The Effects of Luck: Unlucky Pitchers

Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

In this series, Tyler Wasserman takes a look at the players most affected by luck in 2011. In Part 3 of this 4 Part series, he examines which pitchers should see significant improvement in 2012 due to poor luck in 2011. Each player’s stats shown are 2011 (ERA/FIP/xFIP).

Part 1 - Unlucky Hitters | Part 2 – Lucky Hitters

A.J. Burnett (5.15/4.77/3.86)

Believe it or not, Burnett was very unlucky last year, due to having the highest HR/FB rate in all of baseball at 17 %. It is generally accepted that pitchers can impact whether their pitches are hit on the ground or in the air, but how many home runs come of those fly balls is not nearly as controllable. Burnett’s K/9, BB/9, BABIP, and GB in 2011 were all very close to his career averages, yet his ERA was over a full run higher than his career 4.10 ERA. Many will respond by asking, what about 2010? It is unlikely that a player should fall victim to such bad luck for two full consecutive seasons. However, this isn’t the case, as demonstrated in 2010; Burnett was awful. His K/9 fell to 6.99 and his GB % fell to 44.9 % whereas in 2011 his K/9 returned to 8.18 and his GB % rose to 49.2 %.

Furthermore, the astronomical 17 % HR/FB is not a result of pitching in HR-friendly Yankee Stadium. His HR/FB rate at home was actually lower than it was on the road, further proof that this rate was a fluke and simply poor luck. If Burnett actually makes a starting rotation this year, he should improve over last year’s numbers significantly as long as his strikeout and ground ball rates stay at his 2011 and career numbers, rather than falling back to his 2010 levels.

Zack Greinke (3.83/2.98/2.56)

Greinke had a good 2011 season, but his peripherals show it could have been a Cy Young Award caliber season if it wasn’t for bad luck. His K % was a remarkable 28.1 %, a career high, accompanied by a fantastic 6.3 % BB rate, right in line with his career average of 6.1 %. However, he fell victim to a .318 BABIP despite a career high 47.3 GB %, which would normally lead to a lower BABIP. This was his highest BABIP since 2005. Not only did Greinke have bad luck with his BABIP, but he also was a HR/FB victim, with the highest rate (13.6 %) of his career (excluding a small sample size of 6.1 innings in 2006). If he didn’t experience bad luck last year, his FIP and xFIP show that he would’ve been one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2011. Look for a lights-out 2012 from Greinke.

Ricky Nolasco (4.67/3.54/3.55)

Nolasco had the highest BABIP for qualifying pitchers in 2011 at .331, while getting a career high 45.1 % ground balls, significantly up from his career average of 40.4 %. Logically, this would lead to a decrease from his career .309 BABIP, but he saw the opposite, demonstrating bad luck. His 3.36 K/BB ratio was also impressive. His BABIP is likely to regress, and should he keep that GB % high, his 2012 ERA will probably fall below 4, in line with his FIP and xFIP predictions.

Derek Lowe (5.05/3.70/3.65)

Lowe joins Burnett in regretful big contracts from the 2008 offseason. However, he’s also a victim of poor luck, in a very different way. We all know Lowe is an extreme ground ball pitcher, he pitches to contact, shown by a mediocre, at best, career 5.94 K/9. This amplifies the effects of luck for him, because so many balls are put in play against him, and the more balls put in play, the more effect that BABIP has. Although his GB % has fallen from his insane numbers of the early 2000s, it was 59 % last year, which is still exceptional, but his BABIP was .327, highest in the past 10 years. Look for less ground balls finding holes next year, leading to a lower ERA.

Ryan Dempster (4.80/3.91/3.70)

Dempster had a very good 8.50 K/9 and a fair 3.65 BB/9, but suffered from a .324 BABIP, his highest since his rookie season in 1998 when he only pitched 54.2 innings. His batted ball profile in 2011 does not differ significantly from his career averages, so this elevated BABIP seems to be a sign of more hits falling in. Don’t expect his ERA to get back under 3.00 like it was in 2008 (he got lucky that season), but a return to under 4.00 near his 2009-2010 numbers is a reasonable prediction.

Chris Capuano (4.55/4.04/3.67)

Capuano was a very pleasant surprise for the Mets in 2011, after not pitching in 2008 or 2009 and throwing only 66 innings in 2010. While you might assume he got lucky in 2011, the opposite was actually the case. He posted a career high 21 % strikeout rate and the second best walk rate of his career at 6.6 %. To put this in perspective, Jered Weaver had a 21.4 % strikeout rate with a 6.1 % walk rate, and both Capuano’s K % and BB % were better than Matt Cain’s. Capuano had a .311 BABIP, which was just the second time his BABIP eclipsed .300. His HR/FB rate was also at it’s second highest number, although not by a very large margin. If Capuano can repeat his K % and BB % of 2011, he’ll be very productive in 2012.


  1. This is a terribly simplistic, flawed analysis. Burnett’s ERA has been higher than his xFIP nearly every year of his career. Ditto for Nolasco’s last 3 years while he has consistently put up higher than average BABIPs. Lowe has for years had problems performing to his xFIP. BABIP is not a pure luck statistic and in some cases neither is LOB%(some pitchers are worse out of the stretch). You make the same mistake in your lucky pitchers article by including Cain and Weaver who are the poster children for consistenly inducing weaker than average contact allowing them to consistently post lower than league avg BABIPs. For the vast majority of pitchers BABIP is skill-independent, but not all. Please do a little bit deeper research next time rather than just looking at a season of BABIP or HR/FB% and declaring that pitcher one of the luckiest or unluckiest

  2. I do understand that all “luck statistics” are not pure luck and there is some skill involved in them. However, I felt that these players saw extreme examples that should cause them to be a little better in 2012. For the Burnett example, yes his ERA is usually higher than his xFIP, but a 17% HR/FB rate is off the charts. And in the Lucky Pithcers article, I didn’t mean to say that Cain and Weaver are only good because of luck, I simply meant it to mean that they may not reproduce their amazing seasons last year, but they should still be great pitchers.

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