The "Unsustainable" Ubaldo: The Strand Rate

The Strand Rate: Currently, 91.7% of baserunners allowed by Ubaldo Jimenez are left on the basepaths.

A point you'll see brought up by somebody in any conversation on the Internet about Jimenez is the "ridiculous" or "extremely lucky" strand rate, that is to say the amount of runners he leaves on base (it's listed under LOB% at most sites, including FanGraphs). The theory behind these statements is that strand rates are completely out of a pitcher's control and while they'll fluctuate around the league average (right around 72%) they'll try to find their way back to that home.

For this statement to be completely true, we would expect the league leaders in LOB% in any given year to be a random mix of pitchers, with a few elite guys and a few bottom of the rotation surprises popping in to your standard mix of #3's and #4's. The problem is that the leaderboards are almost all elites or very good pitchers, with a few J.A. Happ types popping in to mix it up a little.

2009:

  1. J.A. Happ 85.6%
  2. Matt Cain 81.6%
  3. Adam Wainwright 80.4%
  4. Chris Carpenter 79.5%

2008:

  1. Johan Santana 82.6%
  2. Jake Peavy 82.2%
  3. Daisuke Matsuzaka 80.6%
  4. John Lackey 80.2%

2007: 

  1. Cole Hamels 78.7%
  2. Johan Santana 78.3%
  3. Jake Peavy 78.3%
  4. Erik Bedard 77.7%

Others of note:

Pedro's 2000 LOB% is the highest in the last twenty seasons, not coincidentally, it's also considered one of the greatest pitching seasons of all time. Going back to the best LOB% in the last thirty years, Doc Gooden's 1985 has the post 1969 ERA record of 1.53. So what I'm pointing out here is that when elite pitchers have elite years, they tend to have extremely high strand rates to go along with them. In other words, high strand rates appear to be one of the results of a well pitched season as often as they are the cause of a lucky one.

One of the key reasons why this is has to do with the strength of contact allowed by these elite pitchers. If hitters are only getting aboard via Texas League singles and walks, their scoring chances will be infrequent. In 2000, Pedro Martinez's slugging percentage allowed was just .259. In 1985, Dwight Gooden's SLG against was just .270. So that Jimenez is currently at .239 suggests that the reason his strand rate is so high is that baserunners aren't getting past first base off him as often as they would be against lesser pitchers.

It's not hard to see that this has been the case. In his last start against the D-backs on Wednesday, only two baserunners made it to second, and only one (Kelly Johnson, who led off the top of the first with a double) got there with less than two outs. Against the Astros in his start before that, there was just one opposing baserunner that reached second.

The argument that Jimenez's strand rate will fall precipitously later this season doesn't necessarily hold water if we're looking at this 2010 season as a career defining year. Let's turn the argument on its head: if he's going to win the Cy Young and post a mind-boggling sub 1.50 ERA, it will be necessary for him to keep that LOB% as high as possible, in fact, for the record breaking ERA, we would also almost have to expect the LOB% to be record breaking for this era, 87% or higher.

Probably one of the most eye-popping statistics of Jimenez's season to date would be when you look up how pitchers have fared in bases loaded situations thus far in 2010, you won't find his name listed anywhere. In fact, he hasn't pitched in a runners on second and third situation at all, either, and in over 70 innings pitched, with 267 total batters faced, he has had multiple runners on for just 15 of them. Again, if I'm looking for the type of season that would break Doc Gooden's 1985 ERA mark, this sort of preternatural ability to keep out of jams would be part of what I'd expect to see.

To sum up, the major problem I have with absolute statements that Jimenez's season will fall short of Gooden, of Pedro, of Bob Gibson even, is that people seem to be looking for what a season within the "rules" would look like, when the real question we need to be answering with this right now is what an exception to those rules is (kudos to David Brown for trying precisely this). So far, Jimenez is looking nothing short of exceptional, and while his chances of maintaining it may be slim, if this is the start of the mother of all pitching seasons we're looking at right now, it's about exactly what I'd expect to see. 

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