ball. More run support can do wonders to his win-loss record, but otherwise, Hamels seems to be having a good season. A knock on him could be that he doesn’t force enough fly balls to be an effective “fly-ball pitcher.”

Edwin Jackson’s lack of control has been his doom this season, but the numbers suggest a better pitcher than what we have seen so far, especially if one were to judge Jackson on his win-loss record and ERA. His BABIP is a bit high, but if he continues to induce ground balls at high volumes and continue to lower his line-drive rate, we might see a totally different Edwin Jackson. But it all starts by cutting back on the walks.

Stats are through July 15 and courtesy of fangraphs.com

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