By Kevin Mark - Angelswin.com Columnist
This idea for this entry began with a recent discussion on Angelswin.com that centered around left hander Joe Saunders. But before I discuss Joe Saunders I am going to revisit an exchange I had with Kansas City Royals fans on the message board at kcroyals.com because it directly relates to what I am going to say about Joe Saunders.
At the end of the 2007 season, the Royals believed they had struck gold with a young pitcher named Brian Bannister. Pitching for the last place Royals, Bannister won 12 games with an ERA of 3.87. Most Royals fans hailed GM Dayton Moore as a genius for acquiring Bannister and believed Bannister would be a top of the rotation starter for the Royals for many seasons. At the time I believed Bannister's 2007 season was more a product of luck than pitching skill and ability and in October 2007 I posted the following on the Royals message board:
"I do not share the excitement of other Royals fans about Bannister. I know he had a decent ERA in 07 but he didn't strikeout many hitters while walking too many batters. I see a huge drop off in his performance in 2008. I know pitchers like Paul Byrd don't strikeout a lot of hitters, but they don't walk many either. Bannister has average stuff and his positive performance in 2007 had as much to do with luck as anything else. I hope I am wrong, but my thought is Royals fans that are expecting Bannister to improve or even maintain his 2007 numbers are going to be disappointed....I believe there is a lot of merit in using the Batting Average of Balls in Play (BABIP) statistic to analyze the performance of pitcher. Since the overall AL BABIP in 2007 was .305 and Bannister's BABIP was .264, I would consider his 3.87 ERA in 2007 to be, in large part, attributed to his good luck. I hope I am wrong about Bannister, but I don't see him as any tougher or smarter than most Major League pitchers and I think he will come down to earth in 2008 and we will see a significant increase in his ERA and over all performance."
These comments regarding Bannister were met with hostility from Royals fans.
"How do you figure it had to do with luck? What I saw was a kid who, even when he did put too many guys on base, always found a way to get himself out of jams. He is extremely tough and smart in that regard"
"As for the rest of your BABIP talk - that all sounds great. I watched him pitch a lot of games. And I saw him work himself out of a lot of jams. I suppose you can call that luck if you want. I saw it as making good pitches when he needed to, and being tough enough to make those pitches in pressure situations."
"Did you actually watch him pitch any? If you did, then I dont' see much of a way that you can argue that he didn't show the ability to battle when in a jam - regardless of what the stats show."
"I see Bannister in this rotation longer than I see Greinke or Meche because he will remain consistent"
Even before the 2008 season ended I was completely vindicated. Bannister's season was a total disaster and he was no longer a part of the Royals' rotation. Comparing Bannister's 2008 performance with 2007, it is easy to see what happened. He struck out more hitters in 2008, his walk rate remained consistent, yet his ERA jumped almost two runs a game and he was ineffective pitcher.
The big reason for Bannister's collapse in 2008 is that he wasn't as lucky as he was in 2007. The hard hit balls that were outs in 2007 were base hits in 2008. When his BABIP returned to a more normal .315 his deficiencies as a pitcher were revealed.
This brings us to Joe Saunders and the recent discussion about him on Angelswin.com. The posters on Angelswin.com were in agreement that Saunders had arrived as a Major League pitcher in 2008 and he was only going to get better in 2009. Then a poster named ModernFaulkner posted the following:
"His [Saunders] had a typically low .269 BABIP (batting average of balls in play) last year would suggest he's in line for worse core numbers in 2009 (ERA etc)"
Astute observation but, in the same way Royals fans responded to my comments about Brian Bannister, ModernFaulkner was quickly taken to task and mocked for using the BABIP statistic in his observation of Saunders.
"it [low BABIP] could suggest he's getting better"
"not buying it. If Pitcher A consistently hits the low corners and batters put those balls into play, i'm sure his BABIP will be lower than Pitcher B who throws straight average fastballs down the middle of the plate."
"The guy was solid as a rock all year. To me that means he didn't just have a good run to luck into those numbers, he figured it out and did a good job on the mound every fifth day."
Plus his moon is rising over Mars, and we all know that means he's in for a difficult year.
Because the comments and responses were so similar, I thought it would be interesting to compare Saunders' 2008 season with the one Bannister had in 2007. It is striking how similar the results are.
I am concerned Joe Saunders will have a drop off in 2009. His 3.87 ERA in 2008 was a result of good fortune rather than him finally "figuring it out" or "pitching smarter." It is likely Saunders' BABIP will regress to the league average in 2009. This will result in a significant increase in his ERA and runs allowed and Angels fans will be disappointed. I hope I am wrong about Saunders. I hope his good fortune continues and he makes the All-Star team in 2009. But I am not confident this will happen.