Having taken two of three from the Blue Jays, the still-in-last-place Boston Red Sox (66-81, 17.5 games back in the AL East) visit that soul-sucking slice of hell known as Tropicana Field to play the Tampa Bay Rays (78-68, 5 games back in the AL East, 4 games back in the AL Wild Card race) in a four-game series. Both teams are 3-7 in their last 10 games. The Rays have lost two in a row, while the Red Sox lost their last game.
Alex Cobb (facing Aaron Cook in Monday night’s opener) is the perfect pitcher to illustrate many of the core concepts that we’ve put forth in this column. I’ll give you Cobb’s stats, then we’ll analyze them: 4.26 ERA/3.58 FIP/3.54 xFIP, 6.85 K/9, 2.43 BB/9 (2.81 K/BB), 0.68 HR/9, .316 BABIP, 67.8% LOB rate, 58.2% GB rate, 11.8% HR/FB, .267 BA against, 1.31 WHIP.
So what does this tell us? Cobb’s 4.26 ERA definitely lies, for one thing. Cobb’s FIP (fielding independent pitching) of 3.58 shows that factoring out his defense, Cobb has been pretty darned good. And his xFIP (which shows how many homers a pitcher should have given up, factoring in his ground ball rate) of 3.54 is very good, as Cobb has an excellent 58.2% ground ball rate. However, ground balls are a double-edged sword, as ground balls produce hits easier than fly balls produce them, thus Cobb’s high .267 batting average against. Combine Cobb’s somewhat poor batting average against with a good 2.43 BB/9 will result in a somewhat high WHIP of 1.31. Cobb’s home run per fly ball rate of 11.8% is a touch higher than you would want (10% is considered average) but his raw home run rate of 0.68 per nine innings is pretty good. Cobb’s low left on base rate of 67.8% also contributes to his higher ERA (versus his FIP). And Cobb’s .316 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) shows that Cobb has been a touch unlucky, which we already saw when comparing his xFIP to his ERA. All of this adds up to 2.0 fWAR. If Cobb continues to keep the ball down and perhaps get a few more strikeouts, the Rays could have an excellent pitcher.
Jeremy Hellickson (against Felix Doubront) in many ways is the anti-Cobb, so let’s do the same process for him: 3.22 ERA/4.87 FIP/4.61 xFIP, 5.93 K/9, 3.05 BB/9 (1.91 K/BB), 1.38 HR/9, .255 BABIP, 82.9% LOB, 41.1% GB rate, 13.0% HR rate, .241 BA against, 1.25 WHIP.
So what does this tell us? Again, ERA lies but in the other direction from Cobb. Hellickson is pitching much worse than his ERA would indicate, as his FIP and xFIP is around a run and a half higher than his ERA. With only a 41.1% ground ball rate and a 13.0% homer to fly ball rate, you would expect Hellickson’s xFIP to soar above his ERA, and it does (4.61 to 3.22). Hellickson’s poor ground ball rate works into his favor in that fly balls (when not hit for homers) are easier to catch, thus giving Hellickson an advantage over Cobb in batting average against. Hellickson’s 82.9% left on base rate is probably the most important statistic that leads to his low ERA; Hellickson is not allowing as many baserunners as Cobb to score. However, Hellickson’s .255 BABIP shows that Hellickson has been very lucky this season (his hits are more often going directly at defenders), which is unsustainable over time but it does lead to a low ERA in the short run. All of this leads to a 0.2 fWAR for Hellickson – just slightly above a replacement player.
Chris Archer (versus Daisuke Matsuzaka) is off to a fantastic start in the majors but he also can illustrate an important rule of thumb when analyzing pitchers. In his first four appearances in the majors (three starts, 22.1 innings) Archer has a 3.22 ERA/2.83 FIP/3.12 xFIP. Archer has earned 11.28 K/9 against 2.82 BB/9, for an excellent 4.00 K/BB. With so many strikeouts, you would assume that his batting average against was very low, and you’d be correct – it’s a microscopic .182. Granted, Archer’s BABIP of .255 is on the low side but you would expect that with such a low batting average against. Now for the rule of thumb. Looking at Archer’s advanced statistics, this is a pitcher you would consider to be excellent, right? I agree. But his record is 0-3. So please, don’t look at a pitcher’s record when assessing his quality.
David Price (facing Clay Buchholz in Thursday night’s finale) didn’t really have much rebounding to do from last season but he’s done it. Price has posted a 2.54 ERA/3.24 FIP/3.21 xFIP triple slash pitching line this season, as compared to his 3.49 ERA/3.32 FIP/3.32 xFIP line last season. His FIP and xFIP from both seasons are pretty close, so what accounts for the difference in ERA? Price’s LOB rate has gone from 73.3% last year to an excellent 82.4% this year. This may be attributed to Price’s higher ground ball rate of 51.9% this season (as opposed to 44.3% last season). Combine this with a .280 BABIP and it probably means that those ground balls are being hit at defenders when runners are on base. Also, note that Price’s clutch rating in 2011 was an awful -2.02 but in 2012 is approaching above average at 0.35. the 2012 version of Price is basically the same pitcher as in 2011 but he’s performed better in high-leverage situations.
