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MLB’s Biggest Losers Bonus: Samardzija, Lincecum, Nolasco, and Hughes

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco
Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco

Jul 19, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco (47) throws during the second inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We last left off on our “Biggest Losers” series with Part III evaluating the 2013 season of the following starting pitchers:

In case you missed the previous two installments, you can still read Part I and Part II.

Before I move on to baseball’s next puzzlers, I would be hard-pressed if I did not share my findings on the other starting pitchers who have the infamous distinction of being considered “losers” based on their win-loss record. All of these starters have compiled nine losses through the first half of the MLB season.

BIGGEST LOSERS

The Basics

Player

W

L

INN

K/BB

K/9

BB/9

ERA

WHIP

HR/9

Ricky Nolasco

6

9

124.1

3.5

7.2

2.0

3.76

1.22

0.87

Jeff Samardzija

5

9

124.0

2.9

9.3

3.2

4.06

1.30

1.02

Tim Lincecum

5

9

116.1

2.6

9.7

3.7

4.26

1.33

0.77

Phil Hughes

4

9

102.1

3.4

7.7

2.3

4.57

1.29

1.58

 

NOT VERY ACE-LIKE

These pitchers have all the ability, skill, and talent in the world to be better than what their record indicates. Some, if not all, of these guys might have been regarded as the best pitchers on their respective teams at the beginning of this season. Let’s take a quick look at their overall numbers so far this year.

Nolasco has done a tremendous job in keeping his BB/9 down throughout most of his career, but his K/9 had decreased in the last couple of seasons before spiking up again in 2013. And judging by his WHIP, a lot of it could be blamed on some balls in play going for base-hits. Other than that, his main numbers should suggest a pitcher that looks to be having a solid season. To put that in perspective, Oakland A’s pitcher, A.J. Griffin has similar K/9 and BB/9 totals and his win-loss record is currently over .500.

Samardzija is pitching in only his second full season as a starter, but so far his abilities have streamlined well as a starter. For some reason, he’s been having a hard time trying to keep control of his walks. Even his WHIP is right on that threshold between a serviceable pitcher and a useless pitcher in terms of fantasy baseball, but even in “real” terms, his WHIP makes him anything but a top-of-the-rotation starter.

Lincecum has similar problems with control, but he still makes Samardzija look like Greg Maddux. Lincecum has always had issues with control, but he was able to mask the walks with enormous strikeout totals. His K/9 has dipped a bit in the seasons following his Cy Young years, while his BB/9 has increased. Both metrics have improved this season, but his K/BB is still not close to matching those Cy Young years.

Hughes, like Nolasco, has done a good job in keeping a low BB/9, but the thing that pops out is the incredibly high HR/9. I don’t normally look at home/road splits, but since home runs are a big issue with Phil Hughes and he does pitch at Yankee Stadium, it’s worth mentioning his HR/9 at home is 1.99, compared to his road HR/9 of 1.13. Against lefties, his HR/9 balloons up to 2.28 compared to a still high HR/9 1.69. Something about his home park makes Hughes, a fly ball pitcher, fall victim to the long ball. His K/9 and BB/9, currently, are similar to Patrick Corbin–currently, an 11-game winner.

Advanced Stats

Player

K%

BB%

LOB%

ERA-

FIP

SIERA

Ricky Nolasco

19.1%

5.4%

73.5%

100

3.52

3.82

Jeff Samardzija

24.4%

8.4%

71.5%

104

3.62

3.48

Tim Lincecum

25.2%

9.7%

67.4%

120

3.34

3.54

Phil Hughes

20.5%

6.1%

73.8%

110

4.48

4.04

 

SOME SIGNS OF HOPE

Excluding Hughes, the other three starting pitchers have respectable FIP and SIERA, indicating that they should and could pitch better than they have shown in the first half of the season. Hughes’ inability to prevent his pitches leaving the park, especially at home, has sent his FIP out of orbit. A shame because his ERA- indicates that his current ERA is not entirely bad. Also include the fact that his LOB% is really high and should help in preventing earned runs, but instead he has the worst ERA of this group despite stranding all of those base runners.

Another common theme is that all of these pitchers do a great job in getting strike outs at an above, league average pace. While Nolasco and Hughes do great work in limiting their walks, Samardzija and Lincecum’s BB% are above league average.

Batted Balls

Player

BABIP

GB/FB

LD%

GB%

FB%

IF/FB

HR/FB

Ricky Nolasco

0.299

1.23

23.8%

42.1%

34.1%

7.0%

9.3%

Jeff Samardzija

0.308

1.50

21.1%

47.4%

31.6%

11.1%

13.0%

Tim Lincecum

0.312

1.69

26.6%

46.2%

27.2%

2.4%

11.8%

Phil Hughes

0.298

0.59

21.3%

29.4%

49.4%

6.5%

11.8%

 

IDENTITY CRISIS

Starting pitchers are always trying to get that BABIP below .300, but league average in the last two years have seen starters’ BABIP at .294. So even though Hughes and Nolasco are below .300 in terms of BABIP, they’re still above league average in this category, meaning that other pitchers are having better luck on batted balls not falling for base-hits.

Another remarkable finding is that all of these pitchers are above league average in terms of Line-Drive% (LD%). Since none of these pitchers do a good job in forcing high volumes of ground balls, a lot more of their batted balls are lifted into the air, or as we stated already they’re getting hit very well. To Samardzija’s credit, he does a good job in forcing pop-ups, but his good work is negated by the large number of fly balls that end up being homers.

