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August 19, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The Yankees trounced the Royals last night, extending their lead in the AL East to 5½ games over the Red Sox, 6 in the loss column. Don't look now, but the AL East race might soon be over.

Jeff Weaver pitched like Jeff Weaver once again--not terrible, but not good--giving up four runs in 5 2/3 innings, the last two in the sixth with a 9-2 lead. As my understanding of DIPS increases, it becomes easier to understand why Weaver has had mostly poor starts and regularly has awful starts despite having a 4.08 DIPS. Someone with a DIPS around 4.00 isn't likely to win a Cy Young Award (well, unless they're Barry Zito, 3.97 in 2002), but you don't expect them to stink. A closer look reveals why Towelie does:

First of all, the name of the statistic is Defensive Independent Pitching Statistic, it takes defense out of the equation. With the Yankees, this is an important factor--their defense is awful. The Yankees rank 25th in MLB in defensive efficiency (which is the reverse of BABIP) at .6975; their BABIP against is .011 higher than the AL Average, and .039 worse than the AL's (and MLB's) best defensive team, the A's. And Jeff Weaver's style of pitching isn't very good for the Yankees' defense, he's only struck out 83 men, and 77.7% of the batters he faces put the ball in play, compared to 67% by Roger Clemens and 68.3% by Mike Mussina. Essentially, he's allowed 71 more balls to be fielded by the Yankees' defense than Clemens would have, about 22 of which the Yankees' defense would be expected to allow to fall in for hits.

But the Yankees defense hasn't peformed normally behind Weaver. While they've allowed hits to fall in at a .3025 rate overall, the Yankees have allowed balls to fall in at a .342 rate for Weaver! DIPS projects that Weaver would give up 162 hits in a normal ballpark with a normal defense, and 166 hits with the Yankees' defense. But Weaver has given up 187 hits--25 more than projected (Replace the DIPS projected BABIP with Weaver's actual, and his projected ERA is 5.16--a lot closer to what it is). Part of this is because he gives up more ground balls than fly balls, and ground balls end up as hits more often, but as extra base hits less often. But Weaver has given up 47 extra base hits on balls in play this season, a sizeable total.

So what does this mean? Well, it could mean that Weaver has been laying pitches over the plate and getting hit hard. But if that was the case, you'd expect him to be giving up more HRs, and he's only given up 11. Another explanation is that Weaver isn't a "clutch pitcher" (a more palatable concept than clutch hitter), and that he pitches worse under pressure. There is some support in the statistics for this, his DIPS with the bases empty is 3.90, and 4.10 with runners on. The last explanation is that he's been just plain unlucky; balls are finding spaces between fielders, and hits are coming at the most inopportune times. A pitcher like Weaver, who allows such a high percentage of balls to be fielded by the defense, is especially susceptible to this happening, and particularly so in front of an awful defense like the one fielded by the Yankees. Mel Stottlemyre can spend all the time he wants to working on Weaver's mechanics, but it's never going to change this fact: Weaver puts himself at the mercy of his defense.

All three of these factors have likely contributed to Weaver's poor season. He has appeared at times to allow frustration to have an effect on his pitching, like in the opening game of the doubleheader against the Devil Rays. As for clutch pitching, he's consitently pitched worse in the past with runners on, so this might be the case, and the luck factor is almost certainly true. None of this takes Weaver off the hook, but it does tell us something about who he is as a pitcher. He's not bad, but he'll never be great. He's the type of pitcher who you stick in the middle of your rotation, but not at the top, and he's the type of pitcher you probably want to avoid starting in the postseason, especially when your offense is as good as the Yankees, and a dependably mediocre pitcher is more valuable than an inconsitent pitcher who is slightly better on average. In other words, he's perfect for the Yankees this season, but if he's their #2 in 2004, they're in trouble.