Ryan Mattheus and the Great Demon BABIP

A question that is being asked a lot is: ‘Is Ryan Mattheus sustainable?’
Spring Training is about to get underway and if two of the relievers fighting
for the last spot in the bullpen exceed expectations then the Nationals
are going to have a very interesting choice. Ryan Mattheus has options left and
appears to be the low man on the totem pole. Even more so if you do not believe
that his 2012 BABIP of .253 is sustainable and that his 4.42 FIP compared to
his 2.85 ERA only bode of danger. The big questions moving forward are what
numbers do the Nats trust and furthermore do they trust Ryan Mattheus?

Before heading much further it is
important to understand what BABIP is. It stands for Batting Average on Balls
In Play which is any ball that is hit into play and isn’t a homerun or an
error. It is largely thought that pitchers have little control over if a ball
in play becomes a hit or an out, and because of this all pitchers are destined
to regress to the league average BABIP of around .300. New information has
shown this to be false. While pitchers don’t have control over the fielders
making the play they do have control over if a ball is a ground ball, a fly
ball, or a line drive, and even more importantly pitchers do have some control
over the quality of contact, the speed in which the ball leaves the bat. A hard
hit ball, whether it be a line drive, fly ball, or ground ball, has a better
chance at being a hit than a softly struck ball. Here are two Mike Fast
articles on the subject from November 2011(1, 2) that explain it better than I can.

That is truly ground breaking research
and one of the reasons that Mike Fast is now part of the Astros front office.
Now that we are aware that pitchers do have control over the quality of contact
let’s reexamine or thoughts on Ryan Mattheus and his sustainability.
Unfortunately there isn’t enough data on Ryan Mattheus to know if this is the
case. What we do know is Ryan Mattheus low BABIP isn’t all good news as he gave
up 1.09 HR/9 in 2012 and since a homerun isn’t a ball in play it has no impact
on his BABIP. The other part of his low BABIP that we know is that the league
average ground ball rate for a pitcher in 2012 was 45.1% and Mattheus was at
49.7%. He is better than average but not an extreme case.  

What is really needed is to find pitchers
who are like Ryan Mattheus; pitchers with a low BABIP and low K/9 who have had
longer careers and more of a chance to sustain. In 2012 Ryan Mattheus ranked
31st among relievers in BABIP, and had a K/9 of 5.56. So we are looking for
pitchers who were like that in 2012. The three closest are Jim Johnson (.251
BABIP, 5.37 K/9), Jared Hughes (.250 BABIP, 5.95 K/9), and Brad Zeigler (.264
BABIP, 5.50 K/9). There are other factors that go into pitching aside from
strikeout rate and BABIP, but we are trying to figure out if these low
strikeout pitchers have maintained a low BABIP and if Mattheus can do the same.
It would be nice to see Mattheus give up less homeruns, but that could be a
2012 anomaly due to the small sample size nature of being a reliever. Keep
in mind Mattheus did give up three homers in one inning against the Brewers and
that accounts for over a third of the homers he gave up in
2012.   

Let’s start with Jared Hughes who is closest to Mattheus in 2012 HR/9 and
see how his career has been. Hughes has actually pitched less total innings in
his career than Ryan Mattheus but because they are both similar when we combine
them together we end up with a larger overall sample size. Hughes for his
career has a .251 BABIP and 6.23 K/9 with a 3.01 ERA and 3.97 FIP. Moving on to
someone with a slightly larger resume Jim Johnson for his career has pitched
329 2/3 innings with a .279 BABIP, 5.71 K/9, 3.14 ERA, and 3.57 FIP. Johnson
also has a career HR/9 of 0.52, but in his second full season in the majors it
was 1.03. Getting the HR/9 down is important for Mattheus but other similar
pitchers have had high HR/9s before. Finally, Brad Ziegler has a career .293
BABIP, 5.92 K/9, 2.44 ERA, and 3.35 FIP in 320 2/3 IP.  

Ziegler proves to be an interesting case where Jim Johnson has a lower
career BABIP in around the same number of innings pitched, 2012 appears to be
more of an anomaly for Ziegler. Keep in mind just because pitchers have some
control over the quality of contact that doesn’t mean the fielder is always
going to make the play, and because I do not have access to the Hit/FX data I
cannot say who of Ziegler or Johnson allows the worse contact. It also appears
with Ziegler that a higher than average BABIP of .351 in 2009 is affecting the
results. Outside of that season Ziegler has had a .276 BABIP in three of his
five seasons.

While we can’t tell from Mattheus alone
if Mattheus is sustainable when he look at him along with all these other
pitchers it appears that he doesn’t have such a terribly unique skill set. He
needs to lower his homerun rate, but as he has pitched less than 100 major
league innings there is time for that to happen. The ability to not strike guys
out and to induce weak contact and a low BABIP is a skill set that other relief
pitchers possess. There is less reason to worry about Ryan Mattheus when he is
compared to similar pitchers than to when he is compared to a league average
pitcher. From all this it appears that Ryan Mattheus is the Dazzler. Getting
batters to swing and make weak contact at his better than average stuff, but
while Mattheus is similar to Johnson, Hughes, and Ziegler, he isn’t them and
while we can predict from their career results that Mattheus skill set is
sustainable we don’t know if Mattheus will be able to even come close to
repeating 2012 in 2013. He is a relief pitcher after all and it is the most
volatile position in all of sports.

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