The 3.20 ERA
Any article you read on the signing of Jarrod Washburn, and any comment defending it, is going to reference his 3.20 ERA last year. In fact, we’ve already seen numerous comments to the effect of “the guy had the fourth best ERA in the American League last year, and that’s more important than his strikeout rate”. The assumption, of course, is that the 3.20 ERA is somehow indicative of a skill Washburn will bring to Seattle. His fielding independant numbers don’t support that assertion. But the fact remains that he did have a 3.20 ERA last year. How’d he do it?
Well, let’s take a look inside Washburn’s season.
Washburn faced 740 batters over the course of the year. 243 of those, 32.7 percent, reached base. The AL average was 32.5 percent. So, we can conclude that Washburn was not significantly better than average at keeping hitters from reaching base.
How about how many bases they got initially? Of the 184 hits he allowed, 129 of them were singles, 31 were doubles, 5 were triples, and 19 were home runs. 70 percent of his hits allowed were singles, compared to just 67 percent of as the league average. That’s not huge, but it’s significant. While he allowed a league average number of baserunners, the fact that he kept more of them to singles than we’d expect helped keep runs off the board. So, there’s part of the lower-than-expected ERA, but certainly not all of it.
So, we know he put an average amount of guys on base, but he allowed a well below average number to score. So let’s take a look at his strand rate. Of the batters he put on base, how many did he leave there when the inning ended? Well, Washburn had the highest LOB% of any pitcher in the AL. He stranded a remarkable 81.8 percent of his batters. The league average is 70 percent. That’s just an enormous difference, and the driving force behind Washburn’s low ERA.
With nobody on base, batters hit .279/.337/.428 against Jarrod Washburn. With runners on, when the league hits about 13 percent better than in non-runners on situations, they hit .267/.315/.408. That’s about a 20 percent swing from his actual performance with runners on to the league average. With runners in scoring position, it got even more extreme. He allowed hitters to bat just .238/.310/.385 in the 122 at-bats he had with RISP, and only 31 runs scored. If you replace his RISP performance with his nobody on performance, he would have given up 12 more runs than he actually did.
Overall, Washburn allowed about 24 runs less than we’d expect based on his baserunner totals and opposing batters lines. Half of that is due to his performance with runners in scoring position. The other half is a combination of the above-average singles allowance and the above average performance with runners on base in non-scoring position situations.
If you believe Washburn’s 3.20 ERA is indicative of any kind of repeatable skill, you are arguing that Jarrod Wasburn has three abilities:
1. The ability to give up singles instead of doubles and triples.
2. The ability to pitch better with runners on base.
3. The ability to be dominant with runners in scoring position.
That’s what you’re hanging your hat on, folks. And guess what? There is no evidence that any of those are repeatable skills.
Washburn’s career singles to hit ratio is 63 percent, below the 67 percent league average, and well below the 70 percent mark he posted in 2005. Even if you don’t believe in the DIPS theory, which has consistently shown over and over to be accurate, Jarrod Washburn has never shown the ability to be an exception and limit the hits he allows to singles. 2005 jumps off the page as an anomoly.
How about pitching better when men are on base?
None on: .279/.337/.428
Runners on: .267/.315/.408
Scoring Position: .238/.310/.385
None on: .250/.289/.411
Runners on: .300/.358/.496
Scoring Position: .303/.372/.492
None on: .250/.295/.333
Runners on: .266/.328/.464
Scoring Position: .250/.316/.427
None on: .226/.271/.379
Runners on: .250/.313/.368
Scoring Position: .232/.313/.299
Not a skill, folks. Washburn has never shown an ability to pitch better with runners on base. This isn’t a problem unique to him, either. Nobody pitches consistently better with runners on for long periods of time.
Jarrod Washburn did post a 3.20 ERA last year. No one denies that. The question we’ve been posing is how consistent are the skills that he showed that led to that 3.20 ERA? The answer: not at all. Washburn posted a low ERA thanks to putting men on first base and leaving them there. That’s not a recipe for success, and its not one he can repeat.