The two luckiest pitchers of 2014?

We reside in a numbers-driven baseball world where players are no longer measured by wins, losses, runs batted in or batting average. Instead we measure batters by wOBA and WAR and pitchers by FIP and WAR (among others). As such, players who buck the trends and are considered successful in the old way of looking at things compared to the new way end up being considered lucky. Alfredo Simon and Chris Young are the luckiest of this year’s pitchers by those standards.

I find some discomfort with that bottom line. Pitchers can have amazingly successful seasons and still not be considered worth very much by today’s standards. I should qualify that a little bit and state that and rate pitchers differently. Fangraphs bases their pitching WAR calculations on FIP. B-R does not.

For example, despite amazing success on the field with a 12-3 record and a 2.70 ERA, Fangraphs rates Simon’s season thus far as only worth 0.6 fWAR, only the sixth most valuable member of the Reds’ pitching staff, while B-R gives him 2.2 rWAR, the second most valuable member of his pitching staff. With each win above replacement worth about $5 million, one system would rate Simon as worth $3.2 million this season while another at $11 million. That’s quite a swing. Which is correct?

I wanted to see how rare Simon’s and Young’s seasons have been thus far. And so I did a search going back to the year 2000 and looking for starting pitchers with more than 100 innings in a season with an ERA less than or equal to a 3.40 ERA while compiling a FIP of 4.30 or higher.

With Simon and Young both in those categories for 2014 (with quite a bit of the season left to go), such seasons have only occurred twelve other times. So we are looking at something quite rare here. Of the twelve (fourteen if you included Young and Simon), only Jeremy Hellickson has done it more than once.

Of all the new statistics–and to reiterate for the thousandth time: I love them!–The devaluation of the win stat for starters does not sit right with me. FIP is a calculation that measures things a pitcher can control such as walks, hit by pitches, strikeouts and homers allowed. A pitcher with high strikeout rates, low walk, homer and HBP rates will score well. A guy with low strikeout rates combined with league average walk and homer rates will score much worse.

But the thing here for me is that I believe that a pitcher can control other things like weak contact instead of strong contact by keeping a batter off balance and getting less than ideal swings.

And so, on the one hand, you have a pitcher who seems to be succeeding despite substandard peripheral stats balanced by the fact that few of these pitchers mentioned in my search can repeat their success. There is a bit of a fluky element to both Young and Simon’s seasons. But does that take away the fact that in the majority of their 18 or so starts each, they pitched well enough to win the game?

The interesting thing about Alfredo Simon is that he scored similarly last year when he pitched entirely in relief. He pitched 87+ innings in 63 relief appearances and had an ERA of 2.87 with a FIP of 3.96. He has found a way to get MLB hitters out for two seasons in such a way that makes him the non-darling of places like Fangraphs. Last year’s season netted Simon a fWAR evaluation of -0.1. A negative worth for 87+ innings of 2.87 ERA?

Let’s look at the two pitchers a little more closely. Let’s start with Chris Young. As my buddy, Brandon Warne mentioned on Twitter, the guy really has a huge discrepancy between his ERA and FIP.  His ERA is 3.12 and his FIP is 4.95! Whoa.

Young has had several things going for him. First, the greater part of his success has come at home where his fly ball tendencies are a bit forgiven. His BABIP of .206 seems like something that cannot be sustained. Plus, a guy who only has a 1.66 strikeout to walk ratio still has managed to strand 82.7% of the base runners he has allowed. Neither look good for long term success.

But then again, Young has a .248 career BABIP against. That is amazingly low for the amount he has pitched over the years. I would lean on his second half being a bit rockier than his first half. I think we have already seen some of that happening in his last few starts.

Let’s go back to Alfredo Simon. His BABIP against has been .232 after a career mark of .277. Both are lower than average, but much lower this year. His strand rate is even more remarkable than Young’s at 85.1%. Simon’s K/BB ratio is better too at 2.68, but still not amazing.  Simon is a remarkable 12-3 thus far. It may be lucky, but that is still twelve times that he has pitched better than his opponent has.

The season is not yet over and over a third of the games remain to be played. But as of right now, of those fourteen pitcher seasons I spoke of earlier, Young and Simon have the lowest OPS against of any of the other twelve. Simon’s is .637 while Young’s is .659. Fluke or not, that is dealing.

Here is something else to think about. Seattle and Cincinnati or one and two respectively out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency. For two pitchers that allow a lot of contact, great fielders support them in both cases and that has to remove some of the fluke factor.

Alfredo Simon and Chris Young might be having very fortunate seasons and perhaps you can say statistically–or at least make the argument–that the results they have achieved have been better than they have pitched. Or you can say, “Man, they have 2o wins between them at the half and that sure has helped their teams stay in the race.” I’ll leave it up to you and smarter people to decide.

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