WHO’S HOT/WHO’S NOT
The Rays’ regulars aren’t hitting for average lately but they are either getting on base or hitting homers. Using that as a qualifier, the hot hitters for the Rays in the past two weeks have been B.J. Upton (.213/.275/.681, .413 wOBA, 170 wRC, 7 homers!), Carlos Pena (.222/.417/.278, .334 wOBA, 116 wRC), Evan Longoria (.255/.327/.447, .330 wOBA, 113 wRC) and Ben Zobrist (.234/.321/.426, .329 wOBA, 113 wRC). Chris Gimenez (.385/.467/.538, .434 wOBA, 185 wRC) is also hitting well in limited action. The cold hitters for the Rays in the past two weeks were Matt Joyce (.179/.324/.250, .247 wOBA, 56 wRC), Jeff Keppinger (.255/.265/.255, .230 wOBA, 44 wRC), Jose Molina (.158/.158/.316, .200 wOBA, 23 wRC) and Luke Scott (.118/.118/.294, .172 wOBA, 4 wRC).
In the bullpen, don’t go into the 9th against the Rays when trailing, because Fernando Rodney (0.66 ERA/2.23 FIP/2.78 xFIP, 43 saves, 2 blown saves) is probably going to shut the door. Jake McGee (2.06 ERA/1.97 ERA/2.30 xFIP) and Wade Davis (2.25 ERA/2.85 FIP/3.26 xFIP) have found success in bullpen roles.
C Robinson Chirinos (concussion) and RF Brandon Guyer (recovery from May 2012 left shoulder surgery) are out for the season. LF Sam Fuld (mild right hamstring strain) and RHP Jeff Niemann (slight rotator cuff strain) are day-to-day.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE RED SOX?
The Sox won two of three in Toronto. That’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. They’re still in last place, however. There’s that stick again.
Dustin Pedroia (.389/.450/.694, .496 wOBA, 217 wRC, three homers) continues to lead the list of the Red Sox hot hitters. Pedey is joined by Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.261/.370/.565, .394 wOBA, 146 wRC), Ryan Kalish (.417/.462/.417, .391 wOBA, 144 wRC) and Cody Ross (.295/.367/.523, .382 wOBA, 138 wRC). But the list of cold hitters is long: Pedro Ciriaco (.200/.238/.275, .250 wOBA, 47 wRC), Jose Iglesias (.143/.250/.214, .237 wOBA, 38 wRC), Ryan Lavarnway (.121/.189/.364, .234 wOBA, 36 wRC), Mike Aviles (.171/.237/.200, .216 wOBA, 23 wRC) James Loney (.220/.220/.268, .211 wOBA, 20 wRC), Daniel Nava (.200/.200/.250, .194 wOBA, 9 wRC) and Scott Podsednik (.133/.161/.133, .144 wOBA, -26 wRC).
As for the starters, Clay Buchholz (3.18 ERA/2.92 FIP/4.22 xFIP) had an excellent start in Toronto, while Jon Lester (4.42 ERA/5.12 FIP/4.68 ) looked much better but got unlucky, giving up three runs in the seventh on Saturday. In the bullpen, there’s a very long list of pitchers to share the Blutarsky ERA Award: Junichi Tazawa (0.00 ERA/0.10 FIP/0.78 xFIP), Clayton Mortensen (0.00 ERA/-0.65 FIP/-0.10 xFIP), Andrew Miller (0.00 ERA/0.47 FIP/0.47 xFIP), Craig Breslow (0.00 ERA/3.10 FIP/3.98 xFIP), Mark Melancon (0.00 ERA/2.10 FIP/2.59 xFIP), Scott Atchison (0.00 ERA/3.10 FIP/3.10 xFIP), Rich Hill (0.00 ERA/6.10 FIP/6.73 xFIP) and “The Other” Chris Carpenter (0.00 ERA/6.10 FIP/6.54 xFIP). Don’t fight over the trophy, guys! Alfredo Aceves (3.60 ERA/4.10 FIP/3.27 xFIP) has improved, while Daniel Bard (36.00 ERA/18.10 FIP/6.57 xFIP) explores new levels of suck.
With the Rays five games back in the AL East and four games behind in the Wild Card race, the Red Sox could deliver a crushing blow to the Rays’ playoff hopes with a sweep. But with Cobb, Archer and Price pitching in this series, I wouldn’t bet on it.