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2014's Lucky Pitchers

Some pitchers were luckier than others in 2014. Was it luck or skill? How will they do in 2015?

"Big Game" James was very lucky in 2014.
"Big Game" James was very lucky in 2014.
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

If you checked out my post about 2014's luckiest hitters, then you know how this will go. We'll take a look at a couple tables listing the starting pitchers in 2014 that had the lowest BABIPs against, along with two other pitcher luck indicators:  strand rate and HR/FB%. Then, I'll give you some judgments about which pitchers are headed straight to Regression City next year and which pitchers have shown skill for beating the odds every year and are not just flukes. Let's jump right into the tables!

First up, the master table showing the low BABIP guys (among qualified starting pitchers only). Everyone with a BABIP against less than .296 had a BABIP against below league average. If a pitcher also had a strand rate (LOB%) higher than league average (72.5%) or a HR/FB% below average (9.8%), that stat is highlighted red. Three red marks (BABIP, LOB%, HR/FB%) can be an indicator of looming regression next year. This table is sorted by BABIP from lowest to highest, but includes all qualified starters.

Full Pitcher 2014 BABIP table

Before we dive into the luckiest pitchers, I want to stop here and look at some of the guys with two strikes (two red numbers in the table above. These guys got somewhat lucky this year and could regress. I'm going to pick on just a few that I think are due for regression: Johnny Cueto, Shelby Miller, R.A. Dickey, Alfredo Simon,  Josh Collmenter, Matt Garza, Jason Hammel, Bud Norris, Scott Kazmir, Kyle Gibson, Jarrod Cosart, Jeremy Guthrie, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jason Vargas. Okay, you got me, that was way more than a few. Why did I choose this motley crew of guys?

Well, for starters, most of these guys don't have good "stuff." They don't have overpowering fastballs or elite breaking balls and don't have high strikeout numbers. So, in order to put up average or better results, they rely on luck, batted ball suppression and low walk totals. One of those three things is not a skill. Cueto and Miller have good "stuff" in some regards, but both had extremely low BABIPs (top 3) combined with well above average strand rates. It is highly unlikely that this was due to skill, so I am considering most of it luck. The other guys are just pitchers that rely heavily on their defense and pitching to contact for the most part and are going to be very volatile as a result. Thus, I expect regression from all of these guys next season.

I won't say anything here about the guys with only one strike because there isn't enough there to call them lucky. I also left out guys that are great strikeout and/or control guys that are just so talented that they can keep BABIPs down and LOB% up like Jeff Samardzija, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Tyson Ross, and Jon Lester. Doug Fister gets a pass because he has a history of outpitching his luck metrics, similar to Matt Cain in 2010-2012.

Now, onto the three strikes guys. I gave them their own table for clarity, so I can add some more details about their season, and also so I can say: Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for the luckiest pitchers of 2014!

Luckiest Pitchers 2014

Ok, so perhaps they weren't all lucky. Those guys named Kershaw and Sale may have some talent. Seriously though, this list is a mix of very talented pitchers (e.g. Kershaw, Sale), guys having sustainable breakout years (e.g. Keuchel, Richards), and guys that relied heavily on luck. Generally speaking, pitchers with high groundball rates, high K-rates, and low walk rates are talented and should continue to put up great results. So, if I arbitrarily choose a K-rate of 8 K/9, a walk rate of 3 BB/9, and a grounder rate of 50% as my cut-off points for determining which pitchers are actually good and assign a point to each pitcher for each of those three things that are above my thresholds, I get the following table:

2014 lucky pitchers skill table

I think we can all agree that the green highlighted pitchers are good and did not get lucky this year. Adam Wainwright just missed the grounder cutoff at 46% and has an elite walk rate, so even though his skills are in decline and I believe he is a health risk (he is reaching the time when most Tommy John pitchers need a second surgery), he is still an elite pitcher skills-wise. Jered Weaver has always had bad peripherals with good results, so this is not new territory for him. However, that 86-mph fastball is not getting any faster and I do expect his decline to continue and am staying away because I don't like the risk of a blow-up.

Next up are a couple of young hurlers with good stuff that had somewhat lucky years. I believe in the skills of Julio Teheran and Yordano Ventura and fully expect them to be good again next year, despite how lucky they were this year. The rest of the list I am officially declaring very lucky and you should expect regression from all of them next season. Some of this batch are young and still developing like Tanner Roark, Sonny Gray, and Jake Odorizzi and could advance their skills enough to offset some of the regression in batted balls. Most of the rest are experienced veterans that are ripe for falling back to the land of poor pitching: Chris Tillman, Kyle Lohse, Jake Peavy, Lance Lynn, and finally, "Big Game" James Shields. I am all too eager to stay far away from Shields next year. His great changeup is now mediocre (by swinging strike rates) and his fastball isn't special anymore either. That really limits what he can do. Maybe if he ends up in Oakland or another great pitcher's park he can revive his career some, but he comes with lots of risk.

Here is the final table of the "three strikes" pitchers, complete with my "Luck or Skill?" determination. Keep in mind that just because a pitcher was lucky does not mean he will fall apart in 2015. It just means that I believe that he will not perform as well in 2015 as he did in 2014 and your keeper choice, draft pick, or auction price should be adjusted accordingly. As always, Tschus!

Pitcher BABIP 2014 Luck or Skill Table