Blake Beavan and the Honest ERA
I know: you want to hear about Josh Hamilton and/or Nick Swisher, and how seriously the M’s are pursuing them. You’d like to know about the M’s 2013 payroll. Instead, I’m going to talk about Blake Beavan and unearned runs. I understand if you’ve already navigated your way out of here, and a part of me is legitimately sorry, but the majority of me knows that 1) it’s November and 2) I’m not at the GM meetings, so 3) let’s talk about Blake Beavan!
It’s one of the very first lessons anyone interested in sabermetrics learns: ERA is pretty misleading. Over a very large sample, it might be useful, and it might illuminate some aspect of a pitcher that advanced metrics don’t pick up, but any smaller (say, 3-5 years) sample is hopelessly biased. ERA is a measure of run prevention that mixes the contribution of the pitcher, the defense, and the official scorer. It doesn’t comport with what actually happened on the field (which is, ironically, one of the criticisms often hurled at advances metrics). It doesn’t isolate the pitcher’s contributions from his defense, and perhaps most questionably, the official scorer can wield tremendous influence based on how many balls in play he calls errors versus hits. Not surprisingly, other measures, including FIP and plain-old RA, predict following-year ERA much better than ERA itself does. At the extremes, a pitcher having a bad year can put up a very solid ERA thanks to the official scorer and bad timing.
CJ Wilson’s given up 16 unearned runs in each of the past two seasons; while he’s been good, he hasn’t been nearly as good as his ERA. Meanwhile, Jered Weaver’s given up only 6 unearned runs in those two seasons combined. If we can’t kill ERA outright, we can at least grudgingly admire those ERAs that refuse to hide dozens of runs from view. “Yes, sure, I gave up three HRs in that inning, but none of it counts because of a decision someone else made about a play someone else made. It’s got nothing to do with me!” This brings us to Blake Beavan, who didn’t allow an unearned run in his first 39 MLB starts, and who came awfully close to making it through 2012 without allowing any. That would’ve given him about 250 career innings-pitched without allowing an unearned run, which is pretty remarkable, even in the current, mostly error-free era of baseball. Beavan was in his 2nd to last start of 2012 when he loaded the bases with two outs against the A’s. The M’s summoned Oliver Perez, who threw a pitch that got past John Jaso and gave Oakland a run. Blake Beavan still hasn’t been on the field for an unearned run, which is something.*
This got me to wondering how common it is to pitch for 150 innings and allow one or fewer unearned runs. As it turns out, it’s not terribly uncommon, but it’s rarer for someone as, well, mediocre as Beavan. Since 2007, 22 pitchers** have gone at least 150IP with at most 1 unearned run. The last player to have a full season without one was Francico Liriano of Minnesota in 2010, but as with many of the pitchers on this list, he didn’t have to work out of too many jams – only three batters reached on errors against him that year. Couple that with his well above-average strikeout rate and few total runs allowed and it’s perhaps not a huge shock. But how does that help explain Blake Beavan or Dana Eveland?
That’s a somewhat interesting table, or at least it’s interesting to me in mid-November. There’s a mix of very good (Hamels, Sale, Liriano, Santana) and not so good (Beavan, Blanton, Eveland). No one makes the list twice, though that’s partially due to the fact that I only went back to 2007. In fact, the last Mariner to pitch a full year without giving up an unearned run is Joel Pineiro, who managed the feat back in 2005, when he pitched a lot like Blake Beavan. Pineiro’s somewhat remarkable in that he’s not only done this twice, but he’s done so as two completely different pitchers – the flyballing, HR-prone, generally bad 2005 Pineiro and the Dave-Duncanized sinkerballer who wasn’t half bad in 2010. Being a great pitcher will clearly help you avoid unearned runs (as you can K your way out of jams), but it’s not the only way to do it. The other way is to simply not give up many errors, and that’s why so many of these guys are fly-ballers. Phil Hughes is even more fly-ball prone than Beavan, and Scott Baker slots in between. Blanton/Gallardo/Happ aren’t quite in that category, but they’re not ground-ball guys. It’s not a perfect correlation though, as Pineiro attests. Eveland was neutral-to-GB in 2008, and Liriano’s 2010 was his one big GB% year.
A good defense clearly plays a role as well, as reducing BABIP-against is going to reduce total runs. That’s why it’s not a shock to see two 2012 M’s teammates on the list (and two 2010 Rays teammates as well). In addition, it helps that these guys, in general, haven’t pitched all that much. Only one of these players, Daisuke Matsuzaka, pitched more than 200IP. Not only was Dice-K the IP champion of this list, he’s the one starting pitcher I’ve found (in recent years, at least) who started his career with a longer string of unearned run-less games was Dice-K, who went 268 IP, or 43 games, before his first unearned run. That run came against the Mariners, when Jose Vidro reached on an error, pushing Ichiro to 3B (Ichiro then scored on a ground out).
I still think the end of Beavan’s string is the strangest, what with the run scoring not on an error but a passed ball (which is about as perfect a summation of the M’s defense as you could find), but Chris Sale’s is bizarre too. Sale transitioned from the bullpen to the rotation this year, but as teams are wont to do, White Sox management wasn’t fully committed to the change. Thus, in early May, they brought Sale in with two men on and no outs in the 8th of a tie game against Cleveland. The husk of Johnny Damon reached base on an error and came around to score on a single. Perhaps sensing that bouncing Sale around wasn’t helping anyone, the Sox had Sale start five days later. He made no further appearances out of the pen.
*Ok, no, it’s not.
** That I’ve found through unscientific means. If you know of others, post ‘em in comments. Any other 200IP starters that you can find? I thought of the 1970s Orioles, but not even Jim Palmer managed it. In general, there were more unearned runs the further back you go in baseball history, culminating in the 19th century when apparently everyone was terrible at fielding. Jim Devlin gave up 201 unearned runs in one year (1876). There are times I’m baffled that baseball became popular.