Detroit Tigers’ Starting Pitcher Alfredo Simon Has Been More Lucky Than Good

Apr 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Alfredo Simon throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Alfredo Simon presents an interesting case for Detroit Tigers fans who are interested in analyzing his performance. On one hand, he has a 2-0 record with a 0.83 WHIP and a 2.03 ERA. Those are very good things! It’s good when your team wins games when you pitch, it’s good to record outs and prevent runs. On the other hand, he’s struck out just 10% of the batters he’s faced, probably gotten lucky when it comes to recording outs on balls in play, and probably gotten lucky when it comes to preventing home runs on fly balls.

Funny things happen in baseball statistics when we’re presented with tiny bits of data. Sometimes Miguel Cabrera strikes out. Sometimes Don Kelly hits a home run. These things tend to even out over the course of a season or (especially) a career, but things get tricky inside of seasons, and especially in April, when The Numbers present themselves with lots of noise baked in.

Fans can believe what they want to believe — that’s part of being a fan — but it can be difficult to simultaneously believe that Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose (1.015 and 1.036 OPS respectively) are breaking out at the plate while believing that it’s simply early for Anibal Sanchez (7.71 ERA) and that he’ll get rolling soon. Any of those things might turn out to be true for any of those three players, we just don’t have enough data from this 2015 season to show that to be the case.

Getting back to Simon, he’s gotten those good results — the 2.03 ERA and 0.83 WHIP — but a question remains whether he’s likely to keep this performance up. The quick and easy answer is no, because pretty much no one can put up those numbers in a full season as a starting pitcher. But is his actual pitching going to be good going forward? Has it actually been good so far this season?

If we break his to-date pitching into components, we don’t get much to celebrate.

First, the good: Simon has not walked many batters this season. Preventing runners from reaching base is a good way to prevent them from scoring, and Simon has been stingy with the free passes, issuing just two (and hitting one batter) in his 49 batters faced. That 4.1% is a lot lower than the 7.9% league average, but he walked just 6.9% last year, so even if his walk rate regresses a bit, we have reason to expect it can remain above average.

Now on to the bad: Simon has struck out just 10.2% of the batters he’s faced. That’s half of the 20.3% league average rate so far this season. It’s tough to get batters out if you can hardly ever cut them down on strikes. Putting the ball in play is one of the best ways to get hits. Simon’s career strikeout rate as a starter is 15.5%, so better than we’ve seen in 2015, but not even really close to the 20% league rate. And if you want to get even more granular than strikeouts, look to Simon’s 3.3% swinging strike rate — it’s the lowest swinging strike rate of any qualified pitcher this season. No matter how you slice it, Simon isn’t missing bats.

Missing bats is important because history shows us that pitchers have very little control when it comes to turning batted balls into outs. Simon’s BABIP on the year is .220, which is a lot lower than the .285 league average rate and his own .280 career rate. We know that pitchers have tendencies to induce different types of batted balls, but it’s not clear at the moment whether the idea of generating weak contact is a real thing or whether it leads to a significant difference when it comes to outs on balls in play. Advancements in data capturing (like Statcast) will help us learn more about this, but from where we’re standing now, it looks like Simon has been getting lucky and that we should expect more of these balls in play to drop for hits. In last week’s game in Pittsburgh, Simon allowed only two hits, but a .280 BABIP would have generated more like seven hits. That’s not terrible if it also comes without walks, but we should have probably expected at least one run scoring in that game, if not a couple.

Another reason why missing bats is important is because sometimes balls fly over the fence, and home runs are the worst type of hit to give up if you’re the pitcher. Simon has induced 14 fly balls this season, but none have yet left the ballpark. That’s good, but it’s probably not going to continue. During his career, Simon has allowed a home run on 12% of his fly balls (the league rate is about 10%). Given the 14 fly balls, we might have expected one or two home runs already. That he’s allowed none is good, but we should expect 10-12% of future fly balls to land on the wrong side of the fence.

So Simon’s ERA has been 2.03, but would would we expect it to be if he could repeat his strikeout and walk peripherals while normalizing his batted ball and fly ball luck? That’s pretty much exactly what the stat xFIP tells us. So far in 2015, Simon’s xFIP is 4.36. A matching ERA wouldn’t be killer out of the fifth spot, but it’s basically a replacement level number.

Simon’s ERA has outstripped his xFIP the last four years (and rather significantly) — so maybe he’s doing something that’s not currently measured very well — but given the way baseball and its related statistics tend to work, odds are that he’s simply gotten a bit lucky. And one should never project luck to continue.