The 2008 White Sox have seen several pleasant surprises this season, but no player fits that description better than fifth starter, Gavin Floyd.
The 25-year old right-handed hurler has posted a 2.50 ERA and a startling 0.96 WHIP on the young season. It was said by many in March that Gavin Floyd was the key to the success of the 2008 White Sox, and so far, he has been everything these hopeful fans could have asked for and much more.
So why not trust him?
In baseball, there are statistics such as ERA and WHIP that evaluate how well a pitcher has fared on the mound. What we are interested in here are not statistics that represent past performance, but others that are better indicators of how a pitcher will fare in the future.
In this article, we'll look at strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), strikeouts-to-walk ratio (K/BB), ground ball-to-fly ball ratio (G/F), and perhaps most important to the understanding of why the rest of these are important, batting average on balls in play (BABIP). We'll start there.
There is conclusive evidence that generally, pitchers do not have much control over whether balls hit into play turn into hits or outs. Therefore, BABIP (calculated by (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF)) is a statistic that is influenced primarily by how lucky a pitcher has been, and how well his defense has played behind him, rather than the pitcher's own ability.
A good estimate of a league-average BABIP is about .290. Gavin Floyd's current BABIP? It's .144. That is an insanely low number for this statistic. In fact, it's the lowest total of any starter in baseball by a full 40 points (in front of Erik Bedard's .184). This suggests that Floyd has been incredibly lucky with regard to where baseballs land off of opposing hitters' bats. There's pretty much no way that something like this can be sustained over a full season.
So, you may ask, what can a pitcher do to be effective if he is so helpless to have any control over balls hit into play? There's four things, actually. Pitchers can strike out a lot of hitters, not allow many walks, not allow many home runs, or induce lots of ground balls (which are far less harmful than fly balls, as 11 percent of those are homers).
First, we examine strikeouts per nine innings. Currently, Gavin Floyd is at 4.31, which is very sub-par. That's even lower than what's typical of Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland, who are two low-strikeout guys that thrive on their ability to induce grounders (more on that later).
Here are the guys who finished close to that mark last year: Chad Durbin, Matt Morris, Braden Looper, Ramon Ortiz, Jon Garland, Brian Bannister, Odalis Perez, and the late Joe Kennedy. You'll notice a stunning lack of ace-like pitchers in this crew, and a few of them (Durbin, Ortiz) are flat out bad.
Next, we look at strikeout-to-walk-ratio. Right now, Floyd's is almost dead even, at 19/18 = 1.06. That is very dangerous territory for a pitcher to be in.
Check out this list of "aces" that finished around that mark last year (actually, only four pitchers threw at least 100 innings and did worse in this category). We're talking about Matt Chico, Brandon McCarthy, Lenny DiNardo, Livan Hernandez, Mike Maroth, Noah Lowry, the late Joe Kennedy, and the league-worst, Steve Traschel. What adjectives come to mind when you see these names? The most polite one I can think of is "innings-eater", and that's only if you stare at Livan Hernandez's name way longer than those of the other guys. More accurately, they are "rotation fodder" or "bad pitchers."
Finally, we take a look at groundball-to-flyball ratio (G/F). Gavin Floyd's 2008 G/F is 0.71. That's really, really, really low. Only six guys that threw at least 100 innings last season did worse. Just like the last two statistics, I'll show you the four guys that finished just above that mark and the four guys that finished just below that mark last season.
They are, in order from best-to-worst, Jeff Weaver, Ted Lilly, Matt Chico, Zack Greinke, Oliver Perez, Buddy Carlyle, Jason Bergmann, and Chuck James. You'll notice the only three good pitchers in this group (Lilly, Greinke, Perez) make up for their fly ball tendencies with a high K/9, a high K/BB, or both.
So as you can see, unless we are witnessing perhaps the only pitcher in history with a sustainable skill of consistently inducing weakly-hit fly balls as a primary means to get outs, Gavin Floyd's due for some regression to the mean, and worse luck than he's been having.
I am not saying that he will never be a good pitcher, but it's going to take some serious improvement in his abilities to miss bats and keep the ball on the ground if he's going to be successful in the big leagues. The fact that a pitcher with his skillset has come as close to a no-hitter as Floyd has TWICE is nothing short of unbelievable, as it takes far more luck than usual for a guy like Floyd to do it than it would for say, Javier Vazquez.
By all means, as a Sox fan, I hope that Floyd beats the odds and that I'm wrong. But I'm expecting a serious downturn from Floyd in the not-too-distant future. If struggling Sox hitters like Nick Swisher snap back to their old selves, that will certainly lessen the blow, and perhaps the White Sox will still be able compete despite the nearly inevitable struggles that Gavin "The Magician" Floyd has in his future.