Game 159, Royals at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Ervin Santana, 7:10pm
With the Royals all but eliminated, the Wild Card chase is essentially a two-team battle between Cleveland and Texas. The M’s had a very minor impact on the playoff race in September, but it wasn’t zero. Tampa had to take on fellow AL East teams New York and Baltimore while the Royals played Seattl, Texas played the Astros and Cleveland faced the White Sox. As it happened, Tampa and Cleveland swept series while the Royals dropped a critical game and with it their last chance to catch the Tribe.
I talked about Ervin Santana’s use of a sinker this year to cut down his HR issues to problematic-but-manageable size the last time he faced the M’s. Today, the pitching probables highlight the odd similarity between these two. Let’s be clear: Iwakuma and Santana don’t look anything alike on TV. Iwakuma’s bread and butter pitch is the splitter, a pitch that gets him whiffs despite a low zone%, reverse platoon splits, and an above-average ground ball percentage. Santana’s always been a slider-heavy pitcher, and his slider/FB arsenal’s produced below-average ground-ball rates and standard to high platoon splits (look at 2012).
All of that’s quite true, so it’s not that they use similar means, just that they get to a similar place. Over the past four years, Santana’s run an ERA of 3.85 despite a FIP a half-run higher. Iwakuma’s career ERA is 2.91 with a FIP of 3.83. I don’t want to reopen the whole FIP vs. fielding dependent, true-talent vs. what-actually-happened argument – it’s just a similarity borne of a similar problem: home runs. Both Iwakuma and, to a lesser extent, Santana post very good K:BB ratios. Both yield a lot of home runs. Both have low-ish BABIP-alloweds, in large part because some of the really hard contact they give up flies a really long way, and is thus not included in the BABIP denominator. This in turn can affect how they’re perceived – Iwakuma and Santana have had good, clearly above-average seasons, but they’re not in Fangraphs’ top 20 WAR leaderboard. This isn’t a complaint, or a criticism – the rankings are tabulated accurately. And, as Matt Cain’s 2013 demonstrates, it’s fairly perilous to assume you can spot guys who can reliably “beat” their FIP by looking at the past few seasons. Still and all, Iwakuma and Santana have been better than their FIP in part because they’re just stingier with men on base. 73% of Iwakuma’s HRs have been solo shots. This year, it’s 72% for Santana, and it’s 63% for the past four years (2012 was really, really unkind to Santana – both ERA and FIP).
This isn’t to say they’re undervalued, or over-valued, or buy-low or sell-high candidates. It’s just an indication of what you need to do if you want to run a gorgeous ERA and a good-but-not-excellent FIP: limit BABIP and hope the HRs come with the bases empty. Iwakuma obviously has a bit more room for error, given his high GB rate, high strand rate, and extremely low walk rate. More specifically, Iwakuma could become an interesting test case in that he’s got a completely different motion with men on base, and thus his splits in those situations may not simply be luck, the product of a mind that doesn’t get flustered, or the will to win. Santana on the other hand is going to be somewhat volatile, as we’ve seen. His GB% is up this year thanks to his sinker, and that may help reduce his volatility, but he’s still been a very valuable pick-up for the Royals.
And that highlights Dave’s argument below. It’s not that the Royals went for it and came up short against a Tigers juggernaut and an Indians team riding a well-timed hot streak. The Royals have had a brilliant season helped in no small part by Santana’s brilliant RA, Bruce Chen’s best season in years, and a shut-down bullpen. They’ve got the 4th best ERA and the 10th best FIP.* That is, this is a team that’s had no shortage of luck. I’m sure the Royals will argue that their rebuild came up just a few games short, and that the trade and the other moves they made justify their pre-season assessment of the gap between their club and the AL Central leaders. To me, it highlights just how large that gap really was – the club got better AND got luckier, and still couldn’t overcome the large gap in talent.
1: Miller, SS
2: Franklin, 2B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Morales, DH
5: Ibanez, LF
6: Smoak, 1B
7: Saunders, RF
8: Zunino, C
9: Ackley, CF
* Ok, ok, I should mention this: the Royals are baseball’s best defensive team by UZR, so some of the gap in ERA-FIP has less to do with HRs and solo shots and strand rates and more to do with defenders turning balls-in-play into outs. But Santana’s had this issue for four years, only one of which was in KC, and Iwakuma’s been similar in both his years in Seattle, despite the fact that the defense behind him changed rather substantially from 2012 to 2013.