Have you ever had one of those days when nothing seems to go your way? You know, the kind where you sleep through your alarm, spill coffee on your shirt (that is also inside-out) as you rush out the door, get pulled over for speeding on your way to work, then get stuck in the elevator with the guy who hasn't showered in three days? We've all been there.
Colorado Rockies' pitcher Jon Gray has been there, too, but instead of spilling his coffee, he allows check swing ground ball singles through the infield. It's been a rough start to the 24-year-old right hander's career. Through his first 11 starts (49⅓ innings), Gray has gone 0-2 with a 6.57 ERA. He's allowing a lot of hits and a lot of runs. It hasn't been pretty so far, but it hasn't been as bad as it looks on the surface. This is something Eric Garcia McKinley examined last year, but given the new season, it's time to talk about it again.
Instead of just looking at things like record and ERA on their own, we should consider some of the underlying numbers to see how those surface numbers have been formed. Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) against Gray is one way of doing this. It's a very easy-to-understand metric; it's the opponents total batting average with strikeouts and home runs removed.
So far in 2016, league average BABIP is .295. In 2015, it was .296. What is Gray's, you ask? It's .408. That puts him more than 110 points higher than league average! The last starting pitcher to throw at least 45 innings in a single season and have a higher BABIP against was Willis Hudlin in 1936. It's been 80 years since we saw the kind of batted ball luck we're seeing Gray have.
Before we move on, we need to mention that Coors Field – Gray’s home ballpark – inflates BABIP more than anywhere else in baseball. In 2013-15, the Rockies’ staff as a whole had a BABIP that averaged 19 points higher at Coors Field than on the road, so we can assume a similar inflation of roughly 20 points on Gray’s home BABIP. However, Gray’s .452 BABIP at Coors Field is a whopping 130 points higher than the cumulative team average of .322, and 140 points higher than his road BABIP of .313, so there must be something else at play here.
Something else to note about BABIP is that, while it has an element of luck, there is a skill factor involved as well. We can intuit that a pitcher who allows fewer hard hit balls will have a lower BABIP and vice versa. Looking at the numbers leads us to the same conclusion. Since 2013, the 11 pitchers who have induced the least soft contact all have a BABIP against higher than league average (though none of them are close to Gray). Conversely, 10 of the 13 pitchers who have induced the most soft contact have a BABIP lower than league average. Can Gray’s batted ball profile help to explain what appears to be bad luck?
If we turn to expected BABIP (xBABIP), we can use the actual batted ball data against Gray to estimate what Gray’s BABIP should have been so far in his career. This isn’t perfect, but it might help to give us a better idea of how Gray’s luck has gone. Ryan Schoppe did the gory math on this one and came out with a .339 xBABIP for Gray so far in his career. Even if you include the Coors Field BABIP inflation, we still have a significant amount of bad luck here. In fact, to get his xBABIP to match his actual BABIP (assuming everything else was equal), Gray would need to be allowing more than twice as many hard hit balls as he is now – from his current 36.1 percent all the way up to an insane 74.5 percent.
Pretty much any way we frame this, it’s clear that Gray has had quite a bit of bad luck on batted balls. However, there are other things we can look at here. What does Gray’s ERA look like when compared to some ERA predictors that attempt to remove luck and defense from the equation? The table below shows Gray’s ERA, FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. We’ll also park-adjust with ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP- (SIERA- isn’t available) to get a better sense of how he compares to average. As a reminder, 100 is league average and lower numbers are better. The latter three have all proven to be better predictors of ERA going forward than past ERA, so let’s check out what we have:
One of these things is not like the others. FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are all pretty much in agreement with each other, while actual ERA is way out on its own, nearly three full runs higher than all of the ERA predictors. Raw ERA thinks Gray has been 39 percent worse than league average. FIP and xFIP think he has been 11 and seven percent better than league average, respectively. That’s a difference of nearly 50 percent!
