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How to explain South Carolina’s slump with Sabermetrics

It’s the first time I’ve used algebra since high school


We’re running out of explanations as to why the South Carolina Gamecocks can’t win a conference series.

By now it’s no secret SC is struggling in SEC play. They dropped their fourth series in a row to Florida this past weekend and have fallen to 9-9 in SEC play. But oddly enough over the last 12 SEC games South Carolina holds a +9 run advantage despite being 4-8 in those games. How do you explain that?

According to the Pythagorean Wins theory, South Carolina should be somewhere around nine wins in a 12 game span with +9 run differential. Nine wins! That’s a five game difference, which is very significant while acknowledging the sample size is small. How is South Carolina being shorted five wins? Let’s break down the games.

First look at the average margin of victory for the four wins: +4.75. Then look at the average margin of defeat: -0.70. Another huge variance. South Carolina is either winning comfortably or losing one-run games. By totally random occurrence.

According to the father of Sabermetrics Bill James, two major factors that help explain the overrepresentation of losses in Pythagorean expectations are bullpen quality and luck. So let’s see if those to things add up.

First: Bullpen quality. Pitching is something everyone preaches when it comes to South Carolina baseball. “The pitching will get us through!” is what Twitter eggs say. While the offense has been of much to blame for the low run production in the losses, they’ve done enough in the wins to give SC a positive run differential.

So how do we effectively measure a bullpens value? There’s a couple of stats we can use to determine this: FIP and BABIP. First, FIP “measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing” according to FanGraphs.

Essentially, it aims to give every pitcher the same defensive infield. Pitcher’s who induce ground balls are at the mercy of their defense to get outs, so obviously not every pitcher gets the same results for similar ground balls. Now that every defense is a constant, we can assess how pitcher has performed independent their defense.

clarke schmidt 247Sports

To calculate FIP, we need the home runs, walks, hit batters, strikeouts and innings pitched for SC and the entire SEC, along with the conference’s average ERA. In order to determine what league average defense is, we need those league stats.

So let’s take the South Carolina bullpen only over the last 12 games. Between all the pitchers who threw the 32 and a third innings of relief over the last four SEC series, they’ve combined to post a 4.18 ERA. Any casual fan knows a 4.18 is not good, but the FIP is even worse.

When adjusted for league constant, the Gamecock’s bullpen over the last 12 SEC games is 4.36 — even worse than their ERA. When you take away the stellar infield defense South Carolina provides, the pitching performance of the bullpen drops down even worse.

It’s not just one pitcher with the yips either. It’s three or four guys who’ve struggled simultaneously to really bring down what was supposed to be a solid pen this spring. Even worse, they’re wasting good starting performances by Will Crowe and Clarke Schmidt.

South Carolina’s great infield defense can be backed up by the bullpen’s BABIP, or batting average on balls in play. BABIP “measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit. A ball is “in play” when the plate appearance ends in something other than a strikeout, walk, hit batter, catcher’s interference, sacrifice bunt, or home run” according to Fangraphs.

In those 12 games, the SC bullpen’s BABIP is .215. That’s ridiculously low considering the SEC average is .306. Not only is the SC infield essentially scooping up four out of every five ground balls hit, but the bullpen is getting pretty lucky here too. The fact so little of these balls have been bloops or weird, foul line choppers have been to the benefit of the Gamecocks pitchers, yet their FIP is still through the roof.

So there in lies one of the problems: the bullpen has been flat out terrible despite good luck in their favor. So now what about the bad luck? For South Carolina to be five games under the Pythagorean expectation you’d need more than a lousy bullpen.

So what are some stats we can use to determine luck? For starters there’s HR/FB: the ratio of fly balls that turn into home runs. This can be used for both hitters and pitchers.

For now, let’s look at the bullpen in this scenario. The bullpen has given up four home runs in 32 fly balls they’ve induced as a staff. So that’s a HR/FB ratio of 12.5 percent, which for comparison the worst major league teams hover around 13 percent in that stat.

A big part of HR/FB ratio is luck and with all luck based statistics the outlying high and low numbers eventually regress back to the mean. So if South Carolina is fortunate enough, those high numbers will eventually come back down to normal levels. But for now, it would make for a good indicator as to why things have been so bad over the last 12 games.

And while the bullpen isn’t the only factor, it appears to be the biggest problem South Carolina is running into — not the offense. The offense has been spotty here and there, but for a school who prides itself in pitching shouldn’t be dealing with bullpen problems like these.

Maybe time is what it will take for the HR/FB ratio to regress back to average, or maybe the starters will just have to pitch longer. But if the bullpen can’t start running into some better luck or outings, the SEC struggles will continue on.