To The Wolves
Since I wasn’t around the blog all weekend, I didn’t get to weigh in on Jason being named GM and giving Julio Mateo a start. On the surface, moving a guy who has a 0.41 ERA into a role where he can actually have an impact ono the outcome of a game rather than pitching mopup duty looks like a pretty good idea. Its pretty tough to argue with an ERA that starts with zero point anything, and Mateo was pretty outstanding in 2003 as well.
Here’s my problem, though. While the results Julio Mateo have been getting this year are obviously phenomenal, there’s almost no reason to think that he’s showing any kind of sustainable skill that we didn’t already know he possessed. In other words, he’s exactly the same pitcher now as he has been. Let’s break down his numbers a bit.
Batters faced: 83
Walks and Hit Batters – 5 (6 percent)
Strikeouts – 10 (12 percent)
Home runs – 0 (0 percent)
Balls In Play – 68 (82 percent)
Mateo has been the epitome of a successful contact pitcher to date, mixing in almost no walks with literally no home runs and not many strikeouts and getting a ton of outs by allowing the defense to make plays. Now, let’s take a slightly closer look at his ball in play results.
Balls In Play – 68
Line Drives – 7 (10 percent)
Ground Balls – 22 (32 percent)
Fly Balls – 39 (57 percent)
Mateo’s an extreme flyball pitcher. That’s not new; he’s been this way this whole career. It’s also one of the reasons he’s been so prone to giving up home runs. Ron Shandler published a study in the Baseball Forecaster that showed historically that pitchers give up a home run on about 10 percent of their flyballs, and there do not seem to be any pitchers who have consistently been able to keep giving up flyballs while keeping the ball in the yard. For example, Mateo gave up 14 homers on 128 flyballs in 2003 (11 percent) and 11 home runs on 89 flyballs in 2004 (12 percent).
Mateo is yet to give up a home run this season. Using the 10 percent guideline, he “should” have given up 4 by now. This isn’t to say he hasn’t pitched well, but in projecting him going forward, we’re better off projecting a regression to a normal home run/flyball rate rather than assuming he’s developed a mysterious ability to induce 350 foot outs.
His home run rate isn’t the only anomalous part of his balls in play stats. He’s allowed just 12 hits on 68 balls in play, a .176 batting average. The league average is .293. Now, because flyballs are turned into outs at a greater percentage than groundballs and Mateo is one of the most extreme flyball pitchers in baseball, we expect him to post a better than average BABIP. Based on his raw numbers, Mateo “should” have allowed 17 hits on balls in play to date, a .250 average. He’s only allowed 12, which, again, is a rate that we can’t expect him to sustain.
I used another statistic developed by Ron Shandler called expected ERA to “normalize” Mateo’s performance to date had he given up the extra 5 hits on balls in play and 4 of his flyballs were turned into home runs. Using the formula (found here if you’re really geeky), Mateo’s expected ERA based on his normalized components is 3.85.
Essentially, if he continues to pitch with the same groundball, flyball, and contact rates he is now, we would expect him to post an ERA just a bit below 4.00 in a neutral park with a neutral defense. Pitching in Safeco Field in front of one of the best defenses in the game will probably knock at least half a run off that, but that won’t be something we should attribute to his skills.
So, what we have is a guy whose results are far, far exceeding what you would expect based upon the style of pitching he’s adopted. Even if he pitches just as well as he has to date, his ERA is going to rise pretty dramatically over the next few months. Despite the 0.41 ERA, a look inside his numbers shows no sustainable skill that will allow him to continue outpitching his hostorical norms. It should be noted, though, that his historical norms still make him one of the best pitcher’s on the staff.
So, while I applaud the M’s effort to get one of their better pitchers into more important innings and potentially give the rotation a boost, I’m not sure sending him out to face the New York Yankees in his first start in years is a great way to set him up for success. They lead the league in runs scored, are second in EqA, and are hitting .336/.402/.591 the past week while averaging 9 runs per game.
Contact flyball pitcher making first start in years + Steamrolling offense = Yikes.
I wish I had a little more optimism about how tomorrow night’s experiment was going to go, but realistically, I think this is probably going to be a one time thing. I only hope that a poor outing tomorrow night won’t relegate Mateo to long relief for the rest of the year.