Lincecum is also having trouble with the long ball as his LD% is the highest of his career. Add to the fact that the few fly balls he does give up, end up leaving the ballpark. And his pop-up rate has plummeted since the end of the 2011 season; where he set a career high in his pop-up rate (11.2%).

Phil Hughes is a true, fly ball pitcher. That should mean that his homer run numbers should be lowered. However, when you consider where he pitches most of his games, his LD%, and a BABIP that hovers around .300, you get a pitcher that is seeing a fair share of long balls. If there’s one silver lining in all of this is that his HR/FB rate, like Lincecum’s, is only a half of a percentage above league average. So maybe there’s hope that Hughes can see more balls die in the outfield and not in the bleachers.

Then there’s Nolasco who sees a lot of his batted balls go for line-drives and has seen a good amount of balls fall for base-hits. Nolasco is a pretty, balanced pitcher and he’s been that way for most of his career. If he can see a drop in line-drive rates and take into account his solid HR/FB, one might be able to see improvement for the rest of the year.

Plate Discipline %

Player

O-Swing

Z-Swing

Swing

O-Contact

Z-Contact

Contact

Zone

S-Strike

Ricky Nolasco

30.9%

66.1%

46.1%

60.9%

86.5%

76.8%

43.4%

10.3%

Jeff Samardzija

31.3%

67.4%

47.7%

58.0%

87.2%

76.7%

45.5%

10.5%

Tim Lincecum

30.6%

63.2%

44.9%

52.3%

86.0%

73.1%

43.8%

11.6%

Phil Hughes

29.7%

67.8%

49.1%

73.3%

86.9%

82.9%

51.0%

8.2%

 

CONTROL PROBLEMS HAS BEEN COSTLY

Hitters are becoming more disciplined with Tim Lincecum as they’re not swinging at many of his pitches, while the other three pitchers have a Swing% above league average. More curious is the fact that not many hitters are swinging at Lincecum’s pitches in the strike zone, as he’s the only pitcher posting a Z-Swing% below league average. Despite seeing less hitters swing at his pitches, he is a difficult pitcher to create contact against, even when hitters make contact in the strike zone. And if one sees his O-Contact%, hitters are having a difficult time adjusting to his pitches outside the strike zone, and his SwingingStrike% is the highest of the group. The only explanation I can come up with is that Lincecum is still having issues with control and hitters are adjusting by being very patient with him or being overly aggressive and connecting on the mistakes he’s making. Remember, his LD% is the highest among these four pitchers and a lot of his fly balls become fan souvenirs.

Hughes is getting a healthy amount of strikeouts and doing a fine job controlling his walks. However, not many hitters swing-and-miss on many of his pitches. Hitters are simply not bothering to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. Meanwhile, they’re waiting on that pitch that actually crosses the strike zone. Of the four pitchers being evaluated, hitters see the most pitches in the strike zone from Hughes. Though the Z-Contact% is below league average, his O-Contact% and overall Contact% are pretty high. So even though hitters are laying off those pitches outside the zone, they still make really good contact on those pitches. Hughes does have the highest Swing% of these four pitchers so a lack of deception plus high contact rates equals a pitcher that will see a lot of base-hits, doubles, triples, and–yes!–home runs.

Samardzija is another pitcher with control problems, but he is also seeing hitters taking a more aggressive approach against him. As one will notice, hitters are not having much luck in making good, solid contact on his pitches and that slight jump in aggressiveness might explain how he gets a high S-Strike%. However, hitters know that Samardzija will eventually implode in games. In his last four starts, he has posted a BB/9 of 4.8. So the bad control and the aggressive approach at the plate in connecting with his mistakes might explain the high HR/FB.

Nolasco also has seen hitters take a slightly more aggressive approach against him and Nolasco has stepped up to the challenge, limiting their contact rates and earning the highest S-Strike% he’s seen since 2010.

 

CONCLUSION

Ricky Nolasco might be the most steady pitcher of this group as he will get hitters to swing for strikes and won’t hurt himself by giving up too many walks. Now with the L.A. Dodgers, he will continue to play in a pitcher-friendly park, get more run support on a surprisingly contending team, and all of his advanced metrics suggest better production in the second half.

Jeff Samardzija is a very talented pitcher, but he has to find a way to control those walks. There are games where I see him pitch with uncanny ability only to hit a wall during the game and start issuing walks like a salesman handing out business cards. If he can find a way to limit his walks, he still has overpowering stuff to dominate hitters and perhaps even find a way to cut back on the home runs.

Tim Lincecum is having even worse control problems than Samardzija and he’s getting lit up by Major League hitters with a high line-drive rate and an above, league average HR/FB. His Plate Discipline percentages still show a guy that can dominate hitters, but professional hitters have figured out a way to frustrate Lincecum as they know that he is prone to walk batters at a high rate and are patiently waiting for the right pitch to drive. But just like Nolasco and Samardzija, he still has predictive metrics that suggest that he could and should pitch and produce better than what he’s currently showing, heretofore. We’ve been waiting for almost a year or so for that turnaround to happen, however.

Phil Hughes is a hot mess: the homers, the uneven home/road splits, and the command issues are one of many problems that have plagued Hughes for the majority of this season. And judging by his plate discipline figures, hitters are not fooled or deceived by many of his pitches, therefore they have figured out the best time to turn on his pitches, especially at Yankee Stadium.

Stats are through July 15 and courtesy of fangraphs.com

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