The Impending Tim Hudson Implosion: An Example of Luck In Baseball

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The Impending Tim Hudson Implosion: An Example of Luck In Baseball
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Part of the reason the Atlanta Braves have been atop the National League East standings this season is Tim Hudson's performance. Hudson is enjoying one of the best seasons of his lengthy 12-year career.

With a sparkling 2.30 ERA and a 9-4 record through his first 18 starts, it appears as though Hudson is having a remarkable year. His WHIP stands at a minute 1.13, the second lowest number of his career (he tallied a 1.08 WHIP for the Athletics in 2003).

What Hudson has done on the mound has been priceless for the Braves thus far. He’s given them a chance to win virtually every game he’s pitched.

He’s struck fear into the opposing hitters standing 60 feet and six inches from him. Because of that, he’s inspired the other players on his team. 

Unfortunately, Hudson’s success is mainly smoke and mirrors thus far. and an implosion won’t be that far off. Don’t get me wrong; Hudson is a great pitcher and an owner of a career 3.42 ERA.

The problem is, the underlying stats don’t support his mainstream ones.

One of my favorite stats is called BABIP or Batting Average on Balls In Play. It’s a sort of luck factor. Normally, around 30 percent of balls that hit bats will miss a fielder’s glove when they’re hit into play so the average BABIP is roughly .300.

For hitters a BABIP of over .300 means they’re getting lucky as more balls than normal are finding the gaps. Likewise, a BABIP under .300 for a hitter means they are getting unlucky.

Do take this with a grain of salt though because some people are legitimately better at avoiding gloves and pitching to weak contact for example. Ichiro for example has a career mark of .358 and his lowest seasonal BABIP is .316. But the average BABIP is still roughly .300.

Also, when hitters make contact with a ball and the ball is put into play, one of three results occur: a line drive, a ground ball, or a fly ball. Of the three, a line drive is far more likely to find the field and thus line drive hitters and pitchers that minimize line drives will have better BABIPs.

The opposite is true for pitchers: under .300 is considered lucky and over .300 is considered unlucky.

So most of you will know what’s coming next. Hudson’s BABIP so far this season is .232, well below his career BABIP of .286.

In fact, this number is the second lowest of all Major League starters. Wade LeBlanc of the San Diego Padres has the only lower one.

Hudson, in his career, has line drives 18 percent of the times that the ball has been put into play. This season, his line drive percentage is only 10.8 percent. So as this normalizes, his BABIP will with it.

It would be considered gambler’s fallacy to immediately assume that Hudson’s BABIP will skyrocket to .400 for the remainder of the season though. For those of you who don’t know what gambler’s fallacy is, please allow me to explain.

Let’s say you flip a coin ten times, and it comes up heads each and every time. Some people may think that it is more likely for the coin to come up tails the next time and would wager accordingly. This is the gambler’s fallacy. When luck is involved, things happen randomly, and previous outcomes do not affect the next independent outcome. Therefore tails is equally likely as heads on the next flip.

BABIP works the same way. Just because Hudson had a very low .232 BABIP in the first half of the season, it does not mean that he will have a correspondingly high one in the second half. It is actually correct to assume that it will normalize at his career mark of .286.

Still, this is a drastic change, and as more balls stop finding fielder’s gloves and start finding the gaps, Hudson’s numbers will gradually become worse.

Another factor in determining luck is LOB%, or strand rate.  This stat, measuring the number or runners left on base by a pitcher, has a league average of about 72 percent.

It may seem like the pitcher can control this, but if you look at the career averages of historical pitchers, every single one falls in a range not many standard deviations off of this mean.

Applying this stat to Hudson’s season, we see that he has a strand rate of 84.9 percent, well above the average. In fact once again Hudson has the second luckiest number in all of baseball to Wade LeBlanc again.

When you combine the two aforementioned sabermetric statistics with the fact that Hudson is striking out fewer batters and walking more batters than ever before, it seems obvious that he will regress and the season goes on.

Two more different measures of a pitcher’s performance are FIP and xFIP. These are “fielding-independent pitching” statistics that are based on the three “true outcomes:” strikeouts, home runs, and walks. The stats are adjusted so that they appear similar to ERAs for comparison’s sake.

Generally, FIP and xFIP are much better indications of what a pitcher is actually doing than ERA is. Note that you can think of all three on the same scale (under 4.00 is good, under 3.00 is excellent).

Hudson’s FIP and xFIP thus far are 4.24 and 4.19 respectively.

As you can see, Hudson is pitching way over his head right now. He will still be a very useful piece for the Braves as they seek a playoff berth, but he won’t be as dominant as he appears to be right now. 

The regression is inevitable, so don't be surprised.

 

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