Batted ball luck and ERA predictors both seem to think Jon Gray has gotten really unlucky so far, but no statistic is perfect. Maybe there’s something else about Gray’s profile that is causing him to appear to be really unlucky, when in reality he just isn’t good. To find this out, we’ll examine pitchers with similar peripheral numbers and compare their results to Gray’s results.
The invaluable Baseball-Reference Play Index is the tool of choice for this kind of work, but first we need to set some parameters. I want to find pitchers with similar strikeout and walk rates and a similar FIP to Gray. If their actual results were good, this is another point in favor of bad luck. If their results were bad, then maybe something we haven’t thought of yet is the issue here.
In Gray’s 49 1/3 Major League innings, he has struck out 9.49 per nine innings (SO/9), has walked 3.1 (BB/9), has a 3.06 strikeout to walk ratio (SO/BB) and a 3.76 FIP. To find similar pitchers from the last 20 seasons (1996-2015), I set parameters as follows:
- Starting pitchers only (anyone with a relief appearance was excluded)
- Minimum of 45 innings pitched
- SO/9 of 8.5 or higher
- BB/9 of 3.5 or lower
- SO/BB of 2.75 or higher
- FIP of 4.00 or lower
The search yielded 181 matching seasons. Of those 181 seasons, 169 produced an ERA better than league average and another 10 produced an ERA no more than 10 percent worse than league average. The absolute worst ERA+ (just like ERA-, but reversed so that higher is now better) of anyone in this group was 85 by Ricky Nolasco in 2009 and Drew Hutchison in 2014. So, our low water mark among pitchers similar to Gray is an ERA about 15 percent worse than league average. Gray’s ERA+ is 73, 27 percent worse than league average. That’s 12 percent worse than the next worst pitcher, and the evidence of his unbelievable bad luck continues to mount.
Maybe none of this means anything to you or you don’t think the numbers are reliable enough to draw a conclusion from. Sometimes, the best way to determine whether something is real is the good old eye test. So let’s take a look at this on a more micro level. Take the third inning on Wednesday night as an example. The Pirates scored three runs on four hits in the inning.
John Jaso led off the inning with a bloop single into center field on an 0-2 pitch. Andrew McCutchen was next. After a lengthy at-bat, Gray fooled him with a 3-2 slider. Normally that’s a good thing, but this is the type of thing that has been happening with Jon Gray on the mound:
The cheapest hit of the season had the Pirates in business with runners on the corners and nobody out for David Freese. Another long at-bat (that should have been a three-pitch strikeout) ended with a ground ball single between third base and shortstop. I wouldn’t say it was hit hard, but I also wouldn’t say it was hit softly. Had it been hit a few feet in either direction, the Rockies likely get at least one out and potentially turn a double play.
The next three hitters were a Starling Marte fielder’s choice, a walk to Francisco Cervelli, and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Gregory Polanco. The plays in the field were routine and there were no questionable calls on the walk, so no real luck to speak of either way. Gray was one out away from getting out of the inning when he threw Josh Harrison an 0-1 slider right where catcher Nick Hundley wanted it:
It was a good pitch, and Harrison did well to even get a bat to it, but it wasn’t hit hard and it fell right in front of Ryan Raburn to drive in the third run of the inning. Raburn has spent a lot of time as a DH over the past few years and the reason why was apparent on this particular play, as he wasn't able to get to a ball that is most likely caught by a better defensive player. Jordy Mercer popped out to end the inning.
A lot of credit has to be given to the Pirates in this inning for taking some good at-bats and putting the ball in play, but Gray allowed three runs in an inning that had no hard hit balls. It was a microcosm of his career so far and contributed to what certainly wasn't the kind of start he had hoped for. He isn't letting it get to him, though.
"I'm not going to change my opinion about how I'm throwing and I think I'm throwing the ball real well," Gray told Purple Row's Jordan Freemyer on Thursday. "It's just about staying positive and getting through the hard times."
At some point, Jon Gray’s luck is going to change. Until it does, remember that the on-field results have not been indicative of the type of pitcher he is.