John Lackey was of course brilliant yesterday afternoon. He featured the best fastball he’s thrown since early in his career with Anaheim, dominating a solid Rockies lineup with a twelve strikeout / zero walks pitching line. Koji Uehara, the guy who should have been the closer in April, finished off the game with a perfect ninth.
Before I get into the whole situational pitching thing, I want to share a junk stat. These are the Red Sox pitchers of the last 25 years to have struck out at least twelve batters and walked none in a start. In parentheses is the number of times they did it.
So, on to the topic. John Lackey last night allowed a home run, his tenth of the season. If there’s blemish in Lackey’s pitching line, it’s his 1.1 HR/9 rate. These home runs have not hurt Lackey all that much, however, because he’s allowed eight of them with the bases empty. Overall, the Red Sox have allowed an above average number of home runs (89 on the season), but 59 have been solo shots, only 30 with men on base.
The league average rate of home runs per plate appearance with the bases empty is 3.0%, while the Red Sox have allowed home runs in 3.6% of plate appearances. With the bases empty, league average is 2.6% and the Red Sox are at 2.2%. Another guy with a crazy split is Ryan Dempster, who has allowed way too many home runs (17) regardless of how they’re distributed, but he’s limited the damage by allowing only two of those with runners on base.
You can also see the quality (or good fortune) of the club’s situational pitching in their K/BB rates. With the bases empty, a walk really is as good as a hit. With runners on, it’s significantly worse. So good situational pitching means a higher walk rate with runners on. Koji Uehara is a great example of a pitcher with big situational splits. He has yet to allow a walk this season in a bases empty situation, while he has struck out 27. With runners on, his K/BB falls way down to 17/7. Thats including two intentional walks, so really 17/5 is the true number. Watching Uehara, it seems clear that he is going to refuse to walk a batter with the bases empty, but he’ll nibble if necessary when runners get on base.
The Red Sox as a club once again have a wider split than the league average. AL pitchers as a whole have a 2.88 K/BB with the bases empty and a 2.44 with runners on. For the Red Sox, it’s 2.74 with the bases empty, 2.06 with runners on.
In the game chatters, there’s a running bit about the Squander! and the failures of the Red Sox to score a suitable percentage on the runners they put on base. By Baseball Prospectus’ run estimator, the Sox have scored 12 fewer runs than expected, but they’ve also allowed 23 fewer runs than expected. Truly it is our opponents who have been squandering.
So, is this just good luck?
A few runs saved that we can’t count on for the future? Probably to a certain extent, there’s good fortune going on. But situational pitching is very different from situational hitting, as a statistical matter. There is real variation among pitchers in the ability to effectively change approach with runners on. Tom Glavine is the great individual example of this skill. Throughout his 30s, stathead publications predicted the imminent demise of the obviously-lucky Tom Glavine year after year, until it became obvious that he was doing something that wasn’t showing up in his front line statistics. Over his career, Glavine was two completely different pitchers based on the base-out state. He had excellent control, good strikeout numbers, and a slight tendency to the long ball with none on. His K/BB collapsed with runners on, all the way down to 1.24, while he kept the ball in the park at nearly half his bases-empty rate.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the Red Sox have a whole pitching staff full of Tom Glavines. Nearly every pitcher tries, at least a bit, to do what Glavine did, and the vast majority aren’t particularly successful. But it is striking to me that particularly the veteran pitchers on the Red Sox seem to be putting up some Glavinesque situational splits. The Red Sox a manager who used to be a pitching coach, plus a pitching coach who learned his trade in one of the best organizations in baseball for developing pitchers. It is at least plausible that veteran pitchers would be the guys to pick up on craftiness lessons of this sort. The club might be doing something real here, which would suggest the Red Sox are perhaps not overperforming expected runs based only on good fortune. It’s at least worth watching.