Jeremy Guthrie was dealt to the Rockies earlier this week, in exchange for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. The team wasn't offered prospects for Guthrie by anyone, according to general manager Dan Duquette, which makes it seem as if Guthrie isn't worth much. But this is a pitcher who, through over 1,000 career innings, has outperformed expectations across the board.
Statistics like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) say that Guthrie is overrated, but it's not as if FIP covers everything. The beauty of FIP is in its simplicity, as it, from a general perspective, tells you what you need to know about a pitcher's effectiveness better than standard ERA.
There are exceptions to every rule, though, so even if FIP works for most, it doesn't work for all. Matt Cain is the most well-known exception to the FIP rule -- a quick Google search will show you as much. It's not always great pitchers who have the stuff to beat out FIP, though, as Joe Saunders has been better than his FIP over his career thanks to skills that aren't covered by the run estimator. John Lannan is another, Mark Buehrle has made a career out of it -- these pitchers exist and succeed, even if their peripherals say that they shouldn't be.
It's hard to notice value for this type of pitcher when looking at Fangraphs' wins above replacement (fWAR), a stat based on FIP -- the assumption of what a pitcher should have been worth. Guthrie has averaged 2.2 fWAR per year with Baltimore, but Baseball-Reference's rWAR -- which does not use FIP in its calculation, instead relying on actual performance -- has Guthrie averaging 3.5 wins per year over the same stretch. Using FIP to calculate WAR has the side benefit of keeping you from overrating many pitchers going forward based on small sample successes and luck, but when it comes to pitchers who consistently outperform their FIP, something is lost in translation.
Guthrie might very well be one of those undervalued pitchers. He has struck out just 5.5 batters per nine over eight seasons and 1,020 career innings, whereas the league average is closer to seven per nine over the same stretch. His control is fine, but not exceptional, with 2.7 free passes allowed per nine. He also allows homers at an above-average rate, although his home park can be faulted for that to a degree -- Baltimore's three-year park factors show it to be a homer haven for both lefties and righties, maybe even a little tougher than his new home in Denver.
FIP has Guthrie down for 4.68 over his career, a figure seven percent worse than the league average that befits his peripherals. His ERA, though, is 4.19, five percent better than average -- what's causing this significant discrepancy?
The lazy answer would be that Guthrie has been lucky, and doom is forthcoming. With over 1,000 innings to his credit -- a sizable sample -- luck is also an unlikely answer. Guthrie might actually have a skill at limiting the number of hits on balls in play, as his career batting average on balls in play is .273. The league average BABIP tends to be between .290 and .300, numbers Guthrie hasn't put on his resume since he became a full-time starter in the majors. This despite pitching in front of a defense that, at its best during Guthrie's career, has been average. At times, it's been among the game's worst.
What makes Guthrie a strange case is that he doesn't fit the bill of many of the other pitchers who have beat out their FIP. Saunders, Buehrle and Lannan are all among the game's most extreme double-play inducers, picking up a half-dozen or more per season, shaving tenths of a run off of their ERA each year. Guthrie induces more than expected, but less than extra double play per year. He doesn't generate a ton of pop ups, à la (healthy) Chris Young. He's no better with runners on or in scoring position than he is with the bases empty. But there's clearly something going on here.
What Guthrie does is generate grounders that his defense, for all their limitations, has been able to field effectively. He's not an extreme groundball pitcher, as his ground-to-fly ratios tend to be even, but the grounders he does generate have helped him. Nearly 18 percent of the batters he faced in 2011 ended their plate appearance with a ground out, a huge boost to his production considering just 14 percent of them struck out. His career batting average on balls in play for grounders is .214, whereas the league has been between .234 and .245 for his career.
Against righties, he uses his sinker to force groundballs, with 52 percent of sinkers put into play ending up on the ground. Against lefties, the change-up is his grounder weapon, coming in at 46 percent. His curve and slider both induce grounders as well, though, so even if he doesn't come off as an extreme groundball pitcher, he has a clear plan for getting outs on the ground against batters from either side. (Data courtesy of Brooks Baseball.)
And it's a good thing, too, as none of his pitches are missed at an above-average rate, and he throws a below-average number of strikes overall. Guthrie doesn't have the stuff to miss bats, but he has the command and sinking pitches to force batters to harmlessly ground out. Both his four-seamer and his sinker sit around 93 miles per hour, so he has velocity, but he uses it to force weak contact, not to force them to miss.
Someone like Guthrie, who has mostly been average or better in his career for 200 innings at a time, has a lot of value to a pitching staff. He wasn't one of the American League East's sexiest arms, but he was one of its most dependable and successful, despite his home park and the defenses behind him. Guthrie is also a reminder that there is likely much more we don't know about pitching than we do know, even in an age where a player's value can be summed up with a few keystrokes and a quick glance.