A question that is being asked a lot is: ‘Is Ryan Mattheus sustainable?’ Spring Training is about to get underway and if two of the relievers fighting for the last spot in the bullpen exceed expectations then the Nationals are going to have a very interesting choice. Ryan Mattheus has options left and appears to be the low man on the totem pole. Even more so if you do not believe that his 2012 BABIP of .253 is sustainable and that his 4.42 FIP compared to his 2.85 ERA only bode of danger. The big questions moving forward are what numbers do the Nats trust and furthermore do they trust Ryan Mattheus?
Before heading much further it is important to understand what BABIP is. It stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play which is any ball that is hit into play and isn't a homerun or an error. It is largely thought that pitchers have little control over if a ball in play becomes a hit or an out, and because of this all pitchers are destined to regress to the league average BABIP of around .300. New information has shown this to be false. While pitchers don't have control over the fielders making the play they do have control over if a ball is a ground ball, a fly ball, or a line drive, and even more importantly pitchers do have some control over the quality of contact, the speed in which the ball leaves the bat. A hard hit ball, whether it be a line drive, fly ball, or ground ball, has a better chance at being a hit than a softly struck ball. Here are two Mike Fast articles on the subject from November 2011(1, 2) that explain it better than I can.
That is truly ground breaking research and one of the reasons that Mike Fast is now part of the Astros front office. Now that we are aware that pitchers do have control over the quality of contact let's reexamine or thoughts on Ryan Mattheus and his sustainability. Unfortunately there isn't enough data on Ryan Mattheus to know if this is the case. What we do know is Ryan Mattheus low BABIP isn't all good news as he gave up 1.09 HR/9 in 2012 and since a homerun isn't a ball in play it has no impact on his BABIP. The other part of his low BABIP that we know is that the league average ground ball rate for a pitcher in 2012 was 45.1% and Mattheus was at 49.7%. He is better than average but not an extreme case.
What is really needed is to find pitchers who are like Ryan Mattheus; pitchers with a low BABIP and low K/9 who have had longer careers and more of a chance to sustain. In 2012 Ryan Mattheus ranked 31st among relievers in BABIP, and had a K/9 of 5.56. So we are looking for pitchers who were like that in 2012. The three closest are Jim Johnson (.251 BABIP, 5.37 K/9), Jared Hughes (.250 BABIP, 5.95 K/9), and Brad Zeigler (.264 BABIP, 5.50 K/9). There are other factors that go into pitching aside from strikeout rate and BABIP, but we are trying to figure out if these low strikeout pitchers have maintained a low BABIP and if Mattheus can do the same. It would be nice to see Mattheus give up less homeruns, but that could be a 2012 anomaly due to the small sample size nature of being a reliever. Keep in mind Mattheus did give up three homers in one inning against the Brewers and that accounts for over a third of the homers he gave up in 2012.
Let's start with Jared Hughes who is closest to Mattheus in 2012 HR/9 and see how his career has been. Hughes has actually pitched less total innings in his career than Ryan Mattheus but because they are both similar when we combine them together we end up with a larger overall sample size. Hughes for his career has a .251 BABIP and 6.23 K/9 with a 3.01 ERA and 3.97 FIP. Moving on to someone with a slightly larger resume Jim Johnson for his career has pitched 329 2/3 innings with a .279 BABIP, 5.71 K/9, 3.14 ERA, and 3.57 FIP. Johnson also has a career HR/9 of 0.52, but in his second full season in the majors it was 1.03. Getting the HR/9 down is important for Mattheus but other similar pitchers have had high HR/9s before. Finally, Brad Ziegler has a career .293 BABIP, 5.92 K/9, 2.44 ERA, and 3.35 FIP in 320 2/3 IP.
Ziegler proves to be an interesting case where Jim Johnson has a lower career BABIP in around the same number of innings pitched, 2012 appears to be more of an anomaly for Ziegler. Keep in mind just because pitchers have some control over the quality of contact that doesn't mean the fielder is always going to make the play, and because I do not have access to the Hit/FX data I cannot say who of Ziegler or Johnson allows the worse contact. It also appears with Ziegler that a higher than average BABIP of .351 in 2009 is affecting the results. Outside of that season Ziegler has had a .276 BABIP in three of his five seasons.
While we can't tell from Mattheus alone if Mattheus is sustainable when he look at him along with all these other pitchers it appears that he doesn't have such a terribly unique skill set. He needs to lower his homerun rate, but as he has pitched less than 100 major league innings there is time for that to happen. The ability to not strike guys out and to induce weak contact and a low BABIP is a skill set that other relief pitchers possess. There is less reason to worry about Ryan Mattheus when he is compared to similar pitchers than to when he is compared to a league average pitcher. From all this it appears that Ryan Mattheus is the Dazzler. Getting batters to swing and make weak contact at his better than average stuff, but while Mattheus is similar to Johnson, Hughes, and Ziegler, he isn't them and while we can predict from their career results that Mattheus skill set is sustainable we don't know if Mattheus will be able to even come close to repeating 2012 in 2013. He is a relief pitcher after all and it is the most volatile position in all of sports.