I’m given free reign to talk about pretty much whatever I want on Homeboyz Network, and last night gave me plenty of options. I could have written about Roy Halladay’s Halladay-ness or Chase Utley’s Utley-ness, or I could have forgone baseball and written about how terrible a defenseman Ryan Parent is. One day after another Phillies win and a Flyers game 2 loss, though, I’m sure the vast electronic orb that is the blogosphere is already abuzz with such topics. Instead, I’m going to talk about something that won’t be covered nearly as much. I’m sure somebody will be talking about it, because anyone can talk on the internet about anything–hence my being here–but this will be at least semi-original. I want to talk about David Herndon’s pitching performance last night because that is exactly what it was–a performance.
If you didn’t catch the game last night, or if you turned it off or switched to the Flyers after Halladay finished the eighth inning with an 8-2 lead, then you missed it. And reading the box score or a simple recap in the paper doesn’t do it justice. Here’s Herndon’s line: .1 IP, 5 hits, 4 earned runs. Not a bad way to raise your ERA from 0.00 to 7.71.
But like I said, the box score doesn’t tell the story; it doesn’t come close. Of the five hits Herndon allowed, only one made it off the ground. That was the two run double by pinch hitter Gaby Sanchez that made it an 8-5 game. The rest of the hits? One was a grounder to left that found the hole between third and short. The other three were infield hits. Two were nubbers that third baseman Placido Polanco charged but on which he had no plays. The other was a leadoff grounder up the middle by Dan Uggla that Utley snagged but couldn’t get to Howard in time. Any time you give up an infield hit to Uggla, you can bet on impending doom.
But let’s recap. Five hits. Four grounders. Three grounders that couldn’t make it out of the infield. If I weren’t a Phillies fan, and thus on the verge of a mild cardiac event due to the prospect of blowing a Halladay gem, I would have found the whole thing hilarious. Herndon is a sinker ball pitcher. His job is to get ground balls. Not only did he get five of them (including the one out he recorded), but none of them were particularly hard hit balls. In fact, two were little more than swinging bunts. Somehow, though, Herndon could get only one out and was charged with four runs, including the inherited runner Madson allowed to score before mercifully closing out the game. Maybe you had to see it to believe it, but I’ve never been more certain that the baseball gods mess with the wind, throw little divots in the way of grounders to create bad hops, and generally fuck with the game at their will.
Let me put this in perspective. Herndon’s BABIP (that’s ‘batting average on balls in play’ to those of you who are statistically illiterate [and for the record, I’m not much better]) was .833. In this case, every batter Herndon faced put the ball in play, so finding his BABIP for the game takes the simple math of dividing the number of hits (5) by the number of batters he faced (6). This all seems elementary to the point of redundancy, but it’s worth noting because BABIP is one of the stats sabremetricians use to eliminate luck from a pitcher’s performance. If two pitchers have a 3.25 ERA, but one has a .275 BABIP and the other has a .330 BABIP, the latter is considered the better pitcher because he averaged the same number of runs allowed, despite having more balls in play happen to fall in for hits. For the record, BABIP is one of the main reasons why so many analysts see J.A. Happ’s brilliant 2009 as a fluke. His BABIP was .270, while league average is around .300, which means that an extraordinarily fortunate number of balls in play found fielders’ gloves.
BABIP obviously isn’t a perfect stat–when talking about balls in play; there’s a big difference between an infield single and a double off the wall, for which BABIP alone can’t account. That is, after all, why Herndon’s pitching performance last night was so funny. Furthermore, no self-respecting sabremetrician would even acknowledge BABIP in a one game sample size, because one performance obviously doesn’t tell you much about a pitcher when compared to data from an entire season. Good thing I’m not a sabremetrician then.
The point of all of this is that an .833 BABIP is insane. It’s not like a pitcher has never had a high BABIP one night and not recovered. This kind of thing happens all the time, and in the case of a good pitcher, the number of strong performances so outweighs the poor ones that the BABIP averages out to a nicer number. When you take Herndon’s BABIP from last night in the context of the nature of the hits he allowed, however, you see how ridiculous the ninth inning last night actually was. Somebody try to find a pitcher with a single game BABIP of .833 or above and four or more runs allowed when 83% of the balls in play were on the ground, 80% of the hits allowed were ground balls and 60% of the hits don’t leave the infield. Think of it as a dare. Or a challenge. You’ll get a virtual round of applause from me if you can find one, because I seriously doubt another instance exists.
Is this a defense of Herndon? It is to an extent. I don’t think you start filling out the paperwork to send him back to Anaheim because of last night’s outing. Not only do I think that’s premature, but the Phillies can’t really afford to do it anyway with Kyle Kendrick serving batting practice every fifth day until Blanton returns from the DL. If there were any questions before about who would go where when Joe got healthy, Kendrick has answered those by basically volunteering to hide in AAA for a while. Herndon will be in this bullpen for the near future, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
At the same time, though, I don’t think you can just ignore last night and look at the 0.00 ERA Herndon had through 3.1 IP previously. That’s because in those 3.1 other innings, Herndon allowed five hits and managed to escape without a run. There’s some more BABIP for you.
Long story short, last night was one of the crazier ninth innings I’ve ever seen. Luckily, it worked out for the Phillies where it counts. After ten runs allowed by the pen in 4.2 innings over the last two games, the critics who whined about the bull pen prior to April 5th will begin scuttling out from under the refrigerator again. Are all their worries unfounded? No. But don’t use last night as an example of why the Phillies are doomed, because you’ll never see a ninth inning like that again.